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Michigan Lecture: Plans and Models

On April 21st, 2016 I gave a lecture “Plans and Models: Digital Tools, Sticky Practices and the Thorny Problem of Innovation” as part of the University of Michigan’s “Digital Futures Lecture Series.”

What do multidisciplinary teams need to generate innovative ideas? The research that our team has done on large-scale architecture, engineering and construction projects presented us with a paradox: More detailed visualizations made it easier for interdisciplinary teams to identify and agree upon problems while making it harder for them to generate solutions. The answer to this paradox, we think, is in the communication strategies that teams use, including their choice of communication medium.

This talk is drawn from a book manuscript based on eight years of field research in contemporary architecture, engineering and construction–industries undergoing historic change in response to a new digital tool. The tool, Building Information Modeling (BIM), has significantly shifted how architects and engineers communicate designs and challenged industry norms and legal standards. While BIM gave teams new ways of representing buildings, sharing data and managing information flows, it took away one of their most important strategies for innovation: ambiguity.

For design, our research shows the importance of understanding what multidisciplinary teams need for identifying problems and generating solutions to those problems. For scholars of technology and innovation, our research extends the understanding of visualizations for interpretive flexibility and the role malleable media play in teams. For practitioners, our study can inform conscious choices about design workspaces, tools and processes.