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Jonathan Littman

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Letting Go: The Innovation Edit

Posted: 02/01/11 02:12 PM ET

What do city parking garages and high school classrooms have in common? Each can become remarkable by removing something most of us would never imagine getting rid of.

In Miami Beach, a developer decided that a parking garage could break from tradition by losing its perimeter walls, while in Marin County, California, a high school French teacher gambled that learning could improve by jettisoning the desks. Both men have proved that often the biggest element in innovation can be in taking away something that seems necessary.

I call this the Innovation Edit, similar to how even the best authors and writers benefit from an editor who can see and cut away the fat. In the age of everything tech we often assume that new means more -- more capabilities, more bandwidth, more features. But there's ample evidence that humans also crave something genuinely different, and more often than not that means less.

The Miami Beach parking garage is about as far from the typical parking garage as you can get. Developer Robert Wennett aimed high, hiring Herzog & Meron, famed for transforming a power station into the Tate Modern gallery in London and for designing the spectacular "Bird's Nest" Olympic Stadium. Design and construction of that caliber do not come cheaply, but what's remarkable is that the most striking element of 1111 Lincoln Road is that there are no exterior walls. Instead of the normal dark underground cavernous garage, there are soaring high ceilings and spectacular open spaces. Stunning views, matched with sculpted supporting beams, have made this perhaps the world's only parking garage that has become a hot wedding destination: This week the New York Times featured a story about how couples are paying up to $15,000 to host their weddings where cars are normally parked.

That story brought to mind a more modest, though equally striking innovation edit. Last fall, Brian Zaillian, a long time teacher at Tamalpais High just north of San Francisco, told me he'd been struggling with a problem plaguing many educators. During the last few years many students were not fully engaged in class work. "I'd notice they were looking into their laps, detached from the rest of the world," said Zaillian. "Teens love texting. They just can't stop."

Sending kids to the principal was like putting a finger in the dike. The texts continued and that wasn't all. In the afternoon kids sometimes would lay their sleepy heads down on the desks. This past summer, Zaillian told the school custodian, "I'd like to get rid of the desks." A couple of colleagues told him they'd tried it and it was a disaster. Zaillian was undaunted. Come September, thirty-one kids walked into his French class and sat in a circle of chairs -- not a desk in sight.

"Where have the desks gone?" they asked, followed soon after by a more urgent question: "When are they coming back?"

But the desks were gone for good -- along with the texting.

"Nobody can hide a phone anymore," said Zaillian, although he laughed that a few students vainly attempted to text through their pockets.

The less-is-more approach to classroom furniture has had numerous positive effects on his students -- that go far beyond eliminating texting in class.

Students rarely own a spot in the room the way they tend to in a traditional classroom. It's tougher for a few individuals to dominate a class, or for that matter, to disengage. Cliques are harder to take hold.

When the desks went, so did the uniform rows of students. Zaillian adopted a circle, which he said naturally lends itself to a more inclusive, participatory atmosphere.

"There's community in a circle," he says. "What I'm discovering is that there's better learning without the desks. More profound, meaty learning."The students seem to be speaking and learning a lot more French. Was it risky, no doubt? But just as in that ethereal Miami parking garage cars aren't crashing to the ground, high school French didn't grind to a halt because the desks disappeared.

I believe one of the tricks to beginning any design or innovation project is to ask yourself what you don't need.

Sometimes the secret is letting go.

 

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