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What is an innovation center? A collaborative workspace that’s essential in today’s office

February 16, 2023

By Christopher Miller

How do you create multiplatform products? Start with a shared workspace that brings team members together to create an innovative office.

A version of this blog originally appeared as “Why Innovation centers are a new office essential” in the Stantec Design Quarterly Issue 17.

Designers of research spaces are fond of referencing Bell Labs, the New Jersey research campus. It gave us 20th century innovations such as the laser, the transistor, fiber optics, and cellular phone technology.

The layout of its headquarters featured a massive corridor, which encouraged its researchers to bump shoulders and compare notes. And Bell encouraged employees to work with the doors open to boost knowledge sharing. They had a hunch that sharing ideas, organically, across research groups would lead to collaboration and breakthroughs. Bell Labs showed us how space could influence innovation. You can see the influence of Bell Labs in today’s new research spaces that feature cafes, lounges, and corridors that bring staff together. Even the transparency at Guy’s Hospital in London, England, owes something to Bell Labs.

Research shows that innovative ideas tend to flourish outside the normal work encounters. (Microsoft Azure East in Reston, Virginia.)

Smart designers create research spaces that allow for serendipity and cross disciplinary contact. In a similar way, taking a page from the tech sector, we’ve seen open meeting and gathering space emerge as the new essentials for firms who want to encourage creativity, collaboration, and flexibility. The Bell Labs lesson was about more than the environments suited to technological innovation. It speaks to how almost every business does work today. Where companies once developed physical products to be sold in storefronts, they’re now planning and developing for the user experience of online commerce. Today, bringing a product to market is a data-driven enterprise. It requires teams working across multiple platforms and touchpoints; it also means communicating with clients through a variety of media. The creative environments needed to meet the demands of this kind of work require a new space in the workplace: innovation centers.

What are innovation centers?

Simply put, innovation centers bring people from different departments and disciplines together based on the project on which they are working. It is a fluid effort to shake up the organization through office space design. It is meant to be flexible and adaptable, with tools and equipment that teams can reconfigure to meet new project needs.

It’s a shared workspace that’s also meant to be budget friendly. The innovation center fosters creativity without the hefty renovation costs each time it turns over for a new project.

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Firms want to do everything they can to set the stage for innovation, testing ideas, creating new products, and finding efficiencies. (Upside Foods Engineering, Production and Innovation Center in Emeryville, California.)

Pre-pandemic: The dawn of innovation centers

As in the Bell example, research shows that innovative ideas tend to flourish outside the normal work encounters. Running into a colleague in the halls or heating up lunch in the communal kitchen are opportunities to build stronger bonds or exchange ideas. Companies saw this and started to create areas for collaboration to continue after meetings. Maybe it’s a sitting nook outside of a meeting room or the whiteboard paint on walls outside of conference rooms to harness energy from a spontaneous exchange.

But these approaches were limited by the silo structure most companies are organized around: departments sit together believing there is more to be gained from those who do similar work. Firms want to do everything they can to set the stage for innovation, testing ideas, creating new products, and finding efficiencies. They desire workspaces that do more than suggest the possibility of chance encounters.

Before the pandemic, some adventurous clients were trying to excite their staff to think differently about how they work. They were moving away from departments toward team-based organization. They hoped to spark more cooperation by putting groups that had not been next to each other in proximity. The idea was to break down the silos and create new relationships.

An answer to the new normal

Innovation centers answer some of the questions posed by the new normal regarding office work. Clients, especially those that have embraced the work-from-home hybrid as the norm, tell us they are looking for ways to encourage office use. If staff members can come into the office—regardless of the frequency and duration of their visit—why do they come in? Where do they go?

The answer from an innovation point of view is that they come into the office to work with a team on a specific project, usually for a set time. Add this to the idea of fostering innovation by breaking up the conventional departments and it is no wonder that encouraging workers to come back to the office has given firms the opportunity to embrace the innovation center.

Innovation centers bring people from different departments and disciplines together. … It is a fluid effort to shake up the organization.

Office space design: Scalable space for teams

A current client is asking us for advice on innovation centers because they’re setting up new team-based groupings around projects. Teams of 20 are focused on implementing new offerings. This new endeavor is typical of what companies do today. They pull from various disciplines—marketing, IT, web design, user experience, accounting—to make everything work smoothly behind a digital façade or storefront.

So instead of a physical layout requiring these professionals to walk long corridors—or sometimes drive to other buildings—to collaborate with those in other, sometimes unfamiliar, departments, the innovation center brings the team together in a “bullpen” or team room. Innovation centers often require us to create team rooms at multiple scales because teams can vary in size. They may need team rooms for 6, 20, or 40 people. These should all be on the same floor if possible.

The benefits of workplace innovation centers

Like Bell Labs, today’s innovation centers are intended to pay off in various ways. Collaboration space has become a primary feature in the workplace, but for many, it can still mean walking across campus to meet up. Innovation centers come with adjacent collaboration spaces. By design, it’s easy for team members to meet.

The frequency of those serendipitous contacts and chance conversations is increased. And team members are tuned in to each other—overhearing conversations related to the project or even unrelated topics—and able to offer solutions and skills. Ideally, this speeds up the problem-solving process and results in a better product. A further benefit is that the team-based approach creates a group that can more easily interface with other internal groups and with third parties, collaborators, and clients. Whether it’s students at a university seeking services, or a client that is having a product developed, they needn’t bounce around between different department hubs and floors to uncover solutions. The innovation center becomes a one-stop location.

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Workplace innovation centers increase the frequency of serendipitous contacts and chance conversations. (Johns Hopkins Technology Ventures Incubator Space in Baltimore, Maryland. [Stantec/Design Collective])

Shared workspaces and collaboration

The desire to put people together on teams, even temporarily, is new. But the traditional assigned desks hinder the plan. People personalize them and relocation becomes onerous.

The hot desk is a key ingredient for innovation centers. Because staff members don’t have an assigned desk it’s much easier for a firm to assign them to a team bullpen for a specified period.

A blank slate for a conceptual makerspace

Innovation centers are akin to makerspaces. In a makerspace, the idea is to put a lot of people together in a space where they have the raw material and tools to make things as they take cues and get ideas from others in the space.

In an innovation center, it’s not about a physical product. Innovation “makers” might be delivering new processes, approaches, concepts, solutions, or digital campaigns. The tools, technology, number and size of screens, and seating available at the innovation center is relative to the industry or the team’s project at hand.

An innovative office reduces internal silos

The checks and balances in a departmental can limit possibilities and create rivalries. It’s easy to misinterpret this statement: “You can’t do that. We don’t have the budget for it.” Ideally, the innovation center lets camaraderie and social connection flourish—and gets rid of the “can’t” words. It builds trust and a willingness to find solutions that satisfy collaborators.

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In the academic or business setting, innovation centers become a one-stop location. (The University of Lethbridge Science Commons in Lethbridge, Alberta. [KPMB/Stantec Architects in association])

Fosters team ownership of ideas

In theory, innovation centers let good ideas travel further. It’s not one department presenting ideas to others, that may tear it apart. With innovation centers, workers from multiple departments to take an idea borne of casual conversations, develop it, and present it as an alliance—one that has already been tested from multiple points of view.

Which industries are embracing this?

The innovation center has gone from a start-up staple to a tech giant standard. Now, it’s going mainstream as the way to organize teams to develop products for a multiplatform world.

We’re seeing the technology, life sciences, retail, higher education—even financial services industries—embrace the innovation center. They’ve already discovered that offering new products and services on the web is a complex, multidisciplinary undertaking. It involves the integration of user experience design and engineering, marketing vision, business, and accounting perspective.

In today’s office, innovation isn’t just for the tech industry.

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  • Christopher Miller

    A principal working with our team in Philadelphia, Christopher is a passionate project manager. With nearly 25 years of experience, his work is largely focused on higher education and corporate/workplace projects.

    Contact Christopher
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