Originally published on the NAIS Annual Conference Online Community.
I experienced an inspirational story of innovation at the NAIS Annual Conference last week that filled me with optimism about the future of educational change in our schools. Doris Korda and Scott Looney (Hawken School) described an alternative high school program built around entrepreneurship and then unveiled an ambitious new project to reinvent the high school transcript and convince colleges to learn how to use it. I left feeling that we are indeed experiencing a moment of significant transition in independent schools that will help more students fully realize their potential. Then, I walked across the street to the Metreon.
Moscone Center’s giant, floor-to-ceiling east windows face the Metreon. You are forgiven if you think that it is just a Target, but the giant company only recently arrived. In 1999, Sony opened the Metreon in order to reinvent the urban mall as an entertainment/education center. It was a bold, unique pilot project. Original tenants included the first Sony Store, the first Microsoft store, an educational exhibit titled “The Way Things Work,” and a theme park-esque food court and play area based on the Sendak book, Where the Wild Things Are. The architecture was modern, and technology was everywhere. Kids danced on an interactive game projected on the floor, and kiosks sold the latest tech gadgets.
Despite much fanfare, the project stumbled out of the gate. Within a year, some stores left and were replaced. In 2006, Sony sold the building to Westfield, and in 2012, the mall company remodeled the space into a more recognizable form. An upscale, international food court and the aforementioned Target swallowed up the spaces formerly devoted to technology showcase stores, and the Wild Things gave way to a plainer, rentable, event space. Only the multiplex movie theater on the top floor and two of the food court options survived to this day. The building exterior now features red bulls-eyes, marking Target’s current experiment in downtown retail spaces.
Where did the Metreon go wrong, and what lessons can schools take away for their own innovative projects? Though my expertise lies in schools, not urban retail, I can see likely reasons. Sony invested huge dollars, $85 million according to SFGate, in the high stakes gamble. This must have led to massive pressure for the project to bear financial results right away. Successful innovations start small, with low-cost, low-risk pilots, to protect the innovation in its early stages and allow it to flounder, improve, and mature.
The financial model was apparently flawed from the start. In 1999, showcase stores did not make money (at least not until Apple Stores broke through). The added entertainment value of educational exhibits and storybook restaurants work in venues that charge admission, such as theme parks and museums. While design for innovation must welcome creative ideas, it’s equally important to confront practical realities later in the process and have a viable business model.
Sony attempted to change deeply embedded cultural habits of people wholesale and quickly. Even if Sony had protected the innovation longer, and the project was based on a better financial model, people’s shopping and entertainment habits still would not have changed in a short time. Successful innovations take a more personal, and longer-term approach to cultural change.
Will Hawken’s entrepreneurship program last? Will the mastery transcript consortium redefine the college application? We have learned a lot about innovation in education in recent years. I suspect that they have a better chance than that mall across the street.
Metreon’s shattered dreams (SFGate)
San Francisco Metreon 2.0: ‘Mall Of The Future’ Gets A Face Lift (Huffington Post)