In the 40’s of the last century, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology built Building 20, which was intended to house the activities of a group of scientists focused on research on the use of microwaves to use radar for war purposes, in the so-called Radiation Laboratory or Red Lab. This project was secret and for its location, it was determined to build specific facilities. Tim Hartford, in his splendid book “The Power of Clutter,” refers to the building, which was built in record time, on an area of 60,000 square meters, as an “ugly, squat, sprawling structure.” Likewise, it was a hot facility in summer and cold in winter, as well as confusing due to its labyrinthine configuration. Originally it was planned that the building would serve until the end of the war and would be demolished six months later. Its demolition occurred more than 50 years later.
What happened in those more than 50 years is an extraordinary story. During its first two years, the building operated the laboratory for which it was created, and a fifth of all physicists in the United States passed through it. In the Red Lab worked 9 scientists who were winners of the Nobel Prize. The building survived the war, as a provision established a subsidy so that war veterans could attend university, which generated an increase in MIT enrollment, so that Building 20 was preserved and reused, to house scholars and scientists from various disciplines.
Hartford refers that the first universal atomic clock was created in the facilities of Building 20; the first particle accelerators were built; the first stop motion photographs were taken; video games were created; Noam Chomsky developed his ideas on linguistics; and even technology companies were created, such as Bose, a company recognized in the production of loudspeakers and headphones, to name a few examples.
Building 20 housed diversity, in an environment of disorder. And yet, it allowed the generation of new ideas, thanks to the random meeting between distinguished people in their professional field, who developed fruitful personal and work relationships. Creativity found a fertile field and synergies and positive externalities developed.
What is this story about? The Covid-19 pandemic transformed our way of working, studying and relating. Thanks to vaccination, we have managed to gradually reintegrate into our traditional activities. However, there is an inertia that prevents work and school interaction as it was before 2020.
I know of experiences in which professors attend the university strictly to teach their class, and leave to continue their academic work at home. This is unfortunate for an academic community, which thrives on discussion, sharing and coffee chat. If this situation continues, the consequences will be disastrous for the academy and for the training of new professionals. A similar situation could occur in the field of companies, which need to feed on the experience with consumers and the exchange of ideas between employees.
It is clear that the world will not be the same. Adversity has forced us to adapt and has allowed us to find new ways to consume and conduct our classes or work meetings. However, we have to move from the world of working at home and virtual meetings, to a new reality that balances health protection but allows and stimulates interpersonal relationships. In this regard, the experience of Building 20 shows us that the creation processes go through physical contact and casual interaction.
*Managing Partner of Ockham Economic Consulting, specialized in economic competition and regulation and university professor.
Competition and Markets
Consultant in Economic Competition and Regulation, he is also a university professor.
We wish to give thanks to the author of this post for this outstanding material
Let’s overcome confinement and look for new forms of interrelation