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Innovation Through Practice

Purpose: Through the study of visualizations, virtual worlds, and information exchange, this research reveals the complex connections between technology and the work of design and construction. The authors apply the socio-technical view of technology and the ramifications this view has on successful use of technology in design and construction.

Approach: This is a discussion paper reviewing over a decade of research that connects  three streams of research on architecture, engineering, and construction (AEC) teams as these teams grappled with adapting work practices to new technologies and the opportunities these technologies promised.

Findings: From studies of design and construction practices with Building Information Modeling and energy modeling, the authors show that given the constructed nature of  models and the loose-coupling of project teams, these team organizational practices need  to mirror the modeling requirements. Second, looking at distributed teams, whose interaction is mediated by technology, the authors argue that virtual world visualizations
enhance discovery, while distributed AEC teams also need more traditional forms of 2D abstraction, sketching, and gestures to support integrated design dialogue. Finally, in information exchange research the authors found that models and data have their own logic and structure and as such require creativity and ingenuity to exchange data across systems. Taken together, these streams of research suggest that process innovation is  brought about by people developing new practices.

Originality: In this paper the authors argue that technology alone does not change practice. People who modify practices with and through technology create process innovation. 

Engineering Communication in Data Rich Environments

I have been awarded $170,000 from the UW Innovation Fund for the project “Engineering Communication in Data Rich Environments: How do we support innovation in multidisciplinary teams?”

Today’s engineers grapple with more data, more people, and less time. Design theory suggests collaborative problem solving leads to innovation, but multidisciplinary projects often fall short of this potential because experts from different fields lack the communication and collaboration skills they need to translate their work across disciplinary boundaries. Joint problem solving requires teams to address differences in values, requirements, and constraints, as happens when a structural engineer collaborates with an architect. Few engineers are trained explicitly in these skills, yet engineering problems from hardware to infrastructure, from nanotechnology to skyscrapers require engineers to work with teams of experts from different fields.

Through a UW Innovation Research Award, our project will study how engineers communicate with data and data visualizations for interdisciplinary innovation. We will study both student teams and industry teams to identify the key challenges and opportunities for collaboration in these settings. Our research to date suggests a paradox: more detailed visualizations make 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 engineers use with other professionals. Our goals are to inspire engineering innovation through the transformation of collaboration with data across disciplines; measure the impact of data communication on shared understanding; and train future engineers in the skills and techniques for communication and collaboration in data-rich environments.

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.” (more…)

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