The A/E/C industry can get knocked for being inwardly focused, slow to change and not offering enough room to experiment and innovate. In a fast-moving world that is increasingly populated by Googles, Amazons and other disrupters, that is not a recipe for growth!

In this issue of The Friedman File, we’re sharing how two forward-thinking multidisciplinary firms are turning that old stereotype on its head, using incubator models to transform their businesses, impact their communities and attract young creative thinkers.

A virtual place to innovate

Amp, a virtual incubator program at CannonDesign, isn’t a physical space. It’s a construct— one dreamed up by young professionals in the firm’s Buffalo office who saw it as a way to “amp up” creativity and develop new business strategies and client solutions.

It promotes collaboration and innovation by giving employees time and resources to develop and test ideas large and small. Whether it’s a new technology, product or service line, an improved workflow, enhanced workspace or new business strategy—all ideas are welcome, says Tom Bergmann, Principal and Executive Director for Practice Integration.

“People who are attracted to design are creative, innovative people, and this is especially true of this younger generation,” says Bergmann. “We see a different type of designer coming into the firm. They have broader influences and they are so much more multidisciplinary. This is a way of cultivating those fertile minds.”

Based on the Shark Tank model, Amp invites self-forming teams across the firm to pitch their ideas to sponsors who represent client types who would potentially invest in the idea. Selected ideas are advanced by giving the team appropriate resources to pursue them, including help from an internal cross-disciplinary development team.

The program allows CannonDesign to tap the market intelligence, client insights and creative thinking that exist throughout the firm to develop new products, apps, services and processes that further the firm’s goals and better serve its clients. It’s a safe and separate space to experiment: failure is an option and no idea is too large or too small to be explored. It’s building on the firm’s track record of experimentation, which has produced patentable products such as a lab hood heat exchanger, a modular structural system, and app and technology ideas.

Even when a new initiative is supported from the top (as Amp is), there are always practical realities to manage. In this case, smart designers working on projects may also be indispensable to their project teams. Their time away can’t derail billable work. The firm has also had to make shifts in management practices and evaluation criteria to support managers in balancing the dueling priorities of innovation and project workload.

“This is not traditionally how design firms work,” says Bergmann. “We know that we have to evolve because design is evolving, blurring lines among owner, operator and designer. Our clients are evolving. We want to encourage innovation because that is what our clients are buying from us.”

A physical space focused on new solutions

Sasaki (Watertown, MA) has a history of design research, community involvement and collaboration. Its new 5,000 square-foot Incubator at Sasaki, which opens this month at the firm’s 100,000 square-foot campus in a former mill complex, is pushing into the future.

The Incubator is essentially a socially-minded co-working space that aims to bring people together to solve big societal challenges and create more sustainable communities. The physical space looks like a startup: inviting open space with natural light, brick walls and colorful furniture combined with multipurpose spaces and conference rooms.

It’s curated by the Hideo Sasaki Foundation, a separate 501(c)(3) organization that has been funding research grants and university design programs for over a decade. With the Incubator, the Foundation seeks to invest in ideas that bring together civic leaders, educators, economists, designers and technologists to tackle complex challenges, such as social equity, mobility and climate change. The aim is to create an ecosystem of innovation that leverages the resources of a global design firm and Boston’s network of talent, says Executive Director Alexandra Lee.

Blurring the lines between design practice, academia and community is part of Sasaki’s culture. Young designers are eager to do more of that work, and the Incubator extends that energy, says James Miner, Managing Principal. For example, as a side project, two Sasaki designers teamed up with the Boston Society of Landscape Architects (BSLA) to create the award-winning Kit of Parks, a mobile collection of modular pieces created in Sasaki’s fabrication lab that are arranged to make a “pop-up” neighborhood park. Now, the resources of the Foundation and the Incubator will allow designers to team with outside partners and tackle new, larger-scale research.

It also allows the firm and the foundation to build on and share their research on topics ranging from the impact of autonomous vehicles on the physical needs of communities, to the role of data visualization in urban planning. A call for research proposals on the theme of resilience in the built environment will be issued in June.

Luring and retaining millennial and Gen Z talent is a concern for many firms, and Sasaki sees its Incubator as an attractive prospect. In fact, applicants to the firm’s competitive internship program were excited by the space on a recent tour, says Lee.

It also helps further the firm’s commitment to equity, diversity and access in the profession by inviting varied groups to be involved. Lee, in her first six months as the Foundation’s first director, has been building alliances with area universities, community groups, nonprofits, municipalities and businesses, such as workingwith MIT’s SOLVE global research program to present its scholars’ work on sustainable urban communities.

On Martin Luther King Day, Sasaki hosted 40 people at a pro-bono design charrette for [G]Code House, a living-learning coding school for women of color in Roxbury, Massachusetts. Boston Public Schools students recently visited to meet with Sasaki professionals and learn more about design careers.

The Roxbury [G]Code House is one example of how design and workforce development can come together, says Lee. Many Sasaki employees have ties to universities, so a graduate research program where students present, work on and test ideas at the Incubator is another possibility.

Funding will evolve as the space itself evolves. Lee expects that, too, will be a collaborative effort, with funding for activities coming from within the A/E/C industry, larger foundations, community partners, municipalities and academia.

“Sasaki believes that design is an underutilized resource. There is no reason why we shouldn’t be using a design mindset to solve larger problems that extend beyond the traditional bounds of design,” says Lee. “Design is all about solving problems and Sasaki is all about working with different perspectives, so this is a natural extension of the practice.”

Innovating means taking risks, trying something new and course-correcting as needed. These virtual and physical incubators are one answer to the questions many firms are asking right now: “How do we keep up?” and “How do we keep leading?” How is your firm answering those questions? I’d love to hear more at or (508) 276-1101.