It seems as if all of us are talking about innovation these days. Over the past generation or so, the use of the term – along with its close cousin “creativity” – has been progressively expanded to encompass a wider diversity of human endeavors. It is no longer primarily used to describe the work of artists and inventors. The business community for example has enthusiastically adopted the concept of innovation as an integral component of how it should develop both physical products and services. The concept also is making its way into fields such as education, public policy, and community development. Interestingly enough, however, if one examines an artistic discipline such as architecture, which traditionally has been viewed as a fountainhead of creativity and innovation, it is surprising how increasingly disconnected this field is becoming from developing innovative ideas. In the world of architecture, creating unusual forms is often confused with innovation.
By innovation, I am referring to thinking processes that allow us to go beyond, or even break, the borders of conventional thinking, which confine us to approaching issues in specific predetermined ways. This in turn allows us to implement new ideas, and also to come up with solutions to existing problems and challenges that others have not thought of.
All societies need to accommodate and foster a significant amount of innovative thinking among their members to move forward in today’s highly-competitive globalized environment. The challenges to promoting innovation, however, are significant in a society such as Jordan’s, where the weight of convention is extremely strong, if not overbearing, and where various activities are carried out in a certain manner not because that manner is particularly optimal, but simply because “it is how things have been done.” Therefore, while certain societies may naturally promote and encourage innovative thinking, ours does not. In some cases, various institutions of our society even resist it.
It is with this assessment in mind that I have become interested in knowing more about the experiences of Jordanians who have been able to surpass or break the boundaries of convention, and to apply innovative approaches in their professional lives. I have been particularly interested in knowing more about those involved in making physical objects we use on a daily basis. Making such objects can bring together innovation, utility, and economic development. In this, I have been very impressed by the unique efforts and accomplishments of a few people I have come to interact with, and I feel that their experiences should be shared with as wide an audience as possible. This is how the idea behind the film Innovation. Design. Fabrication that we produced arose.
The innovators whose work I have come to know are Ammar Sajdi, an electrical engineer who has developed electronic elevator control panels; Rawan Qubrosi, an architect who has been working on developing shelters that may be easily assembled and disassembled; and Laith Al-Qasem, a mechanical engineer, who along with his partner Fawaz Al-Zoubi, an automotive specialist, created Jordan’s first car, Badiya.
All of them rejected the conventional boundaries that have defined the professional disciplines in which they have functioned. In the case of Ammar, those involved in the elevator business in Jordan had for some time been manufacturing elevator components such as cabins, doors, and accessories, but believed that local capacity does not exist to create something as technologically advanced and sophisticated as electronic elevator control systems. Such systems control when an elevator goes up or down, or when its door opens or closes. In the case of Rawan, she is part of the architectural community, which values durability and permanence in buildings, and generally shuns temporary structures. As for Laith and Fawaz, the predominant attitude around them is that only a country with an established history in heavy industry can manufacture an item such as a motor vehicle.
All of them therefore have shown how it is possible to work outside conventional boundaries. Ammar succeeded in developing elevator control panels that now serve much of the Jordanian market. Rawan constructed a prototype for a shelter that may be easily assembled and disassembled, and is currently taking the skills she has cultivated to a new level by pursuing a graduate degree in building systems in the United Kingdom. Laith and Fawaz manufactured a number of motor vehicles, and a couple of those vehicles still may be seen on Amman’s streets today. However, they eventually had to close down their car-manufacturing company because of lack of demand. One of those efforts accordingly has evolved into a successful commercial enterprise; another is still evolving; and the third has stopped as a commercial activity. Still, they are all highly-successful ventures. In all of them, innovative ideas have been conceived, developed, and fabricated. In other words, ideas were developed from an initial concept to a final usable product.
In each of these cases, the three phases of innovation, design, and fabrication have been integrated. These innovators could have come up with their ideas and searched for others to develop them. However, each of them thoroughly, patiently, and meticulously developed the technical and formal designs of their ideas.
Following the rigorous design processes that each of them carried out for their products, they moved on to fabrication. They of course could have outsourced the fabrication phase. However, not only did they actively participate in fabricating their designs, but they also carried out a good part of it themselves. This integration between design and fabrication cannot be emphasized enough. Each informs the other. Separating them will result in a weaker product. The waning of the manufacturing power of numerous Western countries with established industrial traditions is partly an outcome of this separation and the transfer of production to countries where labor is cheaper.
The three stories that those innovators have to tell are fascinating, informative, and inspirational. We aimed at capturing the power of their stories in the film we produced about them. I worked on the film with my colleagues at the Center for the Study of the Built Environment (CSBE), with which I am affiliated. The film was carried out on a very small budget and through the cooperation of a number of parties. We at CSBE contributed the time of our staff to work on the various tasks involved in producing the film. A local software firm covered the fees of the director and cameraman / film editor, and the two of them accepted smaller fees than they usually would because they liked the idea of the film and its powerful public message. A photography company lent the filming equipment for free.
The result is a thirty-minute documentary in Arabic (with English subtitles). We screened it to the public for the first time in mid-November. The screening was followed by a question and answer session with the innovators and the film director. The session was lively and engaging. Interestingly enough, the reaction of many in the audience to these three stories of innovation was to see the glass half-empty. They felt that the challenges and difficulties that our innovators experienced are a natural result of an endemic lack of societal and governmental support for such efforts in Jordan. In contrast, the film aimed at showing that although Jordan faces serious challenges that hinder innovation, including an education system and a public sector whose performance is dangerously falling behind, the country still manages to produce a good number of people who are able to develop and realize innovative ideas. Their accomplishments usually require the participation of various teams of specialists in the more advanced economies of the world. The stories of Ammar, Rawan, Laith, and Fawaz, are stories of inspiration for all of us, and we have much to learn from them.
* The complete film as well as a two-minute trailer of it are available through the CSBE web-site at http://csbe.org/csbe-films-2/.
January 13, 2013