Let’s get real about innovation

This post was first written for the online site, Fifth Estate in 2014.

Daily now, leaders of the political left, right, and middle wring their hands at the loss of local manufacturing. Glimmers of hope emerge in their rhetoric. Smart design. Clean tech. Reform. Innovation. All great words and all cause for hope.

The better ones can point to local examples of smart manufacturing like Breezeway, Tindo Solar, Centor Architectural and the Hickory Group. Hi viz vests and safety glasses convey the serious business of industry, plant and equipment.


But the factory visits too often seem to pass for real action. Insight and clarity  is  well crafted after the problem has revealed itself. Holden. Alcoa. SPC. We seem geared to reaction. Less good at thinking – or acting – ahead.

So how can we get real about innovation in the built environment? And why does this matter? We’ll spend around $229bn in 2013/14 year on construction activity (according to the ACIF) so it makes sense to leverage this to invest in local R&D, local materials, products and technologies.

But how? And what’s the link between the built environment, and local manufacturing anyway?

A recent piece in The Conversation was spot-on when it asked if our construction sector could learn anything from the auto sector. If we want to avoid our construction sector going the way of textile and auto, this was a must read for policy makers.

Following on from this, I ask; what can we all do in the next six months to better connect existing industry innovation programs with Australia’s existing infrastructure spend – at a project level? No new legislation. No more frameworks. No new programs. What existing levers do governments have that can be pulled, quick smart? How do we make all this talk of innovation, real?

The UK’s Sir George Cox put it neatly when he said ‘design makes innovation real’. It’s a nice line. But is that really how it works? Is design really a force that can ‘pull’ local industry, through a kind of boot camp, to be more competitive? It’s time we got real about innovation. Here’s how I think designers, architects, smart engineers and suppliers – those at the coalface of making ideas real – play a role.

First, where are we now? The traditional lever to boost local content is called an Australian Industry Participation Plan (AIP Plan). Intended to expand the opportunities for local contractors to tender, AIP plans pretty much require a contractor to advertise the trade breakdown of a project and identify which trades are open to local Australian capability. Another online tender site. Great. But this fails to understand how basic decisions are made on the products and service inputs in to buildings and infrastructure, so will fail to make any real difference to the industry. Simply put, AIP Plans essentially record the postcode of the successful business or tradie. They do nothing to boost the use of local products. If we want to support local manufacturers; their products and services then it’s time we got real.

Screenshot of a completed AIP plan

How? Consider this.

I design a building with 100% double glazed high performance glass. Clever ceramic fritting and hi tech interlayers give me a shading co-efficient for an energy efficient building. Tick. Thanks to my AIP plan I may be able to sign up a local installer and call that ‘local content’. Tick. But a few decades of cost-only tendering guarantees 100% of the material will be sourced offshore. Whether or not an AIP Plan puts out a local call.

Consider I design the same building out of precast. [In South Australia at least] it means I can almost guarantee one of a few high quality and competitive local precast manufacturers provides the content, and local tradies make up my workforce.

That seems simplistic, because it’s that simple. If we want to get serious about supporting local content, it’s not how we tender that matters, so much as what we tender. What happens on the drawing board matters more than ever. Why aren’t we talking about this more? When it comes to boosting local content, design decisions have ten times the impact of how you choose to skin the tender. Yet this is where government AIP Plans aim to intervene.

It’s also what happens during the design process – at a super granular level – that matters even more. Designers and architects specialize in tailoring projects to unique user needs. Part of the tailoring process is to team an idea for shape, layout or materials, with local industry capability. It’s not enough to draw something inventive and new. It’s got to be delivered, assembled, or built. Without taking away from the builder’s role here, much of that work is done much earlier between designer and maker.

An industrial designer will work with a material supplier to make sure the joints in a mould can be certified for hospital use. An interior designer will liaise with a joiner or upholsterer on a complex junction, method or material. An architect will sit with a steelworker to finalise a facade detail. Sometimes these are basic conversations around conventional techniques. But often they’re more than that. And it’s times like this, that the work of incremental industry innovation gets real.

Source: http://thelonglaparound.blogspot.com.au

Case study – Adelaide Zoo

As part of the Adelaide Zoo redevelopment, the client wanted an iconic sign for that essential visitor experience. The initial preference for a billboard was reworked in to an idea for a 3-dimensional thing kids could climb on or sit in. Groups could gather around. More a sculpture than a sign. Materials needed to have some ‘give’; soft with rounded edges to protect young heads. The architect (Hassell) teamed up with an industrial design  studio (Fingo) who introduced them to Maxiplas a few kilometres away (reinforcing the very human way these local connections happen). Maxiplas’ standard product was moulded water tanks. But the design team needed their special capability in rotation moulding for large objects. Early meetings, shared CAD files and prototypes followed. Experimentation with phosphorescent admixtures (to glow after dark) didn’t work, but then innovation is not always a linear progression.

Credit: Hassell / Fingo
Credit: Hassell / Fingo

Working together, this small Zoo sign gave local manufacturer Maxiplas the chance to move up the value chain – from water tanks to complex 3 dimensional stand alone signage; which is not too far from facade components and low cost, light weight shelter should Maxiplas want to go there. In policy terms, this is a value add to an SME with export potential. 

This wasn’t funded by special grant or stimulus program, but by a supportive client and clever design team using existing budgets to build value in local suppliers. This collaboration isn’t exceptional. It really describes what happens in most projects. The magic happens when design pushes – or maybe pulls – a supplier to step outside of making the standard, and experiments with the non standard. Call it project-based R&D. Or design-based innovation. 

Credit: Hassell / Fingo

We need more of this project R&D distributed in small and large projects; bus shelters, council facilities, road and rail infrastructure, and housing (most of all housing – like the Zero Carbon Challenge completed in 2013). Stimulating project based R&D would do more in the short term than any extra long term funding for university research. Making small funds available for local project based innovation is a proven model. A building innovation fund can help subsidize the cost of bringing prototypes to market (take Aspen’s support for Fifth Creek studio’s green wall that can be retrofitted on existing commercial buildings) The fund could be just the thing the next Maxiplas needs to take the punt on a new process or product, or the means to move from one-off to scaled-up production.

Credit: http://etool.net.au/category/eblog/building/

Aligning projects and the tough work of R&D is hard, if only because the rhythm of both is often out of sync. For an architect, winning a job (by competition, EOI or any other way) is like a starting gun going off, with rapid-fire milestones to meet in order to get on site. So making time for research – let alone commissioning anything likely to lead to ‘discovery’ – is a tough ask.

Of course, this is why long-term research collaborations exist. The CRC for Low Carbon Living is a 7 year project that brings suppliers and manufacturers (like Bluescope, Nova Deko, Brookfield Multiplex) together with professionals (like Hassell, AECOM, Woodhead), governments, and authorities. Its goal is to develop products, materials and technologies by combining resources beyond any single projects’ life or budget.

But investing in long term research shouldn’t stop us from pulling short term levers. In fact, both are needed.

There’s signs of hope. NATSPEC is funding important project based research with the Stretton Centre in Adelaide to measure how locally-sourced materials can be designed-in through early design decisions, and be embedded in the project specification. It will also record if and how alternative selections during construction. Alternative selections can offer a cost saving to a project  Research like this just might produce the evidence we need to kick start some serious discussion on procurement with government whose buying power has the grunt to change industry, and to elevate the role of the client and the design team – not the builder – in growing local content, and local industry innovation at the same time.

Current programs like AIP plans seek to treat the wrong end of the procurement supply chain. Let’s hope some serious attention is paid to the front end soon. Before construction goes the way of auto.



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