Cities, Serendipity, and Other “Spaces for Innovation”


Kursty Groves — co-author of the forthcoming Spaces for Innovation with Oliver Marlow — interviewed me about the future of workspaces, cities, and serendipity for their book. Our conversation is reproduced below, and I encourage you to order the book.

What is ‘engineering serendipity’ — apart from a delightful oxymoron?

GREG LINDSAY: For more than a century, large organizations have prized clear hierarchies, ruthless efficiencies and, above all, economies of scale. The office-as-we-know-it, for example, began life as a factory for paperwork. That model clearly isn’t working anymore. Firms are dying faster, innovation is slowing down, corporate returns-on-assets have steadily fallen off a cliff. Hierarchical organizations are suffering from diminishing returns to complexity, and suffering badly. Twenty years ago, the CEO of Hewlett-Packard lamented, “If only HP knew what HP knows, we would be three times more productive.” Even then, the company’s strategic vision was less than the sum of its know-how. After that, the company has split itself in two, merged disastrously in a misguided pursuit of economies of scale, and recently split itself in two again.

Meanwhile, companies have hollowed themselves out even as they’ve become more tightly coupled . Whether they know it or not, people’s most valuable colleague probably works for somebody else. We are still slotting ourselves into hierarchies to do the same things we’ve always done in the hope of making them two per cent better. We need to enable unknown connections to happen in order to allow step-change differences to occur. Rather than chasing efficiency, what if we tried to engineer serendipity instead? What if we designed organizations, environments, and networks to produce unplanned encounters and collaborations instead of predictable ones? In practice, this means creating more permeable, diverse, collegial workspaces and cities, with social networks steering us toward the gaps in our networks rather than cocooning us in filter bubbles. So what I’m interested in is: what does that world look like and, more importantly, who’s already building it?

What role does physical space play?

It’s hugely important. Even though it’s trendy now to say the future of all knowledge work — or at least anything involving typing on a laptop — will migrate to the iCloud, and there won’t be any offices, only Slack channels. But this overlooks the fact that physical proximity has always defined communication patterns — an iron law MIT’s Thomas J Allen first quantified in the 1970s — and continues to do so, even online. You chat most frequently with the people nearest you, no matter the medium. So, if we want to radically increase combinatorial possibilities of a network, we need to bring them together in space, which is why cities exist and firms pay high rents to stack people in them in the first place. But rather than work in the same office every day with the same people, what if you mixed both up? I think this largely explains the appeal of coworking spaces, where one works alongside peers and equals instead of colleagues and subordinates. The fact that members of these spaces uniformly report making more contacts, learning more skills and experiencing greater satisfaction than their cubicle-bound counterparts in traditional organizations means they are learning from each other in ways that a corporate HR department simply couldn’t predict.

For more on the topic …

And what of technology?

Well, this is where the ‘engineering’ part comes in. We all know intuitively that work doesn’t get done according to the organizational chart, but through informal networks that are rarely recognized and occasionally secret. What if you could map those networks in real-time, sample the flow of information moving across them and use that metadata to tap hidden expertise, discover new coworkers or even suggest someone new to sit with? What if HP knew what HP knows, and could do something about it? That’s the promise of the quantified organization, using various analytical techniques and devices like ‘sociometric badges’ that aim to measure the nuances of every face-to-face meeting and casual encounter. And if the idea of HR rummaging through your emails creeps you out, there’s an algorithmic black box to shield personal data from prying eyes. These technologies put the oxymoron into ‘engineering serendipity’. Serendipity feels like magic because it’s an accident, but that feeling is in the eye of the beholder. We’re already seeing many other attempts to use machine-learning to detect patterns in data sets either too large or too complex for a human observer to detect — a phenomenon the big data start-up Ayasdi labels ‘digital serendipity’. So using a system that is able to pair you with the coworker or information you need at exactly the moment you need them, will also feel like magic.

What are the implications for designing physical spaces for the future?

The biggest is the change from workspace-as-cost-centre to workspace-as-value-creator. If you can’t manage what you can’t measure, then hopefully sociometric badges and other tools will definitively make the case for treating the places where we work as vital to our success. After that, we could start to see real-time offices — near-constant adjustments to eliminate dead zones and other design flaws that would otherwise go untreated for a decade. I think traditional HR and facilities management roles will be superseded (or enhanced) with the addition of community managers whose job it is to help workers make connections, aided by the analytical tools I just described. And most importantly, the idea of the office as one space for one organization will start to go away, replaced by more permeable workplaces with multiple, overlapping communities with a shared level of trust.

What are the biggest barriers that organizations face when attempting to shift from the workplace of the present to that of the future?

Fear, ego, politics. The usual. The history of the office is a case study in how employers can make a hell of heaven, including but not limited to transforming Robert Propst’s liberating Action Office into the soul-destroying cubicle. It’s not difficult to see how managers might try to build a better surveillance state or expel workers to coworking spaces just to cut real-estate costs by another ten per cent, regardless of what it does for performance. But I think it all comes back to the perception that the office is at best a golden pair of handcuffs and at worst a necessary evil, yet never a scaffold for different configurations of social networks. Companies talk endlessly about recruiting talent and cultivating leadership, and then they try to dictate how those talented leaders should interact.

Can you expand a bit on the role of the city?

Cities, of course, are the original serendipity engines. Last year, I toured the Square Mile with Peter Rees, who was the City of London’s chief planner for almost three decades. We popped into pubs and strolled where the Restoration-era coffeehouses once stood, and discussed how the city was an information-processing machine for transforming gossip and speculation into partnerships and profits. DEGW co-founder Frank Duffy also presciently pointed out that coworking chains such as WeWork (currently valued at USD 16 billion) echo London’s Victorian-era gentlemen’s clubs or even Venice’s Scuole Grandi. (He also argued that Samuel Pepys was the first modern mobile worker.) I don’t think it’s an accident that banks remain firmly-rooted in cities and that technology firms are turning away from isolated suburban office parks — because the city offers a greater degree of openness and scale than any single office.

Can you share any other big lessons regarding the spatial context of innovation and/or creativity and how to harness the outcomes of those serendipitous interactions that one might engineer?

A few years ago, I realized I would pay almost anything for an app that could tell me, as I was walking down the street, what I should say to the person headed toward me. That app would require we both own smartphones or other wearable technology with a fine-grained GPS, and it would be able to parse our social media exhaust to the extent that it would not only know what we have in common but why it mattered, and to identify what word or phrase would unlock it in that moment. Imagine this in the context of leveraging connections for innovation. That app doesn’t exist of course (although many have tried) but I remain convinced that someone will crack it, and let’s hope they do a better job of it than Tinder has done for dating!

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