Bell Labs: Forcing geeks to socialize since 1941

Global Hub at Northwestern University

The Global Hub is a sexy new building for the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. It sits next to Lake Michigan, and is heavy on dramatic views of both the Lake and Downtown Chicago. It’s designed to promote innovation and collaboration.

About 75 years earlier, Bell Labs opened its research center in Murray Hill, NJ with similar goals in mind. While touring the former, I heard a story that reminded of the latter.

Located on the top floors of the Global Hub is the two-story, 9,000-square-foot Faculty Summit. To help fill this open space with people, there’s a clever rule: coffee pots are prohibited in the faculty offices that wrap around this atrium. The idea is to nudge people to get up and walk around, spurring more encounters with peers.

Faculty Summit at Global Hub

The Global Hub reminded me of Bell Labs because the building designs share a common goal: design thinking to encourage collaboration. Bell Labs was arguably the most innovative organization in the world for a long time. I learned much about the Labs from The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation by Jon Gertner.

You may have heard of Bell Labs, the research organization born of the AT&T monopoly. To highlight just a few of the breakthroughs that took place there:

  • The transistor
  • The communication satellite
  • The cellular telephone
  • The laser

Much of this innovation happened in Murray Hill, NJ, at the Bell Labs facility designed and constructed throughout the late 1930s and opened in 1941.

Bell Labs Facility

Before the building was created, the labs’ staff had spread out across multiple locations in the metropolitan New York area. Oliver Buckley, soon-to-be-President of the Labs, and Mervin Kelly (who would also go on to lead the Labs in 1951) worked to physically consolidate the far-flung organization.

From The Idea Factory:

“No attempt has been made to achieve the character of a university campus with its separate buildings,” Buckley told [Bell Labs founder Frank] Jewett. “On the contrary, all buildings have been connected so as to avoid fixed geographical delineation between departments and to encourage free interchange and close contact among them.” The physicists and chemists and mathematicians were not meant to avoid one another, in other words, and the research people were not meant to evade the development people.

Jamming all departments into the same building was not enough for Buckley and Kelly. The building was also notable for the extra-long corridors along its 4-story sections. The more people had to walk in common spaces, the more opportunities there were for interaction

[T]he long corridor for the wing that would house many of the physics researchers was intentionally made to be seven hundred feet in length. It was so long that to look down it from one end was to see the other end disappear at a vanishing point. Traveling its length without encountering a number of acquaintances, problems, diversions, and ideas would be almost impossible. Then again, that was the point. Walking down that impossibly long tiled corridor, a scientist on his way to lunch in the Murray Hill cafeteria was like a magnet rolling past iron filings.

To take it one step further, the design even split apart offices and laboratories into different corridors! This way, people were forced once again to move about the building.

By intention, everyone would be in one another’s way. Members of the technical staff would often have both laboratories and small offices - but these might be in different corridors, therefore making it necessary to walk between the two, and all but assuring a chance encounter or two with a colleague during the commute.

In the case of Bell Labs’ Murray Hill facility, the designers attempt to foster innovation seems to have worked out pretty well! Do you have any stories to share of building designs or rules that encourage innovation? Please share in the comments section!

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