Agency As Innovator: Think Jane Jacobs

The late, great Jane Jacobs left New York for Toronto in the late 1960s. She called Toronto’s Annex neighbourhood one of the best examples of sustainable city life.

The best part of that neighbourhood, according to Jacobs, was the mixed use of space between residential and commercial. Businesses and houses are situated densely together, and people WALK between them. Why should this matter? Because economic activity and innovation happen when people talk and meet each other.

Regional innovation systems, like the northern shoe industry of Italy, thrive on the exchange of ideas. But ideas, researchers tell us, can only be transported in people’s heads. So policy analysts look at setting up links between industry, university, and government to spur innovation.

Now what does this have to do with an interactive agency? One of the things I’ve been learning is that people who work in agencies are given a metaphorical car to “get around the agency.” In other words, they do not meet and greet people in person. They use the phone, they use instant messenger, they use email. They sit in their metaphorical space without interacting with others on other projects. The dreaded conference call is a perfect example. So little information is passed between conference callers that is begs the question, why have them at all?

These creative workers sail right on past the most interesting work, every single day, as if they were driving, because they don’t have time to sit and talk with their co-workers.

How do you turn an agency into a Jane Jacobs neighbourhood? Lots of interactions. Lots of talking. No “cars” that separate people, but good old-fashioned “walking the floor.” Project teams should be mixed up. People should do “exchanges.” Agencies that keep people head down on the same work all the time will find there is slowing of dynamism. They will find that ideas don’t flow much any more, and people are bored.

There’s a fine line between innovation and chaos. Finding it and playing with it is the key. Where is that line? Think Jane Jacobs.

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