Co-working spaces in Silicon Valley

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Co-working spaces are designed to promote change and action in Silicon Valley’s megaliths

Silicon Valley’s megaliths are passionate about change and about providing working environments that will echo their mission – to challenge the present and to develop the future. Nothing is exempt: projects, teams, spaces, furnishings, messages, are all designed to provide relentless pressure to try something new. 

Co-working spaces are one of the distinguishing features of to-day’s new-fangled Accelerators (short periods of intensive development for a limited number of carefully chosen small teams working alongside one another, aiming to develop an idea for a new business into a marketable proposition with the support of facilitators and an army of mentors). In imitation of Silicon Valley, London has been seeing a wave of new such spaces in the last two years. So what do the new buildings of Facebook, Twitter and Google have to tell us about the design of these spaces?*

Change is seen as high technology’s most valuable commodity. The cubicle has given way to the long tables and broad whiteboards of open-plan offices, where everyone taps into a common Wi-fi signal. Office teams grow or shrink in these open rooms, moving work and information as quickly as possible.

Facebooks’ headquarters encloses a pedestrian square and a two-way promenade. The complex has a cup-cake store and a barbeque joint, a wood working shop, a print shop and an arcade. It also includes two cafeterias, several special food shops, and three small restaurants, and shortly a noodle shop. Everything is free or subsidised.

Facebooks’ unofficial slogan is “hack”, which has come to mean remaking something with an amateur’s passionate disregard for the usual rules. Their Hackathons are efforts to keep experimenting, to try something new before some scrappy start-up does so.

There are posters everywhere, that exhort change, hacking and fearlessness – like ‘Taking risks give me energy’ and ‘What would you do if you weren’t afraid?’ Facebook moves around as many as 1,000 out of its 6,000 employees every month, re-assigning them to new short-term projects. Walkways double as spaces for ambulatory meetings, held on the go so that they are short and decisive.

The print and wood working shops are intended to keep employees grounded in offline experiences, including personal projects and the printing of many of the wall posters, which the company hopes will help them create more consumer-friendly software. Bike repair shops, along with a bank and the free food, help keep people close to campus.

Couches in the casual areas are often replaced with no advance warning, and design changes to Facebook’s home page are known as ‘moving the furniture around’, something that initially annoys consumers but pays off over the long haul – people get used to change when change is expected.

At Twitter’s headquarters, irregular soft cubes serve as impromptu meeting areas – the company encourages informal meetings in this low-stress setting, hoping that it will help foster new ideas. Back in the business areas, there are open-plan work spaces, along with individual file cabinets on rollers that can be moved to wherever an employee will next be working. Here there is a sense that nothing is permanent, that any product can be dislodged from greatness by something newer. It’s the aesthetic of disruption: we must all change, all the time.

Information sharing has become the hallmark of Silicon Valley companies, particularly when things are going well. It is another way of fostering the idea, borne in the programming world, that hidden data is actually more valuable when shared.

Google’s new headquarters has its dinosaur and cupcake sculptures and multi-coloured bicycles for intracampus transport. But what seems like whimsy is a result of careful, data-driven decision-making. A team-leader in Google’s Real Estate Department cites studies of ‘biophilia’ – love of nature and its effects on easing stress levels. He is after the Holy Grail of the Knowledge Industry – ‘how to measure productivity, which is not just how quickly you type or how well you make a line of code, but how you feel about it, and whether you had enough energy to play with your kids when you got home’.

Google Real Estate is more lab that furniture department: it tests chairs in order to provide each person with the correct chair; it tests desks, lighting systems, heating systems etc. It has ripped out ceilings and installed skylights in order to provide more natural lighting; and it provides ‘nap pods’ where people can catch a few winks in enclosed silence, with noise reducing cushions. ‘The harder we work the more important it is to have to space to get away from the chaos for a while’.

*Adapted from the `International New York Times’ 3 March 2014

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Level39, Canary Wharf – a throbbing new Innovation Centre

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This unique tailor-made innovation eco-system has been carefully designed to meet the varied needs of those who are looking for innovations and those who are seeking to develop them in this part of London; and to bring them together in successful collaborations. What it does and how it does it might have some useful lessons for all those involved in innovationism.

With a simple remit – the development of the area (Canary Wharf) – Level39, 1 Canada Square, opened by Boris Johnson in March of 2013 and headed up by Eric van der Kliej – formerly CEO of Tech City, has quickly become a lightning conductor for those looking for innovations and those with innovations to offer in the kinds of businesses in this area.

Creating the connections and providing a ‘connectious’ space is what its Ideaspace is about – providing space where ideas can be found, developed and connected – without being overwhelmed by the legacy of any corporate culture.

Among its early work was the hosting of the Accenture-backed Fintech Innovation Lab London, a 13-week Accelerator in which a dozen of Canary Wharf’s big banks participated. Seven SMEs – drawn from all over the world – with innovative technologies of potential value to the banks, were housed at Level 39 and provided with a ‘chaperone’ from each of the banks to help them find their way around the labyrinth of people with buying interests and requirements in the bank.

Level39 is now hosting a number of other innovation and acceleration programmes – created by ‘Pivotal Innovations’ which provides custom-designed programmes for corporations and governments looking to innovate and grow.

One of these is the Future Cities ‘Catapult’ Centre (supported by the Technology Strategy Board), which in partnership with Pivotal Innovations is convening cross-sector dialogues (starting with executive breakfasts) with key stakeholders and thought leaders – in finance, real estate, industry and government. The debates will explore viable solutions including critical issues in financing future cities.  They will explore models (eg Rio de Janeiro, Portland Oregon, Songdo in South Korea) and will ask what will interconnected, high-tech, smart cities be like. What new kinds of partnerships might be needed? What investment models might be called into existence? And what enabling policies might make it all happen?

Dassault Systemes, Europe’s second largest software company, has chosen to partner with Level39 and Pivotal Innovations as it expands its strategic focus on financial services in the UK. Its 3D FinTech Challenge 2013 (http://www.f6s.com/3dfintechchallenge2013/info) invites startups to develop solutions for the visualisation of client data in financial services, as a way to condense and simplify such data, such as capital exposure, risk and identity, of which it is often difficult to get a clear perspective, into “single views”, which can be readily understood and acted on. This collaboration too has involved a series of breakfasts with senior executives from London’s banking and insurance industries. Dassault is also showcasing some of its current technology at Level39, such as 3D visualisations of cities like London and Paris on giant touchscreen display units, as an innovative way of presenting information

Designed by Gensler, who also designed Google’s and Facebook’s offices, Level39 has a very wide variety of spaces. It has attracted early-stage businesses eg in retail and financial technology, to take small scale spaces – both entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs – because of its unique ‘connectious’environment. It has 77 drop-in desk spaces, in all sorts of configurations – either for individuals or for startups – most of those startups already post-revenue.

It also has spaces that are specially tailored for innovationism: there are four ‘Sandboxes’ – for Hackathons, for cafeteria-style meetings, for board meetings or discussions, and for presentations, as well as a superb conference room – all with great views over Canary Wharf. Facebook recently held a 48-hr Hackathon in one Sandbox; and the local banks recently held one whose aim was to test their security systems – by trying to hack into each other’s!

It has a cafeteria area with its unique iPad controlled coffee machine; and a Club Lounge will open shortly – for meals, where you can meet and entertain guests (and where you can get a discount if you also agree to commit a certain amount of time to mentoring.)

So what is its secret? In addition to the spaces, perhaps its most valuable asset is Pivotal Innovation’s capabilities in generating and curating provocative innovation events and programmes; and its ability to bring together people with common interests and purposes but who don’t yet know one another.

Its extraordinarily rapid growth (it will shortly open more drop-in spaces on Level 42) and its vibrancy suggest that it has some magic that might be of interest to other cities, like Bristol, Manchester or Liverpool; to other retail centres like Blue Water, Brent Cross or the Airports; to other clusters like the Thames Corridor, Science Parks or Dundee as a centre of the games industry; or even to the NHS or the MoD.