Advice to Malcolm T: Embedding Design Innovation into Australia’s Innovation Policy.

In Australia Malcolm Turnbull our new Prime Minister has made an announcement and a number of policy changes in order to foster innovation. The overall idea is to shift the Australian economies reliance on resources to an economy that generates growth from advanced manufacturing, IT and business services. It is an effort to go upstream in terms of global competitiveness. Achieving this policy goal of course requires developing a national innovation system that brings together govt funding, economic incentives, industry, universities, researchers and entrepreneurs.

What is of interest to me is how architecture research or indeed design research is positioned within national policies and national, indeed global, policy debates about innovation. In other words, how should design, and I broadly mean architectural and urban design, be accounted for in innovation policy in Australia.

1. Don’t get hung up on the latest technology or widget. 

In Australia across the property and construction arena there has been, and still is, an over emphasis on linear models of design, applied engineering and industrial design products in innovation policy. Product design and the latest widget seem to be at the centre of innovation policy. For example, a major funder of construction research between 2001 and 2009 was the Co-operative Research Centre (CRC) for Construction Innovation. Construction 2020, one of the main policy documents of the CRC, written in conjunction with the eminent English academic the late Peter Brandon of Salford University, embodied a future vision of a technologically advanced future for Australian construction. However, the report saw the innovation future in the construction arena encompassing advances in IT and interoperability, performance based design and construction, life cycle cost accounting, the integration of ISO systems with sustainability, time based competition facilitated by broadband, as well as complex and integrated BIM modelling and simulation in design.

None of the 2020 strategy was really about design as architects might know it. This was the strategies greatest flaw. In the 2020 vision the role of design thinking was forgotten and technology would herald a new ‘design as gaming paradigm’ where the internet would provide ‘customers’ with the ability to ‘build and play with different house elements’. This naivety, about design, was matched by the fact that CRC was the single largest investment in Construction R&D in Australia.

The CRC example highlights the problems of developing innovation policy in the Property and Construction and AEC sectors. The CRC vision exemplified a product orientated view of future innovation which saw design and construction as a linear process driven by new technologies and products. I suspect that underneath this was the dream of lean construction: The idea that construction could be like advanced manufacturing. The dream still lingers and deign has little place in innovations policies bewildered and entranced by new technologies such as robots, drones and CNC fabrication.

2. Remember that marketing spin is not innovation.

The real problem, perhaps reflected by the above situation, is that the property and construction industry, of which architecture is a part, is not really that innovative to begin with. There is a gap between what actually happens and the proponents of technological dreams. To put it bluntly: We only have to look at the state of the property market, housing policies, and the lack typological diversity in the crop of high rise apartments in Australian inner cities to argue that. Except in the marketing brochures of inner city apartments we rarely see design innovation as a real priority.

3. Seek integration over fragmentation

Moreover, Australia innovation capabilities seem fragmented between different industry sectors. In the period between 2009 to 2010 the percentage of manufacturing businesses implementing either process innovations or managerial and organisational innovations is 29% and 21% respectively. In the segment of Professional, Scientific and Technical Services which covers architects and engineers process and organisational innovations are 18% and 23% respectively. That’s a little better. But, in the Construction segment the percentages are much lower being 11% for process and 15% for organisational innovations.

4. Foster Design Innovation at a national level.

The few bright points in this policy landscape are fleeting. Most Australian state governments now actively promote architectural design through the state government architects offices. All of which have been established since 2006. Unfortunately, few of these offices are capable of directly funding research and are limited by being focused primarily on reviewing and upholding good design. Fostering design innovation and design entrepreneurship is not part of their remit.

Concluding in 2012 one organisation which focused on design thinking in research and the built environment was the SA Government’s Integrated Design Commission. This is an organisation not unlike CABE in the UK whose remit was to pursue a ‘design-based approach to design, planning and development that acknowledges the interconnectedness of the built and natural world.’  Another fleeting policy initiative which has now lapsed was the Built Environment Innovation Council. The council was nurtured under the Rudd-Gillard govt. If Australia is to have an effective national innovation system which includes design thinking then national bodies along the above lines is needed.

5. Be strategic by avoiding the physical and embracing the spatial

At the moment in Australia the policy emphasis on creating new products and technologies as being at the core of innovation systems predominates. For this reason design innovation is not on the radar in innovation policy. For many outside of the environmental design focused professions design is seen as being more about making and construction something, usually a building, rather than a methodology of thinking. As one eminent academic in Construction Management said to me “Architectural Theory that just sounds like an oxymoron to me.” This academic was well versed in the research methodologies of the social sciences; yet somehow could not see that architectural discourse also proceeds via a complex relationship between theory and practice.

Perhaps the problem is that the practice of architecture inherently involves thinking about spatiality. Howevwr, thinking about architecture and design innovation as a spatial practice frees it from the physical. Hence design thinking is not neccessarily about physical objects like products or buildings it can also be about about designing systems, processes and models that may or may not be physical. The work of Dan Hill  now at Fabrica  also Miguel Robles-Duran and the Urban Ecologies Studios at Parsons are good examples of this kind of approach. This approach fosters design innovation by engendering trans-disciplinary innovation. This is important when considering the problems posed by the urban agglomerations called cities.

6. Promote Design Innovation and educate

For innovation to emerge and grow in Australia sector specific innovation policies must see design and construction as being integrated. Design innovation and design research should also be recognised in broader innovation policies. Patchy commitments from governments, territorial and traditional schisms between developers, contractors, engineers and architects and intense price competition destroy the ability to innovate.

Finally, Architects themselves should be educated in such a way that R&D, entreprenuership, and an understanding of venture capital is built into their DNA. This should happen at architecture school. The proponents of design research also need to actively promote its importance to policy makers. Policy makers need to understand how important design innovation is rather than pursuing the dream of the latest widget. Innovation policy should not be about trying to pick the next big thing.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s