Innovation intervention: How AEC firms are driving growth through R&D programs

AEC firms are taking a page from the tech industry, by infusing a deep commitment to innovation and disruption into their cultural DNA.

September 06, 2016 |
David Barista

Lissette Méndez-Boyer (left) and Natalya Shimanovskaya work on their FABRICation project at Beyer Blinder Belle’s New York office. Photo courtesy BBB

What if I told you that the key to winning your next 14 jobs from new and existing clients lies somewhere within the walls of your firm? All you have to do is connect the right people with the right initiative and the right clients, sprinkle a little magic dust, and poof! Millions in fresh billings wondrously appear.

I’m guessing you’re thinking: Well, duh! This is how business has always been conducted in the AEC market (minus the magic dust, of course). It’s a relationship-driven industry; our people are absolutely vital to winning work for the firm.

Indeed, your senior-level and business development people are essential to keeping the project pipeline full. But I’m hinting at a starkly different dynamic that has emerged in the AEC field. While not rooted in business development, ultimately it is helping firms generate work and expand into new markets and service categories.

In the spirit of innovative thinking, BD+C is organizing not one, but two AEC business hackathons this fall: at our 6th Annual Under 40 Leadership Summit, October 26-28, in Chicago, and at our inaugural Women in Design+Construction Conference, November 9-11, in Dana Point, Calif.  

AEC firms are taking a page from the tech industry, by infusing a deep commitment to innovation and disruption into their cultural DNA. Gensler, Thornton Tomasetti, Perkins+Will, and HOK are among a growing number of AEC Giants that have launched formal, corporate-level research and innovation programs.

Utilizing design charrettes, innovation competitions, shark tank events, and hackathons, these firms encourage employees at all levels to contemplate the future of the practice, client needs, and the changing built environment. These events and programs have a way of flattening a firm’s hierarchical structure, giving a louder voice and a larger stage to employees who are not in traditional leadership roles, especially younger staff members.

Our annual Great Solutions report profiles two such successful programs: Beyer Blinder Belle’s RED (Research Exchange Develop) initiative and Little’s LaceUp mini-grant R&D program. Since launching LaceUp in 2013, Little has funded 43 employee-driven ventures, including a program to convert shipping containers into pop-up retail buildings and a building performance consulting practice. The latter has played a major role in winning 14 new construction and renovation jobs for the firm.

In the spirit of innovative thinking, BD+C is organizing not one, but two AEC business hackathons this fall: at our 6th Annual Under 40 Leadership Summit, October 26-28, in Chicago, and at our inaugural Women in Design+Construction Conference, November 9-11, in Dana Point, Calif.  

Leading “hackathonist” Paul Doherty will take participants through an intense, highly collaborative half-day workshop where they will work in ad-hoc teams to “hack” some of the toughest obstacles facing AEC firms and professionals. Topics range from technology disruption to firm culture to knowledge leadership to talent acquisition and retention. The hackathons will conclude with 10 idea-packed presentations from the groups, complete with takeaways, lessons, and advice for the audience.

“We live in an age where the only constant is change,” says Doherty. “Our industry can learn a lot from the tech market, where change is leveraged as an asset to a company’s strategy, where innovation is part of their DNA. The hackathon is a powerful tool used by these firms.”

For more on BD+C’s 2016 AEC business hackathons, visit www.BDCnetwork.com and click the “Events” tab. 

David Barista | Building Team Blog
Building Design+Construction
Editorial Director

David Barista is Editorial Director of Building Design+Construction and BDCnetwork.com, properties that combined reach more than 100,000 commercial building professionals, including architects, engineers, contractors, and building owners. David has covered the U.S. construction industry for more than a decade, previously serving as Editor-in-Chief of BD+C, Professional Builder, Custom Builder, and HousingZone.com. He has won numerous editorial awards, including six Jesse H. Neal Awards and multiple honors from the Construction Writers Association and the American Society of Business Publication Editors.

Email: dbarista@sgcmail.com

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