Architectural Innovation & Canada’s Culture of Intrapreneurship
- There are a number of qualities that a define an intrapreneur, including being self-motivated, proactive and innovative, while possessing curiosity, a dissatisfaction with the status quo and a desire to improve an organization while creating value in the process.
- Education is key to encouraging entrepreneurship, and a focus on STEM skills as well as life skills, the arts, and the humanities are necessary to build a strong foundation for critical thinking later in life.
- The building industry is resistant to innovation, but it has all of the ingredients to lead globally: natural resources, a developed manufacturing sector, technical and trade skills and a growing population.
The Provincial Premiers should recognize the opportunity inherent in the procurement of buildings. If we adopt an export-oriented mindset, and endeavour to create a world-leading buildings industry, then the billions of dollars we spend each year can be a catalyst for transformation and innovation.
What kind of work does KPMB specialize in and how are you preparing for the future of work?
KPMB Architects is a leading architecture firm in Canada with a thirty-year history. We do a lot of work in in Toronto, across Canada and the United States. Our work is in the institutional space, where we work on university campuses like the University of Toronto and Ivy League schools, as well as concert halls and museums. KPMB also does commercial office space, and we have a side of our office that does high-rise residential work as well.
In terms of the future of work, our thesis is largely focused on sustainable buildings—addressing climate change is the issue of the day, and the buildings industry contributes to the problem. KPMB has been laser-focused on addressing greenhouse gas emissions in our projects and trying to create a new status quo in buildings.
What is the link between architecture and the future of work?
There is an obvious connection to the future of work with the people who actually build the building. These are large projects with thousands of people required to produce a building, so we are talking about next generation projects. This requires another level up in skill sets to actually deliver that project.
We have been involved in a number of research projects, looking at where the deficiencies in the market are in terms of the skilled trades needed by corporations that work to deliver the projects we are designing. On our end, there is an educational onus where we need to expand the topics that we consider when designing a project, and that really means expanding aspects of design—so there is an education imperative to that as well.
This is a pretty interesting time, and nobody is quite sure what is going to happen to our cities. Do we still like cities? Is that a thing? I think the answer to that is yes, absolutely. And there is the overlapping or colliding phenomenon of the accelerating pace of climate change, what that means, and what must be done to address this problem with our existing building as well as the new projects goings forward. Combined with that, Canada has a lot of immigration. Toronto is a rapidly growing city, and that is a positive for our economy, but we need to be growing in a way that is climate positive and not negative—so we have all of these competing forces. When you layer on a pandemic and financial uncertainty, there is a lot happening in the architectural space.
What is an intrapreneur to you, and what is the relationship between intrapreneurship and innovation?
I cheated and looked up what an intrapreneur is on the internet, and it says that an intrapreneur is someone who is self-motivated, proactive, action-oriented and who displays leadership skills and thinks outside of the box. That resonates with me, and I would extend that list by adding somebody who possesses curiosity, who might have a dissatisfaction with the status quo, has a desire for a better way of doing things, and who is excited by creating value in the process.
“An intrapreneur is someone who is self-motivated, proactive, action-oriented and who displays leadership skills and thinks outside of the box.”
What skills must an intrapreneur possess and how can Canada instill these skills into our future workforce?
The thing that really stands out in my mind is the ability to see issues from different perspectives, and consequently identifying opportunities that you might not see from a mono-perspective. I recently read a book called Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized Word by David Epstein, and he makes the case that there are activities where having a broad background and skill set give an individual an advantage over somebody else with a more narrowly constrained or specific skill set. Intrapreneurship is definitely one of those activities.
In the question of how we encourage intrapreneurship, education is really key and maintaining a commitment to a broad spectrum of skills that include science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) but also paying attention to art, history, music, physical education, and life skills in order to build a broad foundation that becomes the basis for critical thinking later on in life.
Why is intrapreneurship valuable to a business, and what impact does it have on innovation, commercialization and the bottom line?
Innovation is an essential ingredient for intrapreneurship, and indeed a desire to harness innovation and have your organization be innovative is the motivating principle for engaging with an intrapreneurship model. I am as fond or nostalgic as the next person about last century’s industrial concern with the SkunkWorks model of intrapreneurship, it is very romantic. But we have a contemporary idea of what intrapreneurship is, and I think it is influenced a lot by Clayton Christensen’s The Innovators Dilemma. The word disruption is almost meaningless, because it is so overused, but he was using it in a very specific way to describe dysfunction within a model of industries where large incumbent players lose market share progressively and are overtaken completely by new entrants who come in with a technological innovation or evolution. When he published that, those who were managers in these large incumbent industries were interested in not being disrupted and they wanted to harness that innovative capacity within their organization so they could live through multiple business cycles in their industry.
“A desire to harness innovation and have your organization be innovative is the motivating principle for engaging with an intrapreneurship model.”
The form intrapreneurship takes varies by industry. I am an architect, and if you ask architects, they will tell you that they make buildings. But in a conversation like this, it is more useful to say we are a professional services consulting business. As such, architects are perpetually in a slow-motion race against the commodification of services that we offer. Our challenge is to continue to develop new and valuable service offerings for our clients. There is an opportunity there, if we can get out in front of that, proactively identify the issues and challenges we want to engage, and map that onto who we are as a firm and our core competencies. That can really guide the evolution and development of the firm. At KPMB, we founded the KPMB LAB with the purpose of doing exactly that.
The value of intrapreneurship comes from the ability to continue to grow and evolve as a business and to remain relevant, and that is existential in most businesses. I would struggle to think of a business in which that is not a primary preoccupation.
“The value of intrapreneurship comes from the ability to continue to grow and evolve as a business and to remain relevant, and that is existential in most businesses.”
There are definitely risks with it, and one is the cost—we are spending on research and development, and it is possible to do that in a way where you do not see a return. The other big risk is that if you do not do it, somebody else is going to do it. You will become the disrupted incumbent, and so there are these two risks and a balance between the two is important.
What should Canadian stakeholders focus on in order to cultivate a more intrapreneurial culture in Canada?
From my perspective as an architect working to advance innovation in the building sector, the biggest thing we can do in Canada is use our collective purchasing power to create a market of innovation.
The building industry is notoriously resistant to innovation, but in Canada we have all the ingredients to take a leadership position on innovation in that industry globally. Canada has abundant natural resources, a developed manufacturing sector, world class professional technical sills, schools and a large base of skilled trades—although they are not evenly distributed across the country, but we have them. Canada grows in population, so we need new buildings, and we have strong technical and computing infrastructure. All of the ingredients are there.
“The building industry is notoriously resistant to innovation, but in Canada we have all the ingredients to take a leadership position on innovation in that industry globally.”
In terms of procuring buildings in Canada, the government is a major client and there are some interesting things happening in various levels of government. The federal government has a program called the Greening Government Strategy, coming out of the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat, which is an excellent program with the potential to make a huge impact. At the municipal level, there are progressive jurisdictions like Toronto and Vancouver which are integrating regulations to push things ahead.
However, most of the public money that goes into buildings comes from the provincial level, both from the specific departments within provincial governments and the broader provincial public sector that they participate in and fund. The trend in procurement at that level overall has been negative for about a generation now. We are seeing a lot of work being procured through quite onerous, competitive arrangements, where the proponents in the competitions have to essentially work for free for months to have a chance at winning work. If the work is awarded, we often see language that might have been included in the original request for proposal documents speaking to innovative solutions and sustainability being set aside in favour of the proponent that is promising the lower cost.
That creates a situation in the marketplace where only the most entrenched players can ante in to get into the competition in the first place, and when they do, the process is expensive. We are so used to seeing the lowest common denominator being selected that the rational behaviour is to be as conservative as possible. This creates an environment that is the opposite of one which would encourage innovation and intrapreneurship.
“Instead of asking how cheap we can make it, we could adopt an export-oriented mindset and as how much value Canada can generate by leveraging these projects to produce this activity in the industry.”
The opportunity to turn that situation entirely on its head, instead of racing to the bottom line, is to look at this large pool of projects that are being procured—which represent a massive spend of public money—and recognize the opportunity to leverage those projects as the generator of industry-wide innovation. Instead of asking how cheap we can make it, we could adopt an export-oriented mindset and as how much value Canada can generate by leveraging these projects to produce this activity in the industry. The development of the projects can be the test lab for the innovations that the industry needs, the construction of the buildings is a proof of concept that is required, and the on-the-job training gets those innovations to market. This is how we create a global-leading, export-oriented, innovative building sector.
What would be your pitch for cultivating an intrapreneurial culture in Canada, and to whom would you pitch?
As an architect, I would like to pitch to the Provincial Premiers and urge them to recognize the opportunity inherent in procurement of buildings across departments. If we adopt an export-oriented mindset and endeavour to create world-leading buildings and industry, then billions of dollars that we spend each year on buildings could be a catalyst to make transformation happen.