Innovation 2015

By Eva Maddox

Photography by Josh White

In 2015, design has found its way. The architects, designers, artists and others represented in Fifty Under Fifty are innovators of our time, offering in their work and actions a passion for life and humanity. They have shared with us, and the world, their desire and excitement for exponential learning. It is their individual curiosities, imaginations and talents that allow them to bridge disciplines, respect cultural norms, respond to human needs regardless of costs, harvest their craft, and adopt team transparency in their passion to create and solve problems with a clear mission. These new dimensions thrust them into the forefront of global design innovation. And never before has design innovation itself been at the forefront in a way so exposed, anticipated, and expected.

A remarkable shift is occurring in the global geography of innovation as the world becomes more interconnected through technology. For the past 50 years “objects” of innovation have been created in an incremental, linear mode, an improvement upon improvement based on need, discovery or often value.

These design innovations have formed the basis for our expectationsˇ and have become the visual models for idea advancement worldwide. Today, with transparency and interconnectivity, the democratization of design has exposed and exploded innovation around the world. Design innovation, similar to the scientific discovery of our DNA, now has open access, allowing it to take many different nonlinear paths with unexpected consequences.

Photography by Juan Baraja

What is design innovation in 2015? What are the new metrics to credit good design? How can a jury look across the world, respond to cultures, understand values foreign to their understanding and economic resources? The Fifty Under Fifty innovators possess several common characteristics:

Purposeful value

Architecture for design’s sake is no longer the sole purpose of their talents, and does not satisfy their innate desire to add value to society through their work.

Team contributions

They are redefining innovation and design to include “heart” and the notion to “do good.” Additionally they have given the world access to their design processes and design thinking, making their design knowledge a human right for all.

Multidiscipline achievements

Many of these innovators are sharing their talent and work by joining forces with other industries in order to achieve the unthinkable. Just as medicine, science, technology, and other professions, are teaming to accelerate innovation, architects and designers are also looking beyond their own profession to achieve remarkable discoveries.

Advanced materials and making

“The Fifty Under Fifty are among an emerging generation of architects and designers, conducting a robust body of research which lights the way to new materials for building and making.”1 No longer does a material serve just one leg of the stool. Society is beginning to see the evolution and the value of organic, living materials along with manufactured materials for their design properties, lifecycle  and resilience. These designers are embracing the fact that science and biology are fostering a leap to stealth materials, organic experimentation and technology that’s accelerating the creation of a new sustainable architecture.

Photography by Kéré Architecture

Neri Oxman, Israeli architect and Professor & Research Group Leader at MIT Media Lab, transcends the boundaries between art, science and environmentalism. She is an excellent example in addition to these chosen innovators. Her stated goal is to “enhance the relationship between the built and natural environments by employing design principles inspired by nature and implementing them in the invention of digital design technologies.” In defining these undervalued materials, Neri Oxman notes “the story of the material is where its value is determined.” This is of particular interest with the 50 chosen innovators as many have identified materials of multiple values and uses. Their exploration includes basic building materials of their culture (i.e. bricks and mortar), natural elements, and living organisms.

Global sharing and no boundaries

The 50 selected architects and designers exhibit attitudes of sharing, caring and giving back. They are out to save the world, the best way they know how—by pushing boundaries. As they stretch their imaginations, share their desires and spark worldwide design dialogues, they will lose no time in finding alternative solutions to the issues of the day. Their talents are unique. Their energies are contagious. They use additional skills and senses to achieve their goals, resulting in designs that are alive, transparent, untethered, and simply beautiful.

Working differently

This new breed of innovators works differently. They “come together and connect in special districts, rather than working alone in isolated spaces. Special districts can mean many different types of places for innovation, such as the internet, a space within the community, in urban districts, in educational institutions, in start-up campuses and accelerator labs."2

Spurring innovation and economic development

The Fifty Under Fifty innovators have the unique potential to spur productive, inclusive and sustainable economic development— bringing people, process and place together. No longer are the mad scientist and the artist architect working alone. They are working hand-in-hand to spark ideas, produce new discoveries, expand employment opportunities for the disadvantaged, create shelter for catastrophic events, save the environment for future generations, and explore new materials and uses for sustainability—all with respect to cultural heritage.

Photography by NLÉ

Economic assets are evidenced by the innovator’s day-to-day risk-taking culture and involvement, responding to social need to always create and surprise with new answers/solutions. They work with “innovation drivers, innovation cultivators and neighborhood building amenities” to achieve innovative goals.3

A broad brush of the Fifty Under Fifty innovators expands our understanding of the interpersonal connections, cultural ties, and global perspectives that these talents build through networking, including (or as evidenced by their) community outreach and public art, aquatic learning platforms, purposeful educational furniture, and fun-loving “kitten” desks, government buildings in India, architectural jewel outposts in Norway, useful commercial objects, and exhibitions to challenge the status quo. They choose to “address many issues in their problem-solving with an understanding of simplicity and beauty.”

The 50 under 50 showcased in this book are a network of pings bouncing back and forth, continent to continent, leaving their spirit and idea markers to accelerate new ways. 

Fifty Under Fifty: Innovators of the 21st Century

The architects, designers, artists and others represented in Fifty Under Fifty are innovators of our time. After a world-wide search of 50 top architecture and design firms by the editors, lead author Beverly Russell along with Eva Maddox and Farooq Ameen help bring together a unique body of work; all partners in these firms will be 50 years old or under at the time of publication, and represent a forward-thinking generation of creative people, aware of global issues that urgently need solutions through imaginative design.




1 Lara Kristin Herndow and Derrick Mead, “7 Material Innovations That Could Change Design,” Metropolis magazine.
2 Bruce Katz and Julie Wagner, The Rise of Innovation Districts: A New Geography of Innovation in America, Brookings Institute, December 29, 2014.
3 Ibid.
4 Ibid.

Alan Jones
Alan Jones