Embracing “Ideas in the Air”

I was good and stuck. I was writing, or more accurately, trying to write, about place and institutional strategy. I had some time between meetings at an independent school’s campus and had gone outside to sit on the historic main building’s broad steps to try yet another idea.

I was toying with one of the ways we describe the purpose of campus planning: linking the strategic needs of an institution with the possibilities of its place. In our increasingly digital world, I believe place still matters. It matters to our independent school clients as well. After all, their place, the campus setting, is often an institution’s largest single investment, and the first impression and lasting memory of the generations of students who pass through it. But I needed a way to talk about the value of place beyond simple economics and sentiment.

As I sat, the steps began to fill with students. I couldn’t help but overhear a group of them wrestling with an assignment on modernism, struggling to come up with an example of modernist poetry. Without thinking, I leaned over and answered, “Try “The Waste Land” by T. S. Eliot.” This elicited a smile and quick thanks. iPads emerged from backpacks and passages began to be read aloud, all in a few minutes before the students trooped off to their next class.

It turns out our quick exchange not only solved the students’ problem, but mine as well. I could talk about the value of place as an educational partner through “ideas in the air!”

“Ideas in the Air”

I love the phrase “ideas in the air.” It sounds like everything I need to be inspired, unstuck, and redirected is floating around somewhere out there… and it is free!

“Knowledge spillover” posits that there is value that comes from the free exchange of ideas.

It turns out my thought is not unfounded or unstudied. There is a theory of knowledge management economics developed in the 1890s, and later refined and championed by the well-known urbanist Jane Jacobs, known as “knowledge spillover.” This phenomenon that helps explain the development of cities might also help explain how place can be an important partner in the educational process.

First, a bit about “knowledge spillover,” which posits that there is value that comes from the free exchange of ideas among individuals. This theory has been applied to the study of places since the 1890s, densely populated urban places in particular. Greater density means a higher chance of unplanned encounters and conversations — across the hallway, on the street, or even during casual chit chat while sitting on some steps. Within such a community and place, anyone with enough ambition could be enriched by these “ideas in the air.”

In essence, knowledge spillover tells us that place matters, and that the characteristics of a place — the likelihood of unplanned encounters across a variety of ambitious people in a dense environment — leads to the greatest and swiftest innovations. Community engenders collaboration, collaboration engenders innovation, and innovation engenders growth.

Paris and Picasso

The idea of knowledge spillover, the role of place in innovation, has underpinned some of the greatest moments and movements in history. Take the role the city of Paris played in the development of modernism at the turn of the 20th century through the rise of the preeminent artist Pablo Picasso, the modern movement’s most ambitious innovator.

At the turn of the 20th century, Paris was a decidedly unromantic place for the artists who flocked there. To describe the standard of living as merely low is quite an understatement, as accommodations often lacked heat and running water, money for food was in short supply, and disease ran rampant. Instead, it was Paris’ foment of avant-garde artists — painters, writers, and musicians living, working, and creating together — that made it precisely the kind of place Picasso wanted to be.

From Málaga, Spain by way of Barcelona, Picasso first arrived in Paris in 1900. Cannily, he set up shop in Montmartre, an area on the Right Bank known as the heart of the city’s artistic life. Its steep hills and assortment of cabarets had hosted a previous generation of artists, from Romantics like Eugène Delacroix to Impressionists like Vincent van Gogh.

Paris was thick with knowledge spillover’s “ideas in the air,” and Picasso absorbed them all. The mood of Paris’ Symbolist poets influenced Picasso’s Blue Period, which featured somber tones and gloomy subject matter. African masks, which Picasso perhaps saw on display at the Musée d’Ethnographie du Trocadéro, influenced his groundbreaking 1907 painting Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. Paul Cézanne’s work, which Picasso saw at the Salon d’Autumne of 1905, led him to develop a new method for modeling pictorial space, while literary innovations of poets like Guillaume Apollinaire helped Picasso turn his painting into a form of writing and coined the term “Cubism” to describe the emerging art movement.

Picasso knew the city could play a role in his success, and he was calculating in determining where to live and work.

By about 1912, however, Picasso had extracted all he could from Montmartre, whose picturesque streets had become flooded with tourists. As knowledge spillover dried up on the Right Bank, another artistic neighborhood was taking shape on the other side of town in the newly developed neighborhood of Montparnasse. It was like catnip to the ambitious artist, and he simply had to move there.

The new neighborhood may not have been charming, but its wide boulevards and artist’s studios provided ample space for knowledge spillover. The neighborhood’s public spaces, including a ring of new cafés, were especially efficient venues for it. The large cafés, along with the neighborhood’s small bistros and cheap restaurants, became the living rooms for the avant-garde, who not only ate and drank there (artist studios weren’t equipped with kitchens or bathrooms) but worked there along the wide sidewalks.

Scores of artists representing a variety of nationalities made the studios of Montparnasse their home — Germans, Russians, Scandinavians, Italians, and Americans. And naturally, Picasso collaborated with artists, composers, choreographers, dancers, and fashion designers from this international group, designing stage sets for Serge Diaghilev’s legendary Ballets Russes, lately hung in the lobby of New York City’s Four Seasons restaurant.

Picasso flat out-innovated everyone during his time in Paris, his ambition driving him to take full advantage of all the city had to offer. He knew the city could play a role in his success, and he was calculating in determining where to live and work, moving to follow the ideas in the air. In the dense, lively neighborhoods of Montmartre and Montparnasse, Picasso found and exploited knowledge spillover within a collaborative community of like-minded artists.

Paris, Picasso, and Places for Education

So why is place important for independent schools? Just as Paris provided a framework for a band of artists to drive their work forward by sharing their ideas in its cafés, boulevards, and studios, the campus setting provides a framework for students to propel their education by sharing their ideas both inside and particularly outside the classroom. And the characteristics of place that promote knowledge spillover and “ideas in the air” are the same in Paris as on campus. Density. Proximity. Public Space. Civic Life. Where community engenders collaboration, collaboration engenders innovation, and innovation engenders growth.

Such places for education support a wide range of human interactions, including peer learning environments, exposure to diverse people and ideas, access to specialized spaces and equipment, opportunities for social and athletic engagement, and the chance encounters that come with belonging to a diverse intellectual community.

The campus setting is often merely a physical reflection of the school’s organizational chart rather than an educational partner.

Fostering collaborative, innovative cultures where these sorts of interactions can flourish is high on most independent schools’ lists. In fact, if we look broadly at independent schools’ strategic initiatives, we see the need for programs that integrate rather than separate; problems that require critical thinking, creativity, and collaboration; and schedules and spaces that fit 21st-century learning.

The chief obstacle to achieving these initiatives typically lies in the form and organization of the campus, and the character and nature of its buildings. The campus setting is often merely a physical reflection of the school’s organizational chart rather than an educational partner, yielding separate, siloed, opaque divisions and disciplines. The campus is then populated with buildings that are objects in and of themselves rather than part of a cohesive whole, whose spaces are often inflexible and, in many cases, antithetical to contemporary learning environments. Together, they thwart opportunities for collaborative and cross-disciplinary work among students and faculty alike.

As planners, understanding the conditions that favor knowledge spillover helps us identify and overcome these obstacles to create spaces and places that are flexible, adaptable, transparent, and socially aware; with the density and proximities that support collaborative and cross-disciplinary work; where learning happens as much outside the structured spaces as within; where the process and products of learning are visible; and where the lines between interiors and exteriors are blurred, allowing the overall campus setting — well-defined and programmed outdoor spaces — to be part of signature learning experiences.

We’ve employed knowledge spillover as a planning strategy in a number of recent engagements, particularly when a school’s strategic thinking calls for creating a more innovative, entrepreneurial student experience.

For a prominent Southern day school whose campus form had grown up around the idea of separation — separate from the city, separate from the surrounding neighborhood, separate boys and girls in the early years of its 75-year history, separate and siloed divisions, separated by topography and landscape, separate, separate, separate — the best solution for a more contemporary student experience included a complete replacement of its Upper School facilities.

The planning undertook a number of strategies with an eye toward the value created by serendipitous encounters among the students and faculty. The planning reduced the campus’ geographic spread, raising the density of the new Upper School precinct; valued public space and civic life on the outside of the new buildings; and imagined socially aware spaces inside them, in contrast to the endless double-loaded corridors in the old.

For a leading boarding school, the planning’s efforts were concentrated around creating a safe, homelike environment where parents would feel comfortable entrusting their child to the school’s charge. The first step included removing the automobile from the campus center in favor of a safe, secure, pedestrian-priority village setting, where the public spaces and patterns of student uses were carefully considered to promote those important every day “collisions” that foster collaboration and, in turn, innovation. The second step was creating more flexible and adaptable academic facilities within this new core campus that could keep pace with a rapidly maturing portfolio of student experiences.

For another leading day school, our engagement focused on accommodating the campus’ shifting center of gravity. Its traditional off-the-beaten-path library had long been a beacon — a destination that drew students every day — before and after classes and during free periods, both for study and socializing. However, the effects of mobility and connectivity, as well as shifts in the pattern of student use, had rendered the building obsolete. But just because the place was no longer viable, that didn’t mean the activities it had supported ceased to be important.

Planning supported students’ classwork, research, and project work in a more contemporary way. It co-located new areas for drop-in and group study in commons areas among faculty offices to create a rich opportunity for knowledge spillover to occur.

So, you see, place and knowledge spill are important. It helped the students sitting next to me, it helped Picasso and his cohorts, and it helps our clients who value their places as partners in the educational process.

When you’re stuck, find a great place and go there. A dense, lively place to be around other people. Interesting, ambitious people, if you can swing it. Strike up a conversation. Eavesdrop a little. Your inspiration might just be sparked.