Friday, September 13, 2013

Design Disrupted

This post was written as part of an ongoing research grant sponsored by RTKL Associates. The research is an attempt to understand and redefine how architecture and design firms operate traditionally and how they can evolve to function dynamically in a changing industry.

"Good companies fail because they do everything right." 
Clayton M. Christensen, The Innovators Dilemma

In a recent article for Metropolis Magazine, Susan S. Szenasy wrote about the sense of "malaise" that many "mature" architecture firms are experiencing today. She notes that these firms tend to write-off their lack of creativity and perceived passion for design to the likes of the economy, unwilling clients, a shift to fast-track design, and any number of other excuses we're all too familiar with. She implies that these explanations are really just excuses, and firms use them to point the finger at everyone but themselves. She's right. 

But it is time to point that finger at ourselves. The industry is changing and any architecture firm that doesn't adapt to those changes won't survive. We all know about the difference between design and the business of design. It's ok to admit it - RTKL is set up to be a business. It has to be. RTKL is a publicly-traded company that employs over 900 people across the globe in a complex field right smack in the midst of an historically crappy economy. That's business, and it's time we stop using it as an excuse. The core of our business is design. It's what we get paid to do and design is, at its most basic, about innovation. Architectural design that is not innovative is not design - it's just documentation. To be “the best design firm in the world" - as CEO Lance Josal challenged us - innovation must be completely integral to who we are and what we do.

So, how do we do it?  The "malaise" that Szenasy spoke of is real and it’s affecting all parts of the firm - from our product to our public perception to our employee satisfaction. RTKL already has in place an existing process, structure, and culture that have evolved over the course of the firm’s 67 year history. If we want to disrupt that "malaise" that has developed, it's time to reevaluate how we're organized, the way we work, and the message we promote. Opposing the inertia of a large, diverse company is never easy, but it's absolutely necessary in order to evolve and compete. Some of today's most innovative design firms are doing unprecedented things, and RTKL can too if we're willing to disrupt the status quo and make some changes to how we operate.


The success of our firm is a direct result of the process we implement to design.

Practice Groups are a Compromise
Practice Group studios are set up for efficiency - not innovation. If the same team does the same project over and over again, they get really good at it. It's efficient, but it gets repetitive. This tends to stifle innovation. Add to that the fact that projects are not as simple as “one-building-one-use” anymore. Design today is about systems, not objects. A hospital is not just a hospital - it’s a mixture of healthcare, commercial, hospitality, education, technology, and probably also part of a larger campus. Healthcare expertise, albeit the most critical in this example, is really only one part of that design equation. What if RTKL restructured its Practice Group-based hierarchy (Health, Workplace, Commercial, etc.) to be less rigid, and thus imposing, by de-emphasizing the idea of a singular overarching expertise driving design? Traditional Practice Group expertise could still be a part of the organizational structure, but RTKL could identify and strengthen other critical areas of innovation to integrate into the design process.

For example, UNStudio – a critical darling in the design world (and for good reason) - recently reorganized and "relaunched" their firm as an "open-source, web-based knowledge hub" to promote a more "fluid, flexible, and agile knowledge-based approach to work and engaging the world." Sound like a lot of buzz-words? Yeah, probably - but there is substance to the syntax. In order to disrupt the traditional approach to design, UNStudio reorganized their structure and staff expertise into four "knowledge platforms" - Sustainability, Materials, Organization, and Parametrics. In other words, every project is approached and executed not through the lens of traditional project typology – i.e. hospital, school, bank, etc., but through a new set of parameters promoting "co-creation" and “happy accidents” reflecting the design and technological trends of today rather than of the past. 

Self-organizing groups, or 'knowledge platforms' as identified by UNStudio

Could RTKL instigate new ways of design by implementing a different or broader range of integral expertise outside of traditional practice groups?

The "Cooperative Advantage"
Transcendent ideas come from a collision of diverse experience and viewpoints. The architect is no longer the "master builder" building cathedrals in medieval Europe. Everyone has an opinion and there are specialists for everything - use them. Input from consultants, outside expertise, and even the general public can allow for more detailed, responsive, and intelligent projects. In the book Where Good Ideas Come From - The Natural History of Innovation, Steven Johnson defines open-source or, the “cooperative advantage”, as a way to reduce the cost of creation:
"The burden of coming up with good ideas is no longer shouldered exclusively by the company itself. Good ideas can come from anywhere."
He goes on to cite an experimental competition hosted by the District of Columbia in 2008 called Hack the District (later renamed Apps for Democracy in very typical DC fashion…) in which residents were asked to submit software applications that utilized open-source data provided by the DC Government to make the city better and more accessible. In less than two weeks, over 47 apps were submitted. The ideas were so insightful and designed from the ground up that the Obama administration eventually appropriated the idea and created Apps for America which is currently hosting similar competitions in dozens of states. Johnson calculates that the original competition flushed out 47 novel ideas in two weeks for approximately $50,000 worth of prize money compared to the traditional method of in-house or sourced development that would have taken over a year to produce and cost more than $2,000,000 for a single idea.

In short, design is ultimately about the user-experience, but all too often, we take a myopic view of “the user”. Today, the user is more than just the paying client. We are the user, the public is the user, and there is something to learn and teach with every project. Good design engages the entire world as the user and the more diverse expertise we bring to the table as designers, the more complex and critical we are able to make our projects.

The power of the crowd.

Could RTKL implement a collaborative mechanism to incorporate more diverse and specialized expertise and foster public engagement in the design process? 


The character of the firm is based on the culture of it's employees and the message they promote.

Be Your Own Client
The excuse that client's don't want or aren't willing to pay for cutting edge ideas isn't really a valid one. "Bread-and-butter" projects exist for all firms, but internal exploration of out-of-market projects and knowledge-based research let the firm and it's employees test ideas, form new relationships, and promote their brand through action and experience. If an idea is uncovered at RTKL that furthers our mission to better the world through design, the ability to research and develop it should be present and encouraged. The firm should be a platform for action by actively providing support in the form of time, resources, and professional network to enable the exploration of ideas.

The firm KieranTimberlake is known throughout the industry as a leader in innovative sustainable design and it's position as such is backed up by the list of clients who consistently seek them out for it. However, a lot of firms advertise themselves as sustainable design experts - what makes KieranTimberlake different? A recent project highlights why. Through their client-driven work, the firm realized that the measurement and analysis of existing buildings both new and old would be critical in evaluating performance and making future projects more efficient. The problem was, existing real data was difficult to come by and there were too many technological limitations with little ability to re-integrate that information back into the design process. So, KieranTimberlake tapped themselves to fix that.

KieranTimberlake Wireless Sensor Network, Architect Magazine 2013 R+D Awards Winner

To do so, they used their "internal research group" - a committed team of twelve people from diverse technical, design, engineering, and programming backgrounds - to study and develop a "flexible kit of inexpensive thermal and moisture sensors plus the ability to monitor them and improve experiments remotely, and finally the capacity to export the data into a BIM program." Although this project cost them time and money, it did several critical things for them. For starters, it allowed them to collect and analyze the data they found missing from the field and integrate it into their design process. This put them at the forefront of the design-led data collection movement and positioned them as industry leaders. In addition, not only were they able to use the sensors and collected data for themselves, but they were also able to market the technology to other firms and clients. They essentially created a market through in-house research and development. Finally, the project has won numerous awards and garnered much industry buzz which served as marketable proof to their commitment to innovative sustainable design and backed up the conceptual message the firm promotes as it's mission.  

Could RTKL introduce a dedicated platform for research and development to explore innovation in design outside of the boundaries of client-driven work?

A Firm is Known for It's Ideas
Projects are the most public of self-commentary on a design firm’s aspirations. The projects that RTKL does should carry a message and back up the firms design mission. If RTKL is a firm that wants to change the world through design, then we have to do projects that change the world through design. In reality, we know that not every mall, hospital, or desert masterplan we design is going to change the world - but, some of them should and every effort should be made to do so whenever possible. A system of evaluation should be put in place to not only measure the physical impact of our buildings, but also the social impact and message we send.   

Personally, I realized that I fell in love with design when I figured out that I could change the world with it. Part of it was the megalomaniac in me – wait, you mean I can have control over the way things work through design? Yes, please. But, part of it was also the understanding that what we do can make other people's lives better. RTKL is a big company, and it has many resources on hand – specialized skills, financial backing, a global network, an international marketing platform, and most importantly, people that care. Everything RTKL needs to make a difference through design is present. We need to make every effort to support and promote that.

A Place To Go is a volunteer-led effort at RTKL to raise money to design and build a sustainable toilet for a school in Machakos, Kenya. At its core, A Place to Go is an attempt to make the world a better place through design. It’s also an experiment to prove the power of design. Can design build a toilet and improve the sanitary conditions of 150 students? Can design test new ideas about sustainability and resilience by using waste to create energy? Can it cross-pollinate employees, ideas, and skillsets across the office to generate new ways of doing and funding projects? Does it make a statement about what RTKL stands for? I think it does. And although this post is part of a research project, I won’t miss an opportunity to make a shameless plug – go to the website, get involved, and help RTKL prove that it can make the world better through design.

A Place To Go is an employee-funded effort to build a biogas toilet in Machakos, Kenya.

Could RTKL increase its social impact and innovative design by actively pursuing out-of-market projects?       


Employees drive a firm's production mechanism - let them make some of the decisions on what the firms does.

Infiltrate Junior Stakeholders Up
Organizational charts tell us who we are - and who we aren't. The typical organizational chart is shaped like a pyramid. At the top, and smallest cross-section of the pyramid, are the 'decision-makers.' They are usually senior-level employees with more project and leadership experience and have a share of interest in the company – call them 'stakeholders.' Below the decision-makers are various levels of ‘do-ers’. In terms of running a company, this makes sense. Important decisions are relegated to a small group of stakeholders who have a better understanding of managing a business. However, when it comes to fostering innovation, consolidating decisions to senior-level employees may actually hinder the process. While most senior-level employees would never oppose innovative design, the reality is, and rightly so, most are too busy running a company, attempting to secure a profit, or simply have too much to lose to really push for disruptive innovative design.

But we don't want to flatten these pyramids...
When you look at the 'Leadership Council' – essentially RTKL's in-house board of ideas and process – 50 of the 67 members are Principals or above. This means that approximately 75% of the stakeholders responsible for making firmwide design, technology, and process-related decisions are also responsible for managing studios, personnel, projects, and finances. These decisions are difficult, time-consuming, and far-reaching. Perversely, younger employees may have the strangely complimentary advantage of inexperience and lack of responsibility. In short, younger employees have no reason not to shoot for the moon. At the risk of generalizing, the new generation of designers are typically more socially-minded, technologically savvy, and willing to take risks. They have nothing to lose and are hungry to get involved and make a difference. If RTKL wants to foster innovation, it would make sense that employees who are willing to push the boundaries and disrupt the current trends of design are made into stakeholders.

Could RTKL balance the current structure of business-minded stakeholders and decision-makers with a more disruptive-minded and enabled crop of junior employees?

I’m glad Szenasy chose the word ‘malaise’ to describe the feeling in some ‘mature’ design firms. It’s an incredibly apt term. According to Wikipedia – the holder of all knowledge – malaise is defined as “a feeling of general discomfort or uneasiness, of being ‘out of sorts’, often the first indication of an infection or other disease…” In the end, RTKL will continue to design. It’s our job. But how we do that is up to us. Will we continue to accommodate that sense of uneasiness and risk letting it fully develop into a malady that further affects our product, mission, and culture? Or are we willing to take a chance and disrupt that trend by making innovative design the driving force of the firm?