Conjuring ideas from thin air is a rare feat. Most of the mythologized eureka moments involve layers of information that lead up to connecting the dots. Before we can combine them into new insight, they must be available to us. Exploration is the fundamental practice of harvesting this information. Alex Pentland and his colleagues at the MIT’s Human Dynamics Lab have conducted extensive research in what makes teams consistently innovative and productive. Using data from mobile phones, credit card records, and sociometric badges they confirmed explorations role. They have observed the individuals who comprise these teams spend an inordinate amount of their time exploring outside of their offices and departments. As the pace of the business cycle accelerates, one must think on your feet and be able to assimilate and evaluate information faster than ever.
Too often we succumb to the availability heuristic where we the most recently available knowledge and experiences permeate our thinking. This phenomenon further reinforces the need to ensure diverse and new information frequently injected into our daily habits. Continuous exposure to new knowledge can ensure we have fuel for new ideas. We need the dots to connect and new insights to bear on the problems we are trying to solve.
Exploration is crucial to innovation because it opens up what Stuart Kauffman refers to as the "Adjacent Possible". Steven Johnson, author of “Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation,” describes it as “ a kind of shadow future, hovering on the edges of the present state of things, a map of all the ways in which the present can reinvent itself.” This may be our own adjacent possible based on the new knowledge we have harvested from our exploration, or it may be revolutionary changes never before seen. Regardless, the more doors we open the more opportunity we have to combine knowledge into innovations and expand our adjacent possible.
The importance of exploration is underscored in Gensler’s recent 2016 U.S. Workplace Survey. The 2016 survey involved over 4,000 randomly sampled U.S. Workers in 11 industries. The results demonstrated that innovators spent nearly twice as much time out of the office as compared to those who had the lowest innovation scores. Their results also demonstrated innovative organizations spent 14% less time on focused work than those considered less innovative and people socialized 13% more often in innovative workplaces.
Unfortunately, our time and attention are limited. Devoting and focusing on the intentional active exploration is difficult. With only 11% of the workforce exhibiting characteristics of worker passion, many people do not actively engage in this exploratory behavior. This exploration neglect makes it essential to create environments that allow for passive exploration. The places we inhabit must be compelling enough to warrant our attention, promote interaction between others, and increase our exposure to new information.
The design of the physical environment influences our willingness, propensity, and ability to explore. As mentioned previously, active and compelling edges add to the pedestrian propulsion and distances people will walk thereby increasing their exposure. How the building addresses the public realm and externalizes or communicates internal activities from the vantage point of the pedestrian will determine to the extent that it stimulates our minds. Collin Ellard, a neuroscientist at the University of Waterloo, and author Charles Montgomery have gone further in exploring the physiological effects various environments had on pedestrians. Their research using bracelets that measured skin conductivity demonstrated participant’s psychological arousal levels were higher in more active diverse environments.
How we design our environment also influences a place's ability to facilitate our exploration by bringing together a mix of experiences and exposure to the information flow residing within the city. It can also trigger connections between information we have collected previously. It can become the triangulating conduit that prompts interaction between individuals. One may decide to step into the business to inquire about what they do or see an acquaintance and stop in for a quick visit. This new information continually adds to our adjacent possible.
The DNAtrium at the Broad Institute and the Koch Institute's public galleries on the MIT campus are instructive examples of a public realm that encourages exploration by communicating the activities within each facility. Both provide first-floor gallery space that engages the streetscape. Each displays compelling content about the groundbreaking science happening within their facility.
When architecture decides to turn its back on the public realm or if the uses dominate our experience, it diminishes the potential and opportunity for exploration. It also can have a significant impact on the number of pedestrians. Blank and monolithic facades encourage people to walk more quickly as compared to active edges. In diverse and vibrant areas, people tend to stop more frequently and observe their surrounding. Renowned urbanist Jan Gehl through his extensive experiments and observations over several decades has determined our environment (particularly streetscapes) ensure something new enters the pedestrians view every five seconds or approximately 23ft.
The enemy of exploration is efficiency and consistency. Too often our environments are designed to improve convenience at the expense of inspirational moments and experiences that can increase our innovation capacity and help us solve problems. We must take advantage of these opportunities for passive innovation to harness our full potential and engender this need for exploration.