The Community that Makes the Center: the Whiteboards of IQSS' Corridors

November 24, 2021
Gary King
by Gary King

IQSS director Gary King reflects on the origins of the writing surfaces that cover the hallways of the Institute, as featured in a recent article by the Harvard Gazette.

When I started IQSS, I interviewed many current and former Harvard deans and presidents (and others) to figure out what made the best centers. Places like the legendary Cavendish in London, Bell Labs, ISR, and others. Everyone I spoke to had a different story but wound up in the same place. One person would say, "You've got to have great space," but then would eventually say "but some of the great centers don't have great space." Or: "You've got to have a lot of funding," but then they'd conclude that it isn't about money. And on and on. But eventually every single one of these people wound up in the same place: community. It is the intellectual community that makes the center. At IQSS, I had a specific notion of how to do that (described in this article I wrote about IQSS; this method wound up working great!)

Whiteboard with arranged post-its and a written diagram topped with the text

But at the same time, when we were moving into the new CGIS building, Harry Cobb (the main architect of the complex) asked me what IQSS had to put on the walls in our new space. All the other centers had great photos of times past. We were a new institute just getting set up and so without much past, and besides we were entirely forward looking, so we didn't have any old B&W photos of (mostly) men in suits! (We're not all men and almost none of us wear suits anyway.) Old photos also didn't help with community. So I asked Harry whether it was possible to get some really big white boards and put them up instead. He looked into it and came back to me and said, "Gary, I know exactly what you want," and he found this whiteboard wall paper, which was an innovative material back then. That was perfect, I told him.

Two people holding coffee cups and discussing something written on an IQSS whiteboard

The whiteboards in IQSS have a terrific impact. Instead of people peeking at photos as they walk by, the instead pour out of their offices and work on real problems together in the hallways. The hallways on the 3rd floor of CGIS are not merely connectors of different spaces; they are integral parts of the building. They help us build community, house community, and improve our community. But instead of taking my word for it, come hang out in the hallways, see the IQSS community in action; we'd love for you to join us.