Innovation is a Discipline

by John Tobin

August 11, 2016

Driving innovation in real-life situations can often be traced to the simple impulse to change something. But innovation is not a stroke of genius encountered haphazardly by an individual. Innovation is a discipline that EYP promotes by cultivating certain practices and attitudes about making connections: connecting breakthroughs in technology to see new possibilities; connecting new modes of thinking to tired, antiquated processes; or simply connecting existing ideas from disparate fields to each other – all for significant benefit. As a result, our designers are determined to run through several techniques in parallel to achieve a design goal. And on a totally different level, understanding how innovation happens allows our designers to create spaces within new projects that foster, nurture, and help teach innovation to building occupants including college students to corporate workers.

Innovation in fact happens in much more comprehensible ways than many imagine, not necessarily on cue or demand, but definitely aided by certain practices, and clear attitudes. It is increasingly seen as an important 21st-century skill, one that can be learned, taught and nurtured by appropriate and savvy design.

Patterns of Innovation

There are several key drivers of innovation – a focus on the end goal rather than the means, an ability to foster certain mindsets such as curiosity, “liquid thinking”, and embracing failures, as well as an ability to see a need from the end-user’s perspective. While it is easy to imagine that innovation happens by chance, innovation actually follows certain recognizable patterns in a fairly identifiable series of ways.

One of the best discussions of common practices that spur innovation is Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From (2010). In it, he describes several distinct models, mindsets, or situations that enable innovation, from “the adjacent possible” to liquid networks, exaptation, and serendipity. What this discussion helps reveal is that, contrary to the idea that innovation is always the result of certain “Eureka” moments, many important innovations have been the result of quite different practices, including the slow hunch, error, and countless slow incremental improvements prior to the big reveal moment. Innovation, and the understanding of innovation’s methods, are continuing to develop and be knowable.

Writing about innovation as an identifiable mechanism confirms that innovation can be taught, or at least cultivated as an awareness. It can also be designed for. Setting up spaces to allow for “liquid” interactions, or arranging a building for serendipitous exchanges across disparate fields, are known principles of innovation that are enshrined in the physical environment.

Driving innovation

Driving innovation in real-life situations can often be traced to a simple impulse - a desire to change something. When an individual is motivated to improve a process, or to make something inane go away, or achieve a specific end, the relentless pursuit of a solution often follows several of the mechanisms identified by Johnson, but the passion to keep going is the critical factor in the engine of innovation, as well as a laser focus on how it should manifest in its final incarnation.

At EYP, innovation is a discipline that impacts every project in two distinct ways. In the studio, innovation influences how we, as designers, pursue design goals.  After construction, the active spaces we design help building users in turn learn and practice innovation to better achieve their organizational mission.  

John Tobin

John Tobin, LEED AP

Vice President of Project Delivery & Innovation