Physical environment as a source for innovation

Investigating the attributes of innovative space

Can the physical environment influence innovation? If so, what characteristics of a space support innovativeness? Finnish researchers found the attributes of collaboration enabling, modifiability, smartness, attractiveness, and value reflecting in a space support innovation. By Juliet Bourke - Consulting, Partner.

It is undisputed that the way we work has changed and will continue to do so. Similarly, where we work is now evolving. Human-centric space design is becoming more and more prevalent as more is known about how our surrounds influence our thoughts, feelings and behaviour. This research contributes to our understanding of how the physical environment relates to innovation and outlines characteristics to be considered when developing innovative spaces.

It’s so much more than ‘just a room’

This research, conducted by Kaisa Oksanen (University of Jyväskylä) and Professor Pirjo Ståhle (Finland Futures Research Centre, University of Turku), investigated the intersection of physical space and innovation, specifically whether particular characteristics of spaces are associated with bringing about innovation.

Results from this research and previous studies reviewed by its authors reinforced the notion that innovation is a communicative, human-centred process that results from the combination of various novel ideas. Following from this, five attributes of ‘innovative space’ (defined as a physical space where innovation flourishes) were identified:

  1. Collaboration enabling
  2. Modifiability
  3. Smartness
  4. Attractiveness
  5. Value reflecting. 


This research aimed to answer two questions: how does a physical space intersect with innovation (new ideas put into practice) and innovativeness (“the virtue and ability of introducing and refining new ideas”), and what are the most relevant attributes of physical space for innovation?


To answer these questions, a literature review and interviews were conducted and benchmarking data was obtained.

Results were gathered from approximately 40 past studies that investigated the effects of physical environment on thoughts, feelings and behaviour, notably wellbeing and health, creativity, social interaction and collaboration, and job performance and satisfaction.

Additionally, the researchers conducted semi-structured interviews in Finnish universities with seven experts in creative spaces. Interviewees were asked qualitative, open-ended questions about how physical space and innovation are related and, for some interviews, traits of creative physical spaces.

Benchmarking material was also gathered from:

  • Innovative university campuses
  • Learning and research environments
  • Creative business spaces and other workspaces.

This material included descriptions of experiences in these spaces, promotional material from (including pictures of) them and development project reports.

To determine how physical space and innovation intersect and identify features of innovative space, key narratives from existing literature and the interviews were selected. Oksanen and Ståhle then used data from interviews and benchmarking material to define preliminary categories for mapping innovative spaces, then evaluated this mapping to identify themes and then characteristics of innovative space.


All three sources of data reinforced the concept of a relationship between physical space and innovation and, following from this, five characteristics of spaces that promote innovation were defined: collaboration enabling, modifiability, smartness, value reflecting, and attractiveness.

Collaboration enabling – A space that enables collaboration was found to be critical as both innovation and creativity are widely acknowledged as collaborative processes, and all spaces examined internalised the notion that innovation is a social process. Collaboration enabling spaces are those that motivate and afford people the opportunity to share knowledge and experiences, for example through shared spaces where community members work alongside one another rather than in separate rooms.

Modifiability – Just as innovation requires flexible thinking, innovative spaces require flexible design. This includes options to change lighting, seating, and even rooms within a space, as well as the ability to use the same space for very different purposes. Learning and research spaces examined in this study were found to be built to allow for users to engage in a wide variety of activities and collaborate with others in novel ways while studying/working. Varied, flexible spaces allow for those of diverse backgrounds and interests to converge in a single place and interact through interdisciplinary and inter-organisational work and learning groups.

Smartness – Largely focussed on technology, smart spaces are those that are “enabled for co-operation of smart objects and systems and for ubiquitous interaction with different users”. Technology is and will increasingly be used to connect and collaborate with others we may not have had access to otherwise, and provision of such technology in innovative spaces supports innovativeness.

Value reflecting – This characteristic was well summarised by an interviewee: “What do the best companies have in common spatially? Their spaces provide a message or a story about the organisation. Space is full of symbols, and, if utilised wisely – for example, through art – the space can have wide psychosocial impacts on their users.” The ‘values’ of innovation include openness, sustainability and collaboration, and it was found that innovative spaces mirror these values.

Attractiveness – An interviewee quoted that, “Interesting space attracts interesting people.” Attractive spaces are – at minimum – healthy, safe and comforting. However, attractive also refers to the internal space (ergonomics, interior design) as well as its surrounds (location, architecture, services).


Locally and globally, we are seeing a trend towards spaces such as those examined in this study, which allow for people to connect, discuss common challenges and goals, share ideas and ultimately put these ideas into practice. The researchers also argue that, as socio-cultural contexts and tacit knowledge are effectively shared through regular, personal contact, these spaces allow for the kind of radical innovation that comes from refining such contexts and knowledge.

The results of this study suggest that HR and leaders alike must make strategic decisions not only about who they hire and what work they do, but also where the work gets done. This decision becomes critical as a workspace, and the wider the variety of people it can attract and cater to, can further unlock the value in diversity of thought.

Certainly, a space with these five characteristics will not automatically produce innovation. However, through entities providing such facilities and individuals making use of them, we may be bringing ourselves a lot closer to the next big thing.

To read the full article, see Oksanen, K. and Ståhle, P.(2013) "Physical environment as a source for innovation: investigating the attributes of innovative space" Journal of Knowledge Management, Vol. 17, Issue: 6 (2013), pp.815 – 827

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