In Defense of Theory (Part III) — Embrace the Space

Why we need to move beyond projects and platforms and add a new model for organising work to our systems change toolbox

This is the third article in a multi-part series that argues for greater appreciation of conceptual work in addressing climate change and other wicked societal problems. You can read Part I here and Part II here. The other parts are forthcoming.

Project /ˈprɒdʒ.ekt/
an endeavour that is carefully planned and proceeds in a linear, sequential fashion (from the Latin
proicere, meaning “to throw forward”)

Platform /ˈplæt.fɔːm/
a two-dimensional place of convention aimed at facilitating transactions, often with rigid architecture (from the French
plateforme, meaning “flat shape”)

Space /speɪs/
a multi-dimensional place of collaboration, with multiple purposes, porous boundaries, and evolving shapes (from Latin
spatium, meaning “extent” or “room”)

“But what, exactly, is it? And what, specifically, are you doing?”

This is the reaction I often get when speaking of an innovation undertaking as a “space”. I use the word “space” in conscious distinction to other terms that describe ways of organising people and work, such as “project” and “platform”.

The difference isn’t just semantics — it matters. The mental model we use to organise work shapes mindsets and defines possibilities.

Yet many people struggle with wrapping their heads around the concept of a “space”. This is particularly true for innovation funders from the public, private, and philanthropic spheres — with potentially dire consequences.

Today’s most tangible and pressing problems are complex and systemic in nature. They play out under fundamental uncertainty, with unknown cause/effect relationships, non-linear dynamics, and multiple evolving root causes. In such contexts, we cannot simply “roadmap” our way to a solution.

And yet this is exactly what many funders still ask for — proposals with clear objectives, neat theories of change, robust execution plans, and detailed budgets. In other words, many funders still think in Projects.

This is a problem because Projects are best suited to organise work addressing complicated problems, where tasks and resources are clear at the outset, such as building a house, developing a digital tool, or launching a community-supported agricultural scheme. But for addressing complex challenges — decarbonising transportation, transitioning a country’s agri-food system to agroecology, or reducing social inequality in a city — the Project is the wrong mental model for organising work.

Modern project management emerged in the early 1900s to support the execution of undertakings with well-defined goals and plannable completion pathways. Constructing the Hoover Dam was the quintessential Project. It was one of the first large-scale undertakings organised with Gantt charts, which had been developed by the engineer and management consultant Henry Gantt three decades earlier.

The same is true for the (multi-sided) Platform, an organising principle that has risen to prominence over the past two decades as a result of the technological possibilities of the Internet.

Multi-sided Platforms are usually designed as marketplaces dedicated to facilitating transactions between two or more groups of people, such as homeowners and vacationers (Airbnb) or readers and writers (Medium). Such Platforms are best suited for addressing problems that can be solved through the exchange of goods and services. They are much less useful for problems that cannot simply be transacted away.

To be clear, Projects and Platforms have many strengths — succinctness of purpose, clarity of objective, plannability of execution, measurability of success — and are thus suitable for a wide range of intents. But these same attributes are also the reason why Projects and Platforms, on their own, are limited in their capacity to address complex systemic problems.

This is why we need a third mental model, a thing that is deliberately designed to hold and orchestrate people, relationships, and work in contexts of complexity and fundamental uncertainty: the Space.

A Space is a multi-dimensional construct that enables people to convene, explore, experiment, learn, and be together.

According to Chôra Foundation — a pioneer in the design and facilitation of Space-building — what creates a Space in the first place is the experiences of humans who engage with each other in a generative way.

Chora thus defines the purpose of a Space as “seeding and structuring experiences” in order to “generate intelligence that feeds into strategic arguments for innovation”. In other words, Spaces are designed to cultivate possibilities — of encounters, conversations, and collaborations — and develop the learning capabilities needed to make sense of what happens in the system of interest in order to extract insights and inform where to channel attention and resources.

Sounds vague and fuzzy?

It totally is!

That’s why many funders respond to a Space proposal either by asking for more information or by dismissing it as “too early”, mistaking the lack of concreteness as a lack of readiness and assuming that more extensive planning will lead to better outcomes.

And herein lies the peril— fuzziness is not, on its own, a strong argument against an undertaking that seeks to address a complex systemic challenge. Quite the opposite, in fact. Complex problems are fuzzy; why would innovating in complexity not look and feel fuzzy, too?

Spaces are multi-dimensional and can be many things at the same time — open innovation programmes, social movements, think tanks, venture incubators, knowledge networks, capital facilitators, and the like.

Take Demos Helsinki’s Untitled, a Space whose purpose is to “collectively reimagine the society, set the agenda for the most important experiments, and execute them together.” Its name refers to “our inability to name and explain what the world and humanity” are going to look like in the future. Not surprisingly, then, Untitled acknowledges the fundamental uncertainty of its operating context and thus aspires to be many things at once: alliance, platform, festival, laboratory, and advocacy initiative. It’s the quintessential Space.

Spaces operate under different identities and come in many shapes and forms. That’s why TNLCF’s new Space-building programme Growing Great Ideas refers to Spaces as “ecologies, ecosystems, assemblages, networks, and constellations.”

To achieve multi-dimensionality, Spaces nurture diversity — of actors, views, mindsets, and interventions — and serendipity. Diversity is key because systemic problems require trans-disciplinary approaches. Serendipity matters because the fundamental uncertainty at the heart of complex problems means that pathways to change are unknown and that progress often comes from unanticipated collaboration effects.

“Serendipity is a powerful ally when exploring the unknown.” — Helga Nowotny, in The Cunning of Uncertainty

That’s also why Spaces deemphasise determinism and prioritise adaptability. They seek to build the capacity to respond to what emerges in the system they intend to impact and to change goals and pivot strategies in response to the failures and successes of their own experiments.

Furthermore, Spaces are designed to be scalable. They have porous, expandable, and malleable boundaries and can grow in terms of actors, relationships, and interactions. Importantly, the direction of growth is not pre-determined (as would be the case for a Platform), because in addressing complex problems it’s not always clear in which direction growth needs to occur.

Finally, Spaces create the possibilities of decentralised governance models. Centralised management structures often create bottlenecks, through which consortia become dependent on specific organisations to instigate and coordinate work. In contrast, Spaces can distribute leadership and decision-making across different organisations, because they are designed for agility and devolved decision-making instead of plannability and control.

The Space is a powerful mental model for organising work that addresses complex systemic challenges. And yet many funders still operate under rigid accountability frameworks and decision-making cultures that create a bias for Projects and Platforms — because these are easier to grasp, can be supervised more directly (think: stage gates), and produce tangible outputs that showcase a funder’s productivity. In contrast, Spaces are fuzzy, unplannable, and unpredictable. But for addressing the wicked problems of the 21st century, that’s exactly what we need in the mix.

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Dominic Hofstetter

Dominic Hofstetter

I write to inform, inspire, and trigger new strategies for tackling climate change.