November 22, 2013
The inspiration of great architecture.
Buffalo is home to truly spectacular architecture. We have many landmark buildings, historic sites, and cultural attractions and to appreciate them is to be reminded that Western New York was once at the cutting edge of architecture and landscape design that served to make Buffalo an aesthetically pleasing place to live and work. These works of art were conceived and built during a time of remarkable wealth generated as a result of Buffalo’s location at the western terminus of the Erie Canal and a transportation hub for goods moving between the Mid-West and East Coast.
The architects and landscape designers working at that time were some of the early “systems thinkers” of the 20th century. The aesthetic and functional value of their work derives from their holistic approach to integrated problem-solving. For example, Frederick Law Olmsted, the landscape architect, was invited to tour the city of Buffalo and select a site for a public park that would rival his more famous work in Central Park in New York City. Olmsted ended up insisting that the City Fathers purchase all three of the proposed sites instead of just one. Buffalo subsequently became one of the first planned cities in America with a series of parks and connecting boulevards that can still be appreciated today.
Situated in one of the elegant neighborhoods created by these parks is another example of holistic thinking - the Darwin Martin house. This masterpiece was designed and built by Frank Lloyd Wright for Darwin Martin, an executive of the Larkin Soap Company. Mr. Martin was an architect of sorts himself. He designed the business processes for his company that permitted a rapid expansion of its mail-order business and created enormous wealth for the company. I find the Darwin Martin house to be doubly inspirational. The beauty and functionality of the house itself can be experienced directly during a tour. The beauty and functionality of the business processes created by Darwin Martin must be inferred from his business success and the wealth required for the construction of his eponymous home. But imagine the reaction of Mr. Martin’s business associates. Imagine the skepticism that likely greeted his initial presentation of ideas and the gradual realization, as sales mounted, of the value of his thinking.
I was reminded of the parallels between the aesthetics of architectural design and business processes during the recent move to new office space. Our designers did a splendid job laying out the space and our IT group exceeded expectations in their design for a state-of-the-art computer room and IT infrastructure. While you can appreciate the results of this design activity during a tour, it is the aesthetics of what you can’t see - the processes we use for data assembly and analysis - that are at the center of what makes Cognigen work. These processes have been continually refined over the past twenty years. It is remarkable how they affect the relationships between team members, and more importantly, our relationships with our clients.
There is another kind of architecture that we get to practice - the design of the conceptual schema that describes what is known about disease process or pharmacology and that serves as a blueprint for modeling and simulation projects. There is an artistic sensibility that gets satisfied in the process of drawing a picture of the relationships between the bits and pieces of knowledge that accumulate over an R&D program. Each bit of knowledge represents a problem to be solved. How does the result of an experiment fit in with the other putative facts about disease process or drug pharmacology? What experiment should be performed to fill in a gap? How do we explain the sometimes counter-intuitive effects suggested by new data or recognize the uncertainty resulting from recently appreciated knowledge gaps?
Visiting an architectural masterpiece, like the Darwin Martin house, provides tangible evidence that holistic thinking about problem-solving can be both aesthetically pleasing and intellectually rewarding. While the connection between architecture and R&D problem solving may seem dubious, I can recommend an experiment for you to try. Take a tour of an architectural masterpiece, like the Darwin Martin house. While you are on the tour, think about the following questions:
• What aspect of the tour or architectural feature of the building was most interesting? Why? How does it relate to a problem you are trying to solve?
• Think about a previous attempt to implement a process improvement. Did it succeed? Why or why not?
• What new process improvement do you think should be implemented? What will it take to successfully implement the improvement?
Just as the Darwin Martin house is the product of an inspired architect and an engaged client, so too can the deliverables of research and development be.
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The inspiration of great architecture.