Company growth, youth unemployment, environmental degradation, terrorism, labour unrest, meeting shareholder expectations, becoming more innovative. These are the types of complex problems we try to solve daily in boardrooms, meeting rooms and parliaments around the world. These spaces are typically structured (everything in its place and a place for everything), rigid (no or little flexibility to reconfigure the elements), efficient use of the square metre constraints (leaving little room for movement) and aligned with corporate images. These spaces are generally very formal and often reinforce existing power structures and hierarchy. Is it possible that we could increase our thinking capability by changing the space within which we meet and make decisions?
The human brain makes sense of the world through our five senses — sight, sound, touch, taste and smell. The information enters the brain and the sensory brain acts as a control gate to these stimuli. It decides how we will act (fight or flight), what our stress levels are, what we pay attention to and our emotional response (sad, happy, angry etc.). All this processing takes place in the unconscious brain, which processes information at 11 million bits per second. The conscious or rational brain processes information at 40 bits per second. Our typical meeting rooms and boardrooms only tap into the 40 bits per second brain processing power. Thinking does not necessarily improve when you constantly and actively focus on a problem, as you are not giving your unconscious brain an incubation period to process the information. Ever wondered why you come up with your best ideas when you are in the shower? It’s because once the (unconscious) mind is freed up, it can offer you the solution on a silver platter. We cannot spend half of our days in the shower (or have meetings in the shower) but how else can we entice the unconscious brain to live out its potential? Can we tap into this power by redesigning the spaces in which we solve highly complex problems? Can we redesign meeting rooms to harness and leverage enhanced awareness and perception through sight, taste, sound, touch and smell? How different might our solutions be? After spending many years facilitating in a multitude of conference, meeting and boardrooms, Itha Taljaard has witnessed first-hand how different spaces enable or constrain problem solving and creativity.
These experiences informed Taljaard’s design thinking and fuelled a desire to create a new type of meeting room. Aside from inviting the five senses into the process of thinking and decision-making, she knew that playfulness and the permission to be creative had to feature prominently in such a revamped room. She also knew that flexible spaces – spaces where you can move around and change the room depending on the purpose of the meeting – contribute and mirror the type of desired thinking processes in a much better way than rigid structures. Usability is another principle that plays a big role. People feel uncomfortable in a “precious” space where they are afraid to stick something on a wall and are nervous about breaking rules. Many people and organisations don’t act on the well-documented evidence that new and innovative thinking requires breaking the rules, failing, getting up and trying again without fear.
Lastly, collaboration and co-creation had to be incorporated into the design and use of a new type of room. The effective use of space to elicit and maintain positive energy is crucial to generate and keep ideas flowing, which is made far easier when colour, texture, sound, visual imagery and sensory journeys can enrich the process. More often than not, we find that thinking activities and exercises and the spaces in which they take place don’t cater for ‘whole person thinking’ (which is the synergy that comes from inviting whole mind and whole body thinking into a room). This is exactly what Taljaard believes needs changing. If you are interested to experience such a “whole person thinking” space, visit the Gibs Innovation Lab (Gordon Institute of Business Science). Six offices and a classroom were transformed into the GIBS i-Lab. Each of the five senses has it’s own dedicated room and the sixth room functions as a “play” room. The classroom was turned into a workshop space where people synthesise and integrate the stimuli, associations and memories that were triggered by the various sensory rooms.
The outputs usually take the form of prototyped ideas or constructed models that are created in what Taljaard calls “three dimensional, shared transactional spaces.” Governments, businesses and NGOs have tried multiple different approaches to improve their problem solving skills but as stated earlier, these approaches frequently resonate with the rational and conscious brain only. Could it be, that many of humanity’s messiest and stickiest problems remain unsolved, because we are disregarding “whole person thinking” by ignoring the potential of our unconscious and sensory brains? It’s an argument worth considering.
AUTHOR: Marizanne Knoesen
Marizanne Knoesen is a trends and futures researcher at Sense2Solve. An innovation expert has witnessed firsthand how different spaces enable or constrain problem solving and creativity.