“How do you build a culture of innovation?”
This was the research challenge given to me by the Dean of the School of Design at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University.
I responded by building an applied design research program called the Co-Creation Initiative (CCI) that studied, designed, and implemented new models of collaboration and creative leadership. Working closely with professional change consultants and thought leaders in design, CCI strove to design frameworks for building innovative ecosystems.
I was the Director of the Co-Creation Initiative. I designed and led the research effort, assisted by Max Willis, Matti Hämäläinen, and students that I was teaching ethnographic methods. My responsibilities also included facilitating a variety of activities and workshops, from team building to ideation and prototyping. Our team partnered with professional designers and facilitators, collaborating on multiple events and projects that helped us understand innovation.
The Cloud Lounge
The Cloud Lounge: A conceptual prototype for a high tech interactive collaboration space. The Cloud Lounge design incorporated the latest advancements in technology-enhanced engagement— a future work and learning environment that integrated material infrastructures, interaction technologies, and human social activities to enhance learning and collaboration. The project was designed to enable new means of interconnection and workflow that integrate social networking, new media technology, interaction programming, cloud computing, and touchscreen interfaces to facilitate communication and the flow of ideas.
Imagine making a cup of fine Italian coffee together with colleagues while hovering over an interactive glass-topped lounge bar. When you put your cup down on the interface, the system logs you in to a real time collaborative board projected on a nearby white wall. As you and your colleagues discuss ideas, you can freely share and manipulate objects with simple gestures, all while sipping slowly on your expresso. This was the Cloud Lounge concept, a productive “third space” that blended the social with technology enhanced work.
The Art of Co-Creation: A Guidebook for Practitioners
This guidebook was written for designers, consultants, and leaders who facilitate innovation and culture change programs. The text illustrates how to design and implement co-creation, a form of collective creativity that harnesses the potential of teams and can generate breakthrough insights. Taking a human-centered rather than process-oriented perspective, the book argues that experience design separates true co-creation from other forms of collective efforts and design thinking. Collective moments of creative insight emerge from the space between, an experience of flow and synchronicity from which new ideas spring forth. How to create and hold this space is the secret to the art of co-creation. Collective breakthroughs require stakeholders to undergo a journey from the world of their existing expertise into spaces of new potential. It requires leaders moving from a position of dominating space to holding the space for
Models for Co-Creation
CCI research was initially focused on the design of a futuristic interactive collaboration space – the Cloud Lounge.
To design the Cloud Lounge, we began with extensive literature reviews to understand the latest developments in collaborative environments, technology-enhanced learning environments (TELE), information and communication technologies (ICT), ambient intelligence, computer-supported collaborative work (CSCW), facilitation, environment and social design. Recognition of the fact that many creative conversations occur in coffee shops and other “third spaces” led us to conceptualize the Cloud Lounge as a primarily social space. Our developmental framework saw the collaboration space as a place of emerging social engagement, co-created by the intersection between occupants and their activities with the material forms and embedded technologies. Our design was a pioneering industry concept, blending of the coffee bar social space with ambient intelligence (AmI) and an immersive media environment (IME) into a unified experience.
After developing the conceptual prototype and renderings of the interactions we envisioned, we began user testing to see which features would resonate with design teams and facilitators who might use a space like this. What we learned shifted the entire focus of the Co-Creation Initiative.
- AmI and ICT technologies are very “cool,” which get a lot of attention and end up in innovation labs, but these technologies are hardly used. Why? Because in most cases the only people who can use them effectively are the product designers, and they typically aren’t skilled at facilitating innovation.
- Training programs are expensive and largely ineffective.
- Technologies change so fast that the technology-embedded spaces are outdated by the time they get to the market.
- And finally, ours and other studies have shown that the most creative results come from good facilitation, not technology.
As it turns out, lo-fi tech like whiteboards and post-it notes are far more effective tools for creative collaboration. While environment design is important, it does not need to be high tech. Instead, what matters is a flexible, reworkable environment with lo-fi tech and easy to use tools that don’t require any training to use.
The most salient factors for building cultures of innovation are people and processes.
This insight led us to pivot our research away from the Cloud Lounge and more towards the human and processual factors that underlie innovation. Over the next 12 months, our research included direct and participant observation, open-ended and semi-structured interviews, focus groups, and a series of applied projects wherein we practiced different facilitation methods and tools. CCI became a living lab wherein we and our subjects, all professional designers and facilitators, would lead events while the CCI research team filmed and took notes. After each event, we would gather in the “war room,” cover the walls and whiteboards with post-it notes, and analyze what worked, what didn’t, and why.
Eventually, I had the “eureka” moment and called the research team in for an emergency meeting. The insight?
Underlying all the different design and facilitation frameworks lie a common process architecture– a universal grammar for creative processes. Depicted below, creative processes are journeys where teams oscillate between the Known and the Unknown. When you have the right environment, process, and people, new ideas emerge from the space between. One of the secrets to facilitating creativity is understanding that the journey has three aspects, and the best outcomes come from programs that design for all three mini rollercoasters (knowledge, emotions, and team dynamics).
I proceeded to meet with every facilitator who had worked with CCI and the top design thinkers at the School of Design. Our model was well received, and the rest is history. CCI ended its research agenda and my colleague Matti Hämäläinen and I wrote “The Art of Co-Creation: A Guidebook for Practitioners.”