Design solutions for better Innovation Infrastructure and Innovation Districts

this essay is cross posted from

In the book that I am finishing up, tentatively titled Everybody Innovates Here, I am asserting a new vision for innovation in the dawning era, what I have taken to calling the Fusion Age.  My premise in the book is that, given what we need to do to thrive in this emerging economy, our scattershot efforts to build systems to support or enable innovation are not adequate to the challenge ahead of us.  And I lay out as clearly as I can what a better system would look like.

This piece may or may not make it into the book – struggling a little with structure and flow, which is a pretty common problem in book writing.  But sometimes the cuttings have value, too.

The premise here is: How should the physical spaces in which we innovate be designed differently?  “Physical spaces,” in this case, run the gamut, from co-working offices to innovation districts.  The book gives definitions of each of these, identifies the roles that they can and should play in the larger innovation ecosystem, and analyzes where the ways we currently use these spaces, and programs, fall down.

So whether you are developing a single coworking space or a multi-block innovation district, what design elements will help it accelerate innovation?

  • Maximize flexibility, for now and for the future. The fact of the matter is that at this point in history, we don’t know a lot about what the future of work, innovation and entrepreneurship will entail.  Just in the past few years, we have largely eliminated the need for internet cables, HDMI cords, desktop monitors, storage space for binders and books, and many other elements that were necessary even in the early internet stages of business. Some features, like wet labs or commercial kitchens, require equipment and plumbing that needs to be installed in a fairly permanent manner, but how do we anticipate the businesses, coordination practices, technology, etc. that we will need to accommodate  within our district in ten or 15 years? Some architects are already building with modular elements, convertible furniture, multi-use surfaces and other elements. Do more of that.
  • Emphasize small spaces. Years ago, a member of a start-up accelerator told me that the organizers of his program intentionally designed the space so that each team, each fledgling company, had slightly less space than they would prefer.  That caused some stress, but it also led to a sense of interdependence – crucial for new innovators to understand so that they continue to break free of the Lonely Genius mindset.
  • Enable creative thought with private spaces.  Creativity and innovation necessitate both social interaction and private reflection and processing. Most accelerators and co-working spaces and the like provide huddle rooms and little closets for private phone calls, but these are hardly spaces designed for deep thought.  Many innovators would probably benefit from a convenient space that allows them to step away from the intense interpersonal world for some private thinking. A walking trail, a meditation space, even no more than a designated quiet room could provide a great benefit, especially for innovators who are introverted or, like many who experience Asperger’s syndrome, find constant interpersonal interaction stressful and exhausting.
  • Provide and value protected spaces. Every innovation organization says that they want to increase the diversity of their participants, but that requires more than just throwing them into the mix. If you are not part of the majority culture, you may live in a world of heightened insecurity.  Was that a racist slight or just an innocent joke?  Is there something in how I am asking questions that they are finding intimidating or strange, or am I over-reacting?  There’s some kind of unspoken rule about how people interact at that event, and I feel like I’m missing something important.   For many people who are not in the majority, the interaction-intensive space of an innovation community can be laden with uncertainty and exhaustion.   This is a delicate balance to strike — no one wants people who are already conscious of their other-ness to be singled out, or treated as thought they had some kind of stigma that requires special treatment.  But it may also be important for members of a minority population to be able to convene and learn from sharing experiences with their peers, away from the actual or perceived judgement of the majority population.  Having a comfortable huddle-type room set aside, outside of the usual meeting scheduling, for anyone to use may enable people who are in minority groups develop and maintain the support networks that they need. But this space should not be glass-walled like many huddle rooms, or the participants may feel more than ever like they are under a microscope.  But don’t make it the broom closet, either.
  • Design Visitability.  If we are going to assert that the most effective innovation requires the broadest possible range of participants, then we have to make sure that our spaces throw up as few physical road blocks to particpation as possible. For a person in a motorized wheelchair, that step between the two old buildings that you combined to make your co working space may mean that they literally cannot  enter half the building. For a person with auditory sensitivity, the level of echo in your hip post-industrial conference room may mean that all of your public events are off limits. Even if few of your full-time participants have mobility or sensory or cognitive differences, keep in mind that people will come to your buildings and participate in your events on an occasional basis, and that throwing up a barrier to even the occasional visitor may mean that your participants lose an insight or an opportunity that they will not find if they only interact with people who have the same abilities as they.  Widening the scope of the innovator logically requires a visitable building.
  • Spaces that reinforce the culture and mission. Many dedicated innovation spaces include photos of participants, motivational sayings, and other elements that try to convey the possibilities of the work going on.  But these often just scratch the surface, especially if we are serious about not just doing any innovation, but doubling down on innovations that can have a significant impact on the community or the world.  What can we do with our spaces to continue to drive that sense of mission? To engage the members in exploring the horizons? What about rotating art exhibits from the local college?  Photos and stories of people who need innovations? Statistics?  Places for participants to write their goals, visions, motivations, in a place where they will see what they wrote regularly?

Designing for innovation is not about meeting a certain chic aesthetic, or creating something that supposedly screams “exciting” or “innovative!!!!!!” And can become accustomed to unusual things pretty quickly, so novelty isn’t going to help the spaces facilitate meaningful innovation, especially not over the long term. But design that enables flexibility, supports the involvement of the widest possible range of people,  accounts for the varying dimensions of creativity and helps participants keep their eye on the bigger purpose of the work will create a setting that helps innovation flourish.

I don’t think that purpose-built innovation space is necessarily needed — and I’m not convinced at all that kegerators, foosball tables, bright colors and high top tables have any impact on whether meaningful innovation happens within a space or not. So much of what we associate with innovation is trappings, window dressings, designed to signal that This Place is Different without doing anything to directly accelerate humans trying to innovate. And, like so many other issues in innovation, that’s a factor of us not thinking very deeply or critically about how innovation happens, and how spaces can help or hurt those efforts. But we know enough about people – the source of innovation – to be able to do much better.

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