Innovation as an Asset

BY 
December 5, 2014

ASCE’s 1st International Conference on Sustainable Infrastructure was held in Long Beach, California, November 6-8, 2014. The conference had many notable highlights and I thoroughly enjoyed every minute I was there. This commentary was sparked by a keynote presentation in the opening plenary session by James Close, the Director for Policy and Finance of the World Bank Climate Group. Among the many notable comments in his speech was a quote attributed to Isambard Kingdom Brunel,a British engineer who played a key role in the early industrial revolution and made a number of advances and breakthroughs. Brunel’s biography (http://www.biographyonline.net/business/brunel.html) is impressive, to say the least. 

James Close of The World Bank Group was the keynote speaker at ASCE's first International Conference on Sustainable Infrastructure. Close believes that innovation can help make investments in sustainable infrastructure attractive to private investors.

James Close of The World Bank Group was the keynote speaker at ASCE’s first International Conference on Sustainable Infrastructure. Close believes that innovation can help make investments in sustainable infrastructure attractive to private investors.

James Close emphasized “the importance of innovation as an asset class that needs to attract investment in a world that is rapidly changing.” He commented that “price incentives are critical for technology diffusion, but are unlikely to be sufficient to trigger innovation at the scale and speed needed.” He also realized that “commercialization of risky new technologies such as carbon capture and storage may require the public sector to engage in demonstration projects before the private sector will commit and finance.”

The quote used by Close in his speech was Brunel speaking of his approach to building bridges:

I am opposed to the laying down of rules or conditions to be observed in the construction of bridges lest the progress of improvement tomorrow might be embarrassed or shackled by recording or registering as law the prejudices or errors of today.”

Close’s speech and the Brunel quote he cited prompted two memories.

One was a project owner who admonished me that he did not want anything innovative to be used in the design of his project because it would slow down the review process and delay the construction permit.

The other was a slender volume from my undergraduate humanities course that I still have in my personal library. (Interestingly, I would never have taken [that course] had it not been a required part of my curriculum.) The volume is The Prince, by Níccoló Machíavellí, written in 1513. He writes:

“… nothing [is] more difficult to plan, more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to manage than the creation of a new system. For the initiator has the enmity of all who would profit by preservation of the old institutions and merely lukewarm defenders in those who would gain by the new ones. The hesitation of the latter arises in part from fear of their adversaries, who have the laws on their side, and in part from the general skepticism of mankind which does not really believe in an innovation until experience proves its value. So it happens that whenever … enemies have occasion to attack… they do so with the passion of partisans while the others defend… sluggishly so that the innovator and [supporters] are alike vulnerable.” (Chapter VI, Of New Monarchies Acquired by One’s Own Arms and Ability)

It occurs to me that the way engineering services have become a commodity is simultaneously solidified by those in regulatory agencies who check designs against standard solutions and by owners selecting engineering design firms on the basis of low bid, assuming that all firms are equally qualified to provide standard designs. The precedent of low-bid standard designs guides capital-project budgeting and stifles innovation.

What do you think: Are “standard designs” sustainable or do they stifle needed innovation?

 

Jeffrey R Keaton, PhD PE PG D.GE ENV SP, is a Principal Engineering Geologist in the Los Angeles office of Amec Foster Wheeler. Keaton is a member of the ASCE Committee on Sustainability and chairs its strategic communications subcommittee.

2 Comments
  • As life is going on with many changes human activities should always advance these changes.Engineering profession to be in the lead should always accommodate the expected those changes>In this aspect I thought of merging the strategic theories of thinking in the field of engineering and tried to write a manuscript which I called ((strategic engineering))In this book I am trying to show that engineering should forecast what is going to happen or may be said that any project should be conducted through all its life cycle strategically .This will simply cancelled the old method of bidding and avoiding the mistakes,defaults and realizing sustainability and innovation through cooperative discussion and mutual exchange of ideas between the owner and the contractor with the participation of all those involved in the project or those who are named the ((stakeholders)).

  • Rossana D'Antonio, PE, GE

    Standard designs and innovation don’t have to be separate schools of thought. Not only are standard designs sustainable, they also provide needed design efficiencies. However, they must never be applied blindly and without thought. Standards must be continually refreshed and updated based on changes in the industry often driven by current day societal challenges. Innovation is what drives creative standards and designs. What stifles innovation is a lack of imagination. Successful and long-standing organizations encourage innovation which ultimately leads to successful designs.

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