In our latest Trailblazers interview, we speak with Danielle Dy Buncio, co-founder and CEO of VIATechnik. Dy Buncio discusses her career background and her approach to improving productivity in design and construction through innovation and technology.
She was recently named to the BuiltWorlds 2020 Mavericks 50 list alongside Burcin Kaplanoglu, executive director, innovation officer at Oracle Construction and Engineering, who interviewed her for this article.
DDB: I’m currently the CEO of VIATechnik, a virtual design and construction services firm headquartered in Chicago, but we work around the country. I founded the company with my husband, Anton, nearly eight years ago with the goal of improving productivity in the industry through innovation and technology.
Since we started, the company has evolved a lot. We didn’t have one solution or type of technology that we said, “This is how we were going to change the industry.” We were very open to adopting new technology as it came up.
We always said we were going to be quick adopters. Over the past eight years, if you look at our history, at the beginning we were constantly iterating on our service. We worked on being as agile as possible.
But we’ve taken a shift. Now that we’re at the innovative frontier of the industry, we must actively influence where the industry is going. We’re using data, automation, and optimization to take advantage of the digitization of our industry.
My career has evolved a lot since founding the company, but I sometimes joke that I joined the industry as a kid. My parents founded a civil and marine infrastructure general contractor company when I was three years old, so I was immersed in the industry from early on.
I entered the industry through a background in civil engineering. I received my civil and environmental engineering undergraduate degree from Stanford. I was fortunate enough to be immersed in a program that was extremely tech forward.
We tried a lot of new technology and innovative workflows at Stanford. For example, I took a course called 2D/3D/4D CAD from Professor Martin Fischer. This was before the entire industry had really gotten hold of BIM (building information modeling), but nonetheless, we utilized 4D methods to integrate 3D models with construction scheduling.
After I graduated, because BIM wasn’t yet prevalent in the industry, I entered more of a traditional project management path. However, I found myself getting easily frustrated. I wondered why technology was in every aspect of our lives, but construction was this “check-your-tech-at-the-door” industry. I decided to make a change when I founded VIATechnik with my husband.
DDB: Being a part of the construction industry over the last few decades, I sometimes feel like construction is standing still and the buzz of the world behind us is moving fast. However, over the last five years, I have seen a lot of positive momentum, despite some false starts.
For example, BIM was brought to the industry in the 1980s and had a false start but was revitalized in the early 2000s.
A lot of internal research and development initiatives, internal labs, and internal venture capital funds are starting to launch.
For the first time, we’re seeing true innovation taking hold that’s starting to change the industry. Look at all the great things you are doing related to innovation!
DDB: Momentum has been one of the hardest things to overcome. Construction is one of the oldest and largest industries in the world.
There is a lot of momentum here that is keeping things the same. Sometimes people underestimate that momentum and come into the industry excited but then quickly become disenchanted when change is harder than they expected.
There are a lot of forces at play that must be understood when trying to change the industry. Some of these forces are due to the local nature of construction, and the fact that a lot of construction still does need to happen physically onsite.
Even where offsite methods can be deployed, the final installation is still at a site that’s changing daily. This includes tackling things like the weather, the labor unions, the skilled labor deficit, etc. These challenges must be considered when trying to make a change in the industry.
However, the current health crisis is forcing companies to rethink this “onsite need,” which was previously taken as a given.
The enhanced focus on worker health and safety may be the extra nudge that owners and contractors need to devote resources towards industrialized construction methods.
DBD: I spend a lot of time thinking about this, both from the standpoint of fostering an innovation culture at VIATechnik, as well as how we bring innovation to our clients. Our role at VIATechnik involves approaching owners, developers, general contractors, and trade contractors and introducing an innovative workflow—or a new technology—that our clients haven’t tried before or perhaps hadn’t thought about.
I’m arriving at the conclusion that there are three important aspects to creating a culture of innovation that together can create powerful change.
The first aspect is diversity and promoting diversity of thought. We must bring new ideas into our organization. We must look at gender and ethnic diversity, but also an individual’s educational and work background.
We should recruit people that didn’t necessarily come from construction, but perhaps other industries like manufacturing or software. We should offer employees a space where creativity can be fostered and conversations between these diverse individuals can happen.
When I think about collaborative work spaces, I am referring not only to physical space, but also space in our schedule—the time and mental energy to collaborate. We’re seeing more collaborative offices and breakout spaces where people can huddle and explore an idea in more depth, but companies’ lack of time for innovation is the bigger problem.
Most companies in the construction industry appear to be running a mile a minute. We’re too busy to slow down to innovate, which is unfortunate, since ultimately it would allow us to be more productive.
The organizations that truly understand innovation right now are very strategic about making time. This is something that’s important for our own organization.
Sometimes the best way to make time is to almost pretend like innovation is a project, right? If somebody is 90% utilized, it means they’re fully utilized, because that last 10% includes the time to have conversations with teams just to see what could happen.
I’m obsessed with this book called “Where Good Ideas Come From” by Steven Johnson. He analyzes how good ideas have come to life through the history of the world. Johnson describes two interesting concepts that I always keep in the back of my mind.
One is called “the slow burn,” which states that innovation starts as a subtle idea in the back of your head but needs to grow. We need to give people time to cultivate those ideas.
The other concept is this idea of two half-baked ideas colliding. I might have one half of a great idea and you have the other half. But unless we have a conversation about how both of those halves come together, the idea dies. Creating a collaborative space for innovation is the only way to make this happen.
With companies transitioning to a virtual work environment in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, this topic of collaborative space becomes even more important. For companies to successfully navigate through this time, innovation must be front and center in their organizations.
But despite all the technology at our disposal, so much of collaboration (which is essential for innovation) is lost when people aren’t together, and our virtual meeting platforms fall short in this regard. At VIATechnik we’re testing out Virtual Reality collaboration methods and looking into open innovation platforms as ways to engage employees in innovative thinking during this time.
Lastly, companies need to let go of the idea of a return on investment regarding innovation, at least to some extent. I understand why you need targets and goals to get the funding higher up in the organization.
But you also need a space where it’s okay to fail. Companies learn more from those failures sometimes than they do from the successes. And if you don’t have a space to fail, I don’t think you’re fostering a culture of innovation.
We should be careful to limit the cost of failure, though. And I’m not just talking about the monetary cost of failure; there’s also the employee and public safety cost of failure. We need to be very mindful of how we fail and create low risk environments where it’s safe to fail.
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