Practice Innovation Workshop Recap

Group of eight professionals sitting at a round table discussing philanthropic opportunities for architecture firms

The 2019 AIA Wisconsin Fall Workshop focused on “Practice Innovation.” The Workshop explored the future of the profession, the practice of architecture, and the industry trends that affect us. Kicking off the day, local expert Chandra Miller Feinen of StartingBlock Madison shared how her company supports start-up companies and entrepreneurship, entrepreneur characteristics versus architects, and experience in working with architects to develop a space conducive to entrepreneurs. Tom Fisher, with the Minnesota Design Center, set the stage for our architectural industry’s foresight explaining the evolution of our practice, the economic trends happening around us, and the emerging concept for the “Sharing Economy” trend.

With these new ideas in mind, the participants broke-out into small workshop groups to explore and construct the ideal architectural practice or innovation for our profession’s future. Facilitators assisted the groups in identifying strategic goals and services, as well as strategies for messaging and communicating services to a target audience. The day then culminated in shark-tank style, group pitches to a judging panel. Following the workshop, there was an optional tour of the “The Spark Building” and the StartingBlock Madison offices, led by Chandra Miller Fienen and the designers from Epstein Uhen Architects.

Entrepreneurs versus Architects

Miller Fienen shared her perspectives in working with both entrepreneurs and architects, as the director of StartingBlock Madison. Although both may be creatives and optimists, the most striking difference lies in our views of failure. Entrepreneurs believe in Thomas Edison’s quote, “I have not failed, I have just found 10,000 things that do not work,” or John Maxwell’s “Fail early, fail often, but always fail forward.” Whereas the architects’ reference of failure is in building or structural failures, and therefore something to avoid. This has a real effect on the architect’s ability to pursue practice innovation strategies.

Entrepreneurs also tend to have a circular process or one that loops back: generating an idea, developing it, implementing it, and then reevaluating. For architects, the end of the project is the beginning of the clients use. Post-occupancy reports and getting feedback is not a built-in loop for most current practice models.

The key to innovation is not only to understand the problem to solve, but also to have the foresight to think outside the box. Architects need to develop a process to get to the answers for questions that the client doesn’t know to ask. As Henry Ford said, “If I asked people what they wanted, they would have said ‘faster horses,’” when the future led to the development of something they had never even considered. This analogy ties closely to the role of the architect and will be to our benefit as we approach our profession’s future. Miller Fienen shared three entrepreneurial companies having an effect on architecture right now: Arch Virtual, a virtual reality rendering company; Curate, a company that uses Artificial Intelligence (AI) to identify and aggregate public information and records; and Build It Fab, a company that utilizes visualization scenes to sell their lighting. She also conveyed the importance for architects to communicate according to your clients’ communication style to be the most effective.

The New Economy Flips the Old One on Its Head

The reality of the current practice of architecture and its delivery methods are still based in the post-industrial revolution era. Fisher revealed the shifts in our 21st century life and economy that are affecting the role of the architect and what is designed/produced: environmental shifts/sustainable practice needs, evolving work patterns incorporating flexible schedules, remote/virtual officing, collaborative learning and work spaces, vehicle expense and commuting pattern shifts, Uber, AirBNB, 3-D printing production evolutions, Amazon delivery models, on-demand and subscription services, etc. These new patterns have contributed to Fisher’s definition of the “Sharing Economy, an umbrella term for similarly emerging concepts that capitalize on new methods of interaction facilitated by centralized online platforms:”

  • The Gig Economy – Connecting employers with contract-based roles (Freelancer & Udemy)
  • On-Demand – Delivering a product or service through an online platform that matches expressed supply and demand in real time (Netflix & Spotify)
  • Crowd Economy – Connecting participants with the purpose of achieving a goal of mutual interest (Mechanical Turk & MyCrowd)
  • Collaborative Consumption – Sharing, swapping, trading or renting products and services (Thredup, Zipcar, & Helpling)
  • Peer to Peer – Buying or selling assets or services in a decentralized economic model of peer to peer networks and platforms (EasyRoomate & Small Business Barter Exchange Services)
  • Collaborative Economy – Unlocking the value of underused assets by matching needs through peer to peer networks (ParkFlyRent)

Practice Innovations

After the presentations, participants broke into small groups to develop their own practice innovation, to brainstorm new ways to deliver services or perform work in the architectural profession. They self-selected topics/models that fit their interests: Profit, Process, Product, or Philanthropy. The following are the results of the brainstorming session:

Inte-Great! (Profit)

This team developed a subscription business model, where clients pay a monthly fee for facility “asset management” over the typical single project delivery services. They could advise on a regular basis when maintenance projects or programming updates need to occur, monitor/evaluate system performance, and whether to remodel or build new. They believe they could provide better services due to the long-term knowledge base of the facilities and enhanced relationships. This idea was revered for developing better relationships between architect and client and offering more roles for the architect than just design.

Shift (Profit)

This team looked to expand (or take back) the role and services of the architect. They will offer a more wholistic approach to projects, from early on in a project with site selections, market studies, re-zoning applications, etc., all the way to the end and leading construction management and post-occupant surveys. This team was commended for their great presentation and ideas for “end-to-end coverage” of the built environment.

A-Harmony (Process)

This team modeled its business after E-Harmony, connecting the public to architects. They saw challenges for the public finding compatible partnerships with architects, and this company would “take the mystery out of working with a design professional.” They would set up an application and algorithm platform to create the matches and generate revenue through subscriptions by architects and advertisements. One reviewer thought this could give good exposure to different design problems.

Blues (Process)

This group seeks to redefine the “Blues,” blueprints that is. Their software would provide 3D optical scans of spaces and equipment of client’s properties, develop a data-sharing cooperative, and offer integrative tools for all aspects of the design process utilizing easy-to-use virtual reality and artificial intelligence. They are confident it will improve the process of project delivery and increase levels of client satisfaction and profits. Their presentation was memorable, since it also tied itself to Blue Moon beer for all of the participants.

Willow (Product)

This team identified communication as a major challenge in the architectural profession. Their business would develop an enhanced meeting software that would also track design decisions and approvals. Rather than searching through endless emails or meeting minutes, they envision a virtual topic-based system that would branch together the timelines and decision makers like a “willow tree.” Reviewers thought this would be an extremely useful tool and would make design decisions much easier for clients.

DetailIT (Product)

This team brainstormed a new subscription-based, smart, building detail library. They see the challenges of the profession with increasing retirees and younger staff, less experience, and requirements for faster production, all with less errors. Through a series of prompts and questions, it will auto-generate details to a CAD 2D or 3D format that would still allow adjustments by the design professionals. Reviewers liked the idea of automation in order to save their time doing the things that require their thought and energy.

Sharette (Philanthropy)

This team’s mission was to develop a company that connects architectural volunteer opportunities with firms and design professionals. It incentivizes volunteering and enhances the visibility of architects in their community. They envision an online platform to encourage virtual collaboration and networking. Reviewers were impressed with their unique business name and believed it to be very plausible.

Looking to the Future

The workshop events and exercises are important as we consider the future of the profession. As architects we need to be agile and resilient to keep up with the changing economy. What may have been the most important revelation of the day is that it is helpful to take a step out of the day-to-day grind and commit to rethinking the profession’s future and potential. The 2019 AIA Wisconsin Fall Workshop provided the opportunity to do that.

EDITOR: The author was Chair of the 2019 AIA Wisconsin Fall Workshop.

Image credits

Group of eight professionals sitting at a round table discussing philanthropic opportunities for architecture firms

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