A Sandpit or an Ideas Lab collects academics from a range of disciplines and mix them around, working in groups to solve a problem or develop ideas for research. It smacks of just what an extravert will love: conversations with strangers, moving chairs a lot, making presentations in front of a group. But just the idea of being in a meeting room with 25 other people for five days can be enough to discourage an introvert from applying to attend, let alone the idea of having to interact with a large group all week.
There’s plenty of anecdotal evidence for this approach. We’ve all had the experience of waking up and feeling refreshed, maybe with a clearer idea of what to do, or at least better prepared to make a complex decision. There are dozens of stories of eureka moments, incidents when a someone woke up after (or during) a good night’s sleep with an answer that had been elusive, an idea for an experiment, a genius melody, or some brilliant new idea that simply popped into their mind.
We often refer to Post-it notes as portable recording devices, just to put in perspective why we stick to using them. It’s one of the easiest, fastest ways to get a group of people to put their thoughts together and then sort them out, collectively. Quickly, a group can organize a wall of hundreds of Post-it notes, revealing major themes but keeping the granularity intact within the resulting categories.
They are from other disciplines, other departments, other universities. They are interested in a domain that is not exactly your science. It may be a neighboring branch of science with obvious parallels or overlaps but still with an approach that is different from yours, or it might be from a very different universe, a science that is 180 degrees away, with subject matter and methodology foreign to you. These are the people we want you to be talking with.
Over time, we’ve worked out that the optimal length of one of our innovation workshops is five days. That gives ample time for participants – strangers when they walk in the door – to feel each other out, find some common (and uncommon) ground and begin to trust each other, intellectually. It also takes time to unpick the challenge area. The exercise of defining the scope of the challenge together, as a group, informs a broader perspective and helps to avoid making assumptions about the problem. But that takes time.
It is interesting that in this day and age of climate change we are all very aware of the discussions about “energy conservation” and we make a concerted effort to turn off the lights of an empty office, to walk rather than drive to the shop, and turn down our house temperature by a degree or two. But what about our own physical and mental energy conservation?