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How rough edges inspire innovation

Fifteen years ago, NDSM in Amsterdam Noord was at risk of becoming a boring, generic development. Today it is Europe’s largest broedplaats (breeding ground) for makers, inventors and artisans. NDSM is an enormous shipyard with a second life at the heart of an emerging economy.

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NDSM werf in Amsterdam Noord

The booming era of shipbuilding at NDSM can be compared to the glory days of car building at the Packard Plant in Detroit. Workers in both cities endured hard lives in the factories, yet their jobs gave them some sense of security, purpose and belonging. While their industries were thriving, they were proud to be part of a bigger identity that gained worldwide respect.

That purpose-driven work is long gone. Our need today is for new jobs that are meaningful and sustainable; in other words, the future is about making and doing things of enduring value rather than a life of empty consumption.

In particular, what can developers and friends of Detroit’s Fisher Body Plant, Packard and other emotionally-charged industrial sites learn from the nature of work at NDSM and other emerging models? And how can my hometown of Detroit reflect its roots as a place for inventors?

In many ways NDSM shows us new, healthier ways of working in an innovation-friendly setting. This rough-edged creative habitat is the antidote to disturbing stories about “a world without work” and armies of job-replacing robots. The NDSM raises and responds to several pressing questions:

  • What is real job security today?
  • What is the best work setting to spark innovation?
  • How can we aim for more than merely a sustainable environment?

It’s unlikely that these answers will ever be found here:

anti-innovation

 

The polished, anonymous “office park” developments of the post-industrial era were known for killing any sense of identity while draining the creative energy out of its hapless victims. The resulting recipe for alienation, conformity, false illusion of predictability, and norm of complacency was not a recipe for innovation.

So how can a place help us thrive by creating new job opportunities, rather than to merely survive as consumers?

Below are five essential ingredients which draw on NDSM and the model pioneered in 1994 by Margie Zeidler at 401 Richmond St West in Toronto as well as other creative hubs such as Evergreen Brickworks.

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Life at 401 Richmond St. West and painting “What Would Jane Jacobs Do?”

 

1. ROUGH EDGES and RUST: When big new ideas are born, they are naturally messy, unpolished, imperfect and unfinished. Rough edges encourage thinking about possibilities. Polished places are hostile habitats for unconventional approaches.

_NDSM_c NDSM (23) _NDSM 3

NDSM werf

 

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Evergreen Brick Works

 

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Hearn Generating Station, Toronto during Luminato

 

2. ROOTS: Humans have an innate need to be part of something bigger and more enduring than themselves. Tangible historical connections have an effect on our mental health–they are not simply about being sentimental. Shiny office parks are depressing in part because they are rootless.

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LEFT: Detroit Design Center  RIGHT: NDSM werf

 

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Granville Island, Vancouver, BC

 

3. IDENTITY: The NDSM not only has its own special character, it encourages 230 creatives to express their individual identity. The design of each studio has a different personality, yet the whole effect is pulled together by strong structural elements. These expressions spill over to enliven shared spaces (which would be forbidden in an office park).         

Netherlands Shipbuilding 1

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NDSM werf

 

4. INTERACTION: The future of work and job security will be through human relationships and collaboration. The NDSM encourages idea development and fluid work arrangements by providing a variety of stimulating, changeable spaces that attract people with shared interests.  

worker diversity composite

LEFT: from the Diego Rivera mural at Detroit Institute of Arts   RIGHT: A face in the hood by Tyree Guyton at the Heidelberg Project, Detroit.

 

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NDSM werf

 

5. SHARED OWNERSHIP: Whether through a formal shared ownership agreement (example: NDSM) or a sense of ownership instilled by the owners (example: 401 Richmond W) it is essential that people feel they have a personal stake in something that is enduring.   

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NDSM werf

Packard swan_sm_rightMy ideas for the Packard Plant combine respect for the past with the rough edges that feed a new generation of innovators. I believe that to be a truly healthy place, it must inspire people to build their identity around things they create, not around things they consume.

– Sharon VanderKaay

Drive Thru Art Gallery

Located in downtown Detroit, this 10-story gallery-garage displays the work of 26 international artists commissioned by Dan Gilbert, owner of Bedrock Real Estate, working with Library Street Collective.

“The Z” could have been just another utilitarian design in a city that needs new infrastructure. Instead the developer makes the most of this opportunity to reinforce Detroit’s image as an optimistic, intriguing and human place.

My ideas for the Packard Plant in Detroit

Packard swan 1948My proposal honors the past while creating new symbols for the future. It draws on the world’s most advanced models for supporting new ways of working, entrepreneurship and innovation.

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Packard_PLAN_AUG 2015

 

Packard 2APACKARD PLANT PANELS_final crop2

BELOW, the ghost of an assembly line that once flowed across this bridge is etched in back-lit glass.  The new bridge retains the original Packard logo and keystone. It adds a Shinola clock and creates a new symbol for the site from an oversized 1948 hood ornament.

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Packard bridge+ghosts

–Sharon VanderKaay

 

 

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