Brainstorming the Future

Xerox's famed Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) exists to invent the future.

Main story: The Future is Younger Than You Think

More: Cruise (Out of) Control, Little Hands Teach Big Hands, Who's Teaching Whom?, Workscapes of the Future

At the door, security is tight. Inside, sci-fi gadgets and eccentric PhDs abound. It's not the sort of place where you'd expect staff scientists to feel threatened by a bunch of high-school kids working on a project. But that's what's happening. People are bugging. "It was scarily close," a fifty-something researcher exclaims. "Those kids were not so far off from our researchers. People started thinking, 'My God! Here are our replacements.'"

The sentiment is amusing, but maybe not outlandish. The kids arrived after John Seely Brown, PARC's director, made a proposal to Jim Baker, his next-door neighbor at FXPAL, Fuji Xerox's Palo Alto Laboratory (Fuji Xerox is the company's joint venture in Japan). Xerox's strategic future hinges on its ideas about the future of work, Brown reasoned, so let's recruit some young people to think along with us. Baker, 62, with gray hair and a Texas drawl, jumped at the chance. "You're going to ask me what the workplace will be like in the year 2010?" he laughs. "I can say with almost total certainty that I won't be in the workforce in 2010. But today's students will be. They're going to create the environment."

Thus was born Workscapes of the Future, a six-week project to encourage a different kind of brainstorming: a bunch of techno-savvy kids challenging the assumptions of some of the world's most free-thinking researchers. Mark Chow, the 43-year-old Xerox researcher who ran the project, leaves the main PARC lab, walks down a steep hill, and enters another building. He places a plastic card against a red light and listens as the door goes click. Deep inside this building (FXPAL) he arrives at a pair of windowless rooms. A strange foam sculpture hangs from the ceiling. Phrases like "Bandwidth Becomes Free" and "Colonize Mars" blare in red pen from the walls. In short, the place is trashed -- and Chow is loving it.

Seven high-school students have just finished their six-week stay here, Chow explains. Xerox recruited the kids from four area high schools and a middle school and gave them the run of the joint. This project was unlike any "adult" research PARC had ever undertaken. "Kids move fluidly between different mental models in a way that's very difficult for adults," says Rich Gold, who runs PARC's Creative Documents Initiative, and who advised Chow on the Workscapes project. "I spent a lot of years without a television. These kids have been working with computers since day one. That makes them different people. To them, computers are not new or cutting edge. They're like refrigerators or cars. They bring a perspective on technology that we adults simply can't have."

Which is precisely why Chow adopted a simple slogan to guide the project: "Let kids be kids." After stocking two rooms with butcher paper, digital cameras, whiteboards, microphones, books, notebooks, and computers, Chow simply let the students take control. If they wanted to interview people from the business world, they could do that. If they wanted to play obscene amounts of Zork Nemesis, they could do that too. Some days he'd suggest field trips (to an auto plant, a VA hospital). Other days he'd cue up movies (Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times, Cary Grant's Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House). Often he'd facilitate semi-structured brainstorming. But whatever the kids chose to do was de facto okay.

Gautam, 15, one of the students on the project, happens to be hanging around the lab when Chow arrives. He and a pal made their presentation on the psychology of work and the value of customizable work environments -- something Gautam hadn't thought much about until he arrived at PARC. "For the first week we had no idea what was going on," he says. He wondered why Xerox had asked him to come. "Then gradually it became clearer. None of us has been out in the workforce, the corporate world. So we have a fresh outlook, a new perspective. We're not really clued in to what's going on in the real world. That makes us valuable."

That's the inexperience curve talking. Young people can make a difference precisely because they haven't absorbed corporate conventions. They can see when the emperor has no clothes. It's an all-too-rare skill in most companies, one that's particularly appealing to managers gazing at gaping discontinuities: people smart enough to know what they don't know. Thus over the course of their six weeks at PARC, when the kids asked why, exactly, a four-box matrix was supposed to be an enlightening model of the world, or what criteria might be applied, precisely, to determine whether a Web page was accurate as opposed to merely interesting, nobody called them clueless. They practically drew applause.

Now Chow is surveying the project's detritus. Yes the team had concluded with formal presentations --Ryan on the digital desk, Jessica on speech recognition, Kris on new patterns of communications. But these polished finales weren't really the point; Chow doubts Xerox will ever build a product based on what happened here. "But we weren't focused on creating a result," he says. "We were focused on creating an environment that would actually encourage creativity. It's the antithesis of how business tries to structure itself. If you're providing products or services on demand, you'd like things to be as predictable as possible. What we wanted to do here was capture, in the purest state that we could, what these young people thought, how they behaved, how they reacted."

In that sense the kids left a powerful imprint on their adult colleagues. "These kids aren't kids, they're students," Chow wrote in an email journal he kept during the project. "But they aren't students, they're research assistants. But they aren't assistants, they're the actual researchers. We aren't leaders, we're guides. But we're not useful as guides in the future, we're hindrances. The adult leaders of the 20th century have to become the supporters of the students, who will lead us into the 21st century."

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