In the Singapore school system, where I grew up, students had their careers more or less determined through nation-wide streaming exams from the age of 14 – this readied students for linear occupations and employment pathways that no longer exist.

Though the way school is taught and structured is definitely changing, it is still easy to see a siloed mindset creeping regularly into the workforce.  

Let us consider the tendency for industry to concentrate around business districts, financial centres and industrial parks. There are, of course, good reasons for similar businesses to flock together – critical mass helps attract clients and talent, horizontal knowledge transfer and grow professional networks – the problem is that new ideas get crowded out by the familiar and moonshots stay grounded, in favour of more orthodox solutions.

Here at MaRS challenges emerge each day – challenges with complexity that forces us to look beyond the straight lines of our company’s mandate. Challenges like health or energy needs are not new, but in this interconnected age, they are more obvious and have consequences that are more local. These challenges need more than just specialization and process improvement from individual sectors – they need innovation and collaboration. 

Virgin Unite, Next Generation Workspaces, MaRS

Talk of innovation and innovative workplaces often conjures images of beanbag chairs, nap rooms and artisanal bottled water to help with productivity and creativity, (followed by justified scoffing). Workplaces of the future need to know their strengths, but most of all, how to collaborate across sectors to help us see things differently.

The importance of and use of place has always underpinned our work.

But if furniture choice and architecture aren’t the keys to innovative workplaces, what does it take? Journalist Eric Weiner who recently spoke at the MaRS Discovery District, shared a few ideas. For his latest book, he looked at cities, countries and eras with sudden bursts of creativity and advancements across fields. Recalling Athens in its Golden Age, Edinburgh during the Scottish Enlightenment and Vienna at the turn of the 20th century among others – Weiner draws the conditions that helped them be exceptional. Among several arguments, is the importance of exchange and constraints:

  • Exchange of Ideas: Athens was open to trade, commerce and immigration that attracted individuals from far and wide. Its culture of public debate meant the ability to exchange diverse ideas with constant streams of new people. In Vienna’s coffeehouses, people were exposed to disparate views and realize the possibility of possibility.
  • (Just enough) Constraint: Wiener also notes the advantage of recognizing constraints in a competitive environment. It implies you are not part of the status quo and are somewhat of an outsider with different points of view and therefore, different solutions. It isn’t enough to be novel, but to let the competition force you to bring out your best. 
Virgin Unite, Next Generation Workspaces, MaRS

My workplace, the MaRS Discovery District, was borne from frustration with ‘business as usual’. MaRS was founded by civic leaders across private, public and academic sectors that recognised the potential of collaboration to generate solutions for public good through entrepreneurship. The importance of and use of place has always underpinned our work.

MaRS’ tenants include start-ups, venture capital firms, banks and research labs – all accessible to each other under one roof. Among my colleagues and partners, are many people who’ve had multiple careers and can draw from a wealth of perspectives. While MaRS isn’t an Athenian forum, most visitors come because of the events that take place at our collaboration venues. Our collaboration venues and events are all about creating spaces and touch points with people who would otherwise be difficult to link – we want people to work together on the problems of today and tomorrow.

We don’t yet have conditions for the perfect workplace of the future, but it’s a work in progress, and we’d love to work with you to get there. So, next time you are in Toronto, drop by and let’s talk!

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