Business Innovation Factory

Innovation Story Studio

Charlie Cannon

Architect and designer, LOCAL Architecture Research Design

Charlie Cannon

As an architect and designer, Charlie Cannon solves problems. But for Cannon, who is as concerned with what design does as he is with how it looks, the big problems aren’t about bricks and mortar. Whether he’s designing a new coffee house or helping a community make informed choices about alternative energy, Cannon seeks to understand how people interact with their environment and use design to build stronger, more sustainable communities.

During more than 15 years of practice, Cannon’s work has focused on how design supports and sustains companies, schools, neighborhoods, or in some cases, entire ecosystems. Through his work at LOCAL Architecture Research and Design, which he co-founded in 2005, Cannon applies his skill as an architect and background in anthropology to rethink the design of buildings, information systems, objects and experiences.

"I have come to think of what LOCAL does as a kind of urban acupuncture," he says. "We try to catalyze broad improvements within the communities in which we work by aligning organizational objectives with designed structures, both physical and virtual.” In this approach to problem solving, design isn’t icing on the cake, it’s an integral ingredient in creating the places and experiences that define a community landscape.

Designing Collaborative Innovation

For Cannon, BIF's Chief Design Strategist, innovative problem solving is about building interdisciplinary teams that cut across disciplines and traditional public and private sector boundaries. In practice, he believes that “true innovation means admitting that the problems we face are complicated and that the best solutions are found where expertise and disciplines overlap.”

Despite the challenges of turning this idea into action, Cannon has become remarkably adept at bringing diverse teams of collaborators together to create spaces and experiences that deliver maximum value to the people they serve. In 2003, Cannon became an integral part of a diverse team that is helping transform a dilapidated steel mill into The Steel Yard (, a community center for arts and technical training located in the heart of Providence Rhode Island’s historic industrial center.

With an industrial shop featuring a foundry, ceramics studio, blacksmithing shop, and welding shop, as well as studio, outdoor work, and exhibition space, the Steel Yard is a multi-use venue that supports artist development programs, career training, and small business incubation. The Steel Yard, which plays a vital role in supporting Rhode Island’s world class arts and cultural activities, is a perfect example of how a space can reflect and support the broader needs of a community.

Cannon also uses teaching as a way to explore the frontiers of interdisciplinary design. As an adjunct faculty member at the Rhode Island School of Design [RISD], Cannon teaches in an Innovation Studio in which students explore complex problems like the design of landfill mining operations, eco-industrial parks, power plants and municipal waste systems through interdisciplinary collaboration. Featured in publications like the Chronicle of Higher Education, Metropolis Magazine, and Archis Magazine, Cannon’s method for creating collaboration across disciplines has garnered international attention. At RISD Cannon has twice been nominated for the prestigious Frazier Teaching Award.

Cannon believes his work reflects a growing recognition of the role design can play in solving complicated problems. “Whether you are talking about innovating in education or building an ecologically smart office space, design thinking is critical to improving our economy, environment, governmental practices, and ultimately, our lives.”