Is architecture really creative? Is there any such thing as real innovation? What is innovation?
I have been working as an architect in the professional and academic fields for many years and having lived in Asia and Europe, where I have long had close ties to product design and technology, I now feel as if I were in the middle of some uncontrolled tornado, where words like Innovation and Creativity are all spinning around furiously. It’s complete madness, but this is what’s happening. Climate change. Technology. Tornados. Uncertainty.
Someday, of course, it will all calm down, probably of its own accord. Right now, though, everybody, in every corner of society, is trying to get a hold on these edgy terms. It doesn’t matter what you do, you have to be innovative; otherwise you don’t exist. It’s not that long since we saw the same thing happen with the concept of sustainability. It’s a subject that’s complex enough to fill an entire article –or even a book– but essentially it’s a consequence of the fragmentation of capitalism into tiny entrepreneurships that will be gobbled up the big corporations. The new “employee” is self-employed. Good trick. Very clever.
Leaving this prickly issue aside, let’s go back to the enzymatic components of this phenomenon: innovation and creativity. Just what are they? No one knows, of course, but there are truckloads of definitions, studies and papers on the subject. Starting from my own perspective and background, I’d like to try identifying what Innovation and Creativity are probably not and from there move on to look methodically at what they might really be.
In the world of architecture we’ve become accustomed to a star system in which the quality of a building or design is judged by its look, it appearance and its traits. Most of the time we don’t even know what problems it’s solving (or indeed, if there were any problems there to solve). Creating a nice building with amazing shapes is a great skill and it means you’re clever enough to play to the soundtrack of the zeitgeist in the era you live in. That’s great, but it’s probably not in the slightest bit innovative. It’s really just means being contemporary, which is pretty much the opposite of being innovative.
Most of the time, when you’re innovative and creative, nobody notices, because most of the time, you’re part of a team solving real problems. Most of the time it’s team work that enables innovation, perhaps following some creative spark; again that comes pretty much in conflict with the concept of amazing ego-bound “signature” shapes.
Every architect knows that when you start working in teams with engineers and other designers, it’s very difficult to maintain your flamboyant “special sensitivity to beauty”. So, instead of accepting it as a humbling process we tend to do the exact opposite and try to make the gap even wider. And sure, beauty is beauty but let’s talk a bit more about the user experience and other things that don’t fit as neatly with that creaky old concept of the romantic enlightenment artist.
You’re being innovative and creative when you find a way of solving a problem that got stuck when the usual procedure was applied. Humbling though it may be to admit, that’s all there is to it. Creating a tailor-made problem for yourself and solving it with your favorite parametric tools to end up with a complex structure/shape (architects will know what I’m talking about- these are the jargon traps) when it’s not really needed for the project while still managing to talk about sustainability and energy efficiency parameters…. I don’t know. I’m not so sure that’s what we should be looking for. And here, I could cite so many examples.
When discussing innovation and creativity, education and the way you teach it to the new generation is of key importance. I’ve been learning a lot myself over these last years and I’d like to discuss two realms in which I felt that there was an embryonic well-targeted approach to creativity. Embryonic but true. For the moment, we’ll leave the cultural parameters to one side, though they also have to be taken into consideration.
Last December we presented an exhibition of work by our students at the Singapore University of Technology and Design, a recently-created university set up in collaboration with Boston MIT, which aims to create some of the leading minds in technology and design in Asia.
We all enjoyed the students’ great work, but it was also a useful opportunity to recap on what innovation means and how to go about generating creativity and a methodological approach to design.
I’m lucky enough to form part of two groups, two initiatives that have flagged innovation as their core value. One is SUTD, and the other is NER group. The focus is not exactly the same, but there are many similarities and intersections.
NER group centers its innovation on creating a really new style of working relationship, a new way of understanding social and cultural connections inside our offices and factories, avoiding the hierarchical nonsense of top-down orders. We fight for a new horizontal structure in which everybody feels part of the company and in which everyone’s ideas and opinions count. In a world in which capitalism is trying to eat everything up, we still say we don’t work for money. We need wealth and jobs for everyone. That’s what we work for, and we share it.
At SUTD we start from technology and design to come to the same point – or at least something very close. We aim for a better world through design. Students analyze projects they think might be interesting; they learn design methodology and then spend an important part of the term creating their own idea/artefact/prototype for a better world.
The approach at SUTD is absolutely innovative and different to any other university in the world. During their first year, all the students learn design together. This means that future architects, engineers, product designers and IT developers all understand the basics of design and have to work together in groups to create a common project. This is great. The borders between disciplines become blurred and team work is prioritized over any theoretical individual “genius”.
This horizontal democratization of design requires everyone to find common points of view and creates a mindset for the future. It has a lot to do with the horizontal democratization of relationships in the workplace that we’re fighting for at NER.
We all know we’re facing a new word, an important change in many aspects of society and technology. It’s coming fast and that means it could be dangerous. But it also means it could represent an opportunity. If we pay attention to what’s important we might really be able to change the world for the better. Let’s try to avoid playing around too much with trendy words like innovation and creativity and concentrate on keeping fresh and really fostering a better world for everyone.
Partner & Managing Director at NEREI emotional intelligent.