The first Coworking Unconference of Asia was the opportunity for us to showcase part of the work we’ve done over the last 18 months around the world.

One topic we have been exploring during our trips is the design of what we’ve called “Places of Innovation”.

How do corporates create new places where their teams car innovate, or re-innovate? What are the rules that make a hackerspace a place where ideas can turn into prototypes? Why do the GAFA (Google, Amazon, Facebook and Apple) all open new headquarters in 2015-2016?

To these questions we hope to bring some answers and meaning with this report. It’s actually a shortened version of a project we ran for a large French public sector company, at a time where they were also willing to open a place to create new products and services.

Places of Innovation: a possible methodology

While we had many examples of best or not-so-best practices in mind thanks to our travels, we still needed to give a meaning rather than a simple list of places.

We decided for a simple methodology which analysed each unit of our corpus through 5 criteria:

  • Size: what superficy? how many members? what kind of funding?
  • Openness: how open is it to other communities? to city-dwellers? to clients? to entrepreneurs?
  • Interdisciplinarity: what fields are these places working on?
  • Partnerships: how many institutions are gathered in the place of innovation?
  • Valuation: what follow-up for the innovations created in different places?

 

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After a few presentations, we have added two new criteria for this research:

  • Time: how long does it take to design, open, manage and make the space a place of innovation.
  • Adaptability: is the space able to adapt to new forms of innovation. Today, tech startups or coworking spaces are trendy, but what if tomorrow, innovation stems from very different organisations? Would the same place be able to host them?

 

From tech giants to corporate accelerators, government-powered clusters and international networks

Our corpus included about 35 different places we have been visiting, from Nigeria’s CC-Hub to the Shenzhen Maker Faire, as well as Coca-Cola Accelerator in Singapore.

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To sort these samples, we decided for a six-part corpus:

  • Tech giants from the US, namely the GAFA: as they all renew their HQ, it’s time to see how they intend, by doing so, to conquer new markets.
  • Corporate accelerators: a recent trend, which has large corporations open places where tech startups can find a subsidised space. Corporates can get a financial interest (equity, revenue sharing) to hosting innovative companies in their industries.
  • Community powered spaces: coworking spaces, hackerspaces, makerspaces, fablabs would fit into this category. Usually, the community pre-exists the space (through events), and decides to open a space when a critical mass allows it to get enough memberships to break-even.
  • Government powered clusters: for sake of a better name, these are usually large, big clusters funded in totality or significantly by governments, who hope to create replicas of the Silicon Valley to attract talent (or retain it), create jobs.
  • Events, tech festivals and conferences: the mythology of events such as SXSW, the CES in Las Vegas or any other conference and/or demo and/or unconference is that many things happen in the discussions, after parties and casual meetings that happen in or at the fringe of the venue itself.
  • International networks: probably one of the most digital and recent trends, some networks such as Sandbox or the Kairos society don’t have a specific place (or a virtual one: Facebook groups, Slack communities), span many countries, and breeds innovation on specific segments (people below 30, social entrepreneurs, etc).

 

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Findings and perspectives

These numerous examples and their analysis through our methodology help us in many ways. A few analysis and comments we can make at this sage:

  • The pre-existence of communities before the place of innovation itself. From Hong Kong’s Dim Sum Labs hackerspace to Nairobi’s iHub, up to La Paillasse open-science lab in Paris, the pattern is quite the same. Friends, or passionate people, gather for meet ups. After a few months or years, they feel the need to have their space to go further. Their first place is very organically managed and grown. A second place can come afterwards when the community grows and its needs specialize.
  • Conversely, places of innovation “built” as an infrastructure, without a pre-existing community, often fail or are slow to get traction. In this category fall most of the pharaonic government projects, from Malaysia’s Cyberjaya (opened in 1994 with $20bn minimum of investments), to Kenya’s delirious Konza city project (at $14.5bn, it’s a third of the country’s GDP, so far hopefully, it’s only a blueprint in the desert).

 

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  • Education and valuation seem to be two extremes of the same intent of fostering innovation. Makerspaces and hackerspaces rarely breed commercial products, but they spread innovation models (lean startup, fast prototyping, open-science, passion above skills) at the bottom of the ecosystems, for would be entrepreneurs who look for a path. Conversely, tech giants know how to open places from where mass-market products can thrive (Google Glass would have been an awesome example… but I don’t think it should be buried too fast).

 

Coming next

We’ll continue this research – and its applications for our clients – with more topics and analysis possibilities.

  • Another one would be to check how the new generations fit into spaces designed by people usually between 30 and 50. As we saw during the Asia’s first Coworking Unconference, only 7% of genY new grads wish to work for a Fortune 500 company. Where do they want to work? With what conditions?
  • Alliances and Internationalisation of these Places of Innovation would be a third cool topic to address. Tech startups in particular can’t hope to be successful on the long-run without being international, as the scale is their only measure for success. Coworkers and the rise of high-skilled migrants also call for coworking visas or a system to smoothen the motion of people and their ideas across borders.

In any case, you’ll get our findings when we have some new ones to offer : )

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Nota: For an amazing study of how the GAFA are ready to conquer the world, check out this original FaberNovel study of 2014, from which this picture is taken.