‘Spaces for Innovation’: book launch at NESTA

Does architecture prompt innovation? Or innovation prompt architecture? Or culture prompt both? 

The answer, from authors of new book “Spaces for Innovation”, is: all of the above.

An inspiring Friday evening at NESTA for the launch of this book, the product of over a year of research on the principles and practice of creating spaces for innovation. The authors, Kursty Groves and Oliver Marlow, have pulled together their learning from some great spaces, including the BBC’s new Media City in Manchester, innovative Stockholm school Vittra Telefonplan and iHub Nairobi.

Kursty Groves set out the spirit of collaboration that marked the project from the start. She told the story of how she and co-author Oliver Marlow connected at the outset, and it was clear that the combination of like-minds and complementary skills made for a great partnership that expanded both reach and depth of inquiry.

She describes the result as a mix of “collation and curation” of insights and great case studies, with input from a whole range of different disciplines

“Over 100 people have been involved in the book from different backgrounds: Neuroscience, Architecture, Psychology, Productivity…”

Oliver spoke of how dramatically work is changing in current times

“We’re in a cycle of change that only happens in 1,000 years: The work environment is the battleground for change”

That was part of what prompted his passion for great workspace design “Where we spend most of our lives in western world, at work, has to have some meaning and worth”

The whole study was commissioned by NESTA – National Endowment for Science Technology and the Arts – whose mission is to help people and organisations bring great ideas to life. NESTA recently published its 2016 list of New Radicals, a collection of some of the innovators and successful mavericks in arts, science, technology, business and social change.

NESTA’s goal with this book was to look at the kinds of environments that encourage innovation: what are the ingredients for success and is there a kind of ‘recipe’?

The findings, backed with a wealth of stories and analysis, show that while there are some commonalities there are also myriad ways to inspire innovation through the design of space,

Both Kursty Groves and Oliver Marlow were keen to stress that their focus was not on innovative spaces, but spaces for innovation.

As they said:

“We don’t believe spaces are creative – people are. But space can be an enabler”

“Space design can prompt people to behave in a particular way or enable them to find their way and do their best work”

I asked Kursty and Oliver whether they had seen any particularly strong examples of space design encouraging a sense of belonging. They pointed to Airbnb and Google, and most of the case studies suggest that belonging, as well as innovation, is a strong by-product.

Airbnb “ensures its workplaces reflect the brands ‘Belong anywhere’ philosophy, supporting creative culture.” Design in each city reflects something about that local environment (the London one is inspired by an English village green) as well as creating a series of homely spaces suitable for different kinds of tasks.

Jenna Cushner, Head of Ground Control at Airbnb San Francisco is quoted:

“The idea is that you have a place that you feel comfortable in, that you’re inspired by – with all the tools and parts and pieces that you need to get your job done.”

Kursty pointed out that Airbnb and others have met the challenges of start-up to scale-up: quirkiness isn’t enough, and the needs evolve.

“Start-up is one thing, it’s enough for the space to be fun and lively. But as soon as you get to scale-up you have a whole lot more people in the space and a whole lot of new challenges”

The book itself is in an innovative and accessible format, with distinct sections for analysis and for case studies – a bit like Lego blocks of ideas. This makes it easy to get the feel for the main themes, dip in and out of stories.

Geoff Murgan, CEO of NESTA said

“The book is like a mind map, not a linear argument, to prompt some open thinking”

Adam Price, former senior figure in NESTA who was part of the commission of the book and now Member of the Welsh Parliament, reflected

“It’s not architecture on its own that makes for innovation. It’s the combination: the elision with culture that makes it happen.”

Work seems to mean even more for people’s individual identity now. The first mention of the book was in The Daily Mail – and positive! – which shows how mainstream this theme has become

“The new Welsh Assembly building is a metaphor for transparency, lots of glass: but while we’re exposed to the public, are we connected enough with it? That’s our next challenge, now that the House of Commons is being refurbished…”

Geoff Mulgan billed it as “this is a book for dipping in, thinking a bit, reflecting…”

I settled down on a sunny Sunday afternoon in my garden – one of my favourite spaces for innovation – to take up his invitation.

Innovation fuels business and social success: it’s an appropriate time for NESTA to remind us that the UK has historically led both.

“Spaces for Innovation” provides an inspiring and practical look at the space and circumstance in which innovation can flourish.