Are architects afraid of innovation?

Are architects afraid of innovation? Big board with post-its

Since 2015, the AIA Strategic Council’s Innovative Business Models Working Group has been working to dispel the idea that architects fear new ideas.

Through research and feedback from peers, the AIA Strategic Council’s Innovative Business Models Working Group questions the assumption that architects "dismiss new ideas"

When it comes to innovation, AIA’s Culture Collective—a group at the forefront of the Institute’s Repositioning efforts—has noted: “For professionals who see a world of possibility, there’s a curious predisposition to dismiss new ideas, innovative practice models, and non-traditional services.” As a profession, do we accept this comment or do we challenge it? AIA’s Strategic Council has chosen to challenge it.

Since it was established in 2015, each year the Strategic Council has engaged a working group to explore innovation within the practice of architecture. In 2015, the Innovative Business Models Working Group posed this question: “As client, technology and building types change, what kinds of business models work best for flexibility and how can AIA encourage innovation?”

A portion of their work focused on the fact that AIA is in a unique position to further research for the architectural profession and, through this research, can increase research literacy in the profession, enable and support research within the profession, and illustrate and celebrate existing research. This work was built from, and has continued through several new research initiatives by groups within AIA, including the Research Summit.

In 2016, the previous year’s working group reconvened with the following charge: “Innovation in our business practice is crucial to our relevance and viability as a profession. What can we do to bolster efforts of firms to innovate in productive ways?” The group distilled their work into three questions:

  1. How do we identify examples of exemplary business practices, and how do we award/recognize them?
  2. How do we communicate best practices to the academy and AIA members, and, how does this influence life-long education?
  3. How do architects benchmark with other professions?

With those questions in mind, it was determined that a great deal of quality work in those areas is already occurring within various AIA Knowledge Communities, local components, and other AIA groups. However, the sharing of this information was found to be challenging. Therefore, there appears to be an opportunity for a new sharing platform. This led to the working group’s proposal of a TED Talk-format speaking engagement that can be held in multiple locations, featuring practitioners who are breaking the mold by stepping into methods of practice that are considered innovative.

In 2017, a new group of councilors reconvened based on the concept of “innovative business models” with a focus on increased prosperity for the profession. Furthermore, they were challenged by AIA’s Board of Directors with this question: "How can AIA help our members to define, elevate, and celebrate innovative business models that are relevant to emerging market conditions?"

The group immediately began examining the current state of affairs surrounding this challenge by engaging as many key stakeholders and Institute bodies as possible. Among the key constituencies is the newly formed AIA Center for Practice, which we hope will become the new research sharing platform envisioned in 2016. In addition, over the last several years AIA has partnered with DesignIntelligence in the development of the AIA Foresight Report, which discusses trends and insights that affect the practice and business of architecture. We have also looked outside the Institute for as many resources and examples of innovation as possible.

Further, we realized that we needed greater clarity about what was being suggested when people speak about business models. This led to a deeper understanding that fundamental business principles are the key to the success of any business entity, including an architectural practice. Without them, nothing happens. Therefore, if we can appropriately educate and inform our next generation of architects, our emerging professionals, and anyone struck by the entrepreneurial bug—be that early, mid or late career—then we as a profession will be positioned to reassert ourselves as leaders of the built environment. Once we have this foundational knowledge, we can apply the research and analytics necessary to explore innovation whenever and wherever it may occur, from either disruptive or progressive sources.

As the 2016 working group identified, one of the biggest challenges is sharing this information, as well as absorbing the information captured. The 2017 working group has begun to identify common threads throughout the industry, but we also understand the challenges that will come with changing the culture of the profession in order to maintain our relevance within the built environment. Moreover, the work of the Strategic Council is based more on dialogue than issuing edicts. With that in mind, we would like to invite an open communication with AIA members. We welcome your thoughts on the following questions:

  • What are your experiences with innovation?
  • What sources of innovation, either disruptive or progressive, are you experiencing?
  • What opportunities or barriers do you see to innovation within your own practice, and how can AIA be a better resource for you?

Please email us at StrategicCouncil@aia.org with any response you may have. The Strategic Council will be looking to you, the AIA member, to help us prove the comment by AIA’s Culture Collective wrong and not only maintain our relevance but increase it.

About the authors: Bruce D. Turner, AIA, is the Strategic Council’s regional representative from New Jersey and the convener of the Innovative Business Models Working Group. Charles L. “Chip” Desmone II, AIA, is the regional representative from Pennsylvania. Michael L. Elliott, AIA, is the regional representative from Illinois. Jeffery Ferweda, AIA, is the regional representative from Michigan. Robert E. Walker, AIA, is the regional representative from the Gulf States.

Image credits

Are architects afraid of innovation? Big board with post-its

Chris Strong/Getty Images

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