Fostering Innovation: Why it Remains at the Heart of Stadium Design

Populous began 2013 by receiving an exciting honor. The firm was selected by Fast Company as one of the world’s Top 10 Most Innovative Companies in Architecture.

Innovation is something that we believe has to be fostered, encouraged and continually worked at. My colleague, Jon Knight, will look at how Populous continues to foster innovation and explores some recent projects that serve as virtual case studies for forward-looking design.

Over the past several decades, stadium design has evolved rapidly to incorporate the latest trends impacting brand activation, customer experience and in-stadium technology. While trends ultimately are an important part of stadia design, they must be secondary to authentic innovation that is based on the needs of a team and a fan base. Populous boasts a long history of innovation- from creating the club seating concept to designing the first dual-concourse arena to creating the world’s first green stadium- inspired innovation is what we consciously work towards every day.

The question of how to continue to foster innovation year after year, stadium after stadium, is central to who Populous is. We begin each and every project by taking a problem statement- which encompasses the unique needs of a team and a fan base, architectural and site challenges and design opportunities- and consider how we can solve that problem statement in a way that has never been done before. The reality is that each problem statement is different and presents a compilation of challenges that are reflective of the site, the team and their customers. I like to begin these discussions by encouraging designers and clients alike to suspend disbelief. Once we are able to have an open discussion that hinges on the idea that anything is possible, we are able to guide the design towards choices that have the power to shape the next generation of stadiums.

With each project, our goal is to create something that is progressive, innovative and inspiring and we believe that the only way to truly innovate is to break down traditional obstacles- cost, schedule, construction feasibility- and replace them with what ifs. It is only then that we allow ourselves to think beyond the status quo and begin to see solutions that haven’t been attempted yet.

In addition to fostering innovation through internal conversations, we believe we need to reach deep into our industry to gather experience and knowledge of current trends that will allow us to better imagine the next great innovation. We attend, speak at and engage others at industry events. We have relationships with universities and experts in fields that extend far beyond architecture. We seek inspiration from those who are paving a new path in other fields- from technology to research- and consider how their innovations can impact what we do.

Innovation hinges on these important advancements and as technology evolves, so do expectations and behaviors of the modern spectator. We have to consider how technological innovations can be incorporated into the stadia and arenas we design- whether that manifests itself in scanable QR codes on seats that allow for concierge style service and greater engagement or behind the scenes access for fans to athletes, pre-game and sideline action that is made possible through design. The exciting thing about these innovations is that technology can serve as an opportunity to expand our understanding of human behavior, which ultimately can manifest itself in our designs and cause us to rethink what a traditional stadium looks like. If we better understand how people interact or navigate a stadium, we can then structure the layout of concourses, social gathering spaces and premium seating options to reflect the evolving communication styles and behavioral patterns of spectators.

A truly innovative solution is impactful because it is unique to the needs of a specific team or city and takes into account the evolving behaviors of spectators. For example, in London, the design solution that arguably resulted in the most sustainable Olympic stadium to date was inspired based on the needs of the city and an acute concern for the post-games legacy use. In turn, the design and approach, which resulted in the first demountable stadium, has paved the way for the next generation of Olympic Stadiums. These next generation buildings will create viable structures that can contribute to revitalizing neighborhoods long after the closing ceremony.

On the other side of the globe, University of Phoenix Stadium, which is home to the NFL’s Arizona Cardinals, presented unique challenges that resulted in the first retractable field stadium in North America. Programmatically, the building was intended to be a domed stadium so it could provide utility beyond football game days, however, the team still wished to play on a natural turf field. Essentially, they were asking for an indoor building in a notoriously hot, arid climate with natural grass. As designers, we knew that wasn’t feasible. The solution? We took the grass outside and created the first building that uses both a rolling natural turf field and roof. It has become an iconic piece of architecture and inspiration for future innovations worldwide.

Both of these stadiums represent authentic innovations that were the result of a challenging problem statement, candid conversations and the incorporation of applicable trends. While there is no recipe for innovation that can be repeated time and time again, by understanding the state of the industry, and encouraging designers to think beyond what seems immediately feasible, we can continue to push the envelope and pave the way for stadiums that are unlike anything we have seen before. These innovations in turn result in memorable experiences that create powerful and lasting connections between the fan, the athlete, the stadium and the city.

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