This article is a part of the series “Information Architecture and Entrepreneurship: Interaction Patterns for Successful Entrepreneurial Ecosystems.”
This was never meant to be a book, but a map of where around the University of Michigan’s campus there were “innovation hubs.” The goal was to copy similar work done by the Brookings Institution on innovation districts that showed the positive impacts of proximity on innovation within start-ups, accelerators, universities, and tech firms. The original method of analysis was to create heat maps of entrepreneurship clusters.
At the outset of this story, I asked entrepreneurs at the University of Michigan only where they interacted with other entrepreneurs. I quickly identified three major hubs of entrepreneurial activity — -near the Techarb accelerator downtown, the Business School, and the Computer Science Building in the university’s North Campus. I felt the results were unsurprising, and as I spoke with students more, also incomplete. While there was a slight correlation between those who progressed further in their entrepreneurship journeys and time spent physically at one of the hubs. But there were people who spent hours at one of the three hubs and progressed not at all, and people who spent hardly any time in these physical locations and were extremely successful. There was more than simply proximity at play, and to understand these hidden factors I needed to push past data points and to the stories behind them.
My research methodology turned from quantitative to qualitative. Now, in my second attempt to uncover the magic of how great entrepreneurial ecosystems are built, my questions tried to get at not simply where these entrepreneurs spent their time, but the biases they came with, the interactions they had, and the stories they told themselves about their entrepreneurial endeavors.
Throughout the dozen formal interviews and the dozens of informal interactions I had throughout the three years at the University of Michigan I came to understand there was something important about this place. It was less about the physical design of the seats or orientation of the windows in the spaces. It was about the information people got in certain spaces and the interactions they had with people.
What I did not have was a mode of analysis to understand what exactly was going on. I did a lot of research into how I could analyze my results that fell into two large categories: actor-network theory within the realm of information science, and urban information theory within the realm of urban design.
Within the domain of information science, the idea of actor-network theory believes that everything in the human and natural worlds exists in a constantly shifting network of relationships (Latour). However, this mode of analysis stressed that it is solely the current relationship dynamics between the actors that impacts the outcomes of any given situation. I felt this mode of analysis did not leave enough room for how people’s existing mental maps impact a situation, or how a situation in turn impacts the mental maps that people form.
From the realm of urban design Kevin Lynch’s “Image of the City” dealt with how people form mental maps of their city. But here the emphasis of study was on the mental maps people developed maps for navigation, with the outcomes of his focused on the legibility of buildings and streets to aid in the navigation of the built environment. From the interviews I collected I learned that while physical location was often extremely important to founders’ mental maps it was less about the design of the buildings and more the social interactions that happened within them. In turn, the mental maps that people developed towards entrepreneurship had more to do with systems at play within the university like the accelerators, competitions, hackathons, rather than the places where the accelerators, competitions, or hackathons were held. But Lynch’s work was pivotal in helping me understand the interplay between the physical space a person is in and the mental maps they develop.
Added to Lynch’s work was that of Christopher Alexander’s “A Pattern Language” which offered architects 253 building patterns of what things like churches, groceries, gardens, and thoroughfares are at their core to help normal people build better communities for themselves. Alexander’s patterns were less focused on the width of a main road versus a garden path and more on how the differences in these spaces made a person feel and impacted the interactions around them. Alexander’s focus on repeatability pushed my own work further. Instead of simply identifying where entrepreneurs who had a high likelihood of being successful clustered on campus, I wanted to understand their stories well enough to develop repeatable patterns that founders and Community Leaders could use to advocate for and build better entrepreneurial ecosystems.
In the following chapters I will refer to these patterns as interactions patterns. Interaction patterns are mental models built from information and relationships between different actors and the spaces around them. The interviews I conducted are built into stories that I believe help exhibit six key interaction patterns in the building of an effective and navigable entrepreneurial ecosystem.