Intentional design unlocks valuable innovation for engineers

Intentional design unlocks innovation

Engineers are enjoying a renewed policy focus on STEM skills, innovation and their role in meeting societal needs. But they’re also butting up against real, current impediments to progress – many of their own making. In the search for practical, cost-effective and bankable solutions, intentional design is offering a lucrative, achievable approach.

The fundamental drivers for infrastructure development (like population growth) underpin a positive investment outlook. Yet uncertain public policy, business and technology outlooks present real challenges to development and asset management. Mining and gas companies are striving to optimise their assets in the face of low commodity prices, while power and water utilities seek to transition their ‘dumb’ assets to ‘smart, customer-centric networks’. It’s hard work in unchartered territory. Consequently, most engineers are searching for fresh, reliable, low-cost approaches to improve their success in shaping, securing and delivering projects.

Nagging questions impeding progress

Despite this need, engineers’ decisions and actions are impeded by nagging questions and doubts. They’re asking:

  • “Should we shift our focus to services and outcomes, from functions, products and outputs?”
  • “What will our customers truly regard as a high value, preferred service?”
  • “With so many technology options available, which represent the best investments?”
  • “How do we find cost savings to underpin new investments?”
  • “How do we navigate our external and internal stakeholder environment to secure support and streamline implementation?”
Normal solutions ignore important impediments

These questions reflect a broader underlying concern – that ‘normal’ responses to customer needs will only be marginally beneficial, at best. Why? Here’s a few reasons:

  • Organisations have constructed assets and roles over many years that they would rather sustain than disrupt.
  • Investment decisions are typically influenced by several people, not just a single person ‘in power’. These people, operating in different roles and in complex situations, will have differing priorities and views of the ‘right’ thing to do, making it hard to reach agreement.
  • If pressed, investors and customers are usually more clear about what they don’t want than what they do want.
  • Cost cutting linked with ‘adjustment’ often retrenches people and assets, diminishing rather than growing capability.
  • Solutions to customer wants are, in practice, often hard to separate. Few represent fresh, superior value propositions.

There is, however, a better way to conceive and deliver engineering solutions. It has an evidence base in science and practice to prove it. That way is ‘intentional design’.

A better, lucrative approach

Today, design in the worlds of infrastructure and engineering is treated as a lower-order commodity task. Off-shoring and colonisation of rule-based design by computers could reinforce this trend. But higher order design (that is shaping, not just detailing) is lacking. It’s much needed and potentially lucrative. In a previous post I reported a real example that delivered a 700-fold return on investment (see the case study details here).

Intentional design is both an attitude and approach. The attitude reflects a belief that better solutions can be achieved by design. The approach involves intentionally shaping projects and their enabling environment to achieve superior, bankable and sustainable returns. The work is done in a highly collaborative manner, with an awareness of and focus not just on the technical aspects required for success, but also the human aspects. It’s a very practical, outcome-focused approach to engineering innovation employing methods like systems thinking, powered by strategic questions.

Intentional design delivers a rapid ROI

Organisations that apply intentional design to their infrastructure challenges can achieve a substantial and rapid return on investment.

How can such a bold claim be made? There are several reasons, well substantiated by experience and case studies. Consider these facts:

  • The investment required to practice intentional design is often very small in relation to planning and design costs, let alone overall capital and operating costs of infrastructure assets.
  • The efficiency dividend or cost savings required to offset the upfront investment is a very small, achievable percentage of the overall project costs.
  • Intentional design doesn’t require substantially more people, skills and effort than would otherwise have occurred. Rather it seeks to better align and use that effort.
  • When effort can be better placed, it infers that any prior allocation of effort was sub-optimal. That is, the effort would have been unproductive and incur cost unnecessarily.
  • Innovative solutions often don’t require advanced technology but proven, appropriate technology, which reduces the overall risk profile.
  • Risks to project delivery, particularly customer, social and stakeholder risks, can be eliminated by design. The result is a smoother passage for the project reducing time delays and costs that can often become a material proportion of total costs and even kill a project.
  • Experience indicates that the scope of projects is often simplified. The footprint and resource costs can be reduced, not only reducing capital but also operating costs.

Indeed, studies suggest that project cost savings in the order of 20 percent could be readily achieved [1]. While the potential for cost savings are obviously greatest at the outset of a project, don’t assume important savings can be achieved during operational phases.

Achieving more bankable assets

Consider also the benefits to revenue streams from infrastructure that users genuinely enjoy and gain value from using because they’ve been designed to achieve this outcome.

Reduced project costs and greater consumer willingness to pay with heightened revenue security all help to close the financial gap, while the saved capital can be productively deployed elsewhere. This is clearly an outcome sought by public and private investors alike.

Triggering engineering innovation

Practical experience proves that intentional design can inspire and energise even the most old-school engineer. While it’s a contemporary extension and revitalisation of engineering, it does require a shift in mindset and practice. So facilitation is necessary, at least in the early days of its application.

Interested? Then get more information on the nature, practice and benefits of intentional design here.

[1] N.S. Fleming and K. Marr (2013) ‘Deep Insights to Business Value Creation from Sustainability’, World Engineers Summit, Sands Expo and Convention Centre, Singapore.

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Nicholas Fleming

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