Listen to too much talk about innovation, and before long you’re bound to hear someone utter the “cross” word. It might be followed by “fertilization,” maybe “pollination,” perhaps even “disciplinary,” but the sharing of ideas with unlike-minded people is a hot topic, the holy grail of wannabe world-changers.
After all, the thinking goes, working with or alongside those who have different skills can lead to unconventional insights and ideas. And those are the ideas that actually have a shot at reinventing the status quo. And what self-respecting innovator isn’t interested in doing that?
There’s only one problem. Figuring out how to hire and house people with different skills is hard. If yours is a small company, however fervent your belief in the gospel of innovation, it’s difficult to justify hiring a neuroscientist if you’re trying to develop, you know, an app. Even larger companies, who crow about how they totally value the wisdom of mixing disciplines, can get stymied when it comes to organizing their employees. Like sits with like, and though cafeterias stocked with free food are intended to turboboost the “water cooler factor” of unexpected meetings and conversations, it can still be hard to quantify how often impromptu meetings lead to actual insights.
Certain labs or locations have become legendary over the years. The Bell Labs complex was filled with a hodgepodge of researchers, physicists and engineers delightedly pushing the boundaries of what was possible. MIT’s Building 20 was known as the “magical incubator” for its mix of legends and insights (its successor, the Frank Gehry-designed Stata Center, has notably been less successful in producing the same outcome). And now, some MIT Media Lab veterans are building their own space for experimentation and collaboration in a building on a busy street in downtown Brooklyn.
33 Flatbush Avenue is a seven-story building filled with creative people and enormous amounts of stuff, much of it collected by the building’s eccentric landlord, Al Attara. The top floor has been colonized by an eclectic group, a number of them MIT Media Lab veterans, with a few TED Fellows in the mix, all with very different areas of expertise. In one corner is costume designer Andrea Lauer; occupying another wall is musical robot builder Andy Cavatorta; designer and creative engineer Bill Washabaugh perches with his team in a corner by one of the windows, overlooked by a neon sign reading, ahem, “Go F*ck Yourself.” (“It’s aimed at myself, mainly,” he explains sheepishly.) Physicist and author Janna Levin (see her TED Talk, The sound the universe makes) has a curiously baroque space containing a writing desk and a few chaises longues. Biologists Ellen Jorgensen and TED Fellow Oliver Medvedik have a large but more contained space, perhaps advisable given their work at Genspace, the community biolab.
On the face of things, almost none of the assembled workers have anything in common — and that, says designer, inventor and another TED Fellow working here, James Patten, is precisely the point. “Everyone collaborates with everyone, whether formally or informally,” he said recently. “We’re very careful about who we add to the mix, to make sure we can all learn something new. Really, what we share is a sense of curiosity and a desire to be constantly learning.”
Patten himself works on projects that push the boundaries of both the expected and the easily understood. His own personal workspace certainly isn’t wildly interesting to look at; it’s just a desk surrounded by piles of unidentifiable stuff and shelves packed full of oddities (I did particularly enjoy the container marked “dismembered electronics”). But by the time you’ve stepped off the creaking elevator and circuitously picked your way over there, you’ve already been infected with a spirit of experimentation. It’s not glamorous, certainly not a place for germophobes, yet the space is imbued with a crackle of creativity and collaboration any organization would do well to mimic. It’s hard to describe, so we roped in photographer Ryan Lash to try and capture the spirit of a place. Take a look.
Other tenants on the seventh floor at 33 include designer and engineer Adam Lassy; designer and technologist Amanda Parkes; graphic designer and TED Fellow E. Roon Kang; media artist Kyle McDonald; programmer and artist Lauren McCarthy and artist and biologist Nurit Bar-shai. Figuring out who will do well in the space is a critical decision and one of the only formal processes the group has: potential new tenants give a 20-minute presentation of their work, followed by a discussion and Q&A. A two-thirds majority is needed to let someone join. “At its most amazing, there’s a real mix of people and projects in the space,” says Patten. “What it really comes down to is that we’re all constantly looking for interesting, unexpected connections and insights.”