Ikea and coffee: Thoughts on innovation hubs

(Ok so this particular post is inspired by the fact that we now have a *gulp* collective meeting room on our floor.)

I am starting to hate post-its. Mostly because they require a wall to stick them on or a flipchart, a whiteboard and a collection of otherwise horrible office furniture to make post-its work as a medium for sharing ideas.

And it turns out that type of furniture lives in very particular spaces. Innovation spaces. Spaces where the curators went through the whole catalogue of Unhappy Hipsters without understanding the irony. Those spaces and that furniture is believed to attract innovation and innovative people.
How did we get to this?

If you do the rounds of cities in the UK who struggle to compete with London as a magnet for “creatives”, they’ll all have a creative hub, space or whatever. I remain unconvinced that the Eames furniture, lime green carpets and post-it friendly walls with clever graphics achieve that. To me, it’s like suggesting creative people like living in an IKEA catalogue.

This is a problem of course for everyone. It fools the government into thinking Local Development Agencies (LDAs) attract young creative people in “the regions”, and it fails to support the local young talent who probably prefer hanging out with their laptop in a place with perfect coffee. After all that’s how the Royal Society was created…

The city also boasted some of the oldest coffee shops in Britain: places where those interested in science would meet, indulge in caffeine-fuelled debates, and even sometimes perform ad hoc experiments. (ref)

… much later mirrored by the San Francisco coffee startup culture.

“When you go into a Starbucks and you see people on their laptops it seems they could be sending e-mails to their moms or looking up an address on Google maps,” said Rich Moran, a partner with VenRock, a major venture capital firm in Menlo Park, Calif.

“And when you go into Ritual, it seems they’re either writing code or writing a blog or creating something with a widget that will make money for them this week, and that’s really different from a lot of the other places.” (ref)

I’ve been up and down the UK and those innovation spaces have the worst coffee in the universe. Just saying.

By designswarm

Blogging since 2005.


  1. Here in Sheffield, we’ve eschewed all manner of contemporary design furniture in our little space for making trouble and other socio-technical artefacts. We’ve adopted some essentials (things to sit on and sit at) which are helping the space take shape in its own way. Pride of place is our beverage station, with a variety of teas, coffees and cordials to be hand-brewed. They make for grand thinking fuel in the classic RS sense, bolstered by some steady fast 21st century wifi.

    I guess a couple of other differences between our space – the GIST Lab (http:/thegisthub.net/groups/gistlab) – and some other urban innovation spaces is that it’s emphasis is on collaboration without expectation (have space – gather – see what happens), it’s grown from the bottom-up. It’s a grassroots hub, rather than an LDA economic investment.

    Next time you’re up this way, you really should drop by. Our local Arduino group (Shacknet) as well as RepRap experimentalists and a whole bunch of other hard and soft creatives have settled in very nicely.

  2. But Marc: The right attitude or the right coffee? We are making regular visits to Brandmeester’s to get our fix, but we are considering hosting a decent barista in the lobby of the Dutch Game Garden 2.0 straight up on Neude.

    The right attitude follows the decent coffee, or: mens sana in corpore contento.

  3. First an admission, I helped plan the interior of the white city BBC Broadcast centre about five years ago, as part of a group of Bush House evacuees. Something that struck me as part of the planning process was the sourcing process, it seems that SCP or Vitra would be the preferred suppliers. I suspect that this was a (un)fair amount of the profit in the creation of these spaces, particularly these common areas where guests would be invited to. People design these places to show off to guests, but against that they are not owned spaces, so they get Eames chairs and catering coffee. Rather than a decent expresso machine and some just fine chairs.

    There is also a reliance on the flip board and post-it culture of busy-work. Two days in the “creative space” will fix the five-year-wrong underlying culture etc. Yet the pretty furniture, crap coffee to complain about and exciting mood of these days give a sense of success about the day. They can be useful, but the harder problem is often changing the minds of the rest of the company, not invited to the away day. More regular events and less specialness around the whole creative process might be more of a help, but a shiny space can be bought. Popping to the cafe around the corner more often might help instead.

  4. Hi Gavin,

    Thanks for the thoughts. I totally agree with you about the audience for this type of space. It’s rarely for the people actually working there, and more often to show off. There’s also a ton of peacock behaviours with these spaces. The more post-its, the better the work right? I really think that’s totally wrong. Anyway, yes simplicity is king and changing internal culture, once its gone one way, is really tough.

  5. While the coffee-shops get highest billing, a lot of the innovation in 1660s Oxford happened in lodgings which doubled as labs/workshops: lived-in spaces, private but social, places where it’s okay to let one’s guard down because you’re among friends and trusted company.

    There’s a stuffiness to the ethos of the Oxbridge common room and the gentleman’s club, but I also think that they were on to something with their armchairs and fireplaces and racks of toast at 4pm.

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