By Antonina Simeti
Last month we took a group of curious and enthusiastic Harvard GSD Executive Education students on a little field trip to the Cambridge Innovation Center (CIC). The trip was part of DEGW’s annual course on  “Rethinking the Office” and our way to introduce the students to a real life example of an alternative workplace.

CIC is “the largest flexible office facility for growing technology and life sciences companies in the Greater Boston area”.  Our charming host Dougan Sherwood, CIC’s Director, gave us some  insight on the nuances of CIC history, mission, successes and challenges, and planning for alternative work environments in general.

Here are the highlights:

Serendipitous innovation, again
CIC is about fueling new ideas and partnerships. But the CIC is, in and of itself, an innovation – and it was unintended. CIC was originally born as the Cambridge Incubator, just in time for the late 1990’s dot-com bust. It closed its doors after one year, and while its founder Tim Rowe contemplated what to do with the space, he let his friends (individual entrepreneurs and their small companies) rent portions of the space for cheap. And the new concept for CIC as a provider of space and services for small firms emerged. This is not an unfamiliar story about how innovation happens, unplanned and unexpected.

A jack of all trades is master of none
CIC is not an incubator. It does not provide venture capital, advise on the business specifics of getting a company started, or require you get all resources and services through them. Instead, CIC takes over the nuts and bolts of operations so that a small company doesn’t have to waste time doing it. It provides the space for people to work and connect, and it prides itself on amenities like good food and beer. CIC is a hospitality services model. It knows how to deliver these services well, and that is all it does. Dougan’s suggestion: “Don’t be here if you don’t use the amenities!”

Experiment constantly
The best way to learn is by doing. Each time CIC acquires a floor, it tests new spaces types and floor layouts in order to achieve real flexibility for its constantly changing companies. CIC has tinkered with rooms for entrepreneurs with individual climate controls. In some areas it has frosted glass instead of hard walls to allow the walls to easily “pop-out” and become a bigger workspace. CIC has also incorporated a coworking space into the building. CIC is working to better understand the financial model as it relates to occupancy and utilization. How many seats per person does CIC need?  What does it mean to be “at capacity”? A lot of this learning comes from experimentation and getting customer feedback.

How many lawyers does it take to screw in a light bulb?
I don’t know. But lawyers really seem to like the CIC. The CIC model suggests that we should move past assumptions about traditional industries or job functions, and be open to alternative environments working for them too. CIC currently houses a number of patent lawyers that want to be where the action is, without the mahogany and high overhead costs.

and finally…

Seeing is believing
Our students enjoyed the field trip. We received very positive feedback for following our classroom discussion about CONCEPTS for alternative workplace with an example of the REAL THING. I don’t think that the group truly understood CIC – the workplace design elements, how services and amenities are provided, and the business value it generates – until they were actually IN IT.

We thank Dougan, the CIC and our Harvard students for a great afternoon.