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Innovation in the Building Industry: Investment is necessity and IP is the key. Leonardo understood this. Why don't we?
Dr Paul Leonard, Billings Jackson Design

My background is not in design, architecture or the building industry. I started my working life as a research scientist (biochemistry), worked for the chemicals and pharmaceuticals sectors both in research and on the commercial side, specialised in IP law, policy and practice (as it pertained to pharmaceuticals and biotechnology), and had been the Director of the Intellectual Property Institute for the ten years prior to my entering the building industry just over three years ago. The following observations are, therefore, somewhat from the perspective of an outsider looking into the industry.

I am, frankly, bewildered by the lack of knowledge and understanding of the IP system amongst architects and designers. Almost exclusively, IP is seen as a reactive, protective device; something that stops other people copying one’s work. Well, it is to an extent, but that is not why the IP system exists. IP rights have been developed to achieve one primary and overriding end: to facilitate investment in innovation. Yes, stopping other people from copying is one means to that end, but it’s not the end itself. The fact that architects and designers tend to see it this way is not surprising since they generally work for a fee. They do not regard their work as an investment in innovation (though very often it might be truly innovative), so it’s not surprising that IP is not to the fore in


their thinking.

Contrast this to what happens at the other end of the building industry amongst suppliers of building products. Here, there is investment in innovation. Every new product requires design, development, tooling, manufacture, sales and marketing. There’s no fee for this. Each company must invest to bring a product to market. This investment must be recouped. Manufacturers understand and exploit IP in order to do this. This is why, unusually, the upstream end of the building industry (manufacturing) operates at far higher margins than the downstream industry (designers and architects). I can’t think of any other sector of industry where this would be true.

The IP system has been around for four-and-a-half centuries. The first official IP regime was instituted in Venice in 1474, the Italy of Leonardo, Michelangelo and Raphael. Italy’s pre-eminence in art, architecture and design was seen to be vital to its manufacturing and commercial prowess. The IP system allowed the industry to invest in innovation, and that investment came primarily from the suppliers (manufacturers) to the industry. Their products and services were informed by the genius of art and design at the other end of the industry and, thanks to the new IP system, there was nothing to discourage them from investing to convert innovative concepts into beautiful realities.

Where is this mutually enriching relationship between architects, designers and manufacturers in today’s building industry? Why are architects and designers not seeking to inform the industry’s product suppliers and (through the right IP strategies) enabling them to invest in making their concepts beautiful realities? It is sad that the industry seems to have regressed since Medieval times, and I am surprised that the obvious value proposition for canny firms of architects and designers has not been jumped upon.

There is no legal reason (in terms of provisions under IP law in the UK, or anywhere else in the developed world) why this should be the case. Design patents are used to great effect in the US. In the EU we have a relatively cheap and straightforward system of


(under-used) registered and unregistered Community Design rights. In fact, since the Hargreaves review of IP and Growth in 2010, the UK has had two major Bills in Parliament concentrating specifically on improving the legal framework for designs; the 2012 Enterprise and Regulatory Bill, which sought stronger protection for “classic” designs, and the 2013 IP and Design Bill which is on its way through the House now and which seeks to put design protection on a footing similar to that afforded to copyright (even, controversially, to the point of criminalising design right infringement).

Architects and designers (and engineers) in the building industry are among the most highly trained, inventive and creative people in any industry. Italy created their IP system for their architects and designers. If we were to find another Leonardo, he would as likely be among ours as anywhere else. Why are we not using our IP system?

Dr. Paul Leonard is Business Director & Partner at Billings Jackson Design, a firm of industrial designers working in transport, urban infrastructure and product design and development for the built environment, with studios in London, New York and Chicago.

Billings Jackson Design


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