MEREDITH Strategy + Design

We design the places and spaces where people come together to do great work

Have you been there? Have you seen it?

How Zuccotti Park can inform workplace design.

No matter what your political viewpoint, Occupy Wall Street has captured the attention of everyone. Among the most heard questions in New York, and now in almost any major city across the world where the Occupy movement has taken hold, is “Have you been there?” or “Have you seen it?” asked not only of your neighbors but even of the illuminati. And everyone who goes, or does not, has an observation to make about the larger principles implied by this expanding movement.

After reading a rather remarkable opinion piece in the New York Times today by its architecture critic, I thought I’d tag onto his framework. And I am going to go so far as to suggest that Occupy Wall Street as an anti-establishment movement has offers insights to guide planning and design principles of significant value to the establishment itself.

In his observations, Michael Kimmelman discusses the role of public place in public discourse. Lamenting the evolution of the square into a “commercial sop” through the misaligned regulations of urban planning, he nonetheless finds restorative lessons in the public activities taking place now in the private place of Zuccotti Park.

You are already familiar with my own critiques of a similar regulatory frame, the planning standards of corporate real estate and the corporate workplace. I’ve observed over and over how real advancement of the organizational agenda requires an examination of the places and spaces where its activities take place.

With apologies to Kimmelman’s grander arc of history and culture, I offer a few observations that paraphrase his that I think have great relevance to the way that the workspace is designed where organizations are trying to meet the challenges of the Big Shift

Place gains its power and influence because it is where we house knowledge, experience and innovation energy.

Face-to-face communication is the mode that moves revolutions.

While much is made of the role of social networking technologies in advancing the revolutions of the Arab Spring, they, and Occupy Wall Street, build a movement through face-to-face communication. Reflecting thinking of ancient model civilizations, the human voice is a primary component of a healthy and connected community.

Hearing others, and then telling their stories, enhances comprehension and understanding.

There’s a fascinating concept and practice used by the people at Occupy Wall Street called “mic check.”

When the authorities restricted their ability to use loudspeakers, the front of the crowd there developed a practice of repeating, word for word, what had been said by the speaker. Each successive layer of listening passed the message in the same way deeper into the back of the crowd so everybody heard the same thing.

Here’s a great quite from one of the participants: “We’re so distracted these days, people have forgotten how to focus. But the ‘mic check’ demands not just that we listen to other people’s opinions but that we really hear what they’re saying because we have to repeat their words exactly.”

In the corporate workplace, the mantra is to isolate people so they are not distracted. Here’s a lesson that suggests that hearing others increases the potential for focus by a required reflection on/of what others say.

Shared interests are better defined through the diversity of the community.

And unity of purpose is found out of the diversity of the community.

There have been lots of commentators criticizing the Occupy Wall Street movement of having too diverse of an agenda. But listen to how Kimmelman describes the role of diversity here: “Imagine Zuccotti Park, one protester told me, as a Venn diagram of characters representing disparate political and economic disenchantments. The park is where their grievances overlap. It’s literally common ground.”

In our work in the corporate and institutional domains these days, we are trying to design to uncover and release the value and speed of “multidisciplinary” teams. Each member brings something different, together the team develops something totally unique but of great value to all of its members.

In much of our work, we struggle to have our clients understand the power and influence of the Zuccotti Parks of the workplace. We may soon see good illustration of how overlooking the social can suppress the achievement of big things.

Please don’t hesitate to let me know what you think after reading Kimmelman’s article.

Jim Meredith