Reclaiming Innovation: Moving Beyond High-Tech

This four-part series explores the true nature of innovation in construction and why it may not always play out as expected
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Illustration by Kim Salt

When you think of the word innovation, what comes to mind? 

In today’s ever-evolving world that is constantly fascinated with leading-edge technology—artificial intelligence, autonomous vehicles, drones, predictive analytics and machine learning, to name a few—it often feels like the term is only applied to perceived moonshot products that promise to disrupt the world as we know it.  

Business magazines dot their covers with only the most high-tech “innovations,” with celebrity entrepreneurs arguing that not only is their service or product the next great invention, but that the personal lifestyle credo that they practiced to create it is the playbook for individual success and fulfillment.  

This is the world that has captured and lay claim to the term innovation. This world, however, is incomplete. It doesn’t entirely represent the full scope of real innovative construction solutions occurring in each and every industry—especially in construction, which is seeing a far more significant innovation trendline that, more often than not, doesn’t involve the latest and greatest high-tech product.    

In construction, innovation can take many forms.  

Yes, there is a wave of high-tech innovation showering the industry, from drones to laser scanning to 3D modeling. Construction jobsites have never been more connected with smart technology—and its corresponding stack of software platforms—that aim to launch the industry into today’s era of tech-enabled insights and efficiency.  

Still, some of the most valuable innovative construction solutions happening in the industry may be initially viewed as low-tech. These simple processes or workflows are having just as much impact—if not more—than the high-tech innovations that are more likely to grab headlines and attention. 

These forms of disruptive innovation in construction could be a better tool or piece of safety equipment, a simple change in management style or work site job allocation that leads to a boost in productivity, safety or risk management.  

Oftentimes, real innovation in the construction industry happens in the trenches, deep within the dirt. It isn’t always clean, pristine and flashy; it’s manual, process-oriented and driven by intense collaboration and planning among human beings whose experience in the industry stretches back generations.  

In construction, innovation isn’t always a piece of technology. It’s a mindset.  

In the following weeks, the Bluebeam Blog will showcase a series of stories that aim to reclaim the term innovation to its proper application.  

In this first story, various construction-industry perspectives share what the term innovation means to them and how they plan to continue to move it forward. 

Unpacking innovation 

For Enrico Bertucci, director of operations at McCarthy Building, a focus on innovation has always been a key component of his professional philosophy.  

“A lot of times technology is synonymous with innovation, and there’s a reason behind that—technology is incredibly useful,” Bertucci said. “But at the end of the day, it’s a tool. Innovation means putting that tool to the highest and best use. When you talk about innovation, it’s not about chasing the shiny object or the newest, coolest thing. It’s how you can create an impactful result with the effort that is a finite amount of effort that you’re going to be putting in place.” 

For others, finding innovation in construction technology means finding the best way to fit new tools into an ongoing practice, strengthening core principles rather than finding a space for distraction from them.  

Karla Funderburk, a furniture designer and contractor who has worked in the home renovation business since 1985, said that she has been surprised by the impact social media has had on her professional practice. “There have definitely been new tools and techniques developed over all these many years that I have been working,” Funderburk said. “But it’s social media that has brought the most impactful positive results and growth to my business.”  

Funderburk, who owns Matter Studio Gallery, a combined gallery space and workshop where she continues to operate her custom furniture and general contracting businesses, said that a conscious approach to social media has helped her connect with new clients—even in a time when much of the individual contracting world has slowed down.  

“Even though during this time of social distancing I have continued to find ways to connect,” Funderburk said. 

An innovation mindset  

So, if technology is a useful tool, rather than the source of innovation, where can we find the source?  

For acoustic designer Richard Silva, lasting innovation in his professional practice has come from a commitment to be constantly observing and learning from his environment.  

“My acoustics work impacts everything I do in my life,” Silva said. “Any space I walk into, I’ll notice the acoustics—whether they’re excellent, and something I can learn from, or something that I would view as problematic and should avoid in my own practice.”  

For Silva, an innovation mindset means staying alert to opportunities for growth in his everyday interactions with the world and finding ways that technology can help. “Utilizing technology has led me into personal research,” Silva said. By constantly learning from his acoustic environment, Silva said he has been able to make innovation a central component of his professional practice.  

Architectural designer Winston Alford-Hamburg said that innovation for him comes from ceding control, being responsive to the needs of an individual project rather than approaching professional challenges in a uniform, prescriptive way.  

“One of the things that is unique about my work is that I start small,” Alford-Hamburg said. “I like to take time to figure out how things fit. My conception of innovation is less based around form and the way things work and more about small innovations in the way we use space.”  

Rather than finding new technologies or objects to use in his work, Alford-Hamburg said that he’s been able to find innovation by getting back to the basics and having a more malleable, responsive approach to his clients’ needs.  

“To give up control willingly isn’t most architects’ impulse,” Alford-Hamburg said. But it’s just in this openness to new ideas, often at the expense of maintaining absolute control, that truly meaningful innovation occurs, he said.  

Finding opportunities for change 

For Bertucci, remaining open to new ideas is the key to professional growth. In fact, McCarthy just identified the concept of innovation as a key imperative to success, as part of its company-wide five-year strategic vision.  

“This is not something new that we’re doing at McCarthy,” Bertucci said. “We’ve had a culture of continuous improvement in everything that we do that has been sustained for a long, long time. We’re constantly striving to be open to new ideas and new ways of operating that could lead to better results, and trying to push that mindset culturally, company-wide overall.” 

For instance, the company is working to increase opportunities for new ideas to be introduced by using a platform called Brightsides, which allows any employee to submit ideas in response to issues the company is facing.  

“We’ve been able to start company-wide discussions on a variety of topics,” Bertucci said. “Whether it’s new technology that we want to pilot or the success or the hurdles that we’re working through on those individual pilots, there’s one central spot where the whole company can access.”  

Allowing everyone in the company to comment on key decisions encourages a spirit of innovation and rewards creativity.  

“For me, innovation and entrepreneurship really are tethered together,” Bertucci said. Creating space for individuals to innovate is the key to success, he added, both on a personal and an organizational level.  

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