Creative Spaces and Innovation

On March 5th, 2010 Palomar5 San Francisco presented the event P5 3/5 Creative space: a catalyst for significant innovation. Time Leberecht moderated the discussion that took place after the presentation.

Creative Spaces and Innovation
By Tim Leberecht

Last fall our friends from Palomar 5, a collective of young German entrepreneurs, and affiliate curators gave 28 residents under the age of 30 from all over the world the possibility to stay for six weeks in an Innovation Camp in Berlin. It was an invitation to collaborate, and to discover and express themselves. Furthermore, the participants could network with leaders from the fields of economics, science, culture, and politics, and meet experts at the forefront of their fields (among them frog). The initiative generated a cluster of projects ranging from perspectives on social entrepreneurship to technology, art, design, and psychology. Eight of the Palomar 5 residents have now arrived in San Francisco to continue developing their projects at GAFFTA, the Gray Area Foundation of the Arts.

A few weeks ago, four of them – Axelle Tessandier, Edward Harran, Gijs Burgmeijer, and Sagarika Sundaram – presented their experiences and projects and held a debate around the subject of creative spaces as a catalyst for “significant innovation.” Reflecting on the role of creative spaces for their innovations, they proposed three types of spaces: the mindset (brain space), the location and work environment (physical space), and the network (virtual space). They described how each of these had played a pivotal role in facilitating their projects: how the lack of privacy had occasionally fueled tensions between residents but also forced everyone to – literally – listen to other ideas; how the lack of boundaries between work and life had surfaced a growing quest for “meaning” in what you do; how “curiosity, risk-taking, and challenging the status quo” had been the key requirements for a fully immersive experience (and how some of the residents weren’t able to cope with these demands). They stressed that scarcity (space and time limits) had propelled intimacy and urgency and thus increased output intensity, and that in the face of the abundance of information and social connections on the web the experience of face-to-face collaboration had changed their concept of work: “It’s not who you know, but how well you know someone. Trust is becoming the biggest resource,” Palomar 5 participant Edward Harran put it.

Trust is also the main currency of Axelle Tessandier’s Show Me Love lab, which explores “how to make work like love,” providing businesses with the tools to implement new paradigms of productivity and collaboration. At first I was skeptical, thinking ‘Be careful what you wish for,’ but I figured that skepticism is anathema to love: Trust means believing without knowing it better. Axelle does not preach office love, no, no, but wants to introduce romanticism as a new dimension to work – not so much on the interpersonal level but as a guiding principle for the relationship between work and worker. Do what you love. Love what you do. And – in the spirit of the true romantic appreciation of the invisible – know that there’s always more than meets the eye. You can’t measure everything you manage. Embrace ambiguity. Let go. Love.

Creative office spaces are conducive to employee satisfaction, and a big factor in establishing meaningful relationships to one’s work. At least that’s what common wisdom holds. In her recent book, I Wish I Worked There: A Look Inside the Most Creative Spaces in Business, Kursty Groves examines 20 well-known companies, including the LEGO Group, Oakley, Bloomberg, and Urban Outfitters, among others, and provides insights into how these firms use space in ways that promote creativity and collaboration, increase satisfaction, and decrease employee turnover. She distinguishes between stimulating spaces (that tell stories or enable people to access different information), reflective spaces (where people can go to focus or relax, as an individual or as a team), collaborative spaces (where people casually connect with one another, i.e. the cafeteria), and playful spaces (where people can bond through playing games, i.e. foosball).

There’s a space missing in the list of creative spaces for innovators discussed by Palomar 5: the market space. “Innovation is the only way to turn change into opportunity,” as Peter Drucker once said, and for breakthrough ideas to come to market, one has to reinvent the market space. For a recent strategy workshop I just once again skimmed through Blue Ocean Strategy (2005) by W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne, and I was surprised to realize how much of what seemed provocative at the time, or at least original, has been broadly adopted by the business mainstream. The “blue ocean,” as opposed to the “red ocean” is the uncharted, the uncontested market space that allows you to make competitors obsolete, but not by outperforming them in the sense of Porter’s competitive strategies, rather by disrupting the market, changing the game: The DVR, the zipcar, the iPhone, the iPod, maybe the iPad, you name it. It often goes unrecognized that the innovator’s biggest creative accomplishment may not be to invent a new product or service but to imagine and create a new market.

Adding the definition of market space – a strategic task – to the mix allows you to view strategy as what it really is: a creative effort – one that is very ambiguous and elusive, an ever-changing living and breathing organism. Strategists are like good parents. They guide their children but don’t tether themselves to them. They provide a strong foundation and aspirational goals but leave everything in between to the imagination and the will of those who actually do the work. The best strategists redesign, recalibrate, refine, and rethink their strategies all the time, and they know that tactical adjustments in the execution often times trickle up to the strategy itself.” The best strategy is crafted after the project is completed,” Michael Aidan from Evian argued at the recent Marketing 2.0 conference in Paris. Because you need space to be creative.

Tim Leberecht is the VP of Marketing and Communications at frog design, a global innovation firm. Publisher of design mind and blogger (CNET, Poptech, iPlot). http://designmind.frogdesign.com/blog/author/elektroniker/