Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Fostering Innovation through Physical Layout

While at MIT, I met a very interesting person. She’s an anthropologist who was there to study the culture of scientists in their native habitat. This is very unusual, of course, because most anthropologists go off to developing countries to do their research. But Kathleen Richardson was different. Doing her Ph.D. at the University of Cambridge she decided to innovate on the field of anthropology by studying a very different type of culture from what her peers were studying.

She chose MIT to do her research. She immersed herself in the daily life of scientists in a robotics lab at the Stata Center. Recently built, the Stata Center is an innovation unto itself. Frank Gehry architected the building so that researchers would bump into each other frequently. As the thinking went, innovation would flourish because of the enhanced communication of ideas.

Is the Stata Center working? Is it fostering innovation? Apparently not so much. Here is a passage from Kathleen’s article published in Times Higher Educational Supplement February 24th 2006:

“Nevertheless, researchers said the new building had not led to distinctively new patterns of work and nor had it increased the interaction between different groups. As at the Stata Centre, the design achieved the opposite of its aims: boundaries between public and private spaces were so confused that researchers felt unable to use either effectively.”

That’s a shame, but maybe it just takes time. Another experience at MIT led me to believe that communication patterns are very important. One study I heard of suggested a very steep decline in communication the further people were physically located next to each other. Maybe it just takes time, or new ways of looking at things, kind of the way that Suzanne Harrison in her new book “Einstein in the Boardroom” notes that traditional methods of accounting don’t recognize the value created in today’s firms because value these days is so highly intangible.

I know one other group at MIT that subscribes to the notion that fostering communication across departments fuels innovation, and that is the MIT Innovation Club. The recently elected co-President, Alex Slawsby, just informed me that the website has been updated to include blogs for students to share information, hopefully across campus.

Despite the findings at the Stata Center, I too believe there’s value in fostering communication across disciplines. While recently sitting in on Joost Bonsen’s Digital Innovations course in the Media Lab at MIT, I heard several interesting findings to this effect. It made think about new ways to foster communication across departments at MIT.

What if, every lounge across the MIT campus could be connected to every other lounge through a video and audio feed? I’m sure a large electronics manufacturer would be thrilled to have their displays (and their logo) visible to every MIT student. And the benefits to the students and faculty would hopefully be accelerated communication of ideas and ultimately innovation. MIT also has a very long hallway that a large number of students walk through each day. The Infinite Corridor, as it is called, could similarly provide a video portal into every other hallway around campus. To infinity and beyond…

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