Spaces for Innovation: the authors Kursty Groves and Oliver Marlow in conversation

The authors of our new book Spaces for Innovation discuss the surprising themes they uncovered while researching the link between physical space and creativity in workplaces.

Kursty Groves (author, design and innovation consultant, and workplace strategy advisor to industry on innovation, capability and environment) and Oliver Marlow (author, designer with expertise in space, co-design and collaboration, and a pioneer of the coworking movement and an expert on the relationship between space, collaboration and creativity) sat down together to exchange views on the most significant themes that define the outcome of their in-depth study.

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The understanding of creativity has changed
KURSTY GROVES: A growing number of organisations view creativity and innovation as important for the future of work. Previously, creativity wasn't synonymous with business; it was a concept reserved for artists. There's been a shift in the value of terms like 'design' and 'creativity', which are now seen by many as ways to enrich life, but also to benefit companies. Creativity in business was once a solo endeavour, but that’s changing. It's no longer about the lone inventor or the advertising genius. Over the last 10 years or so, people have started to understand that creativity is a collaborative, social activity. The more you're able to unite different perspectives, bounce ideas around and get stimuli into the process, the better the outcome will be.

OLIVER MARLOW: There's also a growing awareness that creativity is essential for innovation. The ability to think differently – or to approach a problem from a different perspective – is at the heart of creativity. As a designer, I believe that everyone is inherently creative from a young age. The construction of their working life often doesn't let them express it, though. If we understand innovation as the ability to put creativity to use – whether in terms of developing new constructs or different models and products, for example – we can question why it has become such a key component for businesses, and thus for the working landscape.

Physical spaces and social settings have a huge impact on people's productivity
KG: Our surroundings, the spaces we inhabit, influence how we feel and align. If people are aligned, they feel that they have the freedom and autonomy to explore. And by exploring different possibilities, they are better able to develop a forward-thinking attitude.

OM: If you look at the history of work, you'll find that almost everyone worked at home or close to home. Work wasn’t separated from the rest of a person’s life. Separation came with the Industrial Revolution: you had a place where you worked and a place where you lived. We understand the challenge involved in such changes, but workspaces still shift from extreme to extreme – from cubicles to open plan to pods to lounges – rather than following designs by people with an insight into how people operate. There's lots of quality research and knowledge – whether science-based or intuitive – about which context works best for different people and about the socio-dynamics associated with group creativity. Today we focus on component elements of space, each of which lends individual autonomy to that space while, at the same time, allowing for the development of an overall identity or footprint that represents a particular organisation.

Current trends are an extreme reaction to the traditional office
OM: People talk about the denaturation of traditional workplaces – about today's spaces being the lowest common denominator in an effort to suit as many people as possible without contravening health and safety regulations.

KG: Yes, and the big trends we've seen – open plan, cubicle, hot-desking and activity-based work – have all been introduced en masse as a reaction to other ideas that simply don't work. Many, in an attempt to find a quick answer, take the shape of over-the-top offices that mark the other end of the extreme. Every room is different, playful and imaginatively depicted. But in the end, the phenomenon is nothing more than a response to the depersonalised office.

Offices designed to nurture out-of-the-box thinking don't have to look like giant playgrounds
KG: There's been a huge war for talent, which has resulted in an external expression of what today's creative organisation should look like. But the success of new office spaces emerged from both an understanding of intense, productive teamwork and a perception of our need to leave such areas of fierce concentration in order to disengage from a dynamic situation. Unfortunately, the implications led to the conclusion that offices should look like giant playgrounds, which I think is quite naive, but I also recognise an increasingly sophisticated notion of what a creative environment should encompass to help people perform.

Current coworking spaces express an aesthetic of empowerment and freedom
OM: Certain examples that we researched afford both autonomy and community. Look at coworking spaces, whose aesthetic has developed into a recognisable language. Originally, coworking was born of a need to step away from any form of traditional workplace and, in so doing, to provide users with completely new surroundings.

KG: I think part of the success of coworking is aligned with the basic needs of creative environments. In part, they are a reaction against the staid old supertankers of the corporate world, which run on fear and bad coffee, whereas coworking is all about freedom and great coffee. We could all be working from home, but people are sociable creatures. There's just something about the empowerment to choose where you want to work and with whom. Part of the aesthetic of coworking – raw materials found or thrown together, objects seemingly handcrafted – sings to values that are the antithesis of those that underpin the machine-made look of the traditional office, with its cookie-cutter grey Formica, suspended ceilings and fluorescent lighting.

We're holistic beings. Our workspaces should follow suit.
OM: After all our research, can we say that we’ve cracked it? Do we know what the workplace of the future ought to be? Is it something that has to keep evolving? Will even more experimentation be needed?

KG: It would be incredibly naive to say we cracked it. That said, I think we learnt a lot. Our research-backed experiments add to our previous experiences. Among the things we now know to be true – and important to human productivity, concentration, performance and creativity – is the use of natural light. One of the more fundamental truths is the human need not only for time alone but also for social interaction, two requirements that have to be present in workplaces that set aside roles for creativity and a well-designed space. We’ve learnt about basic elements like texture, material and colour, but such things cannot be treated as isolated factors for the improvement of performance or creativity. We’re holistic beings.

A space is as creative as the people who use it
KG: Most often it's our less tangible, more cultural surroundings that can make or break success. You can have a beautifully designed physical setting but an absolutely rotten culture: usually an unfavourable combination. Conversely, you can have a quickly thrown together office and a tight, positive culture that add up to a winning concept. What needs to be addressed first is the idea of a corporate culture that is supported by a physical workspace. Rather than looking to aesthetics and stylistic shifts as ways to solve organisational problems, a company should begin by attending to its office culture and the needs of its staff.

Future workspaces will be designed from the inside out
KG: We might not know exactly what the future workspace will look like, but we do know something about how it will be approached, and I think that's key. I see people in the years to come considering what workers need to do, how they need to interact, and how they need to behave in a given space. From there they move to a design that takes into account how workers ought to experience the corporate culture, the brand, the business. It's a reversal of the more traditional way of designing. Instead of creating a space and putting people in it – those annoying creatures that mess up my beautiful environment – I imagine organisations and designers working together, putting staff first and designing from the inside out.

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This is an extract from an article which appeared in the workplace issue of Frame magazine issue #108. For more information about Spaces for Innovation, and to get your hands on a copy, see here.

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