Curiosity and the TSA: How Modern Art, Mickey Mouse and Bank Robbers Improved Airport Security

360º Room For All Colours, 2002 by Olafur Eliasson

360º Room For All Colours, 2002 by Olafur Eliasson

A few years back, our team hit a wall. The TSA hired IDEO to envision the future of airport security and improve the experience. We had a breakthrough: if we calmed the atmosphere at the checkpoint, we could improve the passenger experience while also improving security by making it much easier for the TSA to detect any individuals with real “hostile intent.” But how should we bring the idea to life within the airport?

We had explored the obvious ideas and nothing was jumping out at us. With our clients arriving the next day we agreed it was time for an inspiration intervention. The SFMOMA was hosting the Olafur Eliasson exhibition, Take Your Time. So we packed up our team - including our clients - and spent an afternoon at the museum. Eliasson’s immersive installations provided a much needed boost. 

This kind of activity right in the middle of a stressful project can seem frivolous - or even irresponsible. After all, we had plenty of work to do back at the office. But the investment paid off. Our group wandered through the exhibition, interacted with the art, noticing how each piece affected our mood and shaped our behavior. Eliasson’s work can be at times disorienting, awe-inspiring, seductive, and just plain curious. There was one piece in particular that stopped us all in our tracks. It was the the 360º Room For All Colours. The walls of this round room slowly shifted in color over time. We were all mesmerized, charmed and instantly calmed.

This shared experience triggered a whole new area of exploration. We agreed that a multi-sensory experience could create a calm but dynamic environment for passengers and TSA staff. Our prototype, installed at the Baltimore-Washington Airport (BWI), included 6 light walls directly inspired by Eliasson’s work.

Checkpoint prototype at BWI Airport, photo by Nicholas Zurcher, IDEO

Checkpoint prototype at BWI Airport, photo by Nicholas Zurcher, IDEO

The SFMOMA excursion wasn’t our first - or last - use of an analogous experience to inspire fresh thinking about airport security. Early in the project, our team visited Disneyland to see how The Happiest Place on Earth moves 40,000 guests through the park each day. We were struck by their thoughtful and entertaining “line-management” techniques. Disneyland has invested heavily in shortening actual - and perceived - time spent in line. We loved the FastPass system, the clear communication of wait times, how they dispatch Disney characters to interact with guests in the longest lines and use the line to develop a richer story around the ride. While we decided against creating characters of our own, we did use the queue to tell the story of the dedicated TSO’s (Transportation Security Officers) who work the checkpoint and keep us safe.

Later in the project we met with Special Agent Larry Carr, the FBI’s leading expert in bank robbery prevention. Amazingly, he managed to bring down bank robberies in the Seattle area by almost 50% in the first year of his SafeCatch program! We had to know more. After all, airport security isn’t only about finding explosives, it’s about making the airport an unappealing target and deterring terrorism.

Agent Carr’s counter-intuitive insight, that attentive customer service is the best deterrent to a potential bank robber, inspired our team and informed our design of the TSO training program.

Olafur Eliasson, Disneyland and Special Agent Carr were all instrumental in shaping our vision of the future of airport security. These types of experiences can be powerful innovation levers for companies.

It takes curiosity to wonder how different people, organizations and industries solve similar problems. It takes creativity to choose the most fruitful places to look for inspiration. It takes courage to leave the office, get out in the world, and have new experiences with no guarantee of gaining new insight. And it’s one of the single best investments a company can make to inspire innovation. 

New experiences can energize teams, spark new conversations and trigger breakthroughs. At Curiosity Atlas, we design and facilitate inspiring experiences for your team and challenge. Drop us a line if you’d like to talk.