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Inciting operational innovation

Inciting operational innovation

11 January 2017

In the world of small practice, if you want a bigger slice then you better be prepared to fight for it – enter unrealistically lean fee structures and late night work stints. But what if architects could actually grow the cake? This was the timely question posed by Maria Smith, the curator of this year’s RIBA Guerrilla Tactics conference, at the RIBA in London on 8 November.

Timely because in an era of disruptive technologies and an increasingly efficient development machine that has all but marginalised design, the metaphorical architectural cake is shrinking. We must act fast, in order that as one of the panellists in the Construction Zoo session, John Boxall, Partner at Jackson Coles, ominously put it: architects ‘don’t become the Kodaks of this world’.

Better get thinking then, which is exactly what the interactive format and real-time themed conference intended us to do. Innovatively set within a framework surprisingly borrowed from the CASS Business School at City University of London (yes, you read right) and the research being done there by Professor Stefan Haefliger, the day-long event set out to encourage a more analytical, business-savvy and experimental approach through an understanding of how the traditional ‘solutions based’ model in architectural practice is only one way of doing things (product, match-making and multi-sided business models exist as alternatives).

An inspiring keynote lecture by David Marks of Marks Barfield Architects demonstrated through an insightful and frank account of the practice’s phenomenal success – first with the London Eye and now with the recent BAi360 viewing tower in Brighton – the value of entrepreneurialism in the discipline; a panel discussion looked at different business models operating in the construction industry; and a series of case studies from the coal face of innovative architectural business models provided a tantalising glimpse at the landscape of possibilities when architects begin to innovate at an operational level. Of particular note were Carl Turner’s re-imagination of the shipping container and mixed-use developments with a wider social benefit; and Orkidstudio’s work, which demonstrated how charitable construction work might become sustainable.

During the final part of the day, Daisy Froud chaired the Super Model challenge, commendably dissolving the ordinary didactic format of a conference into a workshop, which asked the audience to collaboratively come up with their own solutions. This leap of faith into the participatory paid off beautifully, as the subsequent exhibition of posters demonstrated. (The posters were pinned up on exhibition stands in the Jarvis Foyer for delegates to view and vote on.) Ideas ranging from 3G Trees to the up-ending of existing development practices with a Section 601 Agreement emerged on large white sheets of paper seemingly from nowhere.

On top of the sheer range of creativity, it was the candidness and generosity of the speakers that really stood out. There was a confidential air to the presentations – as if you were looking through someone’s desk drawers – such as the account given by Nigel Ostime of how the legal agreements for Rational House had fallen short or Claire Bennie’s advice about how to gain access to local authorities.

The conference was a wake-up call to the fact that though we live in an era of business innovation, in which we are seeing the world tipped on its head, as we buy, communicate, learn and experience in radical new ways, architects have been tentative to join the party. As the many inspiring examples on show throughout the day demonstrated, we need to limber up. The second part of the challenge for me, however, relates to how architecture can do this in a critical way. Socially irresponsible and corporate examples such as AirBnB and Uber that regularly came up are a reminder that in the face of endless possibility, the architecture industry also needs to remain grounded. What is lost when architecture becomes a product? Do match-making services centralise economic power? Is efficiency always a good thing? One thing is for sure, as Maria Smith has wryly observed, there are interesting times afoot.

Text by Georgie Day, FACtotum.

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