School of Civil Engineering

10 years after the collapse of the world trade centre, building designers found ourselves in a situation in which on one hand, we were innovating at a very fast pace, but on the other hand, we had this dark cloud behind us where we couldn’t really understand how a failure of the magnitude of the World Trade Centre collapse could have ever happened. How in the design process we could we have missed or created these gaps that enabled a failure of this nature to happen? It's at this point that we approached the Lloyds Register Foundation to support a series of three workshops that would enable us to explore and discuss these issues of professionalism, issues that not only affect the process of innovation, but also affect the modern design process and potentially enable this type of failure to happen.

2011-2013 Workshops

The workshops were held at the University of Edinburgh, with the first one held in 2011. It focussed on the technical partners that engage in the process of the design of the built environment and in particular on fire safety engineers, as fire was a major reason for the failure of the World Trade Centre Towers. The first workshop brought structural engineers, architects, fire safety engineers, and a number of other disciplines to look into issues of professionalism, which came down to looking into what it is about the designer that enables that individual to innovate. What is it about this designer that makes that individual fail to detect gaps that could potentially lead to these failures? The conclusion was that we needed an individual that behaved as the orchestra director; a person that could look at all the other disciplines, put them all together, and lead a smooth design process that delivered a gap-free outcome.

This individual, this designer, had to be a person that was capable of understanding the different disciplines involved and interact with these disciplines in a positive way.  The second workshop in 2012 thus focused on how this designer many times built relationships that foster innovation, and many times built relationships that actually hamper innovation, so much so that it could eventually lead to massive failures. So the interaction between different professionals, the hierarchy between different professions, the competition of who the orchestra director is, became fundamental in the discussions of the second workshop. The discussion brought together a group of professionals that were part of the process but were not at the centre of the process, i.e. observers that looked at the design process from the outside. This enabled us to understand how these interactions can lead to a smooth design process and can lead to the flourishing of this designer, of this orchestra director, but also helped identify what are the key elements that sometimes disable the process from happening.

The third workshop in 2013 focussed on the external variables of building design. There are societal variables, there are regulatory variables, there are constraints such as market values and economics, all of which are going to affect not only the design process, but affect the designer itself. So the third workshop brought sociologists, lawyers, building regulators, a range of different individuals that fundamentally discussed the how the designer could interact with societal variables. The conclusion was that the designer has to be an individual be capable of understanding and operating within the content of these societal variables to be able to deliver an innovative design.

The three fundamental conclusions of these first three workshops were very clear. First, we needed a designer to be an orchestra director, an individual who could see the big picture but could also see and understand the different participants in this process. Second, all these internal participants had to interact in a way in which the hierarchies were well defined and the relationships were non-conflicting, to enable this designer to be the orchestra director. Third, the designer has to understand the external variables, contextualise them, and put them together. Only then can we actually have an innovative design that does not have the potential weaknesses that led to the failure of the World Trade Centre Towers.

2014-2016 Workshops

On the basis of these three conclusions, we approached the Ove Arup Foundation to run a second set of three workshops, this time to be held at the University of Queensland. The first of these three workshops was held in 2014 and focused on identifying innovative design and how can we foster innovative design within the built environment. Very rapidly we picked up on the concept of the designer, its internal technical contexts, its external societal context, and we realised that this all started at the educational level. It was about the way in which you educate this individual.

So the second workshop in 2015 brought a group of individuals that were focused on education, including higher education, pedagogical tools, and engineering education. We looked at the tools, we looked at the environment, we looked at the drivers, we looked at everything that is part of that educational process. The discussion very rapidly drifted in the direction not of the tools that we used to educate, but rather the environment that we create for individuals in this process of education. So it was not about necessarily the way in which we do it, but who is educating the building designed and the context in which they do it.

This is what brings us to the third and final workshop in 2016 – the conclusion that it is simply about the people that are involved. The workshop will explore who are the individuals who actually are to educate? What is the actual context that a university has to provide? Does it have to have laboratories? Does it have to have walls? Or is it simply a group of like-minded people that have the right drivers, the right objectives, and the right incentives to actually motivate the growth of an innovative mind and that understands the broad context of its discipline.

Note: This is a broad summary of workshop discussion which were diverse and oftentimes dissenting. The views expressed in this summary should thus not be considered as the views of all workshop participants.