Why The Building Industry Won't Innovate, How It Can and Why It Must
Monday, December 3, 2012 at 6:00PM
Ralph Kerle in Creative Leadership, Innovation, Innovation, arup, building, business, construction, creative leadership, creativity, engineering

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


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