MIT's 'Building 20' Is Proof That Only A Certain Kind Of Brainstorming Works

Stata centre, M.I.T., Building 32, Building 20After Building 20 was demolished in the 1990s, it was replaced by the Stata centre.

Photo: Wally Gobetz via flickr

There’s been a lot of talk lately about how effective brainstorming really is.In his article, Groupthink, the New Yorker’s Jonah Lehrer says there are two types of brainstorming — a free-for-all exchange of ideas in a structured environment, and a random, unplanned debate. Only the second type really works.

He says M.I.T.’s famous Building 20 — which is now replaced with the Stata centre, designed by Frank Gehry— became one of the most innovative spaces in the country because it fostered the best kind of brainstorming. 

The building was created to provide extra room for scientists during WWII, reports Lehrer, and “violated the Cambridge fire code, but it was granted an exemption because of its temporary status. … The walls were thin, the roof leaked, and the building was broiling in the summer and freezing in the winter. Nevertheless Building 20 quickly became a centre of groundbreaking research, the Los Alamos of the East Coast.” 

It wasn’t demolished after the war because there were too many students and too little space on campus. So the building became a hodgepodge of offices, with professors and students from all different departments squeezed in small spaces and long corridors. It had an untraditional layout, and it’s where big thinkers, like Amar Bose, who founded the Bose Corporation, and linguist Noam Chomsky, accomplished big things:

“Walls were torn down without permission; equipment was stored in the courtyards and bolted to the roof. … The space also forced solitary scientists to mix and mingle … The building’s horizontal layout also spurred interaction.'”

Steve Jobs created a similar environment with Pixar’s headquarters:

“In 1999, he had the building arranged around a central atrium, so that Pixar’s diverse staff of artists, writers, and computer scientists would run into each other more often. … Jobs ‘made it impossible for you not to run into the rest of the company.'”

Brainstorming works, Lehrer says, when it’s less structured and allows for debate — and architecture and office layout can play a huge role in that.

Now read more about why the way your team is brainstorming is probably all wrong >

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