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Design: A Conduit for Learning and Innovation

Image © Gensler

We are in an era with unprecedented volumes of information at our fingertips, but it is of little value until it is distilled into useful, applicable knowledge, which requires a mindset focused on learning and exploration. Given the number of distractions and interruptions that occur in both the virtual and the physical work environment, we need to consider new models of working and experimenting that more effectively support learning and knowledge transfer.

In 1957, Peter Drucker coined the term “knowledge worker” to describe a new type of worker empowered by the emerging information society. Unlike the industrial age productivity measures structured around a fixed work product, the productivity of this new worker group would be measured by their ability to create, process and enhance knowledge. Ultimately, Drucker predicted that the productivity of knowledge workers would be “the most valuable asset of a 21st century institution.”

As with other professions in this category, knowledge is capital for scientists. In fact, the fundamental product of most discovery phase biomedical research is reliable scientific data. Refining this data into knowledge is a major priority in determining how to (or whether to) pursue the next lead. It comes as no surprise then, that learning is 80 percent more critical to job success at top-performing companies than at average companies.

Yet, based on our 2013 design research, Biotech and Pharma workers estimate spending only 6 percent of their work week learning, and it has decreased since. That estimate may be low simply because learning is such an integral part of their other tasks, but improvements in the way scientists and other knowledge workers learn has enormous potential for accelerating innovation. In a 1993 article in the Harvard Business Review, David Garvin noted that “the first step is to foster an environment that is conducive to learning.” He went on to define its four distinguishing characteristics: safety, appreciation, openness, and reflection. Although Garvin’s method was oriented toward cultural change in an organization, these principles apply equally to the design of a high performance research environment.

A workplace culture that fosters the psychological safety to take risks, allow the free-flow of ideas, and promote a “fail fast, fail forward” attitude typically implies a type of space that is flexible and less formal. Experimental space can just as easily be “war room” style space for experiment planning and analysis as it can be nimble lab space for fast-moving, high-priority research campaigns. Both types should be just private enough to avoid suppressing risky ideas and scooping intellectual property, and informal enough to keep the science at hand as the focal point. An artist doesn’t open his or her work in progress to scrutiny until it starts to really take shape, and at certain stages of a project a scientist feels the same way.

Being able to appreciate competing points of view comes out of respect and trust in the scientific rigor and integrity of the individual or organization. Celebrating the achievements, expertise, and technology developed by both individuals and teams builds awareness and an understanding of what others have to offer, and can serve as an incentive for productive competition or catalyst for collaboration. Putting the science on display by showcasing the latest research technology in use, publicly celebrating patents and publications, or displaying scientific posters and products developed by research programs are powerful motivators internally and impressive to potential collaborators and investors.

Openness to new ideas is about embracing change and trusting that the team has a unified purpose and interest in creatively experimenting, accurately recording data, and reporting findings honestly. While social spaces are thought of as a tool to recruit and retain talented scientists, they are also ideal for informal collaboration and learning. Purposeful spaces like coffee areas outside seminar and conference rooms, scrum rooms, and tech bars are petri dishes for building rapport and initiating peer to peer learning. Design elements that celebrate relevant patient stories and scientific accomplishments reinforce the powerful purpose and values of scientific organizations.

Time for reflection, to escape the onslaught of information and demands on time, is critical in being able to incubate acquired information and knowledge and allow it to coalesce into an idea. In his Harvard Business Review article, David Burkus notes that “Eureka moments feel like flashes of insight because they often come out of a period when the mind isn’t focused on the problem.” The library has seen a resurgence in research facilities because it is an interruption-free zone regulated by strict etiquette. Wellness amenities like yoga studios, public gardens and nature trails are also featured in recent science campus projects as organizations recognize their value for reinvigorating creative and analytical thought.

Information is powerful: a media clip devoid of any basis in fact can travel the world in an instant. We have access to a limitless supply of data and ideas that is personalized based on our consumer habits, not our intellectual endeavors. To unlock knowledge from the stream of information made possible through advances in processing speed, scientific automation, and the growing trove of big data, we have to continuously evolve how we design research labs and the spaces that support them. By considering the variety of spaces that support the transfer of knowledge in research facilities, design can play a powerful role in developing a culture of learning and innovation in scientific organizations.

Erik Lustgarten, AIA, is a firmwide leader of Gensler’s Sciences Practice Area. He has extensive experience designing laboratories, including the expansion of Novartis Institutes for Biomedical Research in Cambridge, MA. At the 2015 Laboratory Design Conference he explored the influence of architecture and technology on collaboration in the evolution of the laboratory environment. Contact him at Erik_Lustgarten@gensler.com