Professor Nicole Woolsey Biggart, director of the UC Davis Energy Efficiency Center, (right) briefs Congresswoman Doris Matsui (D-California) on a recent tour of the UC Davis West Village, the largest planned zero net energy community in the United States. West Village features many green building and energy efficiency technologies that the commercial construction industry has been slow to adopt.

Obstacles to Innovation
Moving Beyond The "Rule Of Thumb"

By Professor Nicole Woolsey Biggart

Professor Nicole Woolsey Biggart studies organizational theory, management of innovation, and economic and organizational sociology. She is the Chevron Chair in Energy Efficiency and the director of the UC Davis Energy Efficiency Center. In this article, adapted from her blog, she draws on a recent collaboration with UC Davis sociologist Thomas Beamish to examine why some industries struggle to innovate their processes and adapt more efficient technologies.

Why is it so difficult for some industries to apply innovations and new technologies that will save money, produce more business and benefit society?

Consider the commercial construction industry, which often bypasses green technology and processes even though they are available, affordable and increase energy efficiency. It’s an interesting public policy question because buildings are the largest users of energy, surpassing even vehicles. Making energy efficient buildings is critical to both national security and our climate.

But the commercial construction industry is ruled by “social heuristics,” a network of shortcuts, conventions and rules of thumb that bypass the need for step-by-step explanations and make it easy to follow an established model or template. There are conventions that shape financing, the selection of participants, which designs are considered possible and the range of “acceptable” technologies.

In essence, all aspects of constructing a building are imbued with rules, methods and taken-for-granted assumptions that make it easier to complete the project—but that thwart innovation.

Building skyscrapers, hospital or big box retail outlets is preconceived with particular elements in mind. If many of these elements or assumptions are altered, the project is deemed too risky and vulnerable to financial loss. It becomes much more difficult to finance a “green building” than a traditional, inefficient building that fits conventional ideas of a “normal” building.

And even if financing is approved, the building process itself becomes more difficult as subcontractors with little experience with novel technologies have to learn something new.

Buildings are constructed by a group of subcontractors. The undertaking is possible because the architect, plumbers, electricians and carpenters rely on their knowledge and experience, and have preconceived notions of how they—and all the other players—fit into the project. They install plumbing, construct framing and add electrical wiring according to assumptions of best past practices that everyone can plug into without having to communicate directly with one another.

Adding something new to the already complex building process raises the risk level. An innovative heating and ventilating system is intimidating: both financiers and subcontractors prefer to work within known parameters.

The commercial construction industry is not alone in this conservative approach to completing projects. Industries from fashion design to manufacturing to movie making use this Network Production Organization model. Whether they are building a three-story parking garage or producing a romantic comedy, all parties have a good sense of what needs to be done because there’s an existing model or template. It’s efficient, but ultimately it doesn’t result in the best possible movies—or the most energy efficient buildings.