Chance encounters and the ‘action’ office: Do collisions spark innovation?

Google, Facebook, Samsung, and Tencent have all unveiled plans for “action” offices designed to get their people moving, interacting, huddling, collaborating—all in the name of innovation.

March 29, 2015 |
David Barista

In the world of science, there are legendary stories of how chance encounters and serendipitous connections led to breakthrough discoveries. There’s the tale of the 1796 run-in between British scientist Edward Jenner and a cowpox-infected dairymaid that eventually led to the smallpox vaccination.

In 1928, while researching influenza, Scottish biologist, pharmacologist, and botanist Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin by chance after he decided to examine—instead of throw out—a mold-ridden petri dish containing a contaminated staphylococcus culture. And there’s German physicist Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen, who in 1895, while experimenting with electrical currents through glass cathode-ray tubes, noticed that a piece of barium platinocyanide across the room started to glow—the birth of the X-ray.

In modern times, we hear stories of card games, pub gatherings, and other social occasions involving scientists and researchers that resulted in discovery. Leading research institutions have attempted to foster these serendipitous “Eureka!” moments by designing disruption, interaction, and collaboration into their R&D facilities. As the theory goes, having the right person—or group of people—in the right place at the right time can spark innovation. 

“At a time when most workforces within corporations, institutions, and government agencies are stretched thin, is encouraging even more idle chitchat and interaction among workers really the most effective use of their precious time? More to the point: Is the potential reward—that Next Big Idea—worth an employer’s sizable investment in time.”

This design mindset has permeated workplace design as well, led largely by tech giants. Google, Facebook, Samsung, and Tencent have all unveiled plans for “action” offices designed to get their people moving, interacting, huddling, collaborating—all in the name of innovation. The design teams on these projects, and others, are going to great lengths to optimize the workspaces for hyperactivity and interaction; for example, using computer simulations to model how workers move through spaces, and then placing collaboration functions at the intersections.

It sounds all well and good, but you have to wonder if this trend is just the latest in a long list of workplace design fads that is going to run its course. Think about it: At a time when most workforces within corporations, institutions, and government agencies are stretched thin, is encouraging even more idle chitchat and interaction among workers really the most effective use of their precious time? More to the point: Is the potential reward—that Next Big Idea—worth an employer’s sizable investment in time.

Gensler workplace design expert Marc Bruffett likens chance encounter design to playing the “innovation lottery”—every unscheduled run-in between employees buys you a ticket. The odds of striking it rich are in the millions to one, and the cost of those tickets quickly adds up.

“We must acknowledge explicitly what we know intuitively: that chance encounters more frequently lead to outcomes other than innovation,” Bruffett wrote in a blog post. “They’re not necessarily bad outcomes, they’re just not innovations.”

That’s not to say run-ins should be discouraged in workplace design. However, as Bruffett noted, deliberately creative, planned process should always take precedence over chance encounter. “I’ll put my chips down any day on design thinking over chance encounters as the wellspring of innovation,” he wrote. I agree with his sentiment.

Bruffett’s essay is one of dozens of contributed posts from AEC leaders featured on BD+C’s blog. More at BDCnetwork.com/Blogs.

David Barista | BD+C Editors
Building Design+Construction
Editorial Director

David Barista is Editorial Director of Building Design+Construction and BDCnetwork.com, properties that combined reach more than 100,000 commercial building professionals, including architects, engineers, contractors, and building owners. David has covered the U.S. construction industry for more than a decade, previously serving as Editor-in-Chief of BD+C, Professional Builder, Custom Builder, and HousingZone.com. He has won numerous editorial awards, including six Jesse H. Neal Awards and multiple honors from the Construction Writers Association and the American Society of Business Publication Editors.

Email: dbarista@sgcmail.com

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