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How Innovation Forms from Authenticity

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Back in April 2017, I wrote an article titled I want innovation!….that I have seen before,” which somewhat showed my frustration with getting clients to take a leap and to do truly innovative things. Since that time, I have seen great strides with clients willing to take risk and be truly innovative – to do things that haven’t been done before or in the words of the great Captain James Tiberius Kirk, “to boldly go where no man has gone before”.

I recently read the book “The Wright Brothers” by David McCullough, which I highly recommend. The story of the Wright brothers, Orville and Wilber, is about taking chances and doing something no one else has done before. Orville and Wilber looked at what others were doing at the time; however, they sought to create a machine that a person could fly, which is different than a flying machine. Their innovation was not only in the design of the airplane, but was in a new concept of how to control a flying machine. They literally wrote the book on how to fly. They set goals, created guiding principles and worked to achieve them while not having examples to fall back on; this is true innovation.

I am going to take you on two journeys that will show how we started to address true innovation through guiding principles and how those principles kept clients focused and directed them to innovation.

Monona Grove School District

At the Monona Grove School District in the Madison, Wisconsin area, the District had included teachers from all the elementary school to be on the Visionary Team. This team would work through the process of determining how a new 3rd through 5th grade school would serve students. The team created five guiding principles, one of which directly would impact how they thought about space and use. 

The new school will serve to unite the people of both Monona and Cottage Grove by providing spaces and services accessible to all students, staff and community members. Spaces will be designed to promote collaboration and foster relationships.

As we worked through programming, the Visionary Team started to talk about the cafeteria and how they wanted it to be more of a dining room table feel rather than a “dining hall” feel.  They wanted to create a space where teachers could sit with students at lunch and just chat. Rather than having a large cafeteria where 300 students would gather for lunchWith that thought, our team brought up the idea of creating small cafes that would serve 100 students. We talked about the space being available to the grade wing during the school day as a makerspace or other large group activity.

There was a bit of consternation about not having the legacy cafeteria that served hundreds. Where would community groups meet? How would the kitchen work? The District decided to keep the idea on the table and have more conversation with others who would be affected by this monumental and innovative change.

In the end, the District decided the flex café design idea would be best for kids, provide the most flexibility of space within a grade wing and would meet the Guiding Principles they set out to accomplish. Each grade would be designed with an integrated flex café along with a serving kitchen. The main production kitchen is located on the first floor and has a servery serving one grade level. An elevator in the kitchen connects two other serveries on the second floor serving the other two grades.

The school opened in September 2021, and I am happy to report that the flex café idea is working fabulously. As an unintended consequence, because the school opened during COVID-19, those who visited the building liked the idea of smaller cafes to reduce the number of students in one space. Full disclosure, all the planning for this project was pre-COVID. The principal of the school recently stated that they are using the flex cafes in ways they could never have imagined.


Flex café utilized as a Makerspace
. Servery area to the right is closed.

Flex café utilized for lunch with the servery area shown to the right.

Sheboygan Falls School District

While working with the Sheboygan Falls School District (SFSD), their goal was to create a new school that departed from schools of the past. They wanted spaces that would support students and teachers in all modalities of learning and be able to flex to changing pedagogy. Understand that sometimes, getting to this point of departure takes time due to the discomfort of change.

This project ruminated for quite some time while the District worked through many solutions that the community would support. During the entire process, staff was challenged to think differently, change their mindset as to what school meant, how it was organized and what designs best support students and teachers. This can sometimes be a difficult step for staff to take, although innovation can happen given time and having empathy for these opinions and understanding the struggle of change.

Working with the SFSD’s Visionary Team, we again worked through a series of guiding principles which directly supported innovation. One principle in particular centered around the community and the history that comes with it. The Sheboygan River winds through the rolling contours of the City of Sheboygan Falls and remains a historic lifeforce of the community for industry, agriculture and gathering. The concept of the “River” as center became a unifying principle for this project.

The “River” concept supported the innovation to create a space that would connect all activities in the building and serve as a gathering place for learning, socialization, small and large group activities and lunch. The legacy of a large lunchroom for hundreds of students was abandoned and reimagined as lunch happening along the “River” in multiples areas of the building.


The ”River” connecting the entire school – shown here with a few standard lunch tables.

The “River connecting the entire s
chool with a variety of seating options.

This concept also created opportunities to disperse functions such as art, culinary arts, PLTW and dedicated student service space throughout the building along the “River." The “River” space is often utilized for student activities, staff breakout areas and, yes, lunch.


The “River” being utilized for individual and small group work connected to the “Mills” n
eighborhood.

The “River” being utilized for breakout space for the STEM lab just outside the “Lumber” neighborhood.

Back To Where It Started

As I said in 2017
, “I want innovation and I want it now. I have found over the years that innovation, divergence from what we know, can happen and does happen quite frequently, but it does require a change in mindset. Changing your mindset can be quite simple as pointed out by Simon Sinek. It also requires us to leave our comfort zone and explore the unknown; do something that you haven’t seen before.

The stories above are meant to give you some insight to what is possible and some ideas of how to have true, authentic innovation. My hope for you is that someday, you will be able to show how you were truly innovative and have done something never seen before. Boldly go where no one has gone before.

       

Bob Vajgrt, AIA, LEED AP, CDT, ALEP
Senior Project Manager : Principal

Bob Vajgrt is a Senior Project Manager and Principal in the Learning Environment. Bob's proven success, effective management skills and his sense of camaraderie makes working with him fun and easy.