Networked innovation: from outside in to inside out

Workplace design has increasingly recognised the need to bring the outside in.  Now, successfully connecting to new innovation ecosystems means thinking from the inside out

Workplace design has become highly skilled in recent years in bringing the outside in. Biophilia, water features, entrance-level cafes, food courts, exhibit spaces, public viewing platforms and other elements have entered the interior mix to make the office feel part of something bigger.

But now that smart thinking is focused on taking the inside out – about connecting the workplace to the neighbouring district as part of an ecosystem of collaborative innovation. It’s no longer enough to design the office interior with all the right social spaces and settings. It’s just as important that employees have direct access to external public and cultural amenities, transport links, university research, entrepreneurs and start-ups, restaurants and retail.

A wider frame

The emergence of the innovation district as a wider frame for workplace design owes something to generational change and the rise of the millennial workforce. According to a study from Brickfields Consulting, people under the age of 35 see their workplace as more than just a desk in the office; instead their workspace extends beyond the office walls into the neighbourhood and the wider city.

But the current emphasis on the district scale is also a product of how innovation itself is changing. No longer do large organisations depend entirely on internal resources to innovate – the fortress-like corporate R&D lab guarded by men in white coats is now being replaced by more permeable and networked innovation settings, which are more open to collaboration with a range of external parties.

Collaborative innovation

Indeed, the term ‘collaborative innovation’ is itself often interchangeable with ‘open innovation’. It refers to a process in which multiple players both inside and outside an organisation contribute towards the development of new products, services and business solutions, and openly share what they develop. And you can’t do that from behind the closed doors of the corporate office.

Apple’s decision to support the launch of the iPhone by inviting thousands of external software developers to create applications for its new device, and share them online through the App Store, is a good demonstration of how collaborative innovation works. The whole idea is to enable large businesses to link their scale and resources with the ideas and agility of start-ups and specialists. Against this background, locating your business in an innovation district where the right connections can be made with agile partners, begins to make sense.

New design flavours

Of course, you can practice collaborative innovation at different scales. Many companies continue to favour internal innovation labs because they can control access, ideas and IP more easily. But these contained labs increasingly have a new design flavour with agile scrums, quiet zones and project rooms – and they involve a wider range of innovation players.

At a more permeable scale are shared hubs for collaborative innovation, which bring start-ups into the corporate organisation, effectively through a joint venture. This approach is becoming more prevalent in the financial services industry as a way to address FinTech disruptors.  This typology features such elements as member lounges, active lobbies, coworking zones, immersive exhibitions, incubators and boot camps.

The most permeable model for collaborative innovation is the district scale. It is here that the organisation can connect with university research centres, maker spaces, meeting spaces and other outsourced innovation services, within a dynamic, convivial and practical business landscape offering a strong hospitality dimension.

A 21st century agora

All three of these models – the innovation lab, shared hub and innovation district – feature in a new report entitled From Desk to District, which discusses collaborative innovation in the context of IQL (International Quarter London). The innovation district is termed ‘knowledge agora’ in the report, updating the Ancient Greek term for an open marketplace in the city in the 21st century digital knowledge economy.

IQL is a new Lendlease development at Stratford which aims to become East London’s leading innovation district at a time when economic power, population growth and creative influence are all shifting east. With its pod-like outdoor offices, digital connectivity and proximity to the things and people that can make innovation happen, IQL has been thinking hard about taking the inside out.

For workplace designers, it could be time to turn their own thinking inside out.

Jeremy Myerson is director of WORKTECH Academy and holds the Helen Hamlyn Chair of Design at the Royal College of Art. From Desk to District: Expanding Horizons in Collaborative Innovation is a report by IQL in partnership with WORKTECH Academy.
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