John Ronan on designing for innovation

Innovation centers are a growing trend across business and academia. I spoke with architect John Ronan, who was recently selected to design the home for the Illinois Institute of Technology’s (IIT) new Ed Kaplan Family Institute for Innovation and Tech Entrepreneurship, to learn about the unique demands of the building type.


A lot of universities are trying to get a handle on what it means to have an innovation center. How does this project relate to others across the country?

The design challenge here is very interesting because the type is not defined. A lot of universities have something that they call an “innovation center,” or innovation this or innovation that, but nobody knows what an innovation center is. And therein lies the challenge, and also the fun: defining what that is for IIT, and how IIT’s innovation center might be different than another university’s.

Programmatically, this building has two major components. One is the ID school, the Institute of Design, which is the top-ranked design school in the country. This building is going to be the home for the ID school.

And IIT also has what they call IPRO classes, interprofessional classes, required classes that mix students from different departments together in project-based learning scenarios. They come up with an idea and they work on it together; it’s entrepreneurial in its motivations. These classes will be conducted in the new innovation center, as well.

So you’re taking one of their most successful units, ID, and then bringing in all the undergraduates. Every undergraduate will experience this building and take courses in it. And they’re hoping that ID’s success will rub off on the undergraduates.

What role do private-sector precedents play in thinking about innovation center design? I’m thinking primarily about the Googles and Facebooks — companies that get a lot of attention for their campuses.

I mean, everybody has an innovation center now, right? Every company now feels this sort of pressure or compulsion to be innovative. There’s an enormous amount of work in this area, and there tend to be some clichés that I’d like to avoid.

If I ask you to close your eyes and imagine an innovation space, there’s a cliché forming of a space with furniture on wheels, and it’s got white boards and post-it notes all over the wall and something wacky hanging from the ceiling. Everyone wants to show how wacky and hip and cool they are and how different they are. But the problem is that they’re all different in the same way.

There’s an enormous amount of work in this area, and there tend to be some clichés that I’d like to avoid

So it’s kind of falling into a rut, I think. Our challenge is to break through that and project a bit.

Ultimately it’s about education. Whereas a company’s innovation space is about creating some great product that’s going to make them money, this is more about what kind of student one wants to produce coming out of this process.

What stage of the design process are you in now?

We’re in programming now, which is the phase that precedes design, where you figure out the requirements of what you’re going to design. That’s done through observation and through interviews and through data collection and so forth. The outcome is basically a needs assessment describing the spaces required.

That’s going to be about a 3-month process, and we’ve just started that with Shepley Bulfinch, the firm that IIT has hired to lead the programming.

If nobody really knows what an innovation space looks like, does that affect the programming phase? Is that process of trying to map out this unknown thing different from the typical process?

Yeah, it is, because there’s not really a frame of reference. It leads to more blue-sky thinking, questions like, “What would one ideally want for the activities created here?”

It’s a different exercise than designing a high school, let’s say, where there’s an established frame of reference and a known typology that gets tweaked in this way or that. This project is not about tweaking; it’s about throwing things wide open and imagining possible futures. One’s capacity for imagination is called into service on something like this, both on the design side and the client side.

This project is not about tweaking; it’s about throwing things wide open and imagining possible futures

You’ve worked on a number of projects in Chicago. How does this fit in?

I’m very interested in the spatial idea of experiencing multiple spaces at one time such that one can be in one space and look through a second space to a third space, so that the building’s visitor is both spectator and the actor at the same time.

Poetry Foundation, Chicago

I’ve applied this to different kinds of buildings, from education buildings like the Gary Comer Youth Center to the Poetry Foundation, and I hope to explore those ideas in this building at a more advanced level, because the building is all about collaboration, and in order to collaborate with people you have to see them, you have to be able to approach them. It’s all about chance meetings and getting different kinds of people together. I think that the spatial ideas which I am interested in are very well suited to this particular building type, so I’m really interested in kind of expanding those notions that I’ve been working on for a while.

You’re a professor at IIT. How does working at the school influence your approach to this project?

It makes me more committed to it, I think. I care deeply about the university since I’m a tenured professor there. And because it has such a major impact on the direction and course of the university, I’m very invested in the project and I want it to be successful. Its aspiration is nothing less than to transform education at the university: to make it more project-based, collaborative, and entrepreneurial. And if the project is successful, I think its success will permeate the entire university and every department and make the university rethink higher education. What are the goals of that teaching and what kind of person, what kind of student, do they want to graduate?

IIT campus

And then there’s the other, more physical aspect, which is adding a building to the Mies van der Rohe campus: the first academic building that they’ve built in decades. So the bar is set very high to begin with, and there are certain expectations that one has to meet or exceed.

I’m very excited about that challenge, and honored to be able to create a building for the Mies campus. It’s a challenge, and I look forward to the journey.

Interview edited and condensed.

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