How important is creativity to a consulting engineer practice, what does it cost, and can it be managed?
'We could make our practice double its profitability over the next few years. But it wouldn't be innovating much and so we wouldn't be sure of its long term survival'. So says Bob Emmerson, joint deputy chairman of the Ove Arup Partnership, in the current issue of RSA Journal.
That view should cause consultants everywhere to sit up and take note.
The Royal Society of Arts has been trying to identify how to manage continuous creativity within companies. Emmerson gives four key ingredients to a creative environment: culture, ownership, communication and people.
'You will notice the absence of organisation in that list. Many layers of management and minimal development stifle creativity at birth. We opt for maximum development of responsibility down to the individual project.
'This has been called controlled anarchy within the organisation. Because the firm is owned by trusts, and the trustees are employed, we can take a long view of new ventures and skills'.
People, of course, are the most important ingredient, and Arup looks for and needs people with a holistic vision, who can think and are interested beyond the confines of their own discipline.
Then Emerson dropped his bombshell. 'When I look at graduates from around the world, the best are coming from France and America, where they have a more broadly based education.'
To put this in context, he was agreeing with Pru Leith, cookery expert and RSA's deputy chairman, who believes that all young children have a propensity for creativity. 'But then we proceed to kill it off, sending our children to the most academic institutions with minimal arts education'.
Emmerson believes that engineering in particular suffers from too narrow an educational base. Can it be that school and university courses destroy whatever it is that inspires innovation and design flair, even before young people enter construction?
An unexpected insight into the conflicts is revealed in The Building Museum Project report sent to me last year by Patrick Harrison, former RIBA Secretary.
TBMP is a charity which aims to stimulate public interest in, and understanding of, the activity of building. Its workshop 'Improving inter-disciplinary awareness in schools serving the building industry' was attended by more than 50 professors and heads of department from colleges offering degree courses in the building professions across the UK.
'Tribalism' was used to describe the chauvinistic loyalty - both defensive and aggressive - of the various professional disciplines which work together to produce buildings. Most students don't have it when they leave school, they do have it by the time they graduate: then it is strengthened by both the professional bodies and the contractual arrangements of their employers during training.
Many colleges have tried to counter the phenomenon by running combined induction courses for architects, engineers, quantity surveyors et al, covering common elements. All students were required to attend, but later it was made voluntary and some colleges dropped the approach.
Colleges also provide project work where teams from different courses participate. Getting the various disciplines together and encouraging a common core of understanding would seem to be sensible.
But they have found that students resent spending time on anything that holds them back from complete immersion in their chosen subject.
Experience has also shown that little is gained from working together, at least until the students have learned enough of their distinctive skills, so that when thrust together, each discipline can establish mutual respect. Appreciation of interdependence comes slowly, if at all.
Professional bodies including the ICE came in for criticism. 'Imperialistic attitudes' are common and their accreditations frustrate useful inter- disciplinary initiatives. They are too concerned with the quality of the candidates and their fitness for membership rather than the role to be played in the grand scene.
Obviously there are no easy answers. Luckily the vast majority of construction projects do not require much in the way of creativity or innovation. Rather they need steady reliable development. 'There is a place for honest centurions as well as fliers' as Harrison puts it.
Even so, it would be encouraging to think that Emmerson's hints at the cost of creativity would inspire practices with a genuine long-term view to invest more in staff development. Whether that is directed towards creativity or proficiency matters little.
Clients should make sure they identify their consultants' priorities.