Disruption is Beneficial: Knowing When to Rethink Your Approach

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As a reactionary measure to global finances, new aggressive business models are taking the world by storm. Is there a lesson we can learn, or rethink here, for the future of design-thinking?

In the last two decades, ‘disruption’ has been hitting Silicon Valley to the effect of, well, disrupting the way in which start-ups do business. All of a sudden the most valuable ideas are those that challenge the status quo completely – think Uber taking on the taxi industry, or AirBnB disrupting hotels, rather than those that might attempt to develop progressive change. Regardless of the problematic nature of disruption, there are still lessons to be learnt from such an approach.

When Disruption is Beneficial: Knowing When to Rethink Your Approach
But, what can A+D learn from the world of tech start-ups?

The Architecture and Design industries in particular have been employing disruptive techniques for years, both for our clients and ourselves. However, rather than disrupting for disruption’s sake, (three out of four start-ups fail and nine out of ten never earn a return on investment), the best forms of innovation are often those that challenge the status quo in a way that might logically attempt to solve a problem. Think less the provocative Chiat/Day Offices and more the considered and widespread adoption of an agile working model.

Agile working encompasses not only flexibility in time and physical space, but also a level of openness to different approaches to work. Cross-industry collaboration is not only permitted but actively encouraged, particularly within design fields. All of a sudden we find ourselves in an environment where creative collisions are valued, viewed as a way of circumnavigating problems by combining knowledge from different areas of expertise.

Does disruption have a place in design-thinking and design industry?

In that sense, disruption is necessary to explore growth opportunities and to shake up a stagnant industry, or even one that is moving in the wrong direction. Bold moves designed to challenge the status quo can range from long-term transformative projects, to changing traditional customer experiences or even offering new value to society or the economy. The trick is to identify when such a shift is going to be beneficial. Disrupting your own business to embrace a radical new direction, as engineering and construction firm Morrison-Knudsen did in the late ‘80s from building dams around the world towards constructing mass transit, may not be the most intelligent decision. Morrison-Knudsen collapsed in 1995.

Interface - Climate Take Back

On the other hand, there are groups like Interface that remain the world’s largest designer and manufacturers of modular carpet tile after their own radical shift in focus in 1994. Prompted by his customers to consider the environment, Founder and Chairman Ray Anderson challenged the petroleum-intensive carpet industry by committing to become “the world’s first environmentally sustainable – and ultimately, restorative – company.” With that decision, Interface is currently on track to reduce their total greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2020 as part of their Climate Take Back program. Before that point, however, they have committed to offsetting all greenhouse gas emissions associated with the entire lifecycle of their products, from the raw materials, manufacture and maintenance, to end-of-life management.

Disruption may throw industries into disarray, but while this is a precarious eventuality – it, sometimes and when exercised with deliberation – may be the only way forward.

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