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.

Image Source: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/7/78/Corporate_greed_octopus.jpg

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.


References

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 http://www.jstor.org/stable/1724745.

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.

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