Building spaces for innovation is a hot topic these days. 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 for inspiration and support and to articulate and co-create. An environment in which ideas can be explored and played with.

Right now it seems like everyone is jumping on the bandwagon. Companies looking to reinvent themselves no longer set up corporate venture units – they establish their own Silicon Valley style start-up garages and lofts. City and regional governments rebrand their incubators as innovation hubs and build lab-style environments with support facilities to allow a new generation of entrepreneurs to realise their dreams (and hopefully deliver local economic growth as a by-product). Fab-labs and maker-spaces abound, run down old warehouses and industrial buildings are being reinvented as shells within which new forms of entrepreneurial life can flourish.

And with this has come a renewed interest in diversity – attracting a mixture of different people to these ‘innovation spaces’. Networking and making new connections, harnessing energy and ideas to fuel a start-up culture and revitalise organizations, opening windows to let in some fresh air to the boxes they have become stuck in.

Of course this isn’t a new idea. 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 but rather 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 meeting place for innovation

And they weren’t just about talking; in 1680 Edward Lloyd’s premises hosted a mixture of ship owners, captains, merchants and others with links to the maritime world. New ventures were explored and support for them secured – an early version of today’s venture capital pitching. Today’s towering Lloyds building has its roots in that start-up meeting place. A few blocks away Jonathan’s Coffee House became the favoured meeting place for another group of potential investors and entrepreneurs – the foundation of the London Stock Exchange. Isaac Newton was a fan of the Grecian coffee house where experimental scientists liked to gather – and where he once dissected a dolphin on the table! And today’s branch of Starbucks on Russell St is on the site of Button’s coffee house where, in 1712 poets, playwrights and journalists gathered around long wooden tables drinking, thinking, writing and discussing literature into the night. We might think ‘open innovation’ is a new idea but it was alive and very much kicking three hundred years ago!

It wasn’t only coffeehouses; similar hotspots for innovation could be found in the swish drawing rooms of Paris, St Petersburg and Milan. Under the careful management of women like the redoubtable 18th century hostess Madame Geoffrin such salons became home to progressive ideas and creative conversations, incubators of new thinking in music, visual arts, theatre and science.

And a slightly less plush context – 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.

What these all have in common is that they were much more than simply meeting points – somehow they came alive and became powerhouses for innovation. It’s the search for that magic spark that can turn a ‘dead’ property into a ‘live’ crucible for creativity which lies behind the upsurge in current interest.

To understand how this happens we need to remind ourselves of the strange world which is the ‘fuzzy front end’ of innovation.

Revisiting the fuzzy front end

By its nature 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.  We make progress by bumping into things, backing off, edging our way around – essentially feeling our way. Maps aren’t much use in a situation where we’re not quite sure where we are going; strategy tends to become a process of probe and learn.

It’s a landscape familiar to many individuals and organizations. When an artist first starts to work with materials there is often a long period of problem exploration, one in which ‘discovery orientation’ is an important skill. Picking up and playing around with the objects, sketching and drafting, doodling are all exploratory strategies. Jazz musicians improvising around a clutch of chords will do something similar, probing and testing by tossing out phrases and seeing whether they work or not. Actors and directors explore different versions of characters and interplay, looking for something beyond the words on the page, hunting for a way of bringing them to life.

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.

Boundary objects, agents and spaces

That’s where prototyping comes in. It helps provide a focus for such experiments in their context. Prototypes create ‘boundary objects’, something around which other people and perspectives can gather, a device for sharing insights into problem dimensions as well as solutions. They offer 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.

Prototypes can take many forms – physical models, sketches, simulations, even stories which can be adapted and retold. Their key feature is that they provide some interface around which different stakeholders can explore and contribute – they enable co-creation.

Prototypes alone aren’t enough – to work effectively with them we also need boundary agents – someone to bring relevant people together and enable them to have useful conversations. Their role has long been recognised as important in innovation – for example the sociologist Ronald Burt developed an elegant theory around the role of brokers in bridging between networks. They are ‘boundary spanners’ – able to operate in different networks but also to see relevance and make connections between them.  He gave them the rather odd label ‘structural holes’ – but despite this strange name tag their importance in innovation continues to emerge. From Tom Allen’s pioneering work on ‘technological gatekeepers’ during the NASA moon landing programme to Procter and Gamble’s extensive use of ‘technology entrepreneurs’ as part of their ‘Connect and Develop’ framework they are central to effective open innovation. And there’s a whole growth industry of consultancies and platforms aimed at providing bridging and brokering services.

Successful entrepreneurs do this – a key skill lies in being able to infect others with their vision and then getting them to engage in shared exploration and articulation. And – back to our 18th century salons  the secret was not simply in inviting guests and laying on refreshments. It lay in finding ways to bring people together, to act like a marriage broker for creative minds, catalysing innovative conversations.

Which brings us back to boundary spaces – where does all of this happen? And can we create spaces which actively stimulate and enable innovation? Research by NESTA in the UK suggests that it’s much more than a simple physical space – just like a theatre we can provide the basic stage but it is the particular arrangements of scenery, lighting, properties and above all actors and directors which bring it to life. There is a growing body of experience around configuring boundary spaces – for example in terms of physical environments aimed at enhancing creative collisions (think of the BMW Research and Innovation Centre in Munich or Pixar’s Emeryville studios). Innovation accelerators flourish not just because of the equipment and facilities available to users but also because of the networking and mentoring which goes on within what is a creative community of practice.

Part of the story is in seeing boundary spaces as prototypes in themselves – places where we can learn more about the approach. A recent study by Cambridge University has looked at the lessons offered by Joseph’s – a ‘drop-in’ innovation lab in the heart of downtown Nuremburg (complete with coffee bar where new ideas for refreshments are prototyped!). Operated as a joint venture with the local university and the nearby Fraunhofer Institute, Joseph’s has been running for nearly two years during which a variety of ‘theme-worlds’ have been explored – for example, ‘smart living’, mobility, personal health and fashion. Each theme-world involves a mixture of physical and virtual prototypes, workshops, seminars and spaces to support informal conversations; it’s a bit like a museum or art gallery with different exhibitions throughout the year. A key element is the attempt to bridge different worlds – to bring together Saturday morning shoppers, weekday schoolchildren, company experts, students, researchers and entrepreneurs, and to try and engage with them in co-creating ideas and prototypes for future product and service innovations.

Another important piece of the puzzle is the role of virtual spaces in which ideas can be explored and played with. Increasingly we are seeing platforms not just as software to support suggestion schemes but places where communities can be built and interact and where innovation can and does emerge. (Think Linux and many others as examples of such online creative communities). A key advantage in such platforms is their reach – it becomes possible to open up conversations and co-creation with a truly diverse and geographically far-flung community. In many ways they offer a 21st version of the old Oxford coffee shops – the only downside is that virtual coffee doesn’t sound quite so enticing!

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