A supportive, free-thinking environment and collaboration are key components of encouraging structural engineering innovation in what is traditionally a conservative and risk averse profession, according to Principal and Arup Fellow, Tristram Carfrae.

Speaking at the fourth lecture in The Royal Academy of Engineering’s Prime Innovator series on 24 January, Tristram Carfrae shared his approach to design using insights into the development of the Beijing Olympic Water Cube, which earned the prestigious MacRobert Award in 2009.

A video of the lecture is available from:  RAEng TV: Prime Innovator IV

Tristram said:

“While I agree that most creative people do have an independent spirit, I think you have to balance that with collaboration and would add that I believe creative people need a supportive environment to innovate and the organisation has to support individual creativity,”.

Tristram advocates that rules should be kept to the bare minimum to encourage innovation and noted that Arup’s 10,000 employees exist in an almost ‘flat’ management structure that is “slightly anarchic” but beneficial in encouraging creativity.

“Arup’s culture is to get good people and let them do what they want – a laissez faire approach and the company’s most important aspect, in my opinion,” he added.

Tristram believes there are a number of barriers to innovation in the ‘conservative and risk averse’ engineering profession. Due to having to satisfy multiple stakeholders, he noted that designers can err on the side of caution and the fact that engineers are paid for their service and not the performance of a building can mean the incentive to innovate is stifled.

He encouraged engineers to use both sides of their brain – logic and intuition - as well as taking a break from pressing problems to let their subconscious help find a solution. “While you cannot force yourself to be innovative, you can set the environment for where innovation might occur,” he said.

He also noted that while engineering companies will, rightly so, never tolerate the building of a structure likely to fall down, they must tolerate blue-skies ideas that could ‘fall down’ during the brainstorming stages. He said ‘a lack of control is good’ as it liberates people to make things happen.

However, Tristram’s attitude to design and individual thinking does not disregard the benefits of teamwork. The project that he is most famous for and the one he believes demonstrated “profound collaboration” is the Beijing’s Olympic Water Cube.

He believes the clever use of materials, striking design and superb functionality is down to all disciplines of engineering being present from day one of the project and working together to create the now iconic building and overcoming ‘hiccups’ of the original design not standing up – “a slight oversight”.

He revealed that the Water Cube’s design was inspired by soap bubbles, computer-generated to create an infinitely repeated form and then sliced to reveal the random pattern which forms the structure’s stunning surface.

“Bowled over” by the finished building, Tristram said: “I’ve never worked on a project where the idea is so complete at the competition stage that it doesn’t change when the physical building is realised.”

He added: “I like to think that so many swimming records were broken because of the quality of the space, not because the swimsuits were special.”

Notes for editors

A video of this lecture is available from:  RAEng TV: Prime Innovator IV

Founded in 1976, The Royal Academy of Engineering promotes the engineering and technological welfare of the country. Our fellowship – comprising the UK’s most eminent engineers – provides the leadership and expertise for our activities, which focus on the relationships between engineering, technology, and the quality of life. As a national academy, we provide independent and impartial advice to Government; work to secure the next generation of engineers; and provide a voice for Britain’s engineering community.

For more information please contact

Jane Sutton at The Royal Academy of Engineering
Tel. 020 7766 0636; email: Jane Sutton