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Is an unwillingness to take risks stifling innovation?

Why did innovation flourish during the Industrial Revolution, and throughout the great Victorian age that followed? Partly because it was largely unencumbered by regulation.

Clearly there are benefits to regulation. Invention and innovation push us toward the unknown and the regulatory authorities mostly do a good job of protecting us against the overenthusiastic, gung-ho inventor. But regulation becomes problematic when it stifles creativity, protects the status quo and creates a culture of fear around change.

Some public sector bodies and private companies actively encourage innovative work. These organisations have cultures that foster innovation because they are prepared to embrace challenge. When risk is accepted, a consultant can offer more innovative solutions and I have invented and patented many things for such clients. Solutions that have led the industry, improved the environment and saved the clients considerable sums of money.

However, some organisations, both in the private and public sector, would rather play by the book than innovate because they are afraid of perceived potential risks such as failure or delays due to a lengthy approvals process.

The word “engineer” is best understood in the French sense of the term, “ingénieur”, with its obvious connection to the word “ingenuity”. It implies, correctly in my view, that we have a predisposition for new ideas and innovations. So how is it, then, that as a profession of such ingenuity we allow ourselves to be so frequently encouraged, and often forced, to adopt standard designs and details found in reference books and British Standards?

The great engineers of the past had no real technical references against which to check their designs. They simply learnt from their own experience and the successes/failures of their predecessors.  As a result, the successful innovations and bold structures of the past were often over designed and many are still in daily use. Unfortunately, many of the innovative structures of the past now need to be completely re-engineered to deal with the demands put upon them – demands that were inconceivable when they were first designed. Some can be updated and “re-engineered” since we have the technology to do so, but some need to be completely reappraised and this will mean we need to innovate.

Most of us took up civil engineering as a challenge; as a career that offers opportunities to innovate and to make our mark, rather than to simply reproduce recognised designs. We therefore need to challenge preconceptions, codes and the standards. Take some risks. The big question is: will our risk- averse clients and our regulators release their grip? Just a little, to allow our ingenuity to address the big challenges we face?

  • Ben Mitchell is a partner at Peter Brett Associates


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