I’ve long been fascinated by the links between physical spaces and creativity or innovation. My fascination was sparked partly by attraction to beautiful, energising spaces that make your heart soar. Then it was sparked in a rather different way by disappointment, as I came to realise that the floods of beanbags, basketball nets, and copycat open plan designs probably had no discernible effects on creativity, and that some of the best ideas came from garages, soulless offices or even prison cells.
Conversations with my former colleague Adam Price led us to commission research on what was known. What lessons could be learned from the cutting edge of architecture where people were creating spaces for innovation, whether in businesses or universities or labs? What evidence is there about what works, and what doesn’t?
The result of that work has just been published in the book Spaces for Innovation by Kursty Groves and Oliver Marlow. What came out is more like a mindmap than a single linear argument. It’s packed with interviews, case studies, insights and ideas that enrich understanding of how places and innovation interact.
There are some obvious aspects to this. If you live in grim boxes, or spaces that foster fear, it’s on balance unlikely that lively creativity will follow. By contrast, high ceilings, natural light, green vistas, and stimulation all help. So does motion, perhaps even more than structure. Given the choice, it’s good to walk around, to design in quadrangles and walkways, and to make the most of parks or bridges to stimulate the flow of blood and ideas. Serendipitous interaction, too, is generally good for creativity. This is why so many buildings are designed to encourage people to bump into each other, to share cafes and atriums. Research at MIT in the 1970s found what became known as the ‘Allen curve’ - an exponential relationship between distance (how far two engineers sat from each other) and how regularly they communicated with each other. Someone sitting two metres away from you was four times more likely to talk to you regularly than someone sitting twenty metres away. People working on different floors were unlikely ever to interact with you and people in separate buildings would probably never be encountered at all.
But there are few formulae of this kind, and even this one can be misleading when so many organisations depend on digital media. Co-location doesn’t guarantee collaboration unless other factors are in play too, as many co-working spaces have discovered over the years.
In place of formulae, what we have instead are pointers. The general one is that spaces are best co-developed by the people who will work in them, and linked into broader patterns of cultural change.
There are some striking buildings described in this book. But they probably tell us as much about fashion, and some organisations’ search for prestige, as they do about the design of creativity. That comes from the elision of culture, organisation and space rather than resulting from any formulae. That in a nutshell is the message of this mindmap book. It’s ideal for carrying around, dipping into, and writing on the margins. Here, perhaps appropriately, is a book about spaces for innovation that has itself become a space for innovation.