What an Innovation Lab Really Looks Like

by room2learn

Where does innovation spark? For some, it happens in a garage with your close friends. For others, its happens on a napkin in a cafe. At face value, Steve Jobs’ and J.K. Rowling’s origin stories suggest that innovation is random and could arise in any environment. This is true. Innovation can happen anywhere. However, if you look closely at the environments where they found their success, you may find some characteristics particularly conducive to innovation.

Consider this garage where Apple started. It features a large, open space that invites in collaboration, easy access to outdoor elements, and likely a lot of movable furniture that accommodates different needs. J.K. Rowling’s coffee shop also had some notable characteristics, namely a steady stream of conversations to eavesdrop on and easy access to food and drink that sustain free-flowing creativity (we put caffeine in that category too).

These spatial elements have not gone unnoticed by designers building spaces to cultivate creativity and innovation. Innovation Labs are now being built in schools and companies around the globe to act as incubators for solutions to some of our toughest challenges.

So, what do these spaces actually look like? Are architects and designers building fabricated garages and doling out napkins instead of paper? We haven’t heard of these yet, but we do know about one Innovation Lab in particular. room2learn has been a proud member of the Venture Incubation Program at Harvard’s Innovation Lab, called the “iLab” by those of us who know and love it.

The iLab’s mission is to be “a resource for any student at Harvard interested in entrepreneurship and innovation.” The iLab does this by providing an intentionally-designed space, supportive and knowledgeable mentors and staff, and robust programming for students interesting in growing their ideas and ventures, no matter the discipline or stage of development.

This summer, we decided to use our research toolkit to look closely at our very own iLab space and learn more about how it is used. Let’s dive in!

First, let’s take a look at some of the iLab’s elements.

Open Workspace, Movable Furniture

This might be the most common element found in Innovation Labs across the globe. The combination of an open layout and movable furniture is intended to give users choices. Having choices means having agency and a stake in your working environment. This allows people to arrange their environment to best suit their working style. It also allows teams and individuals to flow freely between individual and collaborative work.

Spontaneous Spaces for Ideation!

While there are some structured elements that support innovation, ideas can happen at anytime, anywhere. The iLab’s answer to the scribbled napkin brainstorm (though you can absolutely find napkins stocked in the kitchen) is having many writable surfaces. These movable whiteboard dividers roam freely throughout the space for spontaneous ideating. In addition, many of the walls don a coat of whiteboard paint, inviting us to brain dump our thoughts on the closest wall surface. Scribbling on the walls also feels delightfully mischievous, which definitely doesn’t hurt creativity.

Options, Options, Options

For those times when the open floor plan just doesn’t quite suit your style, the iLab also provides about 30 smaller meeting rooms. You can easily book a room for calls and meetings through an online scheduling system. We appreciate that the iLab understands that not all ideating happens in large, social rooms. Sometimes, quiet is what you need to get the job done.

Food as Fuel

Here is where Rowling’s story comes in. Food is fuel, and for some, so is ample access to caffeine. We’re lucky that the iLab provides snacks, water, fresh fruit, and a coffee machine to keep us going as we burn the daytime and midnight oil. However, this space isn’t just about the food. The cafe area also serves as a meeting point and space for casual conversations — did you hear Rob’s latest podcast? These moments spark inspiration, feedback, even collaboration.

So, what is actually happening in Innovation Labs?

Now that we understand the lay of the land, let’s explore what types of activities are happening here on a daily basis.

When we think of innovation, we often think of groups talking excitedly about new ideas. However, it’s actually not productive to be in “creative” mode all of the time. There must be heads-down focus time in there too! We’ve found that the best balance between focusing and “flaring,” (i.e. creating, brainstorming, collaboration, generating wild ideas) should look a little like this:

When we asked iLab members how much of of their time was spent being creative, here is how they answered:

It appears that the iLab is supporting a higher percentage of creativity! When asked where this happens and what they are doing, here is how people answered:

You’ll notice that “brainstorming” is the most commonly used word, as well as “meetings,” “conversation,” and “people.” The iLab attracts a wide range of people from different disciplines, so it is not surprising that everyone is inspired by their surrounding community.

Let’s take a look at focus. When asked how much of the time people feel focused, here is how people at the iLab responded:

It appears that our “focus” average is slightly lower than prescribed. As it turns out, this space was designed with connection in mind — communal creativity over heads-down work. This tension between focus and flare is actually quite common in Innovation spaces. We know that the open floor plan is great for collaboration, but what about focus?

When we dug deeper and asked about how people focus here, we spotted a trend — headphones.

Even though the iLab attracts many people excited to work together, noise levels can sometimes get in the way of focus. When people need to dive deep into their work, they retreat to headphones as a productivity hack. Headphones also serve as a “do not disturb” sign, indicating to others they are in “focus” mode.

As design researchers, we can read from this data that this space needs something in between open hot desks and closed rooms — what about semi-private booths or pods? When it comes to designing a space for innovation, the possibilities are endless, but design direction has to include input from the real users.

Even though innovation can thrive anywhere and certainly does not require fancy furniture or free snacks, there is something special about crossing the threshold into a space specifically designed for new ideas to thrive. For the designers and architects out there — how do you ensure your space meets the needs of its users?

Want to incorporate data into your design work? Get in touch with us at team@room2learn.org.

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