Technology and innovation in St. Louis reshape the workplace

by Sara Freund

The geography of innovation has changed—and St. Louis is leading the way.

The Cortex Innovation Community in St. Louis is a prime example of an ‘innovation district,’ according to Brookings Institute researchers Bruce Katz and Julie Wagner. Innovation districts are places where institutions, universities, startups and corporations work together in a collaborative environment. This means companies share work space, network at the café on campus, educate each other and offer one another tech, legal, research and business tools.

The vibrant 200-acre Cortex campus is integrated into the community, near public transportation, is home to hundreds of companies and provides valuable, specialty resources for tenants.

“In my visit to St. Louis, what struck me was the level of commitment to cultivate a local ecosystem of innovation,” Wagner told REJournals.

Wagner cited examples of universities moving activities to Cortex, which stimulates growth, purposeful clustering of innovation centers, programs focused on growing companies and opening up over a dozen laboratory spaces to support startups.

At Cortex, tenants receive more than just an office space they get valuable resources from a supportive community and opportunities to collaborate with their neighbors. Every week at Venture Café, there are events and opportunities for people to connect, such as Thursday Gathering or Venture Café Nights. The programs and events allow chances to network but also provide learning sessions.

Cortex is described as a “knowledge community” on its website—it’s a vibrant setting for work, play and life that is anchored by laboratories and offices. It also offers restaurants, cafes, boutiques, outdoor spaces and soon a hotel. Tenants include Pfizer, Washington University Genome Center, Washington University School of Medicine, Square, Boeing and now Microsoft.

In March, the company announced it would open a new regional headquarters and a Microsoft Technology Center in Cortex’s Central West End District. The MTC in Cortex will be designed by HOK and open in summer of 2018. The MTC plans to support a booming tech scene with project strategy, business solutions, resources for cloud, mobile and social help, and optimization of their technologies. Beyond business, Microsoft will offer software grants and educational programs for students, nonprofits and the community.

In the past, the workplace was isolated—people mostly drove to a suburban office, worked in a lonely cubical and kept all ideas within the company, according to Wagner’s research. What’s in demand today is very different—walkable, urban, collaborative work environments. And that changes the way office space is designed, how multi-tenant buildings are leased and how employees collaborate.

“We’re in a position where we are much more comfortable sharing than we were before. Using an Uber to get somewhere, connecting to wifi in a café, storing our data on a cloud. Sharing is happening in a different way and now we’re seeing that in the workplace,” said Margaret McDonald of HOK architecture firm.

McDonald is a vice president at HOK and director of interiors. Her team is responsible for the design of the @4240 building in the Cortex Innovation Community. HOK also created the Cortex master plan and designed Cortex One.

One of McDonald’s clients equated working in the Cortex community to being on a college campus. There are infinite opportunities to meet new people and spaces to work and meet. Plus, it’s a highly sociable environment. Plain and simple, it’s inspiring.

“It is an interesting shift to think about,” McDonald said referring to the changes she sees in how multi-tenant buildings are leased.

“The previous approach to filling a building was attracting tenants to a location and getting them to take up square footage. The tenants at Cortex sign leases for opportunities to collide and connect. They think, ‘Wow, Microsoft is in this building and I want to be, too,” McDonald said.

Offices used to be designed so that the employee could do everything in one small space—now companies are realizing that this approach doesn’t work, McDonald said. Giving people access to different ways of working and different choices lets them be more productive.

Technology is a huge catalyst in changing the way office space is designed. Offices are going cordless, offer more collaborative spaces and provide office personalization. This means incorporating charging pads, a selection of work areas, outdoor spaces and reconfigurable walls to keep a balance between privacy and communal. McDonald thinks the future of offices will become entirely customized so that when an employee walks into his or her space, the room knows what temperature, screen brightness or apps to open at different times of day.

Places like Cortex give the stereotypical workplace a shot of adrenaline and makes it harder to imagine a future where half of the population works from home.

“Most of us want to be around other people and gather together. If you’re proud of what you’re doing than you’re going to want to come together,” McDonald said.

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