Are Architecture Firms the Next Design Thinking and Innovation Giants?
As they recognize the growing significance of innovation in today’s business landscape, architecture firms are experiencing a transformation. Companies across diverse industries have also come to appreciate the impact of design on cracking challenges, thanks to the success of design-focused startups such as Airbnb. Traditionally confined to designing physical structures, architecture firms are broadening their scope and embracing research and innovation as integral elements of their design process. With the establishment of research and innovation divisions, these firms not only enhance their own practices but also offer their expertise to address the evolving needs of our era—ranging from human and technological advancements to strategic innovation.
Design Thinking and Architectural Thinking
The design thinking movement traces its origins back to the 1960s, when various efforts were made to relate design with scientific principles. In the 1980s, Bryan Lawson, a professor at the School of Architecture at the University of Sheffield, conducted experiments comparing the problem-solving approaches between scientists and architects. In the study, he presented both groups with an ambiguous problem involving arranging colored blocks based on a set of rules. The scientists adopted a problem-focused mindset, while the designers opted for a solution-focused approach by prototyping a multitude of resolutions. These observations led Lawson to conclude that scientists and architects possessed distinct processes for problem-solving, emphasizing the unique and forward-thinking nature of “design thinking”.
The Rise of the Design Thinking Movement and its Relation to Architecture
Peter Rowe, former Director of Urban Design Programs at Harvard, also made significant contributions to the discourse with his book, Design Thinking. His writing delves into the unique lens through which architectural designers approach their tasks – characterized by curiosity and inquiry. Rowe highlights the design process as the crucial avenue through which architects and planners bring ideas for buildings and public spaces to life. As a result, the architectural design process has become closely linked to concepts surrounding design thinking. At present, many architecture firms have begun to operate in the space of innovation and design management, birthing new departments and ancillary companies. These initiatives mark a transformative shift in the architectural design process, embracing multidisciplinary perspectives to meet the demands of a changing world.
The Advent of Ancillary Departments
In 1999, OMA pioneered a visionary approach to architectural practice by establishing AMO, a mirror entity that expands the realm of architectural production to encompass broader cultural, identity, and organizational issues. AMO was conceived as a strategic partner to OMA, offering insights and input into virtual endeavors alongside the architectural design process. By researching topics like identity, in-store technology, and content production in fashion, AMO played a pivotal role in shaping OMA’s spatial designs for Prada’s epicenter stores in New York and Los Angeles. Operating as a sister company, AMO grants the OMA the freedom to explore architectural production and research independent of traditional commissions and physical construction. In the words of Rem Koolhaas, “Liberated from the obligation to construct, [architecture] can become a way of thinking about anything – a discipline that represents relationships, proportions, connections, effects, the diagram of everything. AMO enables us to liberate architectural thinking from architectural practice.”
3XN has similarly embraced a dynamic approach by integrating its design research arm, GXN, into its operations. GXN is dedicated to spearheading sustainability in the construction industry through behavioral research, user experience design, and circular thinking. Their work epitomizes a combination of holistic innovation and context-specific design. As a green think tank, GXN conducts research to feed back into the design process at 3XN, while also providing consultancy services. The team also works on externally funded research projects with universities, technology start-ups, and other partners. By establishing GXN as a separate innovation unit, 3XN transcends the conventional framework of architectural projects, allowing them to explore ideas, test technologies, and ultimately scale them up for implementation in their built projects. This synergy between research and practice empowers 3XN to create more exciting and informed architecture, enriching its design process and enabling experimentation within the realm of risk-averse real estate projects.
ARUP’s Foresight team operates at the intersection of architecture, cities, design research, and technology, functioning as a management consultancy that assists organizations in envisioning and shaping the future. Leveraging an array of interdisciplinary approaches, tools, and skills, they undertake diverse projects ranging from reimagining mail and parcel logistics to researching the design and operation of city districts. Likewise, Gensler’s Strategy unit adopts a multidisciplinary approach, providing clients with comprehensive services in research, analytics, innovation, and strategy. Their expertise extends across organizational culture, physical space, and digital interventions. Gensler’s user-centric research insights not only inform their design practice but also foster a deliberate culture of innovation.
The emergence of these new institutions highlights a notable shift in the stubbornly conservative construction industry – one that embraces design research, human-centric principles, technology, business strategy, and innovation methodologies. By prioritizing research and development and adopting a multidisciplinary approach, architecture firms are beginning to transcend traditional design processes towards a focus on measurable impact. This shift enables firms to position themselves not only as architectural entities but also as innovation consultancies and catalysts for societal change. The industry may witness a significant departure from the past, as architecture firms assume new roles in the pursuit of ground-breaking innovation.
Architecture Firms as Innovation Giants
Offering design thinking and management services provides architecture firms with a promising business opportunity, however, the establishment of innovation arms is not limited to this industry alone. Management consultancies such as Boston Consulting Group and McKinsey & Company, as well as technology giants like Deloitte (Doblin) and Capgemini (frog), currently dominate the market, each offering its own distinctive strengths and practices. Will architecture firms find their place in this booming market and successfully ride the wave of design thinking’s expansion? Moreover, can these innovation arms effectively disrupt traditional architecture design processes and reshape design outcomes within the construction industry?
With the advent of technological advancements and evolving societal needs, architecture firms are realizing the imperative of research and innovation to maintain their competitiveness and relevance. By embracing creativity in designing design processes, architecture firms have the potential to redefine their role in society, shaping the future of cities and pushing the boundaries of design. As contexts rapidly change and urgent global challenges demand attention, a new era of architectural design processes unfolds. This transformative era promises to revolutionize not only the way architects practice their trade but also how the world perceives their invaluable contributions to the built environment.
This article is part of the ArchDaily Topics: Design Process, proudly presented by Codesign, the first purpose-built iPad app for the concept design stage of the architectural process.
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The Rise of the Design Thinking Movement and its Relation to Architecture