Making Space for Innovation

In a very interesting TED talk entitled "Where good ideas come from" Steven Johnson explores the impact that coffee shops - and also coffee as a stimulant - have had on human progress. This  triggers some important insights into the value of spaces in the context of fostering a culture of innovation in large, complex organisations. One of the kneejerk reactions many executives have after their obligatory "Silicon Valley Safaris" is to create innovation spaces within their companies - mostly with some expensive, cool designer furniture as well as inspiring books, toys, gadgets. Sadly this is not enough as many companies have found out over the years as these spaces often become nicer meeting rooms with better coffee and snacks - but not automatic disruptive idea generators. In order to stay away from this kind of expensive "innovation circus" that might impress some executives at first glance, innovation leaders need to carefully examine the role of physical environments in the context of their strategic innovation mandate.

A recent analysis by the Brookings Institution examines the role of spaces in driving innovation. Three main trends contribute to the impact of physical environments on driving new ways of working: the open and more collaborative nature of innovation (e.g. with outsider and across silos), the value of face-to-face idea generation (e.g. Co Creation with users) and the need to experiment e.g. by prototyping new solutions in a protected "sandbox" test environment. But as this post mentions, prototyping alone is not enough. In order to work effectively with them we also need boundary agents – someone to bring relevant people together and enable them to have useful conversations. This role is best given to someone that can tap into multiple, divers knowledge ecosystems - many of which depend on having trusted relationships with creative thinkers outside of their organsiation. These innovation space curators are able to get the right people into the room and they have the right methods to ensure impactful outcomes. What this view also highlights is the value of creating the right "mindspace" for innovation - which will then enrich the physical space. We should remember that some of the coolest innovation spaces are in not very sexy garages - see here for a useful discussion of the Corporate Garage concept.

This brings me to our own and special innovation space at the Montebello Design Centre in Newlands, Cape Town. We really enjoy being part this carefully curated innovation community and would like to invite you for some coffee if you are in the area.