Decibels of Innovation

While deadlines don’t wait for divine inspiration, there are ways to coax along the innovation process

By
Abbie Westra, Editor-in-Chief, Convenience Store Products

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I’m currently sitting in a bustling coffee shop, letting the crunch of the coffee grinder and chatter of the patrons subdue me into a state of creativity. Is it working? I’ll find out soon enough.

Researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign last year published a study on the effects of noise levels on people’s abilities to brainstorm ideas for new products. They found that the ambient noise of a typical coffee shop—about 70 decibels—was perfect for triggering creativity. 

The study went on to explain that while extreme quiet is good for projects that require close attention and less creativity, such as doing your taxes, it also keeps you from thinking in the abstract. That hyper-focus on the task at hand doesn’t let your brain wander—for better or worse. 

But moderate levels of noise, such as at the coffee shop, can actually get you to think more broadly. The subtle distractions allow your brain to set aside a task instead of spinning its wheels.

“… [If] you’re too focused on a problem and you’re not able to solve it, you leave it for some time and then come back to it and you get the solution,” Ravi Mehta, an assistant professor of business administration at the university, told The New York Times in a recent article about the study.

Of course, someone has already found a way to capitalize on these findings. A website called Coffitivity allows listeners to play a soundtrack of coffee-shop buzz from their computer. You can listen live online or download an app to your desktop or phone. The site was launched last March and has since become extremely popular. Seoul is its top user city, followed by New York, London, Los Angeles and Chicago. The company receives requests for specific coffee-shop soundtracks, from an Australian version for Aussies who hate the sound of American accents to a special request from a Rabbi for the distinctive Hebrew din of a Jewish learning center he frequents.

The founders of Coffitivity came up with the idea while brainstorming ideas for another startup. They had been making creative inroads when working at local coffee shops but hit a lull when their manager forced them to stay in the office. So they decided to bring the coffee shop to their desks. Whether they came up with the great startup they initially set out to create—well, sounds like they did.

The spark of innovation is a sneaky thing. It rarely comes to you when you’re looking for it—or if it does, it happens, like Mehta said, in a roundabout way.  So while deadlines don’t wait for divine inspiration, there are ways to coax it along by immersing yourself in the right physical space. (Mehta’s research has also found that a blue background screen on your computer fosters creativity, while a red one helps with detail-oriented tasks.)

So did the hum of the coffee shop—the artsy tunes and whirl of the milk steamer, the parka-encased customers thawing over lattes and fellow workers furrowing their brows over laptop screens—inspire me to think creatively today? Well, I walked in 20 minutes ago with no idea what I’d write for this column. Looks like I’ll be downloading that app right about now.           

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