The article was published in the journal LPF Newsletter – Institute of Management, Politics and Philosophy, Copenhagen Business School  (2005)
There are many resources to gain from focusing our innovation – and through that also our competitiveness that will put us in a new position because of our building physics. It creates value in connection to clients, the ability to attract employees, the organisational branding, and the collaborative culture.

The two mega trends – globalisation and new customer demands – mean that the familiar market and business relations are now turned upside down. In Denmark we will have to compete on our ability to source knowledge globally while selling locally and by developing unique concepts that bring tailored value to the customer. It is primarily about strategic management, development, and individual customisation – innovation – that is difficult to outsource. This will result in a rapidly increasing competition within the fields of knowledge and innovation – innovation will become a gigantic growth driver.

Organisations have always been living organisms – but it is not until recently that we really focus on the fact that social contact and establishment of places where “things can happen” and where we can “talk with one another” also puts up demands for thinking in new ways about space in change. The reason is that Danes only just now experience increased competition within knowledge and innovation – compared to earlier on when we primarily competed on price and costs. To put it in another way, it now matters how space is designed in relation to establishment of relations and collaboration between people. Some organisations already discovered that there are many resources to gain from designing space that fosters innovation while at the same time acknowledging that the things an organisation does is not measured by how space is used, but rather by the values that the organisation supports. Innovation cannot be required, but only encouraged – and therefore it is relevant to look at the value that comes from developing tools for a gathering of work processes, space, and innovation. In contrast, there has for a while been a nuance lacking debate about cubicles versus offices space. This debate is carried out without visions for development of our working life and without understanding that it is all about diversity and flexible solutions rather than “this-or-that” solutions.

If you take a look at the cubicle and the office space as physical structures and connect them to strategies for management, you will see that they both support the two physical structures in a management triangle we are moving away from: finance, power, and hierarchy. The management triangle of our days is about trust, networks, and organisational boundaries that open up – also towards the external environment – shaped by physical environments that foster interaction, autonomy, and diversity.

Why diversity when it comes to building physics? 

Mistakes, incompetence, and ignorance most often occur when people develop in one dimension, meaning that we improve what we are already good at. Organisations can easily turn into behavioural prisons dominated by narrow-mindedness where everybody begins to think the same. This also goes for the design of physical space. Innovation – key competency and diversity are therefore closely connected. A great diversity among employees creates a need for a focus on individual opportunities for adjustment and expression of the physical space. Just like learning new things are often dependent on breaking down old routines to give way for new input and collaboration. The physical space means to give room for “things to happen” – room for occasions that go beyond the expected and where space can be an adventure opening up for the opportunity of finding differences and not only similarities. Innovation happens in many different kinds of relations. What they have in common is the sympathy and attraction.

New success criteria and conditions for designing building physics

Before you can begin to think about solutions, you need to connect a desired organisational structure, ways of collaboration, and physical space while also identifying needs within the organisation. The challenge for the building experts is to meet the criteria for the physical working environment: indoor climate, lighting, acoustics, division of space, surfaces, and materials. The challenge for the organisation is to meet the criteria for the physical working environment. Among other thing, this concerns fulfilment of values and culture, knowledge sharing, innovation, flexibility, collaboration, and diversity. To think about a building from the inside and out, taking a starting point in the kind of communities the organisation wishes to foster. Key employees can build relations to other people and help reduce the time it takes for a merger to become well-functioning and for the people to break down the barriers that are related to the situation.

The possibilities are clear and the organisations know that involvement has to be prioritised and will pay off, but the management and the employees have natural barriers that need to be dealt with and the organisations need tools for this. Innovation needs to have a focus on systematic methods, strategic collaboration, and design of space.

How far have we come in Denmark? What are the future challenges? 

In Denmark, we have for a long time been focussing on optimisation of the physical space without connecting it to building physics in the activities that the buildings will be used for. Today the result of this is clear: humdrum, rational architecture that communicates shape rather than content.

It is a big challenge to connect a collaborative culture and values with the design of building physics, and there is still a request for a method that can measure the value of activities supported by physical space – how do we know if it has made us more innovative? Are we to count each interaction that happens between people during the day? Can we measure the total quality that goes out of the organisation instead of measuring the performance of the individual and use it as an indicator for the knowledge shared?  Is it the response time from deciding to change the organisation till it is actually implemented between space and people? Despite the options for factual measuring methods, we know without measuring it that it will have a positive effect on the relationship with customers, talented employees, and the establishment of partnerships. It is just as big a challenge for the building industry to think in new ways about space and possibilities – what will the future scenarios look like regarding the challenging meeting between innovation, people, and space?

Three future scenarios

”Technological and collaborative space”: This scenario takes its stating point in the technological solutions supporting innovation, flexibility, and diversity. Tailored solutions living up to the current standards. Establishment of collaborative buildings with interface for communication. But in a world where technological improvements happen faster than we can imagine, the collaborative buildings might only manage to fulfil our needs for a limited period of time, and they are expensive to upgrade each time a new need occurs or whenever newer and cooler technologies are on the market.

”Haunt of the nomads” – establishing space for meeting – everywhere: Recognising that work is no longer a place, but rather an activity, this scenario focusses on solutions that take their stating point in the idea that human relations and interdisciplinary collaborations of the future can happen anywhere and anytime. A continuous movement! It also focusses on establishing many small and diverse meeting places around the city/in the city/in the world that all support different working cultures and ways of working and meeting. No more large and empty domiciles, no more traditional offices. There is a focus on dynamic environments for development with room for everyone. To make this happen, collaborative culture, organisational branding, and values must be challenged to use space in a new way

”User driven space”: This scenario takes its starting point in brainstorming processes and thinks of development as something that happens between people. Therefore, there is a focus on designing space and activity zones that support diverse communities over time. It is a low tech solution that focusses on communities of people in universal spatiality that can easily be changed to support different kinds of socialising according to needs over time. The technology is entirely wireless and is more or less invisible as this gives space for people to meet at eye level – a cultural community! The organisation will still be the meeting place – the work is carried out at the customer’s place – it is an architecture that is not stuffed, but one that encourages people to socialize.

Maybe the future is a combination of the three?

For architects like us, it is necessary to acknowledge the necessity of including culture and values right from the beginning of a project. We also need to become better at breaking down old habits, understanding the client’s/users’ needs, and tailoring the project according to these. At the same time, we must develop the creative element focussing on interdisciplinary collaboration and connecting processes. We must work value based – and ask the right questions.

By doing this, we will be able to set the agenda for a new architectural practice – focussing on collaborative will, flexibility, and inviting architecture!