The head of Imperial College's innovation studies centre has spent years gently taking the fear factor out of innovation. Now, says Josephine Smit, it looks as if a conservative construction industry has finally plucked up the courage to trust him.
Professor David Gann is looking uncomfortable at the prospect of being photographed in front of a traditional brick wall. So he moves a few feet to the left, taking up position in front of the grey concrete of Imperial College's civil engineering department building, and relaxes. For a man who plays a central role in the government's push for prefabrication, concrete is a more natural setting.

London's Imperial College in South Kensington is itself a new setting for Gann.

At the end of last year he moved from Sussex University's Science and Technology Policy Research Unit to take Imperial's chair in technology and innovation management, bringing eight of his team with him. The change made sense for Gann, who is now at a world-class university. It made sense for the government, too, as its new neighbour was the man most likely to solve its affordable housing crisis.

Gann is a key player in the policy-making community. He was an adviser to the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister's construction taskforce, and has long been a persuasive advocate for off-site manufacturing technology and management systems, such as the design quality indicators that he helped the Construction Industry Council to produce.

The polymath draws on the experience of other countries and industries gained in almost 20 years of academic research. Gann is now on the board of industry bodies Rethinking Construction and the Housing Forum. This gives him the opportunity to look at the Egan demonstration projects, and see at first hand much of construction's innovation.

So, is John Prescott's aim of building fast, affordable prefabricated housing in the South-east realisable? Gann diplomatically shies away from this question. The reason is that his team is poised to carry out research for the ODPM on manufacturing capacity.

But he will say that he doesn't buy the principal argument against prefabrication: that manufacturers need high-volume orders to make it economic, and that this is incompatible with housebuilders' need to match production to the ebb and flow of the market. "Economies of scale matter, but you need to understand how to deliver flexibly.

The mismatch occurs because manufacturers don't have the right manufacturing systems approach or internal management," he says. "There is a new approach to flexible manufacturing systems – they are known in Japan and continental Europe, but have not really been deployed in the UK yet." The only one to get it right, Gann reckons, is Irish tycoon John Fleming with his Fusion light steel-frame system. This uses state-of-the-art machinery in a former Vauxhall factory to make steel sections with many different uses (see 6 September 2002 issue for more on this).

The government’s new neighbour is the man most likely to solve its affordable housing crisis

Off-site manufacturing accounts for about 10% of UK housing output, but Gann sees great potential in the present pluralist approach to innovation, with timber, steel and concrete structural systems showing signs of evolution.

"Prefabrication has had mixed success," he says, "but you never innovate without having failures. Unlike in the 1960s and 1970s, we're not seeing a big systems view – there are framing systems and component systems emerging and being picked up by private and social housing. If you pass a housebuilding site, you will see apparently traditional houses being built using a lot of components. Housebuilders are having to do that because of quality and labour issues."

Overall, construction has heeded Gann's messages and improved its record on innovation dramatically, he says. "It has recognised its need for performance improvement – its need to do things better and do things differently. The demonstration projects show how they are innovating. People are responding well in a dynamic environment. They have good strengths that need to be further integrated, and now need to understand what value means within environments such as the PFI. When you compare construction with other industries, it is not the bottom of the pile. Look at hospitals, schools or transport."

Industries other than construction are featuring ever more prominently in Gann's research. He admits that his passion is how technology is developed and used, and that is being applied across a variety of industries. Gann's team has been working with Procter & Gamble, the US household product manufacturer, on how to get ideas onto the market faster. The three books Gann is currently involved in writing illustrate the breadth of his research, covering British and Japanese housing, managing innovation and project-based businesses. Still, he remains rooted in construction, the subject of his first degree, through his work as an adviser to Willmott Dixon.

Gann's new innovation studies centre has the same interdisciplinary approach, being linked to Imperial's civil engineering and business schools. It will also become the country's fourth built environment innovation centre that is funded by government body EPSRC. Setting it up was a big move for Gann after his 19 years at Sussex – prompted, he says, choosing his words carefully, by "the chance to do things that we couldn't have done before".

He would sooner talk about the future of the former civil engineering department lab that is now the innovation studies centre. Gann's team designed the refurb, chipping away at the concrete floor screed to reveal the original parquet, painting a wall bright orange, and putting leather sofas and glass-topped coffee tables alongside the bookshelves to create a feel-good working environment.

Personal effects

Where do you live?
I’ve got a house in Brighton, but I’m thinking of moving.
What's your own favourite personal piece of technology?
If I move I’ll probably get the next house wired up with Category 5 cabling – I’ve never had time to put it into this one. I’ve got a really nice hi-fi system that I like playing chamber music on while I’m working at home. That’s my most enjoyable bit of technology.
Where do you go on holiday?
I’ve got a flat in the Swiss Alps. Because I travel a lot for research, it’s nice to go away and not have to take luggage with me. It’s a retreat.
What are you reading?
Haruki Murakami’s The Wind Up Bird Chronicle.