I-beams in construction

+ Successful innovation comes from incremental changes, not giant leaps.

I don’t believe the most effective way to innovate in the built environment is to try and take great leaps; innovation only ever happens in small, incremental steps.

This is how evolution works. In nature, if an organism varies in too big a step from its parent then it’s unlikely to survive. It’s also how successful innovation takes place in the technology sector.

Take the iPhone for example. It appears to have arrived fully formed, but you can trace its parentage back to the time of electronic organisers. Yes, it’s evolved rapidly. But it’s evolved in a series of small steps. 

We need a realistic understanding of how innovation works to avoid wasting effort, and focus on the kinds of things that lead to real improvements.

Supposing you could design a smartphone that did work in a completely new way. There’s a good chance it would be too large a step from the smartphones that people have today and wouldn’t catch on. We all hear of great ideas that never caught on. It’s small innovations, like the use of apps or screen size, which have varied and been replicated. This is the stuff of real innovation and invention.

Smartphone technology has also converged: they all have touchscreens, they all have apps, and they all work in similar ways. This is how design really happens; it accumulates through a series of conscious and unconscious decisions.

In any case, many designs converge simply because there are only a few possible ways of solving a problem. 

In structural engineering, this is the case with the I-beam – it’s simply the most efficient way to use materials. I’m sure that if you found intelligent life on another planet, they’d be using I-beams because this is a good design solution.

The completely new isn’t always what’s wanted in the real world. Design is about balancing the risks of new ways of doing things with tried and tested methods so that the end product delivers the desired results. And certainly when the results are not successful – that technology or way of working is less likely to be repeated.

This is the environment that frames all of our design activity.

So how can we foster natural progression and encourage designers to innovate in small ways in everything they do?  

In part this is though us all making small steps on all of our projects – we are all innovators.  The successful ideas will be replicated and reproduced.  

But I think we can also promote the ideas we think are important to establish and bolster good regulatory frameworks; this could be by setting memes that support wider goals such as improving safety or reducing carbon. This is how principles and ethical ideas can be carried forward.

Do you agree that small steps guided by good designers and regulators are the answer, or do you thing that there is value in focussing more on the big ideas? I’d be interested to know what you think.