Platform 12 is an unconventional space where artists, academics and engineers come to dream up the products and technologies of the future
On the top floor of Bosch’s €300 million research campus in Renningen, near Stuttgart, is a bright, airy room where the curious come to indulge their creative fantasies. Surrounded by glass on three sides, this spacious, open-plan facility is crammed full of gadgets and gizmos to encourage people to think and play. There’s 3D printers and Raspberry Pi’s; crates of Lego and modelling clay; banks of whiteboards and LCD screens. It’s an Aladdin’s cave for the artistically-minded.
Platform 12, as it is known, is where inventors and makers come for moments of inspiration. It’s an experimental place where even the vaguest concepts and half-formed ideas can be explored in a collaborative environment, without the confines of commercial pressure. It exists to help free the mind and to foster the boldest spirit of innovation.
“The Renningen campus was established as Bosch’s own Stanford, a place where not only employees but artists and academics come together to think about applied research in entrepreneurial and collaborative ways,” says Birgit Thoben, senior innovation manager at Bosch.
“But we also wanted to produce a specific innovation zone, a totally different kind of space where our designers and engineers could come to relax, talk, be inspired and create. The answer was Platform 12. It’s a facility that really does encourage true freedom of expression.”
Bosch puts great emphasis on creativity, with employees encouraged to spend ten per cent of working hours on projects that fall outside their ordinary remit. The company believes that continuous learning can only be achieved by taking time to think and reflect, and the Renningen facilities have been designed to enable such productive moments to take place.
There are quiet zones and collaboration spaces dotted around the site. Laptops, tablet computers, and high-bandwidth wi-fi means that work can be done in every corner of the campus. The layout was designed to ensure that individuals are encouraged to meet up, interact, and work together on new ideas. Indeed, on average, each associate at the research campus is just ten meters away from the nearest meeting room.
That desire to encourage people to think and explore ideas together provided the ethos for Platform 12. “The facility is open six days a week, from 6am to 10pm, and there is no need to schedule a visit,” says Thoben. “People come when they want, just to be inspired and to think, or to use the equipment that we have here to make and create. There’s a strong sense of collaboration: often, someone will leave what they’ve been developing on one of the workbenches, and someone else will pick it up and take it forward. We find that one idea often leads to another.”
There’s no doubt that Platform 12 is an unconventional space, providing a literal escape from the norm. There’s a huge, elevated seat with glorious views of the Swabian countryside, where people sit and muse. Unique installations are scattered about, such as the collection of putters and golf balls painted black to resemble planets or the “time machine” that uses sand from an hourglass to pop a balloon. Every installation within Platform 12 is there to unshackle the mind from everyday thoughts and to encourage problem solving.
To the untrained eye, some aspects of Platform 12 might seem rather surreal. All of the clocks on the walls are intentionally wrong, acting as an annoyance in a place where conventional time means nothing. The purpose is to change one’s perspective, and to encourage users of the facility to think in the moment.
Then there’s the artists within Platform 12, who are recruited as fellowships to perform the role of critical thinkers. Changing every three months, these artists are carefully chosen in association with Bosch partners Wimmelforschung and Akademie Schloss Solitude. They come from a range of disciplines such as architecture, visual arts, performing arts, sound and design, and are there to observe and prompt. They are modern-day muses whose reflections help to oil the cogs of creative thought, providing advice and guidance as half-formed ideas begin to take shape.
“We designed Platform 12 to be a very flexible and fluid facility, with no hierarchy or structure,” says Thoben. “Thought processes are not always linear – creativity doesn’t always happen in a logical series of steps. The use of the artists to support the ideation process reflects that. They offer an outside perspective, and their objective analysis and evaluation is an invaluable part of what goes on here.”
Thoben admits that Platform 12 is an unorthodox place that, at times, seems to border on the idiosyncratic. “That’s a good thing,” she says. “It’s all about providing an environment that allows people to think with real freedom. There’s no pressure placed on employees who come here. Failure is accepted. It’s only by encouraging people to express themselves that true freedom of thought will occur.”
It’s not just Bosch employees that make the most of Platform 12. The company has more than 600 connections with local colleges and universities, and students are encouraged to visit the facility. The quirkiness of the place has helped shift perceptions of Bosch, away from that of a traditional, engineering company towards a modern, vibrant organisation that places great emphasis on creativity and individuality.
“The students are often surprised that this place even exists,” says Thoben. “They are wowed by how Platform 12 looks and feels, and by the freedom it offers. We learn lots from them, too. Our links with academics helps connect us to the new. These relationships give us a valuable insight to cutting-edge research taking place within some prestige organisations. Also, one-day these students will be looking for roles within industry. We hope they will remember Platform 12 and think of Bosch as exciting place to work. So, there is mutual benefit.”
Looking forward, Thoben will continue to oversee the development of Platform 12, charting its expansion and ensuring that it meets the needs of those whose use it. Bosch suggests that it takes the exploration of around 100 ideas to find the one that ticks all the boxes and can be moved successfully through the product development process to commercialisation. Platform 12 is a crucial facet of that creative effort.
“I love my involvement with Platform 12,” she adds. “I worked as a researcher at Bosch for many years, so to be given the chance to develop this facility, and to apply my knowledge in such a creative way, is nothing short of a dream come true.”
About the author: Lee Hibbert is a business and technology journalist with more than 20 years’ experience. He was the long-standing editor of Professional Engineering magazine, the flagship title of the prestigious London-based Institution of Mechanical Engineers, which is circulated to 110,000 engineers worldwide.