Disrupting Practice: Findings from the Practice Innovation Lab

Evelyn M. Lee, AIA, writes a regular column for Contract on business practices in design and professional development. Based in San Francisco, Lee is regional workplace manager, west coast lead at Newmark Knight Frank. She holds graduate degrees in architecture, public administration, and business administration. Currently a member of the AIA national board of directors, Lee received an AIA Young Architects Award in 2014. Her website is evelynlee.com. Visit contractdesign.com/businesspractice to read all of her columns for Contract.

Last fall, 60 individuals from the design and architecture professions came together with the intent to identify ways to innovate the dated business models on which most design practices are founded. Hosted by the Young Architects Forum of the American Institute of Architects (AIA), the Practice Innovation Lab was a series of discussions focused on enhancing both the value of our services and the sustainability of the design profession over the long term. Full disclosure: I took a lead role in planning for the Practice Innovation Lab.

Participants were selected from a pool of applicants that were both AIA members and non-members. Most, but not all, were licensed architects. Ten teams of six persons each were formed with the goal of creating 10 new delivery models for practice. All participants were given a reading list and as a curriculum to follow prior to the event, to set the stage for what was essentially a one-day charette to design a brand-new firm.

Intense team planning sessions were interspersed by keynote speakers including Susan Chin, executive director of the Design Trust for Public Space, and TED Fellow James Patten, founder of Patten Studio, an award-winning interaction design firm. Strategist Laura Weiss moderated the day, reminding individuals that, “Innovation creates value, and value is the difference between innovation and pure invention.”

On the second morning, each team presented “Shark Tank” style, and a vote was given for the best business models. The presentations generally landed within three themes: Building Networks, Data-Driven Practice, and Philanthropic Design.

Building Networks
The concept of networks breaks down the traditional notion of intellectual property held close to the vest in design practices. Not only are the networks a method of sharing knowledge, they enable an exchange of talent, with the core belief that work done in collaboration with others is greater than work done alone. One team’s proposal enables small firms to be competitive with larger firms that have global reach. The network concept also supports the growing appetite for remote work opportunities as an individual contributor or consultant to a variety of different projects.

Data-Driven Practice
Given the amount of data being collected in and around the built environment, it is not surprising that practices are looking to monetize data associated with their designs. One of the teams recommended trading design for a subscription-based data model that would support facility management in larger developments. Another team looked at how sensors could help inform subsequent projects but also report to their clients the overall utilization of space throughout the building.

Philanthropic Design
The desire for practices to have a greater impact and leave a meaningful impression on their local communities was central to a number of the proposals. One team offered more than half of its office space to co-working and community events. The idea has two-fold benefits: both keeping the firm fresh with novel ideas and giving them a strong connection within the neighborhood through educational classes and community events.

While I didn’t anticipate that any single proposal would be adopted wholesale, I could not have been more thrilled with the outcomes. All participants left the Practice Innovation Lab invigorated, eager to share their experience with their own firms or, for firm owners, revisit their existing business plans and begin to make changes. The winning People’s Choice practice model team continues to meet virtually to develop a shared-service network that will enable the team members to have a farther geographic reach and practice in more market sectors.

Outcomes from the weekend are documented and published on the AIA website through a video and findings report. Additional efforts are being taken to host the Practice Innovation Lab at a more local level in hopes of continuing the conversation and bringing additional innovation to the design profession. If you are interested in being a part of the conversation or playing host to your own Practice Innovation Lab, please get in touch with me through my website.