Spatial Identity and Innovation Spaces

When setting up innovation spaces, such as innovation labs, coworking spaces, and incubators, few managers reflect on the power of space as leverage for success. Busy planning activities or designing the business model, the “look and feel” of the space might feel secondary. Yet, spatial identity is a fundamental component of successful innovation spaces. In this blog post, we explain how.

What is spatial identity?

Spatial identity refers to a combination of physical elements of the space, community forming in the space, and activities enabled by the space. Think about how Starbucks established itself as the multinational chain of coffeehouses it is today. Entering a Starbucks everywhere in the world, you become part of a consistent familiar experience. You perceive the same strong smell of freshly brewed coffee, see the iconic green logo and the stories of Starbucks’ coffee farmers, plug in your laptop for a couple of hours of quiet work surrounded by people who are, most often, working too. The atmosphere and the blend of sensory stimuli ensure that you can not mistake Starbucks for another coffeehouse. Whether you decide to step in, or not, depends on your fit with the identity proposition that Starbucks promotes.

  • Communicate mission and values
  • Promote belonging
A girl working at Starbucks in Dublin

How does spatial identity help innovation spaces?

Establish a clear positioning

One issue of innovation spaces is that they sometimes struggle to position themselves in the innovation landscape. Think back to the emergence of the startup accelerator phenomenon. Many startup accelerators were generalists. In time, they have become more specialized. Nowadays, we find accelerator specialized in hardware, enterprise solutions, ed-tech, ocean-tech, and so on. Space is a powerful way to enact and embody this specialization. For instance, the San Francisco based accelerator IndieBio invests in bio-tech startups. The accelerator space (below) has a laboratory and it showcases logos of previous accelerated startups in the bio-tech sphere.

IndieBio — San Francisco, US

Communicate mission and values

Space is the most powerful mechanism to communicate mission and values and make them accessible to members of an organization and outsiders. A popular way for innovation spaces to communicate values is to post panels on the walls or have signed manifestos at the entrance. These artefacts do not only inform visitors and remind members about what the space stands for, but they have a normative role too. For instance, if one of the values of the space is “inclusivity through speaking English”, newcomers will avoid speaking with peers from the same nationality in their mother tongue. Moreover, it is likely that esternals who choose to join or interact with the space will share the same value system.

Manifesto at District 3 —Montreal, Canada

Promote belonging

When the Wing, a women-focused co-working space, was established in 2016 many did not see a point for it. Yet, the message of its founders was clear: women did not feel welcome in existing coworking spaces and often experienced harassment. A new solution was needed. Space has the power to promote a sense of belonging. Take the picture below. This coworking — former Tech Shop in San Francisco — clearly speak to the community of makers through the availability of tools and the visual cues on the shared blackboard.

TheShop.build — San Francisco, US

How to balance individual and collective spatial identity in innovation spaces?

One typical debate relative to the design of innovation spaces is “blank canvas” vs “identity laden”. Advocates of leaving spaces as neutral as possible maintain that actors interacting with the space are responsible for the co-creation of meaning. On the contrary, advocates of the identity laden approach, maintain that spatial identity should be used to recruit actors early on. Who is right?

Talent Garden Calabiana — Milano, Italy

InnoInsights aims to be a source of inspiration and guidance for how organizations can collaborate with external innovators.