At September's NESTA Crucible weekend (our development programme for researchers) participants were asked to plan and draw what their utopian University environment would be. This environment would give them the ideal space to work, think and innovate.
In the planning of this activity we supposed the groups would concentrate on aspects of their working environment such as transport links, childcare provision and organisation of departments. Particularly with a view to interdisciplinary research, the positioning of departments to break down rigid separations seems very important.
Whilst some of these issues did come up, the majority of groups concentrated heavily on creating a pleasant physical environment with nature walks, mountains and waterfalls. Several groups located their University by the sea and one even suggested that academics should be housed in rotating glass pods with a sea-view (the students they suggested should be housed underground!).
Obviously, there was a ton of artistic licence in this exercise, but it made me consider the importance of physical working environment to creativity and by extension to innovation. Is the relationship real or is this just an age old cliché? Do we actually need some blue-sky to do blue-skies thinking?
Having a quick look on Google, there does seem to be lots of references linking physical working environment to creativity but I can’t find a definitive study. (or any mention of the sea!) Everything else being equal, should we expect Sussex University to be more innovative than land-locked Leeds?
One suggestion is that rather than any particular environment we just sometimes need a different environment to allow us to think differently.