How we put design at the heart of innovation

September 11th, 2014

The approach to Derby’s new innovation centre begins with a simple, twisted blade. And that’s not a bad motif, when you think about it.

For one thing, it’s the kind of efficient simplicity I like. For another, that one blade is the most powerful symbol of what the innovation centre is all about – a tradition of innovative engineering excellence.

Derby was the city that gave birth to the jet engine, a device whose fan blades arguably keep the global economy moving. The Innovation Centre is an attempt to capture that motive spirit and use it to power the next generation of engineering talent – not just in aerospace, but in automotive and rail engineering too.

These three industries are are the forefront of economic development in Derby. They are knowledge-based, intensely competitive and marked out by innovation and collaboration.

This is what we had in the back of our minds when we sat down and sketched out the designs for the Innovation Centre. How could a single building embody those characteristics while also delivering practical workspace?

It would have been easy to get lost in a dramatic representation of aerodynamic efficiency and forward motion (and don’t think that didn’t occur to us!), but for all its sky-high achievements, advanced engineering is a sector where supply chains have to have their feet firmly grounded in commercial reality.

So we certainly wanted a design that was inspirational, but not one that screamed indulgence.

As it happens, there is some simple synergy between the principles of motive combustion and industrial process that could be expressed through a combination of aesthetics and space planning: all progress spins off a heart which is a hive of activity.

So inside the sweeping, curvinlinear exterior of the Derby Innovation Centre there is a large, dual height atrium. You’ll find reception here, a cafe in the middle, bust most of all a space where the people who drive these supply chain businesses can meet, talk, and collaborate. If innovation is about illuminating ideas then the light that floods into this heart space is there to encourage just that.

What spins off this atrium is the defined office and workspaces, the individual supply chains businesses doing their job rather like those blades in a turbofan engine. But they are not hidden away: because we want to reinforce that spirit of vivid activity and collaboration, we have taken an approach which makes the workspaces visible to the collaborative hub.

There is an important principle at work here. Individual businesses must feel that they are part of something, in this case an innovation centre that is at the heart of a bigger Global Technology Cluster in Derby.

That principle also applies to another project we have been working on, the Loughborough University Innovation Centre. The project is fundamentally different from an aesthetic and structural perspective, reflecting the design of the buildings alongside it.

But it is driven by the same aims and objectives: providing an environment that nurtures new business, encourages collaboration and brings people facing similar challenges together.

This kind of environment doesn’t need to be complicated and certainly shouldn’t be intimidating. It needs craft and careful design more than it needs a big budget. Rather like a fan blade.


Andy Dowding

Associate Partner

Franklin Ellis Architects


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