Monday, January 23, 2012

The Stockholm Syndrome: the Perfect School Design?

My friend H sent me this article about the "school of the future" in Stockholm.


Our future? I actually hope not. It is a beautiful design to look at, but anytime we have a huge open space, it reminds me of the open areas of the 70s. Sure the 70s had great designs: big bell-bottom pants, the AMC Pacer, and mutton-chop side burns.  And this school may be great in theory, but difficult in practice. Perhaps our way of teaching had evolved to make it work better, but just the noise level alone would drive me bonkers.
Imagine a kindergarten room during centres. Now multiply the students and space to accommodate an entire school. Now increase the ceiling height and remove anything soft (like walls and furniture) to harness the sound. This is how I imagine the Stockholm school to be (which reminds me of the library in the newest school in my district).
Yeah, Stockholm isn't Canada. Sure we have a lot in common: cold weather, great looking people, and Ikeas all over the place; but looking at this design suggests we have different needs.  Those cold Swedes. Not like the huggable Canadians.

I didn't realize how choosy I've become in my design.  Though I have misgivings about the Stockholm school, it does have a lot of merits: spaces for congregating and working together, sleek design elements, a non-traditional look, and kid-friendly fixtures. 
And it gets me thinking what my own idea of a perfect school would be.  Off the top of my head, one element I would like would be wall sections that slide on tracks.  It would be like the Japanese idea in terms of flexibility (yes, the F word) so that we could transform spaces depending on need.  I would NOT make them out of paper.  It seems so weird to have walls that are paper thin (and made of carbs?) because I'd want less noise transfer.

I still like the idea of the campfire, the watering hole, and the cave.  People need a "campfire" area to gather in large groups.  Think: theatre or hall.  We need a forum for our whole community to meet.  They also need a "watering hole" to gather in partners or small groups.  Think how people gather around the watercooler, coffee machine, buffet table or even a non-food area.  Think of how many great ideas that have sprung up in such informal networking places.  The "cave" is extremely important.  Sometimes, creative people especially, need to hole up and seclude themselves from others, free from outside distractions.  Think of how kids will sit under their desks and tables to get away from others when they need to get something done.  Students are always burrowing under the risers or behind rolling shelves in my class.  I get that, and I am looking for more ways to accommodate them. (I think this is why iPods are so popular.  We create an artificial force field of sound that separates us from people on the bus, the noise of the street, our parents, etc.).

Hmmm.  I've gone from classroom design to school design.  Isn't one revolution enough?

Thursday, January 12, 2012

You Can't "Focus Group" Innovation

I'm not sure what I'm having more fun doing, going on my little design journey or exploring other people's innovations.  It is funny how my own path lead me to other people's great ideas.  I've posted before about some patterns I've witnessed in innovation (the playfulness, the slight subversive quality of going against the grain, the happy accidents, etc.).

The one I want to focus on here is the one referred to in the title.  You can't focus group for innovation.  Sure it is good to have a big group of minds to spur on some new ideas, but most times people will regress to the mean.  They will revert to what is known and comfortable.  The thing about true innovation is that sometimes the idea really comes from left field.  When you think about great innovations, they give us things that we didn't know we needed until we had them.  If you told me 30 years ago that I could keep my entire record collection in my pocket, I would have asked you, "Why on Earth would I want to do that?"  (And that was the 80s when I was wearing those weird parachute pants, and I probably could have kept my collection in my pants).  I didn't even like cassettes back then, so keeping my music on an iPod was far, far beyond the scope of my understanding.  (Now the flying car, that's a different story.) 

When I mention some of the innovations I am seeing around the district, people ask, "But what does the research say about it?"  That question always confuses me.  If the idea is new or ground breaking, then conceivably there should be no research on it.  Study on innovation can only happen retroactively, unfortunately. 

And usually those innovations only occurred because a series of random acts just happened to happen.  I believe in evolution.  Why? Because of cake.  Not monkeys.  Cake.  Each time I bite into a piece of cake, I think to myself, how did someone invent this?  How did it go from a bit of wheat that goes back centuries to this two layered, chocolate ganache bit of heaven?  After a hard day of working on the wheel, some caveman happened to chew on some grain and thought, "Hmm, maybe if I take the outside off, it will taste better."  It did.  Then some other caveman ran it through that other invention, fire.  Along the way, someone decided to grind it to a powder.  Someone else decided to add something to sweeten it.  Someone (a really brave someone) decided to mix that stuff with this thing that shot out of the back end of a chicken.  And so on.

This is what I am thinking about when I eat cake.  The evolution of things.  We look back on the things we have today and it all seems so obvious: these things would have all been invented sooner or later.  I am not so sure.  There seems to be a certain randomness that has to click in order for things to happen, and they usually happen in unexpected ways.

That's why I think we can't focus group innovation.  We can't foresee the random events that have to click to make things happen.  Focus groups are usually comprised of a committee of average people which is why you get average(d) results.  However, if you want to increase your chances and create innovation in a group, put together these kinds of groups:
  • wacky thinkers because they will stretch the boundaries.
  • people who tick us off.  They push us and irritate us out of complacency.  Or at least we will come up with ideas as fast as we can so we, the ticked, can get away from them, the tickers.
  • connectors.  They take ideas from unexpected other domains and put them to use for our purposes.  
  • kindergarten kids.  They have all the above groups.
All of these groups seem to operate better with cookies.  Or maybe cake.