Decoding Design

China Mobile's new headquarters: designed to encourage innovation

China Mobile's new headquarters: designed to encourage innovation

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Telecommunications behemoth China Mobile is creating a Beijing campus that uses design as an R&D strategy, with spaces and architectural details meant to spark collaborations and fresh ideas.

By the time the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics took place, the world witnessed an architectural transformation of China's capital city. On the occasion of the Olympics, the world's most respected architects--or "starchitects" as they're sometimes referred to--completed beautiful new buildings with daring new forms.

From Herzog & de Meuron's "Bird's Nest" Olympic National Stadium to the Rem Koolhaas's CCTV Tower and its acrobatic silhouette, Beijing's newest edifices provided a collection of name-brand architecture that drew international attention. Fast-forward four years, and now building projects are popping up that seem to use design in a new way to define contemporary China via architecture. Lately, it seems that executives are deploying office layouts and design to encourage business innovation within the Asian nation, rather than follow the 2008 Olympics-driven strategy of highlighting the work of architectural masters for the sake of showing cultural clout.

Last week, China Mobile Ltd., one of the globe's biggest telecommunications companies, announced that it chose Omaha, NE-based Leo A. Daly to design, in conjunction with a Chinese local design institute, WDCE, three new structures at China Mobile's new Beijing headquarters. To give some context on China Mobile's size and influence: according to an April 27 Forbes.com post, the company currently has 667.2 million wireless subscribers--that's more than double the entire population of the United States.

Two of the three buildings designed by the American firm on China Mobile's 26-building campus will house research and development offices and laboratories, and the third will be a public building.

Leo A. Daly's design for the areas where innovation will take place--the R&D and lab buildings--is intended to encourage informal conversations and idea exchanges between employees that could potentially lead to new product and service concepts. The stairways are placed so that pedestrian flow might lead to large, diagonal windows, which provide sweeping views of the campus. These windowed areas are meant to be attractive gathering spots, where informal brainstorming might take place. Entries to the buildings will also link to courtyards, which will serve as more potential meeting places.

The design for the public building includes some small shops, eating spots, and formal meeting rooms. The structure will be placed near the research buildings, and will be the setting for scheduled meetings by China Mobile staff and visitors. It will be located near the eye-catching R&D structure. One imagines that there might be spillover in both directions, perhaps leading to more unplanned yet productive idea exchanges.

China Mobile isn't the only Chinese company to try free-flowing office design to encourage collaborations among employees. The offices of Innovation Works, the two-and-a-half-year-old technology incubator launched by ex-Microsoft and ex-Google executive Kai-Fu Lee, show open-plan rooms and slick-looking, comfy gathering spots that echo those in the hippest of Silicon Valley workspaces. And U.S. companies are hoping to recreate their own creative cultures in China via R&D building styles similar to those found in their American headquarters. In January, for instance, Nike announced it would create a greater China campus in Shanghai, with multiple buildings that would include a full-sized soccer field and basketball court for product research, to open in 2014.

It will be fascinating to see beyond the idea of imitating the open feel, inventive campus facilities, and social environments of imaginative American companies in China. And it will be even more compelling to see how the ideas exchanged within these spaces by Chinese employees that will be original and unique to their Asian settings.

Images: China Mobile Exteriors, WDCE; China Mobile Interiors, Leo A. Daly

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Reena Jana

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Reena Jana has written for the New York Times, Wired, Harvard Business Review online, Fast Company, Architectural Record, Artforum, Time Out New York, Harper's Bazaar, and GQ. Previously, she was the innovation department editor at BusinessWeek. She holds degrees from Columbia University and Barnard College. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure