Making Room for Innovation: An Interview with AACE Keynote Speaker Stephanie Akkaoui Hughes
Stephanie Hughes is the Founding Director & Lead Architect of the architecture and design company AKKA Architects, located in the Netherlands. Her work focuses on ‘architecting interactions’. Her design process explores how spaces can foster interactions and nurture values. It centers on deep user engagement and empathy. The keynote recording is available in the LearnTechLib Academic Library. You can also access a TED talk. For AACE Review, she reveals her new book project and talks about the motivation behind her design work.
Please describe your vision and process of ‘Architecting Interactions’.
Our work at AKKA is driven by a vision we call Architecting Interaction. We believe that space is a strategic tool that can foster interactions. Any added value or innovation, small or large, starts with interactions. Interactions are the seeds of innovation. This is valid for individuals, organizations and communities. It is important to note that we do not – and cannot – design interactions. Interactions are spontaneous and context-dependent, which means they cannot be designed, nor should they be forced. Instead, we focus on facilitating interactions by designing the context in which interactions emerge.
When it comes to our process, we have indeed developed our own tailor-made process. To implement our vision of Architecting Interaction, we couldn’t work with the same conventional architecture processes as other architects. In my opinion, the mainstream commonly used architectural process does not lead to interactions, it leads to static spaces and rigid forms that are at best beautiful. While every space needs to be beautiful, that is not enough. To create spaces that are living – that can support their inhabitants and evolve with them – we have developed a different process at AKKA. AKKA’s process is an intrinsically collaborative process based on the engagement of people, and the co-creation of knowledge. The AKKA process consists of four stages: Appreciate, Kernel, Kickstart, Adaptation.
The AKKA process is based on our belief that users are experts in how to use their space. We believe it is our responsibility as architects to engage people in a collaborative process to extract their insights, by asking them the right questions. After collecting and analyzing the insights, we bring them all together into what we call an ‘Aligned Understanding’ we then translate this aligned understanding into a shared vision, which in turn will guide the space design. One of the most important benefits of this process is the engagement and ownership it creates among the people and the space.
What can educators learn from this process when they design learning material, curricular structures or learning environments?
Even though our vision of Architecting Interaction was born out of the architecture world, the vision as well as the process can be applied to any other field or industry. In the education world, I think the most important learnings we can take from this process are the iterative approach of a circular process and the importance of asking the right questions, instead of rushing into answers.
Do you think educators underestimate the importance of room settings for student success and productivity?
I do think the physical setting of the spaces in which we learn are underestimated and under-designed. And that applies both to in-person teaching as well as online education. In both formats of teaching, it is very important that we consider and optimize the spaces in which we are learning, and teaching, for both the students’ success and productivity as well as the teachers’.
Many universities struggle with re-envisioning campus learning spaces in a post-COVID world. How can we be intentional about using shared spaces and shared time when so many interactions take place online?
I think the main thing to focus on and always remember is the fact that our end goal is the interactions, not the spaces. So being intentional about the shared spaces and shared time becomes a lot easier when it is clear for everyone that they are at the service of better interactions. It is the quality of our interactions that matters the most. The fact that many interactions take place online is definitely a new challenge as it holds dynamics that we are not familiar with. However, digital tools and virtual spaces are nothing more or less than vessels, or platforms where interactions can take place, just like physical spaces are vessels where interactions take place. So to be intentional, I would say, follow the process, starting with asking the right questions and extracting people’s insights.
When designing learning spaces it is often difficult to reconcile the different stakeholder wishes and values. During your keynote you gave a wonderful example about a start-up space, and how it was important to not simply give users what they say they want. Can you explain what we need to (better) understand?
Yes of course. I believe verbal communication has some intrinsic limitations, so we always want to challenge what people say before confirming it. We want to get to the core of what they mean, not just what they say. And for that, we have to not only take into account verbal communication, but also nonverbal cues and communication. Another thing to practice here is asking the right questions. When people say what they want, we always respond by exploring what makes them want that. Then we get to the core of the issue, where we can find some alignment between different stakeholders.
I understand you are writing a book. Can you tell us more about the audience and theme of the book?
Yes sure. The book is called Architecting Interactions: How to Innovate through Interactions. Even though this vision was born from Architecture, you will find by reading the book, it is relevant way beyond the profession of Architecture. While the application of the vision is undeniably very different in different fields, the principles remain the same. Every time I speak to a non-design related audience, I am again and again pleasantly surprised to hear how relevant this material is for them. I have been sharing this vision in talks for over 12 years and regardless of their field of work, their position in the company, their years of experience or their geographical location, people have repeatedly reported how relevant, suitable, inspiring and applicable they find this vision to be to their own work. So that’s why I have decided to put it all into a book.
Born and raised in the tumultuous city of Beirut, Stephanie Akkaoui Hughes was awarded her professional degree in Architecture with high honours at the American University of Beirut. In 2007, she joined the world renowned Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) where she spent 5 years practicing. During her time at OMA Stephanie built a deepened knowledge of the architecture profession leading major projects from design to completion; namely: the Qatar Foundation Headquarters, the Strategic Studies Center and the National Library of Qatar (http://www.qnl.qa).
In 2012, driven by her vision to practice architecture differently than the mainstream custom, Stephanie founded AKKA Architects, an architecture studio based in Amsterdam, The Netherlands (www.akkaarchitects.com). AKKA Architects are driven by a vision called Architecting Interaction. Based on Stephanie’s belief that interactions are the seeds of innovation, Architecting Interaction explores how spaces can foster interactions and nurture values. AKKA Architects’ clients include The Royal Institute of the Tropics, Triodos Bank, Hitachi Energy, DHL, The Dutch Ministry of Infrastructure, and The European Commission, among others.