News | Collaborative Spaces: In Process and Practice

Collaborative Spaces | In Process and Practice

“The likelihood of cultural change is tastier when you’re in a space sympathetic to it.”
Impact Hub member

What is it that makes a space an experience?

In my experience as a Hubmaker and in learning with peers in many other places around the world, I have been exploring three levels of “architecture” that I have found influence the dynamics, usability and health of a space. I found it helpful to unpack the concept of architecture not as a particular discipline per se but as a way of understanding the influences of the social and energetic scaffolding that come to be through interaction with, and within, a physical space. Through this article, I wish to share insights with fellow place-makers in how to build the physical, social and energetic containers that enable collaborative communities and the emergence of new ideas. 

Over the past five years, many people have been working to build Impact Hubs in cities around the world as meeting points for multi-disciplinary innovators dedicated to world-changing initiatives. To host them, we have been asking questions such as: What is the relationship between the physical space and social interaction? How can communities evolve the spaces they inhabit as they grow and deepen? What are the elements that contribute to that sense of a place that “feels good”? And how can hosts of collaboration spaces learn to pay attention to the shifting dynamics and energies that come with people moving in, out and through spaces?

“I went to the bathroom... the scribbles on the wall always entertain and inspire me. This time I learned about sustainable packaging!”
Impact Hub member

Collaborative spaces over the ages

Collaborative spaces show up in society in many forms through the eras: from the merchant trade hubs in ports throughout the world in the Golden Age, to markets by country roadsides that connect villages, to the caravansarays of old Turkey providing rest and reconnection between travellers, and to the Roman Forum as a place of debate and philosophical deepening. What we find in common in these places is the relationship between self-organisation and structure; there is just enough structure (sometimes a physical or explicit one, sometimes an implicit understanding of how to be together) to enable self-organisation with purpose. The purpose might be for thriving trade, or to exchange news or to explore common issues, or perhaps to tackle some of the challenges we are faced with in society today. Here, Impact Hubs are a modern day equivalent of just enough structure to enable relationship, flow and purposeful action. I believe these are served by creating conditions that can be understood through a look into the physical, social and energetic dimensions of how we design, build, maintain and nurture a place-for-purpose.

The physical architecture of space

Thiis-Evensen, a Norwegian architect, focuses on the experienced qualities of floor, wall, and roof, which he says are “the most basic elements in architecture”. These form a space’s relationship between inside and outside, and offer choices about that relationship. Taking a living systems perspective, we have sometimes used the term ‘permeability’ to refer to the act of consciously designing an Impact Hub that allows for fluid motion in and between the sub-spaces it might be comprised of, as well as how it sits in and with its external environment. This is where the perspective offered by seeing physical and social architecture as intertwined can benefit a space and its community. Too often we see spaces built and then people are expected to behave in a certain way in that space. This results in individuals becoming both yielding to work in a non- generative space for oneself and hampered in the potential for the group/organisation/department they are in to become a collaborative community. Sadly, that is exactly the state of many office spaces today.

Part of the difference we, as Impact Hubs, have experienced in our spaces is due to the design and co-creation process of making the space. At our Impact Hub’s outset, we consciously curated a process inviting its users (Impact Hub members) to be an integral part of the space design and building. This invitation to co-create the physical space enabled both peer-to-peer community building and a stronger sense of agency within and ownership of the space once it was built. The challenge however is over the years, as membership shifts and people walk into a space seemingly ready-made: How to continue to invite users to co-shape the space they inhabit?

“Impact Hub is a visible area. It gives large numbers of people, more visibility of more information, and if you have better access to better information that you will want to do different things and make different decisions.”
Impact Hub member

Inspired by the work of Christopher Alexander and his perspective that people should build the spaces they inhabit (whether they be homes, neighbourhoods or towns), I advocate for starting the Impact Hub design process in the community as opposed to on the drawing board. From co-creating mood boards, to sharing needs on the expected functionality of the space, to being explicit about the values that underlie the anticipated behaviour in the space, inviting (potential) Impact Hub members into the early design and eventual build of their Impact Hub both serves innovation in the process (i.e. coming up with ideas for new pieces or arrangements in the space) and commitment to a shared sense of community, where Impact Hub members are users and peers and not just customers. Significant in Alexander’s pattern language work is building with beauty in mind; this being both derived from involvement of users themselves and acknowledging the aesthetic of age-old patterns of beautiful design that we find in historical places around the world as well as in the natural environment. In ‘The Timeless Way of Building’, Alexander described the perfection of use to which buildings could aspire: “There is one timeless way of building. It is a thousand years old, and the same today as it has ever been. The great traditional buildings of the past, the villages and tents and temples in which man feels at home, have always been made by people who were very close to the center of this way. It is not possible to make great buildings, or great towns, beautiful places, places where you feel yourself, places where you feel alive, except by following this way. And, as you will see, this way will lead anyone who looks for it to buildings which are themselves as ancient in their form, as the trees and hills, and as our faces are.” 

About his seminal work A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction co-authored with Sara Ishikawa and Murray Silverstein of the Center for Environmental Structure of Berkeley, California, he says “I didn’t set out to write a book about the universe… I just wanted to heal architecture.” The four-volume set outlines the properties that Alexander believes underlie beauty in art, nature, and great buildings. Some of Alexander’s elements of style that we have been inspired by in Impact Hub include: levels of scale (a range of sizes), strong centers and boundaries, positive space, good shapes, deep interlock and ambiguity (connected elements promoting flow and grace), gradients and playing with proportionality, roughness (where texture and imperfections convey uniqueness and life), simplicity. Working with void both in the sense of creating a spacious feeling – a sense of open air with high ceilings and natural light as well as ensuring physical empty space (not filling everything, as just one more empty space leaves room for another) – have contributed to our Impact Hub design considerations and an invitation to the users of the space to be a part of its ongoing evolution. 

Also essential in the design and build of our physical spaces, is attention to coherence through aesthetics and sustainability. An Impact Hub truly is a green office, though this is often not what people first understand, as it is an ethic-in-practice through the integration of ecologically sound and inspiring choices in the design so that each piece has its story: “I used to be a Playstation console”, “I was made from discarded pallets found outside”, “I was re-mixed from a piece of furniture that just didn’t work out the first time.” Embedding sustainability through the use of raw and natural (often waste) materials and having an abundance of plants, adds to a felt-sense of serenity and groundedness, but more importantly – humans feeling comfortable and at home in their Impact Hub habitat. An Impact Hub member shares, “‘The space is really inviting, you do what you need…people are inviting you to be yourself.”

“You can see someone in a suit and sitting next to him is someone who looks like they just woke-up... that kind of ease takes effort to create in a space.”
Impact Hub member

The social architecture of space

In a recent conversation with curators and hosts of diverse innovation spaces, we shared some reflections on the memory-making power of a place on a people - through its ecology, its historical role, its lineage of use and through the celebrations or significant events that have taken place in that space. Places may take on formal and informal social meaning to the people that inhabit or pass through them, but what most intrigues me is a place’s social architecture - that is, how the space is organised and how it is nurtured on an ongoing basis to enable healthy interaction and connection between the people that use and come through the space. In the context of an Impact Hub, it is clear that the role of the Impact Hub host is essential to this.

In an early gathering of Impact Hub founders in 2007, termed The Art of Hosting Spaces for Social Innovation, there was a conversation - and capture - of the important capacities an Impact Hub hosting team should have in relation to hosting a community in a space. I share this here and then build on it: 

  • Spatial awareness - the ability to overview space, taking care of the aesthetics; the skills to create conditions to support self-organisation, while also attending to make a space inspirational and keep it well-maintained
  • Enabling safe space - welcoming and setting of a culture for people to be themselves and express their best (bringing their talents and potential); being able to perceive, pay attention, create and re-create. A safe space is one in which people can expose themselves and their projects in a healthy way, getting feedback in a way that they are still challenged and that invites the gift of diverse perspectives.
  • Hospitality and conviviality - providing a welcome environment and providing people with tools they need to move and promote autonomous and creative interrelations among themselves, and to further their world-changing initiatives
  • Continuity - providing the tools for memory through spatial engagement in knowledge-sharing and learning. Creating spaces that last but are not stagnant; leaving a space unfinished and setting in place the conditions for renewal.
  • Awareness of the big picture - the ability to notice patterns: what’s bubbling, what’s unfolding in the community. Being in tune with the vibe and responding in relevant and timely ways to what is needed, recognising that what is needed shifts with the times and with an ever-evolving community in an Impact Hub.
  • Wise use of intervention and structure - the capacity to tune into timing; acting fast and lightly at the right time when intervention is needed. Providing nurture and inspiration, while also gently catalysing new connections; offering a sense of possibility and confidence.

Space as host - recognising that the space itself hosts people, and plays an important role as a social tool for human interaction.

“The good connections made started in the kitchen… I started thinking about the kitchen for the Impact Hub I’m starting in my city.”
Impact Hub member

David Seamon, an environment-behavior researcher and Professor of Architecture at Kansas State University, is interested in why places are important for people and how architecture and environmental design can be a vehicle for place-making. In his article, “A Way of Seeing People and Place: Phenomenology in Environment-Behavior Research” (2000) he draws on a range of phenomenological research in the relation between people and place to propose that there is another way of interpreting behaviour within built environments: one that looks at meaning-making and human expression.

As an Impact Hub, we invite people to see the space as their own, not to be reduced to being just a customer of it, and to recognise that they are not alone in their own space but that Impact Hub is a place in which we are experimenting with co-existence and the capacity to learn to be together. The concept of conviviality, a core value at Impact Hub the Netherlands, is deepened by Ivan Illich in a book called the same by exploring the concept of conviviality not only as an assertion of ‘how can we live together?’ but also as a process by which we create the tools for conviviality and by which we apply and practice them. Thus, being in a space and evolving our relationship in that space becomes a social practice. In an Impact Hub, that has the potential to be ever-evolving if we consider every new participant as bringing a new dynamic in a convivial space. How we host them – and invite them to host themselves – becomes a key practice.

Maria Glauser, who first named the practice and has been a key curator of hosting practice within the Impact Hub over its evolution, believes that the Impact Hub is reclaiming an ancient practice of hospitality in creating experiences of our physical and social places where people experience a difference from other spaces and are “touched when it is done with authenticity.” Several Impact Hubs have drawn on tools and practices from the Art of Hosting community to build capacity among the team and members to work with emergence, to learn to respond to group needs with a wide range of process tools and social technologies, to become aware of how collective intelligence can be enabled, and to understand the deeper patterns of how diverse people can actually work together well.

If we are creating habitats for social innovators, we might ask: What helps them thrive? As we move from designing working spaces from traditional organisational hierarchies to designing them for social networks, we need to understand how the spaces might change over time. Hence, designing for modularity and movement becomes an essential piece linking the physical and social architecture. In the early stage of design, we might be helped by these questions asked by Studio TILT, who have played a role in supporting the design of Impact Hubs in a collaborative way:

  1. How can the design of a space encourage collaboration and innovation?
  2. How is the community and its work to be mapped and visually represented in the space?
  3. How can the design of space promote autonomous behaviour from its members and self- organising of community? 

Belongingness and feeling at home characterise the Impact Hub member experience – notably among those members who spend more time in the space and, in turn, contribute to building trust in the space and among the membership, therefore feeding the circle of creating an increased sense of belongingness and at-homeness. The social dynamics create a sort of social architecture that at some point shift a member’s experience from being in a space to being in a community. Andrea Paoletti, a curious observer, networker, architect, Impact Hub designer and co-host of our Collaborative Space-making Community of Practice, writes in his article on “Designing Workspaces for Collaboration” that “space can be a tool to fuel the creative process by encouraging and discouraging specific behaviors/actions and by creating venues for emotional expression and physical negotiation.” In his article, he continues to share specific design considerations and how they impact behaviour in a space. 

While Impact Hub has a desire to incubate and put in the world more sustainable initiatives, green design is a given. Not only to be coherent with its values, but to make it easier for members to practice sustainability day-to-day and reflect this in their own work and life. Architect, urbanist, and educator Dhiru Thadani said,“Sustainability is not a design aesthetic but a design ethic.” As new practices are introduced, they elicit curiosity and suddenly composting, growing some of one’s own food, going off-grid, repairing instead of throwing out, swapping items of need and attending to one’s health in work become the norm. Observing this, I see more potential for the Impact Hub in several areas to bridge the physical and social space, such as in-designing waste management systems, integrating healthy food and fitness options for busy changemakers, and making Impact Hub member enterprises in this sector more visible in the space. 

According to Gunter Pauli in The Blue Economy, “There are seven important flows that must be brought into the design concept: air, light, water, energy, sound, matter and occupants. Each of these flows influences the dynamic balance that promotes the life-promoting conditions that allow us to survive and to thrive.” It is important to pay attention to these flows and their impact on life inside the building, as well as the flows in and out of the building in relationship with its larger environment.

“When you relax, you can hear your intuition better... that’s what the Impact Hub allows.”
Impact Hub member

The energetic architecture of space

While metrics of connections and stories of collaboration might reflect the social health in a space and measures of air quality and sound levels reflect the physical nature, how is it that we understand the energetics of a space? When new people tend to walk into an Impact Hub, most tend to say “it feels special”. But what does that mean? What is it that enables that feeling? And why does it resonate with some people but not others?

In the article “The Powers of Place: An Inquiry Into the Influence of Place, Space and Environment on Collective Transformation” (2008), Renee Levi shares her findings from interviewing a wide array of people on their experiences of places they find powerful. She found that many spoke of a “felt- sense” of an “energetic field” and sometimes referred to places as having the feeling of a “collective energy” from the group that gathers there. She shares, “The shift in perspective from creating and designing environments to asking a place and environment to partner with us to support transformation (then listening for what is offered) is a fundamental and provocative key finding of this research. One interviewee stressed that when people are authentic in a place, “transformation can happen.”

According to Professor Ikujiro Nonaka, knowledge creation is a spiraling process of interactions between explicit and tacit knowledge. The interactions between the explicit and tacit knowledge lead to the creation of new knowledge. According to Nonaka, “Ba” (which roughly translates into ‘place’ from Japanese) can be thought of as a shared space for emerging relationships. This space can be physical (eg. office, dispersed business space), virtual (e.g., e-mail, teleconference), mental (eg. shared experiences, ideas, ideals) or any combination of them. However, acknowledging and attending to the more subtle energy that flows in and between these spaces – the Ba – provides a basis for advancing individual and/or collective knowledge. Nonaka and his colleague Konno go into more detail in their article The Concept of “Ba”: Building a Foundation for Knowledge Creation”.

Practices we have drawn on to support healthy energetics in our space include: 

  • nurturing plants that absorb environmental toxicities and provide oxygen
  • regularly clearing clutter to reduce a felt-sense of having stagnant or stuffy areas (visible and non-visible to the member)
  • noticing how shifting placement of furniture impacts the community
  • learning from Eastern practices of how flow (Ba) happens through a space
  • welcoming feedback from members who have energetic healing/balancing practices (such as Chi Kung) as they sense what the space needs – sometimes simply either some fresh air or a bit of attention from the team!
  • being aware of the meta-level of the space and community (the physical and social architecture) as a team

Another aspect of the energetic hosting of a space is paying attention to the emotional space that is being created. Is there a lot of stress? Is there joy? Is there room for the spectrum of emotions that is bound to be present in any community? Are people invited to be authentic in the place they call also-theirs, and invited to be self-aware of the impact it causes on others?

In conclusion

Could we pay closer attention to the spaces we create and how they serve the social and emotional needs of the people they are for? Do we dare to invite beauty into our built environment?

Our learning in building our Impact Hubs has been that human creativity is a messy process, and that it is not easy to build a space that pleases all. Perhaps though, it is in the very act of involving people in building their own space that we create spaces that enable ongoing collaboration and that open up to the world, inviting us all to create more life-affirming ways forward.

“Spaces are not inherently lucky and creative, they are created by inhabitants.”
Impact Hub member