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Creating innovation spaces

If you’re in the innovation game you probably ought to meet Madame de Geoffrin.  Anyone working at the fuzzy front end or trying to find ways to ‘get out of the box’ could probably benefit from a few minutes of her time.  She has a wealth of experience around how to enable this sort of thing.

It wouldn’t be easy – you’d have to build a time machine to enable you to visit but it would repay the effort.  Back in the eighteenth century she hosted what was arguably the most famous salon in Europe.  Not because it was a good place to meet, eat and drink but because people could share ideas, shape and develop them – in short, they could innovate.

She understood  that this kind of creative encounter doesn’t just happen – it takes careful construction, co-ordination and management.  It’s a lesson which would be well taken today when innovation labs and similar ventures are becoming increasingly popular.   Whether you call them innovation hubs, maker-spaces, fab-labs, accelerators or hotspots you can hardly turn a street corner or a magazine page before you bump into another example.  The names may vary but the underlying idea is the same – a place where people can meet to get inspired and supported by each other, to articulate and co-create.

All of these ventures are built on the belief that innovation (particularly of the radical, game-changing variety) needs somewhere to incubate and flourish, ideally well away from the busy day-to-day mainstream.  Spaces where ideas can grow, be prototyped, experimented with and ultimately taken to scale.

But there’s a risk that many of these labs are being set up simply because it is the fashionable thing to do. Expectations run high but the very ease with which they can be established means that it is also simple to close them down again.

Just as Madame de Geoffrin’s salons were more than comfortable surroundings and good catering so innovation labs and spaces need to be more than a chillout space with some beanbags on the floor and whiteboards on the walls.

Successful innovation spaces

So what can we learn also from the growing body of research on successful innovation labs and spaces?   Five key principles seem to underpin successful innovation labs and spaces,

  1. Enabling creative collisions

  2. Proximity, diversity and interaction

  3. Experimentation

  4. Prototyping and boundary objects

  5. Management and facilitation

Creative collisions

Back in the 17th century places like Oxford were full of coffee-houses, sometimes called ‘penny universities’ because that was the price of admission including coffee.  But it wasn’t the hot beverage which drew people so much as the opportunity to mix and exchange ideas – a place where the ‘normal’ rules of society governed by status and economic position were left aside and people could meet and explore new possibilities on an equal footing.

A couple of centuries later and similar hotspots for innovation could be found in the swish drawing rooms of Paris, St Petersburg and Milan – salons like Madame de G’s.

Innovation spaces like these can flourish in the most unlikely places.  For example Gordon French’s garage in Menlo Park, California in the mid-1970s was home to the Homebrew Computer Club, an informal group of electronic enthusiasts and technically minded hobbyists who gathered to trade parts, circuits, and information about DIY construction of computing devices. One of the regular members was Steve Wozniak who credits this as the place where the Apple 1 was born.

Walker’s Wagon Wheel tavern in Mountain View, California was another.  Its name provides a great description of its role – like spokes on a wheel people and ideas converged on its centre and on a Friday night the air was full of conversation.  Ideas flew around the place, colliding and often crashing in flames on the floor.  But some of them fused, became something bigger, began conversations which carried on over the coming weeks and grew into new businesses.  And those businesses began the legend which Silicon Valley was to become.

What these all have in common is that they are more than simply meeting points. And they work in part because they help provide a crucible within which ideas at the ‘fuzzy front end’ of innovation can emerge.  In this very early stage it’s not clear what the landscape here actually involves – navigating it is like stumbling through thick fog while trying to move forward in a direction which you think is the right one.

Entrepreneurs rarely start with ‘the’ definitive version of their new venture.  They may have a broad vision, a sense of direction, but their progress towards it is one of probe and learn, trying out different things, learning through failure and feedback and pivoting around the core idea until they arrive at their solution.

And established organizations operate partly in ‘fuzzy’ mode.  Whilst their mainstream innovation offerings can be updated and incrementally improved along clear strategic pathways, finding radical solutions, breakthrough products and services requires approaches which allow for experimentation, failure and fast learning.

That’s where  innovation spaces like the Wagon Wheel come in. The old bar has gone but the role it played is as important as ever.  At this early stage it’s critically important to have conversations, explore possibilities, make connections between different worlds of knowledge – networking is the name of the game.   Innovation spaces matter, not simply as coffee shops and bars but for what they represent – meeting points where knowledge intersects.

Proximity and interaction

Just bringing people together may not be enough, even if you get the right mix.  We also need to understand the ways in which creative collisions can be nurtured – and that comes down to several things

Research has repeatedly shown that we need to look at the role of brokers, people who straddle the boundaries of different knowledge worlds and enable traffic to flow across them.  These days we talk knowingly about social capital and the importance of building up networks – ‘its not what you know, but who you know’ – but this idea owes much to sociologist Ronald Burt and his research in the 1990s.

The core of his theory is that where two ‘knowledge worlds’ possess different, ‘non-redundant’ information (they know something you don’t) then there is a ‘structural hole’ between them.  Brokers provide the bridge between these and are central to effective flow of knowledge across them.

A second key point in enabling effective innovation spaces is the need to promote diversity but also to retain focus and coherence.  Social networks around knowledge aren’t all the same – back in the 1970s Mark Granovetter showed that they varied in terms of their connectivity.  Much of the time they involve dense connections or people sharing similar and complementary information – something he called ‘strong ties’.  But for new knowledge to move between networks we need much looser links between different worlds – what he called ‘weak ties’.

Think about the challenge currently facing players in the auto industry – their world of strong ties may not be enough to help them connect to the very different knowledge worlds they will need in the emerging mobility industry.  So they’d benefit from the chance encounters offered by the Wagon Wheel bar or its 2016 equivalent!

Once again we are in the broker’s territory – there is a need for people or mechanisms to help cross these knowledge worlds, to act as boundary spanners.  Tom Allen’s pioneering work in the 1970s gave us some powerful insights into the ways this happens – for example through technological gatekeepers who are able to see the relevance of external knowledge but who also have the internal social connections to enable the right person to connect to it.

One of the functions which innovation spaces can provide is as a forum where cross-sector innovation can take place.  Many problems are essentially similar in nature when abstracted to a high enough level – for example enabling more efficient utilisation of operating theatres in a hospital can benefit from approaches developed for pit stops in Formula 1 motor racing or turnaround time reduction in low cost airlines.  Bringing these two worlds together and enabling ‘recombinant innovation’ depends again on brokerage skills and  extensive access to multiple networks.

Linked to this is the growing understanding of the value in engaging with stakeholders as early as possible in the innovation process.  Users in particular are a powerful source of ideas – indeed research suggests that they are often responsible for initiating a significant proportion of ideas which then go on to become major innovations.  This goes far beyond using them as passive commentators in focus groups; instead they are increasingly being seen as potential co-creators of products and services.   Their value is not simply in increasing the idea variety at the front end of the innovation process; they are also key agents in ensuring rapid and widespread diffusion.  Adoption depends on innovations being perceived as ‘compatible’ – fitting in to the user’s world.  So by gathering user insights – often difficult to articulate – about the context in which innovations will operate helps improve the chances of widespread acceptance.

All of this argues for innovation spaces with a wide-open access approach, drawing in users and facilitating co-creation with them.  Once again this requires a ‘boundary space’ and facilitation to enable it to happen; examples include the children’s ‘labs’ being designed into Lego theme parks and the Lab Campus project of Munich Airport in which the significant stream of travellers passing through the airport will be offered the chance to engage in innovation activities as part of their journey.

This highlights another role for innovation spaces.  Digital innovation tools allow for extensive collaboration in virtual space but there is much which requires face to face interaction, particularly when the process of shaping and developing ideas into prototypes begins.  Finding a place in which these two worlds can intersect, where on-line and off-line innovation can meet is another important role for innovation spaces – and requires the same input of brokerage, enabling translation and connection between these worlds.


Creating boundary spaces in which people and ideas can creatively collide is great but if all that gets transacted there is talk then it may not help much.  Innovation is like an omelette – it can’t be made without breaking eggs.  So another key component is having a safe space in which to allow the extensive egg-breaking associated with learning something new to take place.  And that is the essence of a laboratory – somewhere to play around safely.

Innovation research and practice is increasingly clear about the important role of experiment and ‘play’ and the need for a discovery orientation in exploring new possibilities.  This includes accepting that failure is an inevitable part of the process.

But for most organizations, public and private sector, the emphasis is on reliability and repeatability, not on play and experimentation. Total quality requires conformance and adherence to standards, again effectively driving out the variation which comes from play.  So there is a role for innovation spaces as environments which offer a safe playground in which intelligent failure is seen as a legitimate activity.

As the psychologist Amy Edmondson points out in her work on psychological safety, creativity flourishes in a culture where there is perceived support.  It’s no coincidence that methodologies used in innovation labs closely follow the lean start-up/agile approach in which experiment and learning from intelligent failure is part of the process.  But the underlying assumption is that the context in which this takes place is supportive rather than judgmental, one which accepts failure as part of a learning process.

Prototyping and boundary objects

Innovation begins with ideas locked up in someone’s head.  Creative interchange and shared exploration can give those ideas shape and energy – but sooner or later there is a need to make them real.  Extensive research on innovation in a variety of different worlds highlights the value of problem exploration.

So how do we move from vague notions, hunches, half-formed ideas towards something more workable?  Not by a single leap but by a series of stepping-stones, bridges, scaffolding – essentially playing with ideas about the problem.  As James Dyson puts it “…… prototypes allow you to quickly get a feel for things and uncover subtle design flaws….”

The clue is in the name – proto-type.  It’s not about the finished object but a stepping-stone, a test-bed for learning, some way of exploring in laboratory/experimental mode.

Prototyping offers some important features to help us in problem exploration:

  1. It creates a ‘boundary object’, something around which other people and perspectives can gather, a device for sharing insights into problem dimensions as well as solutions

  1. It offers us a stepping stone in our thought processes, making ideas real enough to see and play with them but without the lock-in effect of being tied into trying to make the solutions work – we can still change our minds

  1. It allows plurality – we don’t have to play with a single idea, we can bet on multiple horses early on in the race rather than trying to pick winners

  1. It allows for learning – even when a prototype fails we accumulate knowledge which might come in helpful elsewhere

  1. It suggests further possibilities – as we play with a prototype it gives us a key to open up the problem, break open the shell and explore more deeply.

  1. It allows us to work with half-formed ideas and hunches – enables a ‘conversation with a shadowy idea’…

  1. It allows for emergence – sometimes we can’t predict what will happen when different elements interact. Trying something out helps explore surprising combinations

Once again there is a clear role for innovation spaces to provide the context within which prototyping can take place.  But there is particular value in doing so in a context where there is also diversity of commentary and input, engaging with prototypes and helping to refine them. This is easier to do when the prototypes are sketches but as we move towards more accurate representations and simulations so there is a need to engage technological support.  This is one of the powerful arguments behind linking innovation labs to ‘maker spaces’ and ‘fab-labs’ – they become environments in which prototyping can extend deep into the development process.

Management and facilitation of innovation

By now it should be clear that successful innovation spaces are far more than physical environments.  And just as Madame de Geoffrin’s salon depended on her skill in organizing and managing the events so todays labs and spaces need hands-on management.  This is not simply a matter of operations and logistics; there is skill in brokerage, in coaching and supporting nascent ideas, in planning events, in focusing activities.  Successful innovation spaces don’t just happen, they are created and managed.

There are several dimensions to this:

  1. Convening – bringing people together and publicising the space to attract interesting participation

  2. Combining – ensuring sufficient diversity without losing focus and then providing enabling mechanisms to help bridge between different worlds

  3. Capability-building, supporting the use of methods and processes like lean start-up to equip players in the lab with ways of translating their ideas into value

  4. Coaching – providing support and mentoring to help guide and steer nascent entrepreneurs and ideas

  5. Co-ordinating and connecting – enabling networking and links inside the community and beyond to external institutions

  6. Community-building – creating a supportive peer group and a context which enables co-operation and sharing

Two other features are worth mentioning – the first is around the leadership qualities involved in delivering such a context.  There are many examples in history of successful innovation spaces – Thomas Edison’s Invention factory, Boss Kettering’s ‘Barn Gang’, Kelley Johnson’s Skunk works’ and others.  What they share is an approach to  strategic leadership which (while delivered in different styles) provided the above mix of enabling support and direction.

And the second concerns building ‘dynamic capability’.  Innovation management is about embedding key behavioural routines which enable the process to happen repeatedly – but it is also about having the additional capacity for stepping back and reviewing those routines.  Continually asking the questions around which routines to maintain and strengthen which to pull back on or even eliminate and which new ones to add to the repertoire.  In other words organizations need a capacity for innovation model innovation’.  It’s the same with innovation labs and spaces; whilst much has already been learned a key skill involves building build dynamic capability in order to upgrade the ways in which such spaces operate.

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