Section 1: Introduction

From cities to small towns to suburban corridors, innovation spaces are transforming the landscape. Over the past 10 years, these spaces—such as research institutes, incubators, accelerators, innovation centers, co-working spaces, start-up spaces and more—have grown at a considerable pace across the United States and globally. Yet what easily gets missed is that these innovation spaces are physical manifestations of broader economic, cultural and demographic forces, elevating what matters in today’s economy. At the same time, the ambition to remain cutting edge has driven leaders of industry, and their architects, down the path of creative experimentation in design. In doing so, the last decade of design has embodied a shift away from ‘style’ and more toward embracing core values aimed to help people flourish under new economic and demographic conditions.

Research from global real estate firm Jones Lang LaSalle identified co-working spaces to be the fastest-growing type in the United States, amounting to 27-million-square feet as of 2016.1 Accelerators, a nascent but growing innovation space integrated with programs to accelerate startups, have experienced rapid growth in many countries. In the United States, recent Brookings’ analysis found that accelerators grew from 16 to 170 programs between 2008 and 2014.2 In the United Kingdom, another study found that accelerators grew from 18 to 59 programs between 2010 and 2014.3 Other places, such as Singapore and Spain, report similar rates of growth for both accelerators and incubators.

Surveys conducted across 10 European countries found the growth of incubator and accelerator programs to increase after the financial crisis. Source: Telefonica Global Affairs and New Ventures, 2013. Further modified for the Innovation Spaces paper.

At the same time, observed Alexandra Lange for the New York Times, universities are shifting their development priorities. “Where once the campus amenities arms race was waged over luxury dorms and recreation facilities, now colleges and universities are building deluxe structures for the generation of wonderful ideas… pouring millions into new buildings for business, engineering and applied learning that closely resemble the high-tech workplace.”5 Research institutions, where advanced multi-disciplinary research is conducted, also continue to expand globally, such as the Crick Institute in London and CREATE in Singapore.

Increasingly, architects and designers are tasked to redesign spaces to do more than simply house innovation-oriented activities. Their goals are also to “create communities,” “facilitate collaboration” and “create serendipitous encounters.” Through design, architects and business leaders are essentially being asked to re-wire the social, if not organizational culture, as much as to adhere to strict building codes.

And while people believe that architects generally keep to themselves to build shining icons of their utopia, this paper reveals that architects designing innovative spaces—the ones responsible for bridging processes, places and people—are “catch-all generalists.” They are intellectually curious, delving into complex innovation processes to better understand their physical implications. They combine both intuitive and analytical insight to solve problems while, at the same time, promoting ideas from workers and researchers that use the space day-to-day. This specific niche of architects is part of a growing group of silo-busters, working across disciplines and hierarchies. Their work has been strengthened, if not guided, by the vision of their clients—the vice presidents, managers or a cadre of board members—who see the big picture.

Importantly, more than just the occupants are embracing these designs—the market also is adopting, and expanding, these innovative spaces. Office management companies, small developers and large development and investment companies that have both the financing and the might are extending these attributes from just one building to a cluster of buildings, if not blocks and broader districts. While responding to what the market demands, developers are nonetheless elevating the role of people; acknowledging them as the critical nexus between innovation and place.

Key findings and insights

Innovation spaces are the physical manifestations of economic, demographic and cultural forces.

The changing nature of innovation is transforming spaces into open, flexible locales where separate professions and disciplines more easily converge. The changing demographic of workers is altering designs to be more comfortable, social and collaborative with technology. For these and other reasons, spaces of innovation help elevate what matters in today’s economy, making them the places to watch, and sending helpful signals to cities and suburbs aiming
to become more competitive.

Innovation spaces provide important insights:

The “open” and collaborative nature of innovation is changing the nature of design. Research reveals that innovation is increasingly collaborative, involving two or more people during the process of innovation. Collaboration also importantly underpins “open innovation” and convergence—a trend where disparate sectors and/or disciplines come together as a means to innovate. For the physical design of space, this translates into creating flexible and highly responsive spaces that allow people, in a range of group configurations, to decide what works.

Face-to-face communication has growing currency. While collaboration is increasingly central to driving innovation forward, it is a process often mired in linguistic, technical and organizational challenges. Communication within an innovation setting is even further complicated by the imperative to communicate both tacit and highly complex information. This places a growing currency on face-to-face communication, where architects are reconfiguring the “bones of the building,” creating interactive, sharable spaces and, in a small but growing number of cases, re-imagining the ground floor of buildings. Even with advancements in technology, interviews suggest that the intimacy achieved through in person face-to-face communication remains highly valued.

The growing pervasiveness of technology is driving firms to experiment in balancing organizational desires, technological power and human needs. The last 10 years marked a tremendous infusion of technologies into innovation spaces, literally re-wiring how, where and when people connect and communicate. The next decade will offer lessons on how, through trial and error, firms have retained the value of “human-ness” in the midst of such change. Finally—given the unevenness across innovation spaces in applying post-evaluations on design—leaders and managers of spaces, in interviews, offered an almost unwavering view that design has indeed elevated the level of collaboration and interaction as compared with classic office building design. Their insights are reflected throughout this paper.

Why the design of space matters

Everyone engaged in the working world has been influenced in some way by design—whether it has indirectly contributed to the develop-ment of new insights or, at another extreme, exacerbated isolation or fear. For this reason, this paper offers interesting insights for a broad cross-section of readers.

While there is considerable literature on interior design of workspaces, this paper arrives at design through a different path: first by understanding the changing nature of innovation and other broad forces, their influence on human behavior and then, ultimately, how this implicates design. Readers actively working in design will find this paper elevates what still matters. For readers new to this area of study and practice, this paper offers a framework for understanding the broader implications of innovation through design.

This paper also aims to inform business, university, philanthropic and government leaders working to strengthen local ecosystems of innovation, including cities but also innovation districts, science parks, medical districts, and university campuses. Those working to strengthen connections and synergies at these larger scales will find value in learning how broader trends are influencing design at the building scale.

Our approach

To gain insight into the changing role of design and architecture, nearly 50 in-depth interviews were conducted with both top architects and users of innovation spaces (such as managers of researchers, executives managing all operations and program managers). Their names and affiliations are listed in Appendix A. On deciding which innovation spaces to study, this process intentionally selected strong spaces identified by critics, reporters and global experts as advancing innovation.

In the first set of interviews, globally oriented architects with extensive experience designing innovation spaces (from research institutes to innovation centers to offices) and top corporate leaders (including AT&T, Haworth, Philips, and Bank of New York) were asked to provide insights on this changing field. Part of the inquiry focused on how innovation spaces have changed over the last 10 years and what they believed to be prompting these changes. To gain insights into future directions, they were also asked: the costs to design and construct the next iterations of innovation spaces as opposed to more traditional layouts; their opinions on building transparency and its affect on the broader area; and the role of the ground floor.

In the second set of interviews, over 35 architects and managers of spaces were interviewed across a range of innovation building types, such as research institutions, incubators, start-up spaces, co-working spaces and innovation centers. These spaces were designed to advance innovation across multiple sectors including bioscience (with an emphasis on applied science), advanced manufacturing, robotics, technology including the burgeoning app cluster and more. The expansiveness in interviewing architects and users across a range of spaces and sectors was intentional, in the quest to distill measurable differences in design. In as many cases as possible, the architect and end user (CEOs, vice presidents, and managers) of the same space were interviewed separately. This again was intentional. As innovation spaces have unevenly applied post-design evaluations, this research turned to managers to reflect on how these spaces are supporting collaboration and innovation.

Lastly, an in-depth literature review, with a particular focus on new research, was completed on a parallel track to surface additional evidence.

This piece is originally from Brookings Institution Press.