Creating Space to Boost Innovation

Mahan Mehrvarz
8 min readJun 2, 2021
Future City Innovation Lab Co-working Space

I was first exposed to this topic back in 2016 when I was involved in the process of initiating the branch of a Swedish company Tehran. At the time I suggested a 100 square meter innovation space in the basement of the company’s building. Later on, with two interior designer fellows, I proposed the mood board of the following space to the board members and got their approval. This was my first attempt to plan and build an innovation lab. Unfortunately due to financial problems and change of priorities for the company the office building project and consequently the innovation lab in the basement got canceled even the construction was halfway through. Late on, in 2017 while planning to found an innovation laboratory related to NESHA consulting engineers, I was invited to help the interior design process NESHA’s new headquarter building in Tehran and specifically the innovation space in one of the stories. During the first Brainstorming sessions, I have found out that the mood, identity, and direction of innovation lab space are different from what interior architects of NESHA intended to do for their two-story office building. The result of disconnecting the two interior design projects (one focusing on building office space for NESHA consulting engineers and the latter on the interior design of the newly established innovation lab located on the ground floor). I accepted to lead the design process for the innovation lab. Finally, the two floors dedicated to the consulting engineers’ office spaces were completed by September 2018, and the design-build process of Future City Innovation Lab, starting from October 2018, was completed by March 2019.

Meeting, Workshop and ideation space

Although the workspace of Future City Innovation Lab and NESHA Consulting Engineers is located in a unified three-story building. I personally, as the project manager and design strategist of the later workspace, believe that the two projects never shared the same design principles, processes, and agenda. However, NESHA often decides to introduce the two projects as one while the timeline, team, and other criteria do not lead you to the conclusion that NESHA’s and Future City’s workspace are two parts of one consistent remodeling or interior design project.

Anyways, In this story I want to elaborate on the architecture of this innovation space from a service design perspective and highlight some interesting latent points about the process of such a project which involves creating work space to boost innovation.

Finally In October 2018, with a twenty-four page mood board, the workspace design-build project of the newly established Innovation lab workspace has been started.

ARJ chair a vintage chair that used to be manufactured around 30 yeras (page 7)
Ideas for power outlets hanging from the ceiling (page 24)

The Rise of Workspace Strategy

It is essential to start from strategies when planning and programming for an innovation space. This step is usually undermined by architects and interior designers. This became my responsibility in the design-built process of Future City innovation lab space. With the growing popularity of specialized firms such as Shape, Design strategy becomes more popular in the context of workspace under the title of “Workspace strategy”.

Strategy Defines Team

The main strategy for designing a workspace can be a single statement like “in our workspace, the quality of the furniture is our priority” or “the key point of workspace is to keep it calm and silent”. This type of simple statement helps the project managers to identify the best designers and team up for the project. Thus, instead of finding a team/studio just based on their portfolio, it is best to select the designers based on criteria that best corresponds to the main strategy.

The main strategy for the Innovation Lab workspace project that came out of several brainstorming sessions with founders was to avoid purchasing available workspace F&E (Furniture and Equipment): “the innovation space should be innovatively created not bought”. How a group that is supposed to solve problems innovatively can disregard a surrounding made of what is available in brochures. This strategy is Picked by Hamidreza Mousavi (Future City’s co-founder) and me before team building phase in September 2018.

“An innovation workspace should be innovative itself . This would not be purchasable, it should be created!”

Therefore, the first executive step was to find a team capable of managing the design-build of uncommon architectural details. For this purpose, a team of 4 consists of Hamidreza Mousavi (principal in charge), Mahan Mehrvarz (project lead and design strategist), Niloofar Ghobadi (design-build architect), and Atiyeh Akrami (Interior Architect) has been shaped for the project. (1)

Plan Analysis And Design Opportunities

The preliminary plan for the innovation lab was agreed upon between me and NESHA interior designers (of the other two floors) back in April 2018. However, the new team needed to consider user activities in a more detailed manner and make sure the original plannings still make sense. Based on various co-design meetings, to fulfill specific needs of users in such spaces the team added a secondary design strategy to the project:

“Using multi-functional design and creating flexible spaces can fit all requirements within the hundred square meter area of the floor.”

Considering various programs required for the innovation lab within the context of floor plan

Understanding Users And Their Activity Types

User activities should be studied and categorized so that the team designs for every single activity. Therefore, there were some other secondary strategies that the team decided to add to the project:

“People should be free to choose where to work”

“There is never enough surface for writing on, so these surfaces should be available as much as possible “

David and Tom Kelley in their “Creative Confidence” briefly mention the qualities of a workspace for innovation. They believe that continuous surfaces (glass walls or large whiteboards) always encourage teamwork and dialogue. Workspace of innovation agencies should lead people towards innovative approaches and encourage innovative habits.

Images of various ideas of whiteboard-like surfaces (page 6 of the mood board)

The flexibility of space was one of the strategies that not only prepared the space for various innovative activities but also it facilitates the multi-functionality of the plan. Thus, all chairs in the workspace were on wheels and desks were foldable in a way that users can change the overall layout of the space by repositioning/removing all desks and chairs in only 5 minutes.

Using Dead Spaces

Using dead spaces is a nice way to respond to various user activities in a small floor area. for example, turning a wall niche into a cozy sitting space or using hallway walls for hanging posters, publications and announcements can highly excite the space inhabitants.

turning a wall niche to a cozy sitting spot
using dead spaces of the plan to create space for informal meetings lounges

The best use of this tip was when turning a disqualified spot (in terms of accessing daylight) into a decent silent room equipped with a foldable desk and two exhaust and blower fans that provided a quiet space for making phone calls, recording audios, and having short meetings.

The blue box (silent room) in the center of the plan

Low-Budget Boosts Creativity

Many architects do not like projects with budget limitations because they prefer to use high-end F&E in their designs. However, the essence of an innovation space is in contradiction with such a desire. Kursry Groves, a workspace strategist, who has helped companies like Google and Uber building their stoning workspace, in her article “Ten Tips For leaders when Building Creative Work Environments” says:

Great creative spaces don’t have to cost a fortune! Many exciting spaces are made using reclaimed furniture and objects. People become very resourceful and very creative when given a budget to stick to — it can be fun!

Use of low-budget materials to building efficient lighting fixtures

In the design-build process of Future City Innovation Lab workspace, the budget limitation was selected both as a way of controlling the tendency to buy F&E from available market vendors and as a project presumption because the newly established Innovation Lab needed to spend as little as possible to prepare its workspace and start to work.

using an accordion-style drying stack to build alighting fixture

Refurbishing almost thirty used Arj chairs (popular in schools around 40 years ago) and utilizing them with chair wheels as well as using second-handed plywood sheets (previously used as concrete molds) not only boosted the designers’ creativity in responding to the main design strategy but also controlled the project budget very well.

Foldable desks mounted on the wall and refurbished Arj chairs

HCD Helps Architecture

It seems that when designing a workspace for innovation centers, it is better to go beyond general architectural design procedures and use newer design approaches such as Human-centered design since the workspace plays a vital role in boosting the inhabitants’ performance. In such spaces, functionality and comfort go in the center of attention and the intuitive design process can barely respond to users’ needs in such circumstances. Unfortunately, HCD approaches are less adapted by architects. One possible tactic to cover this gap is to include a workspace strategist within the design team. Incorporating human-centered design methodologies or any other user-driven innovation framework in the architecture design process is another way to better design innovation workspace.
In this regard, design thinking and design sprint are the two key important approaches to use when planning and designing a workspace for innovative sectors such as incubation and acceleration companies, startups, and R&D centers. Although utilizing these methodologies might not be very comfortable for architects at first (due to the minimum intuition embedded in the process), the significance of incorporating them in these projects due to the priority of fulfilling user’s needs, can be extremely helpful.

1- Later On, Amirehossein Talebian and Mina Rahimpour joined the team for assisting the design-build process. Amirehossein and his ability to find uncommon stuff from informal markets was a great asset for the project.

2- Let’s thank the creators of some drawings and photographs that I used in this story: Amirhossein Talebian for his brilliant drawings and diagrams together with Mohammad Hassan Ettefagh for his stoning photographs.



Mahan Mehrvarz

Product Designer & Strategist | MArch in Situated Technologies