Monday, June 25, 2012

The Culture of Innovation

Looking out over the roofs of Kendall Square from a 14th floor window, the unmistakeable absence of meaningful urban design greets the eye.  The buildings, boxy, blocky and red brick, mimic too closely the architect's drawings from which they emerged decades earlier.  In that, they resemble a cartoon depiction of themselves.  The resulting urban space feels unfulfilled.  It is a victory of function over form, of plan over design.  All of it leaves the palate tasteless. 

It also confirms the hypothesis that people who fill these buildings didn't come here because it looked good.

But then, why did they come?  What is it about Kendall Square?

Often is it heard that the mixing and mingling -- the chance encounter -- is the important aspect of what drives innovation.  In this respect, proximity and design matters a great deal, and Kendall Square's ability nurture  a creative environment in spite of its design limitations requires asking what else is at work.

The success of Kendall Square must come from a cultural component.  Innovation is as much about a mindset as it is about a set of external factors.  Pascal Marmier, the Swiss consul located here in Cambridge, pointed toward some of these components in an interview he gave back in May: "I think it is a story of people who are thinking bold, who are thinking outside of the box.  People who are young and are encouraged to be thinking about this.  It is something that is strong in the culture.  It is something that makes you creative or willing to explore what people call 'white spaces' where not a lot of people are going."    Marmier goes on to talk about "the ability of people to deal with uncertainty".  Some words jump out here: bold, young, in the culture, willing to explore, 'white spaces', ability to deal with uncertainty.

  • Universities develop capacity in students.  Presumably, universities are the first place where the mindset is established, the first step on a ladder of innovation.  The level to which the university embraces this role must be important, not just in allowing risk taking, but in encouraging it. This embrace can be programmatic, offering opportunities for students to embrace this risk either as individuals or as groups, in and out of the classroom.  
  • Universities leverage their position to bridge the gap. It may also be a reflection of the university's own willingness to adopt risk, to capitalize on its most important asset, its people.  MIT, for example, maintains that its off-campus building projects are a reflection of its willingness to step in and bridge the gap between the university and commerce.  To use one of MIT's own examples, the presence of the Brain and Cognitive Sciences building, a university-funded project, resulted directly in a privately-funded development on Main Street in Cambridge to house Pfizer.  From a strategic development perspective, this is an interesting claim, and if accurate -- that a university development spurred a non-university development -- important. 
  • History gives some clues. The 1990s must be a template for what we are witnessing today.  An era of true upheaval with a multitude of outcomes, it represented a time when a 22 year old might become a very rich CEO overnight.  The world has changed significantly from 15 years ago, but that effect lingers on.  
  • People are the ultimate network technology.  Something truly novel to today is the highly networked nature not just of networks, but of people themselves. In some ways, the new internet is not the electrons flying around in and behind your computer screen.  The actual internet is your network of friends and acquaintances, professional and personal, who support, challenge, inform, share with you and with others.  In an odd twist to our information-saturated world where we spend more of our days staring at screens, the personal has become much more valuable.  The human component is reasserting itself in a highly detached world.