Category Archives: innovation

Arup Explores Prototyping

Arup Explores Prototyping was held in London on March 8th. Forty-five delegates, half from outside the firm, including practitioners and business leaders were provoked by 15 short presentations in three sessions; access to tools, successful prototyping business models and scale. The event was part of a series of events that aim to explore trends and technologies that may impact on the future of Arup and was held prior to a related evening event with our friends at 100%Open titled “User Makers and Distributed Production”. Both events were great, with lots of positive feedback. My take away from the events are below.

Creating a space to think with your hands.

We had a great discussion around the desire for your own workshops and studios vs using other spaces and events as a catalyst to encourage the process of prototyping.

The benefit of your own spaces is the cultural shift that occurs, the design process changes, having a different toolset around you influences the way you think. At Arup we have the Light Lab “a place to flexibly experiment with lighting concepts”, Sound Lab “a place to listen to our designs”, a workshop in Arup Associates that builds on the strong tradition of making physical models in architectural practice and in many corners of the office we have emerging Innovation labs ranging from Arduino kit behind peoples desks to rooms with separate network infrastructure to allow prototyping of future ICT tools and networks.

“Other peoples spaces” provide an opportunity for greater collaboration and access to a broader toolset. But whilst many individuals probably have access to their old University workshops or emerging hackspaces I am not sure if we have ever formally looked at the potential for pooling resources to extend Arup into collaborative workshops. In addition to the spatial aspect there is also the benefit that a temporal one can bring. The focused activity of events such as Smartgeometry or Hackdays creates a platform for collaborators to come together, share experiences and develop their craft.

The purpose of the prototype.

Most of the speakers and participants had first hand experience of creating prototypes and their stories about why they were created was fascinating. For example, with Hintsights, the interaction designer exploring a service concept “didn’t intend to prototype initially but tools available meant it was really easy – this meant [he] kept making iterations [..] prototypes help us have discussions and test plausibility”. For Moving Brands the motivation for prototyping “off the job” was to communicate ideas and tell stories of what is possible without having to disclose client confidential projects. A really interesting concept when you take into account the learning that has now helped win fee paying client work.

Increasingly the prototype is no longer the final destination, rather part of the design process. And this seemed to be a common thread across most discussions. But the role of the prototype in the process does still vary. An interesting observation made by CRDM (a rapid prototyping shop) highlights the distinctions in different industries: “in automotive industry the virtual model is the part, in construction the virtual representations is a model of what may become real”. A discussion of scale then ensued, but to me it comes back to the level of detail in digital model – and that is why prototyping of this kind is interesting – it is the merging of the digital and physical skill sets.

The toolmakers

Several participants had made their own tools and spoke about the relationship between making things and then wanting to make the tools better to iterate their designs. The craft element of prototyping was a thread that seemed to run through many of the conversations during the event. Craft takes time, space and a certain level of freedom to pursue – and one that will always be difficult for management to nurture.

Other things I heard that I found interesting

“I wish we had an Arup Apprentice scheme to learn how to make stuff”

“3D printing is easy, the machine does that, the hard bit is giving it the instructions so that it knows what to do”

“Prototypes and the need to show someone something that works help us understand the integration issues”

“the problem with outsourcing prototyping is that the flow is lost, knowledge is lost and assumptions are made”

“Does it require a mindset change? First week people brought in 3D line drawings, now people are modelling precisely, your model is printed or not, 1 or 0″

“To the new generations of designers, engineers and architects, mathematics and algorithms are becoming as natural as pen and pencil.”

Whats next?

Colleagues in Australia (and hopefully US) will soon be organising region events using a similar model – I look forward to seeing the results of their discussions. Our tasks are:

Increase awareness and access to current toolset available.
Make it easy for people to access toolchain to create stuff.
Organise more lunch time Arduino “how to” workshops.

Questions still bumping around:
If we could develop an Arup Apprentice scheme, what subjects would it cover?
What are people doing in other Arup offices / regions?

UPDATE: more info also at:!/search/arupunion!/search/%23100openunion

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TED Global 2011

Last week I was at TED Global in Edinburgh. The event felt different to previous years in Oxford, it was bigger, seemed to have a broader mix of nationalities and a larger contingent of TEDx’rs.

TED (which stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design) is a global not-for-profit organisation which aims to bring together inspiring, energetic, extremely smart or renowned individuals from different disciplines – art, business, politics, science and much more – to generate “ideas worth spreading”.

Stuff of Life

The mix of talks this year were themed around the Stuff of Life. Here are my five favourite speakers that I want to remember and recommend that you look up.

Maajid Nawaz - Age of Behaviour - 2
Maajid Nawaz [talk already online at TED]

Maajid Nawaz was the first speaker who got my mind racing thinking about the how the implications of what he was proposing might influence me. He spoke about the ‘Age of Behaviour’ and how transnational behaviours are influenced by ideas and narratives. Maajid grew up in Essex and as a teenager was recruited to the global Islamist party Hizb ut-Tahrir, rising into its leadership until being sentenced to 4 years in an Egyptian prison in his early 20′s. He left prison feeling that Hizb ut-Tahrir was hijacking Islam for political purposes and in 2009 founded Khudi, a counter-extremism social movement working to promote a democratic culture in Pakistan.

What struck me about his talk was the leadership role he had created at young age based upon a new technology base for sharing ideas. His talk provides some interesting insight into the potential for creating bottom up movements in an environment that thrives on cultural belief. Why do I find this interesting? I am curious to explore ways of building a new way of working within Arup focused on the organic development of the “new generation” in the firm. I suspect that a bottom up, activist based approach would work well in our culture. [,]

Niall Ferguson - ideas and institutions - 1
Niall Ferguson

I found Niall Ferguson’s introduction to the “great divergence” between east and west economic development fascinating. The ‘apps’ listed in the photo above were an interesting way of looking at the ‘ideas and institutions’ that provide the vehicles for our societal development. He also raised some interesting questions: are we deleting some of our apps? is the sequence in which we develop the apps important? can China do without the third app? Why do I find this interesting? I like the idea of thinking about how ideas are stored, shared and passed between generations. This is particularly relevant in a growing organisation and raises interesting questions around size, structure and leadership.

Mikko Hypponen - internetpol - 1
Mikko Hypponen [talk already online at TED]

Putting the excellently geeky presentation skills to one side (he ran most his presentation from the command line and ended his show using an overhead projector) this was a funny and scary presentation. Mikko walked onto stage and showed us code from the boot sector of a 5 1/4 inch floppy that contained one of the first computer viruses – ‘Brain-A’. In that boot sector he showed us the names and address of the hackers – Basit & Amjit – and then showed a photo of himself standing outside that address a couple of years ago, introducing himself to Basit & Amjit, brothers who still lived there. Why do I find this interesting? Viruses like STUXNET have come to my attention recently [see 'open source weapons' video] since they are starting to move into the world of PLC’s and by implication will soon start to become a bigger issue in the world of Internet of Things. Mikko was championing the creation of an ‘internetpol’ to support the defence of our networks from largely criminally driven hackers who create viruses – another example of the need for agency beyond borders.

Todd Kuiken
Todd Kuiken

I loved this talk for the ingenuity that only someone with training as both Doctor and Engineer plus 20 years of hard earned experience could deliver. Todd introduced a bionic arm created by ‘stitching’ nerve endings from an amputated arm into muscle tissue on the pectoral. This technology called targeted muscle reinnervation allows the brain to control the arm directly but also had the unexpected effect in some patients that not only can they move their new limb, they can also feel with it. Why do I find this interesting? I am intrigued by the combination of body and technology, and find the adaptability of the brain to ‘fix’ its understanding of the world in which it operates fascinating.

Rory Stewart - Afghanistan
Rory Stewart

This one was unexpected. I guess the label of ‘conservative politician’ made me jump to some conclusions. But his talk about his experiences in Afghanistan were insightful, articulate and at the same time made me frustrated. I was intrigued by his experiences of the light touch (he walked across Afghanistan in 2001/2002) vs the role of international aid and (the very funny) ’7 decisive years’ by 7 different leaders. Why do I find this interesting? He spoke of a ‘mountain rescue’ approach to problem solving where experts need local context and knowledge, plus they can intelligently adapt to the environment when it changes. I am not sure if we give enough focus to the right person being in the ‘right’ job.

In some ways it is hard to pull out a favourite 5 so here are a bunch of other talks to look at.

Justin Hall-Tipping – Nanoholdings – technology to drive the future energy neutral building.

Geoffrey West – Santa Fe institute – on bounded growth, sub-linear scaling (meaning as things get bigger they need relatively less) and why do cities live but companies die?

Kevin Slavin – Area/Code – on our new ‘Algoworld’, an increasing trend which sees various aspects of our lives being run algorithmically and with a complexity that we can no longer meaningfully understand.

Tim Harford – Undercover Economist at Financial Times – great talk on our ‘God complex’, our belief that we are right and a call for more trial and error experimentation in the workplace. Talk is already up at TED.

Mark Pagel - language - 3
Mark Pagel – evolutionary biologist – on how language provided the mechanism to allow cooperation in cooperative societies.

Joe Castillo - sand artist - 1
Joe Castillo – amazing sand artist

Ben Goldacre – Guardian – Bad Science author, really funny, slightly alarming, frenetic talk – definately worth 18mins of your life.

Daniel Wolpert – neuroscientist and engineer – on the brain, movement, sensory processing and tickling robots.

Nadia al Sakkaf – editor of Yemen Times – when she took over as chief editor in 2005 she sacked half of the senior male staff and replaced them with ‘women and younger men’ – diversity in the workplace, leadership and a VERY brave woman.

Bunker Roy – barefoot college – inspiring talk about making your own destiny and two of my favourite quotes: ‘a dignity of labour’ and ‘these [hand] puppets are made of recycled worldbank reports’

Alain de Botton – writer – on religion

Alison Gopnick
Alison Gopnik – child development pyschologist – on kids sphere of exploration rather than focus of attention (interesting ideas on play and innovation here).

Michael Biddle – MBA Polymers, plastic recycling – on waste, recycling of plastics and over ground mining.

Harold Haas – Edinburgh University – wireless communications via LED light using orthogonal frequency division multiplexing. Geniunely impressive live demo that falters to show that it is real.

Markus Fischer – Festo – smartbird is a project to create an artificial bird capable of flying like a real bird. Inspired by the herring gull and inspiring factory automation products for Festo, this creature is awesome!

Links to all the speakers above will eventually emerge on

And finally, links to other resources that caught my imagination are tagged on pinboard with TEDlobal2011 and photos are on Flickr

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TED Global the substance of things not seen

Just back from my first TED. Have watched the videos over the past couple of years and have heard first hand accounts from past participants, so was looking forward to living it in real time.

We organised a workshop in parallel to the TED U(niversity) sessions. The new Drivers of Change cards were one of the gifts given to the 700 participants and the aim of the workshop was to introduce people to the cards and how they could be used to help people generate ideas worth spreading. The feedback on the day was excellent and we have several people to follow up with post event. The results of the TED group voting are on the DoC voting application with details of the voting and photos on flickr.

Thanks to the TED guys for showing the results of the Drivers of Change workshop votes on the main stage at TED Global. Bruno gave an excellent overview of the results and mentioned the pointer to the open voting set at

I went native at TED and reverted to pen and moleskine so below are a few notes which act as reminders for things i want to chat to people about and talks that i want to come back to when they are online. They are listed time linear since that is how my moleskine works.

Stefan Sagmeister – two things stuck in my mind – the very cool Casa da Musica dynamic identity, take a look at Brand New’s explanation and his approach to the seven year (itch) sabbatical which he justifies by describing how he is pulling forward 5 years worth of retirement and interspersing it in yearly blocks (the sabbaticals) into his work life. Great idea – but how to reintegrate with clients upon our return?

Gordon Brown was surprise speaker and has generated much discussion in the media (and at the event). His talk was very polished, he made the woman next to me cry, and he got a standing ovation. He also got slated for insincerity and auditioning for his next job. Either way “the power to communicate across borders” enabled by the photograph and the increasingly convergent phenomena of the internet in making these stories told in real time was an interesting theme.

Evan Grant, seeing the sound of nature as patterns in the sand – excellent talk, well worth watching again when on-line. He introduced me to Cymatics and had my mind racing with applications I want to try.

Rory Sutherland – an ad man at Ogilvy, he usually speaks at “TED Evil”. A fun presentation to watch – he suggests that engineers should not have spent 6 billion to build CTRL to reduce journey times but should have invested in making the journey so enjoyable that people would not notice the time they spent on the train. His suggestions included using the 6 billion to pay for super models to serve free champagne to all! Great story about the new Diamond Shreddies.

Mathieu Lehanneur – showed a great piece of product design where a kids asthma device inflates over night so that the kid has to take his medicine in the morning to “look after” the inhaler.

Rebecca Saxe – fires a magnetic pulse into her brain to deactivate a group of neurons that controls her moral perspective of other peoples actions. The Pentagon are calling but she is not taking their calls…

Henry Markram – “the drugs developed today are largely emperical” he is building a model of the brain so that they can start to simualate how the brain works. Need to watch this one again to figure out how this “actually” works and am interested in the implications for the Artificial Intelligence community.

It was good to see Manual Lima presenting visualcomplexity and Candy Chan had an interesting talk on community information architecture experiments – unseen conversations in neighbourhoods – worth a look for those interested in urban information systems.

One of the really inspirational talks for me was 89 year old Elaine Morgan making a compelling case for questioning facts that we assume to be correct. She wants the academic world to reconsider the aquatic ape theory.

Another great Urban Info project was the Mannahatta Project presented by Eric Sanderson. They have geo referenced historical data of 17th century Manhattan to bring into focus the ecology today and “plan for the urban ecosystem of the future”. Great presentation, bought the book.

Architect to watch Bjarke Ingels showed two great projects which stuck in my mind – Danish pavillion for the Shanghai expo (they are flying out the mermaid) and a local housing development that creates a little mountain in the flat landscape – note to self, pick up a copy of YES IS MORE / AN ARCHICOMIC ON ARCHITECTURAL EVOLUTION (ISBN 8799298805).

Itay Talgam – what kind of leader are you? – an excellent presentation using clips of conductors showing different styles of leadership. It needs the visuals to explain – one to watch on video.

ones i need to watch again are:

Loretta Napoleoni

Misha Glenny

Parag Khanna

Posted in convergence, drivers of change, innovation | 2 Comments



Had a really interesting evening at the at abrahams event hosted by Arup on the theme of “collaborleaders”. at abrahams is curated by abrahams and Claire Curtice Publicists with this event chaired by Sophie Howarth from the School of Life. The evening highlights were Philip Sheppard playing an impromptu cello solo and then later joining Steve Lodder and John Etheridge to show how three musicians can come together and improvise a piece of music – collaboration at its best. The video below is a bit shakey – i had to improvise ;-) but watch how the three are continually watching each other – to quote one of the general observations from the evening “the non verbal communication amongst the collaborators was visible”.

atabrahams impromptu collaboration from Duncan Wilson on Vimeo.

Other highlights included:

re the cello “it’s a Banks probably made near here in 1750″ i wonder which of todays tools we will be using in 2250

re workshops – can you be forced to collaborate or do have to want to collaborate?

re architect and designer – “the collaboration only involved about 4 hours of working together with each other” but then many hours of the teams working together towards the finished product

re can it be built – “not yes you can, but yes we can”

re the ego in the collaboration – the economist does not have signed articles it is a team effort by the editing staff.

and finally… a poem by Roger McGough for the egotistical collaborator

The Leader

I wanna be the leader

I wanna be the leader

Can I be the leader?

Can I? I can?

Promise? Promise?

Yippee I’m the leader

I’m the leader

OK what shall we do?

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Hackday fun


I spent the weekend at the Yahoo Hackday last week. As Crave puts it

“The idea behind it was simple: you’ve got exactly 24 hours to hack together the most interesting, innovative, useful or fun piece of software or hardware, using developer tools from Yahoo, or anyone else for that matter. ”

David Filo opened the event, I learnt alot about the Yahoo API’s available – a great way for them to show me what i could be using… and thought the talk by Rasmus Lerdorf on hacking with PHP was great.

Next steps – how to organise a hackday at Arup for the virtual design, BIM, GIS and intranet communities…

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Corporate innovation network


Thanks to David at Oracle and Roland and David at Nesta for taking the time to get together a bunch of corporate bods who are tasked in some form with trying to nurture innovation in their respective organisations. The group is still reasonable embryonic with a few different agendas becoming clear. I am keen to catch up with others to discuss what Arup are doing and to learn about the approaches and lessons learnt in other corporate contexts. At the other end of the spectrum the group were also keen to pool resources on identifying SME’s start-ups who they should be investing in “it takes too long to use normal networking techniques to monitor and assess all the new start-up out there…” Not quite sure how the latter applies in my environment yet, but one to watch.

OS openspace logo

Inevitably a couple of ideas to pursue came out of the session. Great chat with Chris Parker from Ordnance Survey. Talked about the possibility for some open innovation activity around their new OS open space API, their GeoVation project ["GeoVation will let government, business, community and individuals work together to develop ideas that benefit society, make money or both."] and an upcoming hackday that may be of interest to the Arup GIS community.

Of interest via Kelvin Pitman, Director of Open Innovation at Crown Technology, was their “problems we want solving” section of their website.

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IRC: The Myths of Innovation by Scott Berkun

Have just finished pulling together and writing up the second in a series of internal Arup workshops on innovation. The series are sponsored by our Europe Region Design and Technical Executive and are aimed at stimulating thought around innovation amongst some of our senior leaders. It was fun to research the *overview of innovation* presentation since it has been a few years since I have had to talk about this stuff. One book I came across was The Myths of Innovation by Scott Berkun. (I actually picked up a free copy of this book at Scifoo 2007 but had not read it until recently). I loved the stories around the myths and found it a very useful way to describe the effort that normally goes into innovating. I couldn’t attend the innovation reading circle meeting around this book but Nico has a great overview page as per usual and links to a Googletalk by Scott Berkun which is worth a watch if you don’t like reading books…

Google Tech Talks: Scott Berkun, May 14, 2007

The one big change to my presentation was the inclusion of the latest trends in Open Innovation. Arup are keen to explore this further so if you are interested in an open innovation project, maybe around the theme of real time building performance data in the built environment, then let me know…

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IRC: wisdom of the crowd

I had fun reading the Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki. It had been on the list to read for a while since the ideas in it (at least from what I had heard) reflected the strategy we had used in creating the Drivers of Change programme at Arup. If you go and speak to enough people then themes (drivers) that concern them start to emerge. The Drivers of Change 2006 book and the upcoming *Rainbow* set are the result of this collective wisdom. Here is my review.

Other books discussed at IRC07 were:

Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking – Malcolm Gladwell (Penguin, 2006)

The Long Tail: How Endless Choice Is Creating Unlimited Demand – Chris Anderson (Random House, 2006)

See Nico’s great page.

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Innovation stimulator

Inspired by what i saw at product design firms like IDEO and manufacturers like 3M we tried to set-up a materials showcase in R&D at Arup. The basic idea was to collate samples of interesting materials, technology or even products and have them on display around our offices / project areas. It never quite established the inertia required to keep it living. Stumbled across inventables today via the SciFoo wiki – sounds like a great venture…

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IRC: The social shaping of technology

The third innovation reading circle reviewed The Shock of the Old: Technology and Global History since 1900 by Professor David Edgerton (Profile Books, 2007) Held at the offices of LBi near Angel. The session was chaired by Nico with an introduction to his book from David.

The main thesis of the book is that we do not understand what the important technologies of the twentieth century are. The book proposes an alternate (controversial) view to the current textbooks on histories of technology. It argues that the most significant innovations and inventions are often the ones built on old / traditional ways of doing things rather than the linear progression of hyped new technologies.

I was surprised that I did not find much to disagree on in the book. As an engineer, geek, partial neophiliac and foresighter I have all the credentials to be the stereotype targeted in this book, but I could not find an argument that made me uncomfortable. In the discussion around the question of *what is the author arguing for?* I was unclear as to what the next steps need to be. Whilst the argument that current policy strategy can lead to the funding of white elephants I wasn’t clear what the proposition for how it could be done differently was – I think it was the need to focus on the here and now innovation in addition to the long term invention.

My take away from the book was the unknown truth of history – for example the argument that world war II was won by horses, big guns and small arms, not fighter planes and atomic bombs. If this is true then why do we invest so much in the development of these red herrings?

Things to change: when assessing innovation a common assumption made is that there is no comparable alternative, to understand the significance of an innovation it is essential to understand the implications of use – how the innovation will change things that people do. Some comparison to the alternatives (even if the alternative is that it does not get done) is useful to understand potential benefit. Could this be applied to assessment of internal investments?

Interesting tidbit: the second biggest global killer of people (after malaria) is the automobile (around 1 million people per year – pg 27 – would love to find stats reference to support that).

Professor Edgerton is Hans Rausing Chair at the Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine Centre at Imperial College London.

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