By John Arenas | March 6, 2015

Google’s Galapagos

Google’s Galapagos:

Why Insular Headquarters Projects will Spur Echo-Chamber Innovation

Any school kid knows that Apple and Google are the cool kids of tech companies.  School kids also know about the Galapagos Islands and that isolation from the world drove its spectacular variations in evolution. Unfortunately for pink iguanas and for companies, evolution in isolation can become an existential threat outside of their natural habitat, no matter how brilliant.

Ironically, Google just shared plans for a reimagined headquarters campus (rendering above), sealed in a climate controlled bubble, with movable buildings, self-driving cars, and indoor waterfalls that would make Willy Wonka blush.   While there is little doubt that Google can realize this vision, one has to question whether building such an isolated corporate island can be good for innovation in the long run.  With Googlers repeating the same ideas to each other, and without the serendipitous cross-pollination by people and their ideas from the outside world, Google could be building the world’s largest and most spectacular corporate echo-chamber.

Dubbed Apple 2.0, Apple’s own corporate island is now under construction (rendering below), with its symbolic circular design, it is bent on supporting secrecy and security.  Its inward-facing structure, although elegant, could just as easily represent a navel to gaze upon with infinite, self-indulging curiosity.
Apple HQ

Meanwhile, 120 million mobile US workers are choosing where and when they work more than 20% of the time, and collaborating and connecting how they choose. They are voting against centralized suburban headquarters with their feet, no matter how much foosball and free food are offered.  Technology like that developed by Google and Apple have liberated workers and given them the ability to work with great productivity without making wasteful commutes to centralized workfarms.   They are choosing a continuum of workplaces, matching their workplace choice with what needs to get done at any particular time.    The companies with the most advanced workplace strategies are seeking ways to accommodate and enable their workforce, not ensnare them.  This means supporting mobility across a variety of settings by offering good workplace choices including redesigned and retooled headquarters drop-in spaces, and third party coworking providers that meet corporate compliance standards.

Yes, corporate workplaces do need to be designed to attract top talent and create environments that bring people together in ways that spur unexpected interactions, even if it’s as Steve Jobs required with centralized restrooms to increase the chances that people from different departments would bump into each-other more frequently.   But by building isolated fantasy islands, companies risk muting the innovative voices and the rich diversity of the world around them… the real world they aspire to continue serving, especially the school kids that will eventually enter the workforce.

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