Secluded innovation

The big innovations of Silicon Valley are not technical but social, and it feels creepy to watch a cult become culture

Buckminster Fuller, a high priest of invention, claimed that the best way to change the world was to “create a new model that makes the old one obsolete.” While we might think of his idiosyncratically-brilliant mind as the key to his ability to invent like few others, something else entirely was more important: the fact that Fuller was mostly in the business of inventing technologies allowed him to work in seclusion.

Judging by our popular media it’s generally acceptable to excuse oneself from society (say, in a garage in sunny California or a warehouse in east London) to hack together a new product with laser focus. This ‘secluded innovation’ has taken a mythological status in the technology community for good reason: Apple, Google, and HP were all established that way. Or so the myth tells us.

But if we imagine that the tinkerers are interested in devising new ways to relate to each other, to do business, to behave — to exist together! — when such ‘social innovation’ happens in seclusion, in a metaphorical garage, we have an entirely different word to use: we generally call that a cult.

This is why projects like Google Glass and Soylent freak people out: their social implications far outweigh the technical ones. Glass asks us to accept a visually present, mysterious interloper now lingering between us and others, at all times, everywhere. It adds a new party to our daily routine, perhaps even our rituals. Soylent asks us to take a pass on the most basic and sustained of human rituals: eating together. Emerge from your garage with a new piece of technology and you can be an overnight commercial success, but emerge from your garage with a new model for living together and you’re likely to be run out of town, ridiculed, or at least gawked at.

When looking at the recent backlash against tech, particularly in San Francisco, we’re seeing the growing pains of an industry that’s ostensibly about technology, but is increasingly about enabling and encouraging new behaviors. Companies like AirBnB and Kickstarter involve technology, but are they really ‘tech’ companies? They employ lots of programmers, but if we described companies based on their HR profile most hotels would be janitorial services firms. These companies and many others are more about propagating new ways of existing together, or at least that’s where their biggest impact has been. If that’s the case, they’re essentially social innovations that happen to involve a lot of programmers and code.

While the products of these companies get — and deserve — a lot of attention, the way they do business may have a more significant effect. After all, Ford’s cars were groundbreaking, but his reconfiguration of the assembly line changed much more than just vehicles. From the outside, the strangeness of the internal machinery of tech startups is what makes them seem different, and that strong difference is what makes them elicit the same polarized responses that cultish gatherings attract. The big innovations of Silicon Valley are not technical but social, and it feels creepy to watch a cult become a culture.

The hoodie-and-sandals costume of the Valley circa 2004 has already been poked fun at countless times, but that doesn’t prevent it from inspiring young coders from Berlin to Kuala Lumpur who don the same garb. The language of the Valley is spreading too. Instead of inventing, we “disrupt.” Businesses no longer open, they “launch” and they’re “founded” instead of “opened.”

Consider that Silicon Valley was one of the first places where employee stock options became a corporate norm. Or that Google’s high profile employment of a private chef for the entire company ignited an ‘arms race’ of elaborate freebies and perks that redefined workplaces. (Facebook offers a letterpress workshop where employees can ‘work with their hands’ when they’re tired of programming… apparently with something other than their hands.) More recently Google was in the news again when Senior Vice President of People Operations, Lazlo Bock, refuted traditional indicators of the performance of potential employees. It’s not to say that he’s wrong, but we shouldn’t be surprised when such statements are difficult to hear. They ask us to give up something that has been core to the commonly-held definition of success for decades. That’s terrifying and exciting, as rewriting culture should be.

Technology companies are not the only ones to do things their own particular way. Financial services companies have gained a reputation for their own micro cultures, and that’s not just the flamboyant antics of Wall Street. Bridgewater Capital, run by Ray Dalio, is infamous for their culture of deeply personal questioning in interviews and internal meetings that would make many an HR manager squirm. But as a hedge fund they also exist in a world of secrecy with little or no evident interest in participating in public life. Those druids can do what they want because they do it behind closed doors with little or no interaction with a mass audience. They’re not trying to be part of popular culture.

For quite some time, the same was true of many technology companies as well, because they were selling to businesses or specialized consumers. The consumer web ‘broke’ as a widespread phenomena in 1995, but it wasn’t until maybe 10 years later that aunties stopped referring to “the email,” and then almost overnight one seventh of the planet was all using the same social network. Geeks can be forgiving when “the old model” becomes obsolete because they obsess about the technology, and in that sense new is often objectively better. But the public, who care more about the ends that technology as a means helps us to achieve, tends to expect more discussion and debate — and a discussion of ends is rarely objective. As the internet moved from the fringes to the center of popular culture, the chips and bits underpinning exciting new devices and apps faded in importance compared to the ways these items change how we interact. As Uber and others who are developing social innovations wrapped in technology have discovered, the technical challenges of building an app are matched if not dwarfed by attendant social, political, and legal issues.

As the products of startups became part of widespread popular culture, the geography of technology companies shifted too. While the suburbs of the Bay Area are not under imminent threat as a popular place to build technology, San Francisco, New York, London and Berlin have been pulling talent for a while now. An increasing number of companies are emerging out of cities and choosing to stay there when they grow. It’s no surprise, really, since the likes of AirBnb, Twitter, Etsy and Kickstarter (to pick a few examples) are in the business of building technological means to cultural ends, which means planting themselves in urban centers (should) help them better understand the world they are designing for. These companies have done their research and they’ve learned that when inventing new things connections and diversity are important.

After locating themselves in an urban context they metaphorically bring the outdoors in, because cities are the most powerful connection machine we have. Square builds its spaces around an “internal boulevard”, Twitter anchors their small village around a cafeteria serving as the ‘public square.’ AirBnB recreates with exacting detail a number of their global rentals as conference rooms. Google holds meetings in a mock subway car, in ball pits, and among live indoor orchards. The Barbarian Group favors something a bit more infrastructural and uses a single ‘superdesk’ to inspire connectivity between those who use it, perhaps in an ode to the kinship we feel in the best moments when sharing the street.

These approaches to the design of interior space make sense in the context of leafy university campuses or generic buildings in the suburbs were the grass medians and wide curbs of the suburbs insulate occupants from each other, creating the need for intentional spaces of overlap. In cities, on the other hand, connections, overlap, and confrontation happen whether we like it or not, so why do we see office designs trying to reproduce the same effects indoors that being out and about in the city generates so ably?

With regards to consumer technology companies in particular, who operate in a highly competitive market, they’re secretive by necessity, and it’s hard to keep secrets for too long in a city. This produces the odd behavior of companies going through effort and expense to move into urban centers, but then secluding themselves behind the walls of their offices. Inside, they seek the means to reintroduce the unrivaled connective potential and utter heterogeneity of an urban environment. Urban metaphors proliferate to solve architectural problems, motivated by business interests.

Under the pressures of a brutal market, and driven by the dual needs of maintaining high levels of both innovation and secrecy, companies go to great lengths to internalize the outside world — to make the outside part of the garage — so that they combine the diversity of the city with the protective seclusion of the suburbs.

The extent to which the design of these spaces has become a cliche is evident in the eerie sameness that’s easily spotted between one and the next. Was it Salesforce that serves coffee from three separate artisanal roasters, or Github? Did Facebook lay the first astroturf in a conference room or might that have been Yahoo? Copy each other as they might, most tech companies share the design criteria outlined above, so whatever these copycat games lack in creativity, they are at least consistent. The turducken of city-inside-a-bubble-inside-a-city persists because the same set of needs persist.

Two needs and a desire, in fact: the need to attract and retain talent motivates the move into an urban location, where people want to be; the need to maintain secrecy and security necessitates strong access controls, security badges, and overbearing habits like escorting guests to the bathroom; the desire to capture as much of the intellectual effort of their employees as possible leads to spaces designed to produce crossover and simulate diversity, then stuffed with perks to ‘mitigate’ against the need to leave for… anything.

Not all tech companies go hermetic when they move downtown. In a neighborly gesture of hello, Kickstarter introduced itself to Greenpoint with an all-out block party when it moved to Brooklyn. AirBnB sometimes rents out its conference rooms on its own platform as a way of bringing people inside the bubble, and they make larger spaces available to local organizations including SPUR. Still, these remain the outliers and the majority of urban tech offices seem to exist as fortresses of amenities. Companies that buck the trend are capable of doing so because they are less concerned about capturing every possible ounce of intellectual production (unlikely) or because they’ve found a way of valuing experiences and opportunities that lay outside their full control. Namely, those beyond their walls.

Who doesn’t want free snacks and lunch brought in daily, right? But are we confusing free with ‘free and delivered to me?’ Additional compensation in the form of freebies is unimpeachably desirable, but what do we lose in the convenience-seeking decision to have things delivered? What gets lost when we purposefully design environments to wholly capture our attention from 9 to 5, or even longer? Encouraging peers to connect with each other is valuable, especially at an early stage in the life of a company, but does that value have an upper limit beyond which internal connections provide diminishing returns? How do we weigh the value of spending time with peers against that of being exposed to others, and to the unexpected surprises of the feral city? The freebies and fantasies of the all-encompassing office look enviable in photos, but turn exhausting as lived experiences.

Larger companies will inevitably become more deliberate in the way they think about their place in the city, not just physically but also culturally and socially. This will happen because the techniques of internalization that have worked in the past will be less effective as more and more people copy them. That’s the flip side of technological innovation: it can be done in isolation, but once shared with the world it can also be copied more easily by the next person. An office that buys some razor scooters to “jazz things up” or stocks their cafeteria with chia-everything is also a startup whose tricks are not very defensible. Having a relationship with a city and inscribing that in the disposition of one’s spaces and moments of exchange and interaction, on the other hand, is hard to copy.

By designing spaces with a new logic to provide security, privacy, and stimulation, consumer technology companies met their own needs. By wrapping those same spaces in a new aesthetic, they provided a costume that could be assumed by anyone aspiring to align themselves with the seductive buzz and attention given to the technology sector at the beginning of the 21st century. Organizations with completely different operations, and different needs, started to clone the design decisions. At a time when engagement with others — especially with others from different walks of life — is desperately needed, seclusion became an aspiration in the name of open kitchens filled with free snacks and beer on tap. What an accident of history!

Look to “new” workspaces and you find the inklings of the amenity fortress, regardless of the work being done inside. The recent emergence of coworking spaces, which are membership organizations that provide space to work (like a gym for working instead of working out), should have allowed for the creation of a new aesthetic that’s not saddled with the functional requirements of extreme privacy or beholden to a worldview that sees peers as more valuable than strangers. Coworking spaces as facilities are freed from the need to capture intellectual property because the management of the space is separate from the management of the businesses who use the space. In fact, part of the value proposition of coworking is in bringing together heterogenous small companies and freelancers who sometimes have competing interests. Nor do coworking spaces need to coddle workers in hopes of retaining them, because their members already make an affirmative choice to pay for services. Freebies are generally a weak competitive advantage. No one chooses a restaurant for the fortune cookies.

Coworking spaces also have no incentive to monopolize the space of work, which is a far more interesting opportunity from a design perspective. The office may very well be killing us, according to recent research on the dangers of a sedentary life, so why should we design workspaces that are greedy with our time? In a traditional office the design of the space is aligned with the needs of corporate management. But separate the responsibility for managing the work (a boss) from the responsibility for managing the place of work (a workspace) and one is free to design spaces that encourage healthy and productive behavior using a much wider palette. In that situation, one is free to design for people, not merely employees. Forward thinking companies can take the same approach; designing for whole people also means knowing when to stop.

As mobile technology enabled work to separate from the desk, and then from specialized workplaces altogether, we’ve also discovered that different kinds of work happen most pleasurably and productively in different kinds of settings. It’s a losing battle to convince people that they should do all of their work in one specific place, all day, every day. Instead we work at our dining room table after tucking the kids in for the night, in hotel lobbies while waiting for colleagues to arrive, at cafes because they’re vibrant, in conference rooms because they’re quiet, and perhaps even in garages once and a while. In short, we’re rediscovering that the diversity of the city itself already provides a useful spectrum of workplaces; and that the ubiquity of connectivity and computing power allows us to bend work around our other human needs, if we’re able to give ourselves permission to think that way (and the corporate policies that match).

When work is fragmented and spread across multiple places, the ease of connections becomes more valuable than free coffee. Public transportation becomes critically important (as if it weren’t already). The maintenance of our sidewalks becomes as essential as their initial design. Parks and other urban punctuation move from being amenities to being productive assets. And all of this changes the equation for deciding what to do within one company’s own little fiefdom. If someone can walk a few blocks down for a break on a bench, or up the street for coffee, why recreate anemic versions of those options indoors? Why pass up moments of transition between spaces, between conversations, between peer groups, between moods? Those are the moments when serendipity is most active. If you value creativity, there is little incentive to recreate the city internally. The walls of the amenity fortress become more of a burden than a benefit.

One peace dividend of the intense competition and talent wars between consumer technology companies is massive effort being dumped into all the things that make a company. The staid pillars of human resources, operations, facilities, management hierarchies, and others are being consciously redesigned from scratch. If these approaches are affordable in slower industries where investors are more cautious, and they spread outside of the enclave of technology companies, this will be as important as the apps and websites those companies have built. Yet, for all of the attention — the hype, I think it’s fair to say — that the new tech-driven culture of work is attracting, it still feels cloistered behind the collective mass of security badges, clubby language and NDAs. These trappings of seclusion make it feel fresh and exciting if you’re on the inside of the bubble, but cultish if you’re on the outside.

Moving from cult to culture rarely happens by fiat; it’s a slow process that will be painful for the true believers and awkward for the rest of us. Yet luring all of us forward should be the potential that doing so means we change things on a fundamental level by redesigning the assumptions we’ve inherited from the industrial era. The city itself remains an under-loved ally in this. For a community that understands the essential value of open source, there’s a distinct lack of respect for openness in the way they relate to the city. Re-engaging with the public realm is the most fundamental tool that companies (and groups of companies) have to connect with the public, to understand needs more holistically, and to convert that understanding into longterm public and private value. Doing so will require many companies to go back to first principles and find a way to internalize the value of the outside world rather than literally importing it. Seclusion may make it easier to develop technology, but it’s a barrier to deeper innovations in how we live together as a society. Pop the bubble, come out of that garage; the weather’s great.