Innovation is far more than invention. In the words of Professor Brian Atkin, in the forthcoming report by the European Council for Construction Research Development and Innovation (ECCREDI) 'innovation is when an act, such as an invention or idea, begins to impact on its environment. Put another way ... a new method only becomes an innovation when it is observed that there is some improvement or benefit from its implementation. An idea on its own is just that. It is how the idea is converted into a set of events or objects that enable change to take place that matters.'
The case studies in the ECCREDI report show that the most innovative companies are those who combine the visions of engineering managers (NCE 24 June) with the visions of their clients, their technical experts, their technicians and other industrial sectors. Above all, 'successful innovations arise because of a deliberate strategy, policies and procedures within firms'.
In the construction sector we can point to some remarkable successes. However, it is widely accepted that we are far from fulfilling our potential in developing the culture of innovation that is a hallmark of some other engineering sectors and countries. Steps are being taken to address this at European and national levels. The Inside UK Enterprise programme is an excellent example of an initiative facilitating exchange of best practice between firms. The formation of ECCREDI two years ago to provide a single voice for the construction sector in Europe on the subject of RTD and innovation is another.
Innovation must be commercially driven. However 'short termism', poor contractual arrangements and a lack of information are stifling development. We should be cautious about assuming that innovations in other sectors, particularly in Information and Communications Technology, will affect us only through providing newer and faster tools for information management.
The ICT sector has visions too, and these are likely to have a major impact on society and its requirements for physical infrastructure. We can be reactive or we can be proactive. I favour the latter.
Dr RS Steedman (F), director of engineering, Gibb, Gibb House, London Road, Reading, Berkshire RG6 1BL