To Share or Not to Share

Jacques Chevrant reflects on the need for the Architecture, Environment & Construction Industry to look outwards and learn from other industries to better engage with innovation and knowledge sharing to ensure long-term sustainability.

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Reflecting upon the competitive nature of the Architecture, Environment & Construction Industry (AEC), the for-profit organisation residing within has increasingly behaved like a silo. Intellectual property amidst innovation is closely guarded, used as a tool for maximising competitive advantage.

Following industry-wide disruption of BIM, a growing number of architectural firms have launched internal research and development arms. A few, such as Kieran Timberlake Architects and Woods Bagot, have made selected developments available for use to the industry, yet the majority choose to selectively disclose primarily through the medium of publications and articles in the pursuit of thought leadership and publicity. This majority – in the fortunate position to pursue research in practice – would rather retain the tools and processes developed internally for commercial gain and as a result, fail to contribute meaningfully to the profession.

“For the leading practices intellectual property is what defines them and sustains them, and they understandably are loath to give it away. (…) so the long-term sustainability of the profession is threatened.”

Till, 2007.

Might it be time for us to acknowledge that in order to collectively move forward, we must retrospectively consider examples of collaboration, collective invention and coopetition from within industries other than our own? Let us briefly consider two examples, that of the nineteenth-century blast furnace industry and the Open Invention Network.

The blast-furnace industry in Cleveland, U.K. during the nineteenth-century was able to achieve considerable collective growth through the disclosure of technical information and know-how between competing blast-furnace manufacturers. Of note here is how knowledge and technical information was shared between both established competitors and industry entrants – not only did engineers frequently publish data, but knowledge sharing also “…took place through frequent visits to competitor’s factories to collect data on furnace design and efficiency” (Pedraza-Fariña, 2017). These engineers, over time, developed social norms that were pivotal in contributing significantly to the growth of their industry, creating a “series of social norms that favored openness and reciprocal information-sharing” (Pedraza-Fariña, 2017).

To consider a more contemporary example, the Open Invention Network was founded in 2005 by a consortium of large technology organisations (Including IBM) to protect, through purchase and acquisition, Linux-related patents via the creation of a patent pool that member organisations could thus access and licence for free (Boldrin & Levine, 2008). The Network strives to enable freedom of action for its members in an effort to drive higher levels of innovation, acknowledging that “open-source software distills the intelligence of a global community” (Open Invention Network, n.d.).

These two brief examples illustrate that despite the emphasis we place on competitive advantage, it is indeed possible to collectively move forward within highly competitive industries. One can only imagine what the potential of the AEC might be if it were to act accordingly. How then, might we enable collective growth, innovation, and industry-wide progress whilst simultaneously looking past the barrier of competitive advantage?

It is time to move beyond a focus of competitive advantage – the priority must no longer be an organisation’s bottom line, but the ability for all to advance and contribute in a meaningful way. The organisation as we know it must no longer believe in the freedom of the commons if we are to truly advance as a collective and instead, must re-consider its approach to innovation and knowledge sharing if we are to avoid, as Hardin (1956) so aptly put it, ruin.


Boldrin, M., & Levine, D. (2008). Against Intellectual Monopoly. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/CBO9780511510854.

Hardin, G. (1968). The Tragedy of the Commons. Science, 162(3859), 1243-1248. Retrieved March 19, 2021, from

Pedraza-Fariña, L. (2017) Spill Your (Trade) Secrets: Knowledge Networks as Innovation Drivers, 92 Notre Dame L. Rev. 1561.

Till, J. 2007 ‘Three Myths and One Model’, Building Material Vol.17 (Dublin: 2008), 4-10.

Jacques Chevrant is currently studying his Masters in Architecture, Strategic Design & Entrepreneurship at The Royal Danish Academy, with a focus on how inter-organizational knowledge sharing in the built environment can contribute to the mitigation of our industry’s environmental impact.

One thought on “To Share or Not to Share

  1. Hello Jacques from OUTSIDE the AEC silo! [from Law & Economics, and Cybernetics]

    Have you considered the various microeconomic models for competition or “industrial organisation” in the AEC industry? What kind of “games” are AEC firms you are concerned about playing in Australia or the EU along the spectrum of free market system models: i.e. perfect competition, monopolistic competition, oligopoly, and monopoly? Perhaps AEC firms, like in many other industries, play “monopolistic competition” – where every firm is trying to differentiate their product/service and/or target specific niches, to get temporary respite from the zero (economic) profit situation where every firm’s offerings are perfectly substitutable (i.e. “perfect competition”)?

    There is a more modern (but not exactly novel) hybrid model of industrial organisation called “coopetition” which may be helpful here in the context of innovation, intellectual property, barriers to entry and “industry-wide progress” in AEC?

    Technology patent pools are good examples of these. For instance, manufacturers of DVD/Blu-Ray players coming together (cooperating) in the upstream market to develop tech/standards for a new media format, and sharing the patent rights to this. THEN they all take this and return to all-out-war in the downstream market for the design, production, sales of DVD/Blu-Ray player based on this patented tech. [See Brandenburger, Adam, and Barry Nalebuff. Co-Opetition. 1st ed. New York: Doubleday, 1996.]

    Are there models or market behaviours like this in the AEC space? In what areas or niches of AEC do you think “coopetition” might be feasibly stewarded through new institutional arrangements (that also avoid antitrust concerns about collusion)?

    I like to think of these new institutional arrangements as either “lubricating” and/or “creating” new markets. Its one reason why I’m fascinated by and researching the systemic role of building rating/certification systems and ESG indexes. The “coopetition” in the AEC industry through these rating systems/organisations (like GBCs) provides the platform deeming what a “green” (or WELL” or “smart”) building looks like, and creating badges (trademark protected labels and trustworthy certificates) for such products that make them more marketable or bankable. Should the rating tool system become broadly accepted by the market, all firms in the AEC will continue to compete hard downstream in these “greener” products and buildings. Essentially, successful upstream cooperation amongst the industry can effectively do double duty: both lubricating existing markets (for “greenish”) and creating new markets (for credibly “greener”).

    More food for thought and further cooperation and cross-silo collaboration, Jacques!


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