Engineering firm Arup pays people to see and shape the future. In a global workforce of 10,000 how does it make sure their voices are heard?
Chris Luebkeman’s job is to sketch the future. As Arup’s director for global foresight and innovation, Luebkeman concerns himself with some of society’s biggest questions. How should our cities deal with the onslaught of mass migration? How do we wean ourselves off fossil fuels but also cope with a doubling or even tripling of demand for energy? The more manageable problems often lead straight to client work. Could offshore wind turbines be designed to produce more power without increasing in size? Out at sea, size or, more importantly, weight, is crucial. Bigger turbines produce more energy, but their bulk makes them more costly both to install and maintain.
Arup’s solution, developed with Wind Power and architects Grimshaw, is the Aerogenerator X, which has the potential to produce twice the power at only half the weight of a conventional turbine. How? Looking more like a sycamore seed than a windmill, the Aerogenerator’s frame is shorter but much wider, while the turbine sits much lower down. The combined effect is a lighter, sturdier, more efficient machine.
For clean-energy advocates, keen to prove that the cost per kilowatt of wind power doesn’t outweigh its benefits, the Aerogenerator X could prove a useful innovation. It’s also a handy illustration of the type of problem solving that appears to come naturally to an engineering firm as comfortable asking questions as it is answering them.
With his sharp jacket and perennial bow tie, Luebkeman has the air of a man continually on his way to an awards event, which, given Arup’s stack of industry accolades, is probably no surprise. From Sydney’s Opera House to Beijing’s Olympic “Bird’s Nest” stadium and Aquatics Centre, Arup’s headline projects demonstrate a company-wide desire to innovate on a grand scale. Sydney Opera House pioneered the use of computers to calculate the stresses and loads on its complex, curved roof. The Aquatics Centre, completed for the 2008 Beijing Games, won the MacRobert Award for engineering innovation, with judges praising its “breathtaking” fusion of molecular science and architecture.
Closer to home, buildings such as the Swiss Re “Gherkin” (30 St Mary Axe) and the Pompidou Centre in Paris (there’s another in Metz, France) reflect not only the firm’s innate creativity, but also one of founder Sir Ove Arup’s key design legacies—unity between architecture and structure.
Ove Arup’s firm of engineers, architects, planners and designers has come a long way since its post-war inception. The company is now global, with 10,000 employees working in 35 different countries. Hanging on to a founding philosophy is one thing, but how does such a large, globally distributed practice manage to maintain both the drive and the agility to innovate? Image helps. Framing challenging questions and devoting a small department to answering the unanswerable, offers a neat reputation wrapper. It signals to the client that Arup is unafraid of uncertainty. And it signals to current and future employees that this is a firm at which personal ambitions can be met. In this context, it matters little that many of the foresight team’s ideas never leave the drawing broad.
The Arup strategy works, says David Gann, head of innovation and entrepreneurship at Imperial College Business School. Arup is seen as an organisation that prides itself “in taking on challenges that a lot of other people wouldn’t want to take on”.
Arup’s hierarchical structure is designed to support the theory that innovation is nothing without execution. Although Arup’s size can work against it, management is decentralised to encourage creativity and to stimulate a greater appetite for risk. And the fact that the firm is owned by its employees puts less pressure on the need to return investment immediately. “Our investment view is longer term. We’re a trust and not a public company. We take a seven to 10-year view on payback,” says Jeremy Watson, Arup’s global research director.
These structural tenets are reinforced through education. Arup runs an innovation “school” for managers to make sure they don’t inhibit potentially innovative subordinates. The course allows leaders to see that they are “enablers” of innovation, says Luebkeman, and also offers guidance for offices in which command-and-control management is still dominant. “Some of our offices are more vertical than others. It’s important that our staff feel [that anyone can have] the capability to do something slightly out of whack, something that upsets the status quo.” Gann says that although innovation on “every job” is seen neither as necessary nor desirable, innovation itself is still part of the company’s fabric. It’s a view backed by Peter Young, Arup’s UK head of advanced technology and research. “The kind of people we employ are the kind who always want to do it better next time. In that sense, I guess
innovation is continuous and ongoing,” he says.
But there are more forceful influences on innovation than attitude and structure. Like most consultancies, Arup is project-led, and projects tend to throw up unexpected problems. The value to the client is contained in the quality of the reaction and in the way processes can be improved upon, explains Young. “Day-to-day problem solving—that’s what I would call innovation on the fly.”
In 2000, London’s Millennium Bridge emerged as a pivotal test for Arup’s ability to innovate reactively. Two days after opening to the public, the footbridge had to be closed after users reported instability when crossing. All bridges move slightly under the pressure of footfall, but these movements were greater than engineers had predicted. The wobbly bridge, as it was immediately dubbed, threatened to embarrass its project design team, which included Sir Norman Foster and sculptor Sir Anthony Caro. But while, as Gann notes, many companies would have tried to “hush it up”, Arup opened up the problem to a team of researchers, which investigated and modelled the combined effects of varying numbers of pedestrians.
A simple but expensive solution would have been to strengthen the bridge. Instead, the team designed and “retrofitted passive damping” to limit the bridge’s lateral movement and correct the wobble. Arup published its research and solution, effectively donating the new technique to the industry: an open, transparent response to a public-relations disaster. “Some companies wouldn’t have approached it like that. It was a pretty smart way of handling it,” says Gann.
Such an innovative solution wouldn’t have been possible without a structure and culture almost entirely devoted to the capture and exploitation of knowledge. The company’s internal network system, created with software supplied by Autonomy and Straker, aggregates the wisdom of the entire workforce, allowing its people to search and access the skills of any Arup employee anywhere in the world. “We are nothing but our people,” says Luebkeman. “It’s therefore crucial that our people are as knowledgeable, up to date, as clever and as connected as possible.”
It’s a common Arup boast that each client has a team of 10,000 people managing its account. Autonomy’s knowledge network makes that boast at least credible. It was Apple’s Steve Jobs who said that “creativity is just connecting things”. But as Young points out: “You can’t join the dots if you don’t know the dots are there. That’s what the knowledge infrastructure is for.”
The knowledge network supports Arup projects around the world, but also acts as a “repository for online learning”, allowing Arup employees to teach each other new techniques in a host of disciplines, from structural vibration control to plumbing. There is a forum for asking technical questions of experts, which Arup moderates only to ensure false information is not published.
Arup’s knowledge networks also help spread innovation to different fields. Fixing the wobbly bridge, for example, handed Arup a new technique, which it was able to transfer to high-rise buildings. Skyscrapers lean in high winds, says Young. Adding extra structural support can reduce the problem, but it is expensive for high-rise buildings. Install damping in the building and you not only limit unwanted movement but also save on resources. “What you see on the underside of the Millennium Bridge are chevrons with viscous dampers between them. Applying similar support to a high-rise building allows you to reduce the cost of the structure and the size of the foundations,” he explains.
Young says Arup is quick to back new ideas with finance. If an engineer conceives an approach to a structural or design problem, perhaps a clever way of analysing wind flow around a turbine, the company’s investment funds assess the idea’s viability either for patenting or for use on future projects. Even if an idea isn’t implemented, says Luebkeman, the firm is happy to pick up the tab, “as long as the process of investigation has moved their own knowledge ahead”. A new wind-flow analysis method would give the team a head start the next time it designs a turbine, he explains.
Quite often, problem-solving innovation is created by “happy” clashes between different disciplines. Arup is a firm of engineers, designers, accountants, architects, marketing professionals and graphic designers. Engineers tackle architectural problems, designers try to answer engineering questions and technologists join forces with mathematicians to enable new angles to be explored. It’s what’s known as hybrid thinking.
The Spire of Dublin’s “fatigue life” is a case in point. The fatigue life of a structure relates to the amount of pressure that can be exerted before it buckles. “If you bend a paper clip many times it will eventually break,” says Young. The tall, narrow Spire is susceptible to vibration in high winds.
Assessing and limiting potentially damaging vibrations could be achieved only by joining a wind expert, a fatigue expert, a structural engineer and a material expert.
Hybrid thinking, says Young, is particularly handy in researching nascent industries. One of Arup’s current projects, investigating the impact of electric vehicles on urban infrastructure, illustrates the point. “Even if I wanted to,” says Young, “it would be very difficult to go to the marketplace and recruit 10 electric vehicles experts because there aren’t really any electric vehicle experts. It’s rather new. We take people who have a broad problem-solving approach, an open mind, and say, ‘here’s the problem’.”
Arup’s analysis of the potential impact of electric vehicles for both public and private sector clients has allowed it to make an intriguing bet. Induction power transfer, the same type of technology that enables shavers and electric toothbrushes to recharge, could be placed underneath the road surface, allowing dormant cars to recharge electromagnetically. Arup is in partnership with a spin-out firm from Auckland University to bring this innovative technology to market. Young doesn’t like to call it design thinking, a label that, he says, is simply “a discussion of semantics, a bit of a distraction”, but it’s clear Arup is infected with a childlike questioning of the status quo. It’s what drives creativity right to the edges of the company.
Luebkeman calls it a willingness to “explore and to consider things from first principles”. Arup’s culture is about stepping back, he says, and asking, “Is that the right question?” It’s not a case of “What are we building?”, but “What are we building it for?” He adds: “Out of that tension something else often pops out that wasn’t considered.”
Innovation starts with a question.
Making a mark: Arup’s most notable projects to date
- Sydney Opera House Sydney, 1973
- Angel of the North Gateshead, 1998 (advised sculptor Antony Gormley)
- Millennium Bridge London, 2000
- Øresund Bridge Denmark/ Sweden, 2000
- City of Manchester Stadium Manchester, 2002
- 30 St Mary Axe London, 2003
- Scottish Parliament, Edinburgh, 2004
- National Assembly for Wales Cardiff, 2005
- Casa da Música Porto, 2005
- High Speed 1 London and Kent, 2007
- National Aquatics Centre, Beijing, 2007
- National Stadium (Bird’s Nest) Beijing, 2008
- Heathrow Terminal 5, London, 2008
- Pompidou Centre Metz, 2010
By David Woodward