How the industry can strive for genuine innovation again

Miriam Turner, Assistant Vice President Open Innovation & Product Sustainability for Interface, explains how, by pioneering sustainable ways of working and co-innovating with partners, the construction industry can strive for genuine innovation again.

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Miriam Turner is Assistant Vice President Open Innovation & Product Sustainability for Interface. Miriam is responsible for brokering relationships with external organisations and networks to develop and successfully commercialise innovative, sustainable products and services.

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nnovation is a core value and focus for the design and architecture sector to shape the future of how we build, work and live. However, in reality, it is often a difficult task to create and implement revolutionary ideas that could dramatically transform the industry – and the world – for the better.

When developing radical ideas, it’s vital to assess our ambitions and ensure the industry is being as daring as it can be. Genuine sustainability advancement, for example, is about so much more than developing less energy-intensive products and processes. It’s about setting sights higher to challenge preconceptions of what is known to be possible, and breaking down the boundaries of what can be achieved.

Whether you are a multinational organisation or an entrepreneur, conceptualising a revolutionary idea – and the work required to implement it successfully – can be an intimidating task. However, overcoming the initial fear to effectively implement your idea can have a significant pay-off, with clear commercial benefit and a real impact on a business’s bottom line.

Where radical innovation is concerned, those involved in the process require the creative freedom to challenge existing designs, processes and products, as well as devising new approaches and techniques, without fear of failure.

If anything, any development process when trying to achieve something different should be rewarded. For a business, it’s vital to promote this mentality to all employees, because whether a new idea gets traction or not, the process is likely to inspire and encourage others to think positively about innovation.

Radical change

Even a cursory glance at the world of construction shows that there are architects out there prepared to step into the unknown to deliver transformative design.

For example, the architects behind London’s 30 St Mary Axe, widely known as The Gherkin, were inspired by innovations in materials and modelling when conceiving the building.

The development features an advanced exoskeleton design, rather than a central supporting shaft, which works to distribute stress more evenly across the structure, allowing the building to be lighter than similar-sized skyscrapers. This helped significantly reduce the amount of material required to construct the building, cutting its environmental impact.

This forward-thinking design also allowed the construction of open ventilation shafts between each floor, a radical solution that allows the building to be cooled or heated passively without the need for an energy-intensive air conditioning system. As a result, The Gherkin consumes half the energy of a similar-sized skyscraper, dramatically reducing its carbon footprint.

Innovation is also having a positive effect inside buildings. Designers are learning from the natural world – a discipline known as biomimetics – to deliver solutions that are ever more sustainable. For example, taking inspiration from the way geckos climb walls, modular flooring manufacturer, Interface, developed TacTiles – a glue-free installation system for modular flooring that virtually eliminates volatile organic compounds. This solution enables carpet tiles to adhere to each other rather than the floor, removing the need for adhesive and, in doing so, helping to minimise the environmental impact of building interiors.

These are great examples of how the construction industry has achieved genuine innovation in recent years. But how do we continue to deliver such radical advances in the future? How do we develop more innovation that can change society for the better?

Working together

For a growing number of businesses, the answer lies in collaborative partnerships – working together with like-minded companies to solve common challenges. By sharing knowledge and pooling expertise, organisations can not only develop more effective solutions to meet the needs of the construction sector; they can also evolve more efficient and sustainable supply chains, helping to further reduce the impact of the built environment on the world around us.

Interface, for instance, sees co-innovation as a crucial way to find ever more sustainable ways of working. As part of its Mission Zero goal to eliminate its negative impact on the environment by 2020, Interface works with partners to pioneer the implementation of solutions to enhance the sustainability of its manufacturing operations and its supply chain.

A key example of this co-innovation is Interface’s work with Shark Solutions, an organisation that recycles polyvinyl butyral (PVB), a material found in the laminated glass of car windscreens. In working together, both companies developed a way to transform PVB into an environmentally-sound replacement for the synthetic SBR latex precoat used predominantly in the flooring industry, with a carbon footprint 80% less than the industry standard.

However, achieving innovation is an ongoing process, particularly when it comes to sustainability. As such, Interface is now looking beyond Mission Zero and eliminating its environmental footprint, with a new target to have even further restorative impact on the world around us, called Climate Take Back. Drawing on knowledge from experts across the industry, Interface wants to develop new solutions and ways of working that give back to the environment, such as using bio-energy from fish heads and chocolate waste to power its manufacturing operations. Such solutions will minimise the company’s carbon footprint, and help to reduce waste to landfill at the same time.

Redefining innovation

Genuine innovation is about looking at the way we work and striving to improve it. By setting the bar higher, the industry can work together to ensure we are genuinely pushing ourselves as far as possible.

The first step in achieving this goal must be to ensure that solutions aren’t developed in isolation, but as a key part of a wider supply chain. This way, learning from partners in the construction industry and beyond, we can make sure that advances in technology all work together to deliver genuine, positive change, transforming the built environment and our lives for the better.

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