Organizations today are under intense pressure to create smarter, more viable solutions for their customers. At Steelcase, we feel that same pressure, so we seek to leverage our physical spaces to build cohesion between our strategy, brand, and culture. We have been researching innovation since we were founded 101 years ago, and we applied these cumulative insights to our Steelcase Innovation Center, which we moved into this spring. Located on our main corporate campus in Grand Rapids, Michigan, this 325,000-square-foot reclaimed manufacturing space now serves as the office for 267 people involved in our innovation and product development process—researchers, engineers, designers, and marketers. Steelcase teamed once again with trusted collaborator Shimoda Design Group, led by Joey Shimoda, Contract’s 2013 Designer of the Year, on the design of this center, which functions akin to a sophisticated, human-centered workshop.
Key global strategies drive the design
The design intent for our new center was driven by key corporate strategies. First, we envisioned it as one node on a global system of innovation spaces for Steelcase. An important Steelcase strategy is to become even more globally integrated, therefore, we focus on leveraging our talent around the world. More than 75 percent of our projects are international, and we have Steelcase design teams and design partners throughout the world. We wanted to create a physical environment that would bring these teams together, fostering collaboration among people, whether they are working together in the same building or across continents. This approach challenges the notion that innovation requires people to all be in the same place and allows us to leverage a geographically diverse team.
Another key strategy is to increase our “I.Q.”—our innovation quotient. We know that innovation is a very physical process. I often say that we wanted to create a place where we could make and break things because we know that to amp up our innovation, we need to move quickly from a concept sketch to a prototype or model. The more visual and tangible we make our ideas, the more rapidly we can learn, develop our designs, and improve on them.
In planning for the Steelcase Innovation Center, we endeavored to anticipate the future of how we will work. We just celebrated our 100th anniversary last year (see Contract, May 2012) and used that opportunity to think about the next 100 years. Business and technology are changing at such a rapid pace and the world is more volatile, so we wanted to think about a resilient strategy for our innovation engine. We needed a physical environment that embraces both a mastery of the current state and the agility to change and evolve as we learn.
For Steelcase, having authentic stories and solutions based on the real-world challenges facing businesses today is essential. Therefore, we planned and designed the center as if we were our own customers. We employed our user-centered design process, conducted multiple co-creation workshops, and implemented principles from our own multiyear culture studies.
We experimented with a combination of technology tools and furniture applications. Different teams created several prototypes at full architectural scale before we finalized the design, which made it possible for us to try things, observe the impact on interactions and productivity, and then modify the plan based on what we learned. These lessons helped us challenge our preconceptions.
The importance of balancing distance and local collaboration was one of the insights we gained. Some of the challenges were relatively straightforward, such as ensuring people can see and be seen—and hear and be heard—in virtual collaboration sessions, regardless of where they are. Other challenges were more profound, such as providing contextual awareness for remote participants, and equal access to technology controls and socializing to minimize any disparity they might experience from not being in the room.
One of the internal paradigms we needed to shift was to think about home bases for project teams rather than only for individual
work. We created project studios of multiple sizes that would support team-based work, flanked by “front porches” for individuals and small groups, and adjacent areas for modeling and prototyping, that are also visible from the studios. The project studios, which occupy 40 percent of the overall building footprint, are at the heart of the Steelcase Innovation Center. Taken together, workstations are grouped into neighborhoods where people in the same discipline can readily collaborate, share information across projects, and mentor one another. Also, many enclaves of more enclosed spaces are included for those times when privacy is necessary. Underpinning the entire center is an intelligent systems infrastructure with a raised floor for modular power, data, and under-floor air delivery.
Walls that do more than divide
The design also reconsidered the function of interior walls, which can be moved easily. We see a tension—or maybe even an ironic twist—that the more we carry information on small, mobile devices, the more we need vertical planes to support large-scale displays so our teams can gather around the content, understand it, and build on it. Walls, therefore, not only separate spaces but also provide interactive work surfaces and places for information to display.
The furnishing arrangements inside the studios and porches offer flexibility through a menu of planning types. A team may move in and say, “This isn’t working for us. We’re going to try version B.” A concierge-based system will have it swapped out in less than 24 hours. This democratization empowers teams to make decisions and implement changes themselves.
Creating an effective innovation environment—as we believe we have done with the Steelcase Innovation Center—is about understanding human nature as well as the nature of work. Innovation is an intrinsically social endeavor, and in order to be successful, people need people, access to tools and technology, and places that bring these elements together.
Steelcase Innovation Center
- Designer: Steelcase Design and Shimoda Design Group
- Client: Steelcase
- Where: Grand Rapids, Michigan
- What: 60,000 total square feet on two floors
- Cost/sf: Withheld at client’s request
Key Design Highlights
- The adaptive reuse of an underutilized manufacturing space allowed Steelcase to bring employees together on its corporate campus.
- Neighborhoods offer employees a range of settings where they can touch down with laptops or mobile devices.
- The straightforward, flexible interior is designed for evolution and allows the building to be adapted by Steelcase employees.
- A combination of technology tools and furniture applications balance distance and local collaboration.