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.
The Starbucks’s example suggests three relevant takeaways about spatial identity that are relevant for innovation spaces:
- Establish a clear positioning
- Communicate mission and values
- Promote belonging
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.
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.
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.
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?
The answer is probably both. Unless the innovation space is created in a void, it is reasonable to expect that its managers will define a starting point. However, the starting point should not be fixed, but open for dynamic change. For instance the team running the startup accelerator 500 startups involves every new batch of companies in rearranging the set up of their San Francisco’s office in the first week of the program. Moreover, users of the space that join as teams should be given physical and figurative room to define and develop their spatial identity. For example, incubators and coworking places often assign entrepreneurial teams to rooms where they can develop their company identity, whereas the incubator/coworking place’s identity surrounds them. The picture below, from the Italian coworking Talent Garden, shows how to balance the two identity systems with a shared middle space and surrounding private offices.
As more and more organizations experiment with the setup of innovation spaces, the key notion of spatial identity should not be overlooked. It is our aim that this blog post will help managers and entrepreneurs to carefully think about identity before setting up an innovation space.