Embracing Innovation – Q&A with Disney ‘Imagineer’

October 21, 2015
David Durham of Walt Disney Imagineering speaks during the Industry Leaders Forum panel discussion on innovation. PHOTO: Roxann Henze/ASCE

Pursuing innovation in engineering is not for the faint of heart.

But as engineers take on the “Grand Challenge” issued by ASCE’s Industry Leaders Council to drastically reduce infrastructure life-cycle costs by 2025, employing innovative methods to develop new solutions will be an essential strategy.

David Durham, a creative designers studio lead for Walt Disney Imagineering, doesn’t think innovation just happens. He believes it stems from a mindset, a culture that must be developed among a project team. Durham took part in the Industry Leaders Forum at the ASCE 2015 Convention, along with Andrew Chatham of Google and David Odeh of Odeh Engineers, for a panel discussion titled Innovation – Beyond The Concept, moderated by Industry Leaders Council chair Michael K. Loose.

Durham spoke with ASCE News afterward about staring down risk and embracing innovation.

ASCE News: What do you think drives innovation? Is it something where you have an idea first and then figure out how to get there with the process? Or is it more like, ‘OK, this didn’t go right last time; how can we do it better?’

David Durham: Everything starts with the idea. What are we trying to make? What are we trying to build? What kind of experience are we trying to create? And once we come up with the idea, often because we’re always pushing the envelope experientially that idea might be something that’s never been done before.

No big deal. We do the “brand new” all the time.

But then we’ll look and say,  “OK, well, what existing tools or existing tricks can we use to try to convey this experience or try to pull this off?” And a lot of times it’s going to be – “Oh! Well, nobody’s ever done that before and we have no idea how to do that.” That’s when we start to all smile, because it means, “great, we get to invent something!”

And there is no hesitance on the part of [Disney] Imagineers to want to go do something new. We love doing something new. We hate doing the same things twice. So we are not just open; we are inviting. We’re like a magnet to “What’s a new thing we get to try?” And in doing something new, that may require innovation, or it may be a new application of something that already exists in a way that’s never been done before – which in some ways is also innovation; it’s just innovation in a different way.

Convention2015iconSo we love to innovate, almost to a detriment. Because where you can leverage doing the same thing twice, you should. There’s lower risk, there’s lower cost, on and on and on. But creative people – and we’re creative in all disciplines – we don’t like doing the same thing twice, so by its very nature, we live in a world at work where we are always doing new things and often that requires innovation.

ASCE: So you talk about it all being about the idea. Is it more important to have an innovative idea, then, or to innovate during the process on the way to executing the idea? Or those maybe go hand in hand?

Durham: They don’t go hand in hand, but they often walk next to each other (laughs). It’s sort of weird. We look at people, product, process – the three Ps – and there’s ways you can be innovative in your product and there’s also ways you’re innovative in your process. We are constantly looking for ways to be innovative in the process.

And often the guest will never know. The guest is going to go to our Shanghai Castle and they’ll have no idea of the complexity of all these new processes we put in place to build this castle. And that’s OK, because we don’t want them to know that. We want them to believe they’ve walked into the storybook world. So the stuff we do from a process standpoint is purely on our end to see: ‘Is there a faster, cheaper, better, smarter way to solve this problem?’ It’s all about problem solving.

As a designer, you are a problem solver. As an engineer, you are a technical problem solver. So what is the problem we’re trying to solve? What’s the best way to solve it? And does that require new ways to pull things together? Often yes.

ASCE: Talk about flexibility. It struck me, in a lot of the examples you talked about in your presentation, a lot of the innovations and a lot of the technology that you’re using, allow for you to adjust midstream, to react to what you’re learning every step of the way. How important is that to what you do?

Durham: It’s really important. You can’t ever get stuck or used to doing something a certain way. That is the kiss of death. You have to constantly question everything. And after you question it, you may come to the same answer you would have come to initially. Which is fine. You’ve done your due diligence, and that is the best way to solve a given problem.

But you don’t ever want to get to the point where you default to always thinking, ‘Well, this is just like what we did before, we’ll just do it the same way.’ Because even if it is exactly like something you did before, the world is not the same as it was five years ago. New tools exist and new expectations exist and new requirements exist. So it’s never the exact same even if it looks the exact same.

You have to always be used to asking questions. Question, question, question. You have to question everything. You may come full circle to the answer you were expecting, but often you don’t; you come to a different solution and you would not have come there if you had not asked the question in the first place.

It’s not like, ‘Oh, we’re going to question the status quo!’ No, it’s not like that. It’s more of a, ‘We’re willing to say the way we did it the last time isn’t necessarily the best way to do it today, and therefore, let’s look at it again.’

ASCE: Do you ever get scared? What you’re talking about is very risky in a lot of different ways. Has there ever been something that you thought was an innovation that maybe didn’t work out the way you’d hoped and sort of made you a little more hesitant the next time?

Durham: We were laughing earlier when I was talking to somebody about the percentage of things that we do design that actually get built. We run about a four percent. About four percent of what we think up ever actually gets built, which means 96 percent doesn’t. So you’ve got to have sort of a thick skin if you’re in the design ideation process because the vast majority of what you think up – 19 things out of 20 – is going to go by the wayside.

So do you think of those things as failures? Or do you think of them as something that just didn’t go forward? It’s a mindset. You know, trying something for the right reasons and having it not work is OK. We’re a big enough company where we’re going to absorb a slight delay in schedule or something to make up for it. But we want to make intelligent choices and do the right thing for the right reason.

If we see this advancing the craft, if it’s advancing the technology, if we see we can make this work and ‘Oh my gosh, for the next projects this is going to be so cool!’ we will do new things because we see the benefit. We don’t do things just to do things. We do things because it looks like, ‘Yeah this might be a good thing to apply for that thing we talked about two years ago; we thought of the idea but there was nothing really to try it on; oh, this might be the perfect one.’

So we look for opportunities, but you have to be willing to fail. You have to be willing to fail. “Fail” doesn’t mean a ride’s going to blow up. It means we might bust schedule or bust the budget. But, OK, we’ll fix it. We’ll still open, it’ll still be great, and we will have learned and we’ll apply that the next time.

But as soon as you get so risk-averse that you’re afraid of ever failing, you will never do anything outside the box.

We were laughing earlier: How many imagineers does it take to change a lightbulb?… Wait, why does it have to be a light bulb?

But that’s sort of the mindset. Question everything and be ready for failure. Some things will work great, and some things will not. But as long as you learn from that failure and apply it, you’ll be OK.

As part of its Grand Challenge to reduce infrastructure life-cycle costs, the Industry Leaders Council recently launched an ASCE Innovation Contest for anyone interested in entering an innovative engineering idea.

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