The Innovation Round Table

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15 September 2016

The Innovation Round Table

By Mix Interiors

Matthew Kobylar Arney Fender Kasalidis
Raj Krishnamurthy Workplace Fabric
Mobina Nouri Studio INTEGRATE
Pino Catalano Morgan Lovell
Bruno Almedida Santos Greenland Holding Group
Mark Russell Hansgrohe
Kristian Piolet Hansgrohe
Steve Gale M Moser

It’s easy to focus purely on technology when talking about innovation, but it goes much further than that of course. We’ve pulled together an expert panel to discuss how our places of work, rest and play are changing and what innovations we are now seeing start to emerge.

We’ve gathered at Hansgrohe’s impressive Water Studio in Clerkenwell, where we begin by discussing exactly the word innovation itself. Throughout the industry it has become woefully overused – and often misused, we contend.

Pino Catalano – It’s certainly a buzzword in the workplace. Whether it actually holds any weight anymore – I’m not so sure. When a client gives us a brief they will always ask for a modern workspace or an innovative workspace and I don’t really think they know what they’re asking for. They’re often just throwing those words out there. We still have to go in there and fish for that brief – discover what they really mean.

Steve Gale – What is the opposite of innovative?

Mark Russell – Maybe it’s continuity? That can also be attractive to clients. Some of the most successful companies we deal with really look for continuity and consistency as well as innovation – it’s the Ying and the Yang!
Bruno Almedida Santos – I think another word we’re now getting bored of hearing – especially from agents – is ‘unique’. It’s being used to death. It’s interesting what was being said about clients not knowing what they’re asking for – but I think that is now changing. Some companies will play it safe while other developers will look to be more innovative. I think the key to being innovative or unique is to understand the value of design. Being a designer, working on the client side, it’s really hard to justify this to agents – who now have extreme power in the market. In my view, they shouldn’t have this power. Someone once told me ‘If an agent tells you to go right, go left!’ They will never tell you what is innovative – they’ll tell you what’s safe for them to sell.

Raj Krishnamurthy – It’s incredibly difficult to get a new concept adopted in the market. Whatever is innovative is not fully tested – which means it may go wrong. How many people are willing to take that risk? There are things that have happened over time, that have slowly evolved, and we now look back and think ‘Yes, that was innovation’. Flexible workspaces are a good example – it has taken 10 years for them to evolve. This is a true innovation that not everybody has adopted yet. So there are innovations, but they take a long time and many of them won’t stick.

Steve Gale – I totally agree. I think innovation in the workplace is really weird. I was working in this business 25 years ago and I left it and then came back – and it doesn’t seem as if anything’s changed, if I’m honest. I can pick up on a few little things but globally it hasn’t moved much – it’s glacial. I wonder why there is that much inertia in a market that claims to be hungry for innovation. I don’t think it is really. It’s not in the product so much but if you went to sleep and woke up 10 years later, not a lot has changed in workplace design. I’m happy for people to challenge that – it’s just my opinion. Clients often say, ‘We want our people to be innovative – what can you do as a designer to promote that?’ I’m thinking, right, you’re in insurance and want to be innovative – what does that look like?

Mark Russell – As a manufacturer, we do hear people say is this proven? Is it tested? I think one of the things that levels that is the amount of time a company’s been in business – a company’s proven track record.  A lot of the schemes we are now involved with are quite legislation-driven. As much as we’d like to be more creative, actually you can have the most innovative product but it simply isn’t compliant. That can be a frustration.

Mobina Nouri – Not every innovative idea needs to be creative and vice versa. I’ve studied how the workspace affects people’s creativity and productivity through their emotions for five years now and found some really interesting results. It is really difficult to assess people’s creativity – but there are some theories out there. We used design tasks, for example, to assess creativity. We looked at usefulness and originality. We can say that an idea is creative or is useful – but is it innovative? I think this depends on the context, on the timing – it is relative. You can bring something to the market that is really useful, really functional, but that does not mean that it is original.

Raj Krishnamurthy – If an idea is useful, then people will adopt it far more quickly – and often, almost before we know it, you have an innovative approach to something. Just look at Bring Your Own Device – is it an innovation? Probably not – but the fact is that it happened before anyone could say that it shouldn’t happen and before you know it corporates were rushing around trying to put their own Bring Your Own Device strategies in place! People were bringing their own devices in anyway. Innovation happens – and it happens because it is useful for people.

Steve Gale – That’s a really interesting example, and going back to what Mobina was saying, the innovation here is a behavioural one – it is not to do with the invention or development of a product. This is about new ways of doing stuff rather than new kit.

Mobina Nouri – We look at how people feel in the workplace environment – we assess people’s emotions in different spaces and different settings. Different environments affect people’s emotions and some emotions affect creativity – anger can be good for creativity, for example. That is quite an extreme example. But we did find that it very much depends upon the task. So, the environment should adapt to the task.

Pino Catalano – This is probably where the true innovation in the workplace lies – in the understanding of activity based working. That’s where, when clients give us a brief, they are starting to become a little bit more educated in how their teams work and how they collaborate and integrate with one another – and this is where they are starting to bring in different furniture pieces that can help with this activity based working. The true innovation here is the knowledge, I think.

Matthew Kobylar – Certainly, for some organisations, activity based work settings might not be seen as particularly innovative – as someone said a little earlier, some of this stuff has been around for 10 years. Innovation can mean very different things to different people. Two different companies can have completely different cultures and completely different DNA. There are some places that you walk into and they’ve never seen this kind of thing – they’re a group of people in petri dish who have never seen outside of their own walls. We worked with a company in Toronto who still had Action Office 1.8m high partitions around everyone’s cubicles – I said ‘You have to preserve this office – seal this office off for 20 years and it will be like a museum piece of how offices were in the 1970’s’. When we talked about people using smartphones and laptops, their jaws dropped! I thought ‘This is innovative to you?’ I think the perception of innovation is in the eye of the beholder.

Raj Krishnamurthy – I think when you give something to people who are ready for change rather than forcing something upon people changes the results you’ll get dramatically. In one particular case for us, we used a very disruptive way of using workspace when two major businesses came together as part of a merger – and when we put this disruptive technology in this new office it was adopted really quickly because one half thought this was how the other half were already working and vice versa. So it worked – but the key thing was that they were ready for this and keen to adopt it.

We certainly couldn’t have summed things up any better than Matthew and Raj have. Innovation is in the eye of the beholder – and doesn’t necessarily belong to the technology companies and leading manufacturers. To be sure (or as sure as you can be) of success, behaviour and culture must first change.

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