Absolute Space

I have just attended the Luxatia Innovative Learning Spaces summit 2018, in Barcelona.

Mike Kelly sharing ideas with Lauren Bell of Herman Miller
A room full of expert knowledge and varied experiences of learning space development

Over the two days the room was filled with 130 delegates from 65 institutions across 16 countries. The knowledge and experience in the room was palpable. There were architects, librarians, educational specialists, directors of Estates, facility managers, lecturers, 3rd sector leaders, furniture manufacturers. And a Library Spaces Development Manager. You name it, they were there. (If you were a delegate at the conference and you’re reading this, thank you for the time we shared together exploring this topic – I look forward to meeting you again soon!)

Julia Roberts and Oliver Milton from Hawkins/Brown discussing the use of data in building design

At intervals during the conference, I asked people why they had come and what they wanted to take away. Like me, most people wanted to learn more about the topic and to learn from ideas being explored across this array of representatives.

The conference made a great impression on me. This blog is a summary of the key points, questions and ideas I will be taking forward.

Guzman de Yarza Blanche explaining the 8 stages of workplace evolution

What’s the problem?

The title of the summit, Innovative Learning Spaces, was manipulated and moulded throughout. It acted as a central point to refer back to while each conversation explored different aspects of this relatively fluid topic. However I’m not sure anyone is clear on the gap we’re trying to fill or problem we need to solve.

I believe the title of the conference should be flipped (not unlike the classroom) to:

Spaces for Learning Innovation

Because isn’t that the ultimate goal? Surely innovative spaces should come second to innovative learning?




1 (of a product, idea, etc.) featuring new methods; advanced and original.”innovative designs”

◦ (of a person) introducing new ideas; original and creative in thinking.”writers who are now viewed as innovative”

On this point, there is much we can learn from Fiona Carden and her team’s work on developing spaces for innovative learning at CoLab in Exeter.

P.s. I still agree with Mark Catchlove (of Herman Miller) – the easiest way to kill innovation in people is to call an area the ‘Innovation Space’.

You are not Google

One of the speakers referred to Google’s workspaces and how innovative and effective they are. Just to be clear, I believe that the development of spaces for innovative learning should permeate every facet of a learning institution, from study rooms to staff offices, corridors and beyond.

However, remember that you are not Google. What Google does works for Google, and maybe we can pick up some ideas, but your own journey must be context specific. Who are you? Who are your learners? What is your organisation, what does it stand for and what is it trying to achieve. Look at your history, the failures, successes and missed opportunities. What tools, spaces and support do your people need to be the best they can be?

On this point, let’s go back to where Google (and many other Californian and Silicon Valley tech enterprises) started – a garage. A normal, grubby, neglected garage. And what is it about this type of space that can give birth to global, billion dollar enterprises that are reshaping the ways that vast swaths of humans are now living? Nothing. There were no rules about how to use the space. There were no building design innovations. There were no constraints, expectations or assumptions. There was no specific culture, symbolism or history of that space. And look what was achieved.

Is a garage the perfect space? It may come close if we use the following definition of absolute space:

An absolute container of static, though moveable, objects and dynamic flows of behaviour

(Gleeson, 1996, p.390 – from ‘Thinking Geographically‘ by Bartley and Kitchin, 2005)

(Also look into the amazing simplicity of MIT’s Building 20 for another good example of absolute space).

Its interesting to see Google revisiting their roots by relaunching their infamous garage (albeit through a digital and global revamp)!

There’s always lessons to be learnt from going back to basics and keeping it simple.

We are not the customer

Regardless of what we think is right, wrong or indifferent, when making choices about the spaces our customers use, whether we’ve been in our field for 2 weeks or 20 years, we are not the customer. We don’t fully understand their world view. We can’t imagine the complexities they face in such fluid and turbulent times. It is impossible to fully empathise with their experience of education when they will (more than likely) be cast into significant debt because of it.

Although the Innovative Learning Spaces summit delegates we from far and wide, there were no learners. It was a room of staff, consultants and experts trying to debate a situation that is not directly related to them (in the context of the conference aim and excluding the small foray into discussions about workspaces).

As Fiona Carden stated, we understand too little about the perceptions of others. This results in a limited field of view and therefore the risk of a vision for spaces for learning innovation that we may believe is correct but that may be short sighted or even blind. And, for me, this goes way beyond ‘stakeholder engagement’.

We must spend a day in the life of our customers to better inform our decisions.

The University of Manchester Library’s very own DigiLab initiative being referred to as an example of engaging customers in the exploration of future technological advancement

Innovation versus Collaboration

I urge caution when using the words innovation and collaboration. (I also urge caution on the use or the word ‘flexibility’ in designing spaces, but you can read my other blog post on that topic).

Collaboration of people and ideas leads to innovation. That’s how I see it after learning from the work Ian Ellison is doing at 3edges on workplace design.

Next generation learning spaces are not about furniture

So, on this point, I think we shouldn’t over complicate matters. Bring people together, bring ideas together. Provide the right tools, support and environment. Stimulate positive human behaviour and allow this to flourish in autonomous and dynamic ways. Break down traditional barriers; remove big desks, install glass walls, permit freedom of movement, make sure your technology works, and most importantly trust people.

Coffee shops are a great place for me when formulating ideas for my new blog posts

In the world of Library space development and design, I’m still surprised to see so many staff workspaces completely disconnected and hidden from view of our customers. I’ve seen many examples of staff putting paper on windows to stop learners seeing them (and the staff seeing learners and other staff in return). In what we’re trying to achieve (spaces for learning innovation) this mindset seems to go against a vision of an environment where learning through collaboration, excitement and exploration should be encouraged.

What’s next?

A space is nothing without people and things. People and things turn a space into a place. So, in a list of priorities, furniture and the building itself come low down the order when we think about what is needed in a place that fosters learning innovation (think back to the Google garage analogy).

  • Have you got the right people, activities and tools in place?
  • Are you looking in enough detail at sensory stimulation (smells, colours, warmth, light, oxygen) – why do people love learning in libraries? Often people talk about the smell of books!
  • Are you taking enough risks with your spaces – why not try something small and cheap and see what happens!
  • Learn from others – not just in your own sector but wider – corporate companies, private homes, museums, shops and even travel agents…


“Travel agents?” I hear you say. Well yes. Think about it. A travel agent exists to make customers feel excited about exploring the globe (not too dissimilar, for example, to Library customers wanting to search books for knowledge), resulting in the purchase of a holiday.

I took a short stroll around Barcelona city centre and was advised to look at Pangea Travel Store as many people in Barcelona apparently go there to relax, study and socialise. Crazy as it seems, I now understand why. Pangea is the largest physical travel store in the world. It’s a magical space of excitement and wonder – it makes you want to explore our planet. It does this by not only being vast and impressive but by ensuring that:

  • Everything in the space focuses on travel and exploration – there are no unnecessary distractions
  • It’s completely accessible – no barriers, no walls, no hidden corners, no bulky desks
  • Staff had specific areas of expertise and a consistently human approach – they smiled, welcomed me in, walked and talked with me
Pangea entrance
Pangea’s main atrium
Customer help points
Pangea’s main atrium
Digital travel brochures
Pangea’s terraced seating
Booths to relax whilst planning your round the world trip

Maybe travel agents are also future spaces for learning innovation?!?

I hope this blog post has helped you think about new approaches in your own work to create spaces for learning innovation.

You should also check out my other blog post on my prediction of four future space trends we need to consider.

Thanks for reading.

Mike Kelly

Library Space Development Manager

The University of Manchester Library

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