« Strategic Thinking and Creativity: A Little Idea With A Long History | Main | Early Warning: A Global Business Model Tsunami Coming Your Way »

Why The Building Industry Won't Innovate, How It Can and Why It Must

Water Cube Beijing ModelI don't ever want to hear another engineer say I am not creative after attending a presentation on innovation and creativity by Tristan Carfrae, Senior Fellow at Arup, the designers and structural engineers  that include amongst their landmark projects the Water Cube for the Olympic Aquatic Centre, the Beijing Olympics and the construction of Sydney's famous Opera House.

What was particularly interesting about Carfrae's presentation was his proposition innovation in the building industry is very difficult and when you look at the simple physics of his proposition, he has a point.

Every building is a prototype that mustn't fail. In structural engineering, you just cannot fail or the building will fall down. Engineering is calculable but it is not the calculations which fail. It is what the engineer chooses to calculate that will bring about the failure. In this sense, engineers' thinking can be compared to the way artists work, yet, doctors have more flexibility in their choice of calculation than engineers according to Carfrae.  Building materials haven't changed over a long period of time and gravity won't change.

So why should the building industry innovate when it needs to be totally risk averse and perfect in its product delivery and implementation every time? After all, the common myth goes, innovation requires you fail often and fast!!

Our current global research and knowledge is telling us we are facing a human problem of epic proportions. The production of the basic building materials on which our civilization exists is depleting our natural resources. As the global population rushes towards 9 billion, our consumption is exceeding our resources. The destruction of the rainforests, the depletion of oil supplies, the failure to find reliable energy alternatives and food shortages offer compelling evidence of this occurring.

Under these circumstances, it is not a matter of innovation. It is just simple, obvious and urgent. We have to change the built environment fundamentally to survive!

Carfrae is an optimist who believes the building industry can do just that and his organization, Arup, a global firm of structural engineers, might just offer some insights as to the type of organization required to lead the innovation charge.

According to him, we need to create rewarding organisational environments where individuals want to work, allowing their free independent spirit to flow, in the process building self confidence to take the creative risks to bring about these profound changes - an organisational utopia with individual creative freedom, no less!

Ove Arup, a philosophy and mathematics major from the University of Copenhagen founded Arup in 1946 as aOve Arup result of his interest in applying intuition to common every day problems to arrive at engineering solutions, and then proving the engineering solutions mathematically. Preferring to bounce ideas around, he would get out his thick pencil and sketch ideas that came flooding out. He was renowned for his inability to finish sentences, the Danish accent he never lost increasing with his excitement. A fellow colleague described this phenomenon as ‘somebody continually throwing out coloured bubbles’. Arup became best know for his love and use of re-enforced concrete and his work in this area came to world prominence in the 60's as one of three members of the original design and construct team that built the Sydney Opera House.

It was Arup's study though as a philosopher that informed his belief that an individual can exist happily within an organisation which is perhaps his most important legacy.

Arup recognised individuals as being innately creative. He reasoned if you provided employees with the simple humanitarian conditions of self organisation and creative freedom, an employer gained loyalty, respect and integrity from the employee, these values became recognised and respected by stakeholders and as a consequence the organisation was seen as reasonable, reliable and ethical.

Arup used this philosophical framework as management protocols on which to build the organization and it is as unique to-day as it was then and is still at odds with almost ever other commercial organisation, regardless of industry.

Ove Arup on his retirement donated the organisation to its employees. It is owned in trust on behalf of its employees. There are almost 9000 staff, affectionately referred to as Arupians, working in 92 offices in over 37 countries. At any one time, Arup has over 10 000 projects running concurrently. The organisation has made a profit every year for over 60 years. There are no shareholders and no borrowings. The firm cannot raise funds and cannot be sold.

Even odder, there is no formal hierarchical management structure whatsoever for this behemoth. There is a Board made up of Arup partners and Carfrae admits the Board has no power whatsoever to direct the firm or its employees. It meets on a regular basis to discuss nothing more than the philosophy of the organisation, its strategies and its work practices.

  Water Cube Rough DrawingsWhen an employee joins Arup, the only induction offered is the Key Speech, a 15 page philosophical article written by Ove Arup in 1970. In it, Arup exhorts his partners to understand the social value of good work as opposed to what Arup called the Henry Ford model that argues work is a necessary evil. He outlines "Total Architecture" an holistic approach to building in which architects, engineers and builders must have equal representation on any design team working in any built environment to produce the key result - good quality. The inductee is told the key to "Total Architecture and Good Quality" is collaboration.

Having read this article, the new Arup employee seeks out and self selects projects that hold his interest. He joins the project team with the knowledge he will be treated as an equal to commence and be required to think creatively and innovatively as the first principle of engagement.

This enshrinement of self organisating collaboration within the organisation permits employees to determine what they want to do and what they want to be - to follow their passion in other words. Arup are the first to admit this model doesn't work for everyone and their payment structure does not make their partners the highest paid in the industry. However, if you discover sales and deal doing is your passion then that's the specialisation you can pursue. Likewise if you discover you passion is design,  that is what you pursue. Indeed, one of the outcomes of passionate specialisation is the incidental recognition Arup often receives, such as being regarded as one of the world's leading sound designers in building construction.

Carfrae jokingly but proudly says when external professional services consultants were asked recently by Arup to assess their business model, they informed them they did not have one!!

Yet with a track record of 52 years of continual profits with no financial borrowings and a highly creative and engaged self-organising workforce designing, engineering and building some of the world's most innovative structures, Arup's business model or lack of it speaks for itself.

Its recent involvement in the Water Cube Olympics Swimming Pool project at the Beijing Olympics demonstrated that it continues even after 50 years to set the standards for innovation in design and structural engineering globally.

The design thinking behind the Water Cube consortium, a collaboration between PTW, CCDI and Arup, posed the highlyWater Cube Swimming Complex, Beijing innovative question - how can a structure inhabit a 3 dimensional space in its own right? The solution was found in two layers of pillows, made out of a material similar to transparent Teflon, wrapped around a re-enforced steel structure. The pillows formed a pattern that related directly to the structure, in the process insulating the environment from green house gasses externally whilst generating clean heat for internal use. This transparent box of bubbles, as it is now being referred to, afforded natural light and the right acoustic properties in a noisy jam packed environment.

Carfrae points out that like all creative endeavours, nobody knew what the final outcome would be like when the building was finally opened some months before the Olympics.

The former Chinese President Mr Hu Jintao had no doubt when in his 70 minute pre-Olympic open media conference with the Western press prior to the Opening Ceremony said "the Australian-designed "water cube" swimming centre is a model for China's development, making "the skies clearer, the land greener and the water cleaner".

In this project, Arup manifests the thinking required and demonstrates there is a genuine possibility for the building industry to innovate for clients and the benefit of mankind simultaneously. It is also possible, in this project, to see the type and structure of an organization most likely to develop and deliver such deep innovation.

However, Arup is only one example in an ocean of conservativism and they have taken 50 years to get there!

So next time an engineer says to you he is not creative, look him hard in the face and challenge him. "Stop lying. Engineers are the most creative people in the world" and watch him smile knowingly. Then challenge him to use his powerful creative knowledge to change his industry and thus, the world.

Photographs and Drawing were supplied by Arup. Ben McMillan is the photographer and the drawing is by PTW + CCI + Arup


Reader Comments (6)

Great article Ralph. We definitely run across this issue everyday.

December 11, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterTats

Ralph: Good piece on the conservative nature of building – because it must obey the laws of physics over time, and design is geared to older materials, architecture has been a very change-resistant practice. This requires a careful assessment of what the actual “building box” looks and acts like, and how it can be played inside and outside to achieve new results. But the way we live within dwellings adds to the issue, because people choose the habits of living they know and respect over those that might be improvements but have yet to be proven by communal use. These factors mitigate against innovation.
Regards, Margaret

Margaret J. King, Ph.D.
The Center for Cultural Studies & Analysis
1123 Montrose Street
Philadelphia, PA 19147
phone: 215 592-8544
fax: 215 413-9041

December 11, 2012 | Registered CommenterRalph Kerle

While in principal I agree with most of what you say.

The point that you don't mention is that much of the innovation is actually at the coal face. On a daily basis the contractor is faced with finding innovative construction solutions to meet with ever more complex engineering design at times simply challenging the laws of physics.

With the infinite options that will be available in the near future as computers and design further push the boundaries of what the humble tradesman ultimately builds!

In the beginning there were no architects or engineers. Just builders, the past and future of innovation.

David Ogilvy,
Group Business Manager
Beach Constructions. Sydney Australia

December 11, 2012 | Registered CommenterRalph Kerle

Love your comment, David. Interesting observation because the point I was trying to make was that it is in the building materials that innovation must be found and that occurs before the coal face in the planning stage most often. And regrettably, that is where the innovation laziness and conservatism lies.

December 11, 2012 | Registered CommenterRalph Kerle

What I read was interesting and I think this is a fascinating topic. Having spent 27 years in a research engineering environment (designing and building the physical internet ie lasers/fibre optics etc – the infrastructure for existing global communications), I observed a few things about engineers and how they work. If we take the generation of IPR as a measure of creative behaviour, I would estimate in the lab where I was based that only about 10- 15% of the 1200 engineers produced most of the patents. However IPR includes other things like copyright and design rights but these are much less lucrative for industry than patents. If you own a patent you legally prevent a competitor from being able to do what you can but if you own a design right it’s not a challenge to most engineers to do a different design. I would argue that design has lower creative status than patents at least in the world of technology where aesthetics is only important in the last stages of product development. In architecture it’s probably the other way round nowadays where function and form are equally important from the outset, but I’m not sure of the role of patents in this area, and how much this influences design.

In the last 15 years or so there has been a pleasing geometrical trend in architecture away from the rectangle and straight line to the circle and the curve, and in London for example there are some beautiful circular structures now such as the GLC offices and the ‘gherkin’. I was curious to find out what started this and someone suggested that it hadn’t been possible earlier because the materials and building techniques were not developed. I didn’t buy this because there are plenty of historical precedents of circularity and the first dwellings were circular because this is the only shape that gives the maximum surface area for the minimum circumference which saves on the amount of material needed to create a shelter. When it comes to modern housing designed for a growing population of course the rectangle is the best shape if you wish to maximise the number of separate units in a given space because the sides of the circumference can be shared. This trend towards more aesthetically pleasing structures I suspect was more to do with the current expression of the marriage of art and architecture, though it’s hard to attach either to an underpinning philosophy in these times. Maybe with the continued victory in recent times of science in the religion versus science wars, that the church is no longer the only structure that should be designed to inspire as well as having a function. Maybe also that the office is now a place for personal development rather than work, this has influenced design in other buildings – work here and you will be transformed!

Interestingly design in architecture has a hidden history which architects conveniently ignore. This was brought to my attention by a Ph.D student that I was mentoring a couple of years ago. Oddly enough she was studying electronics and was looking at generalised methods for solving certain software design problems and she came across the idea of ‘patterns’ in architecture as a metaphor to apply in her field. She discovered the work of Christopher Alexander who pioneered this concept and was able to apply his technique to solve software problems. Here’s a link to his work: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christopher_Alexander

When I first read about this I got really interested because it seemed like a living example of what Hermann Hesse was talking about in his great work ‘The Glass Bead Game’ (which I understood as a game without form that had rules/guidelines which when applied in combination led to outcomes that could then be put into any less abstracted form to produce a new creation whether it be music, art, philosophy, architecture etc.). Methinks this is the true nature of creativity that can accommodate those more ethereal beliefs that suggest creativity is a mystery.

I’ve gone off at a tangent here – just some random thoughts inspired by your e-mail…..

Dr Kevin Byron
Freelance trainer and developer at ETC(Education & Training in Creativity)
Chelmsford United Kingdom

December 11, 2012 | Registered CommenterRalph Kerle

Nice article Ralph. Being an engineer of a different kind I loved it. No pictures or graphics in the blog version. I will share with others in CCL.

David Magellan Horth
Senior Fellow
Center for Creative Leadership
Greensboro, North Carolina. USA

December 11, 2012 | Registered CommenterRalph Kerle

PostPost a New Comment

Enter your information below to add a new comment.

My response is on my own website »
Author Email (optional):
Author URL (optional):
Some HTML allowed: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <code> <em> <i> <strike> <strong>