3 Insights From The CEO Of BIG, A 21st-Century Superfirm

Entertainment By Elena Boaghi |

“We were a little bit behind the rest of the world in realizing that we do have a very unique culture, and how spectacularly central it is to our way of working,” says Sheela Maini Søgaard, the CEO of Bjarke Ingels Group and the company’s only woman partner.

Søgaard was talking about the creative DNA of the firm, which has grown rapidly in the decade since she joined it. A few numbers, for context: In 2008, BIG was an office of about 50 people. Today, it numbers around 470. It’s a kind of growth that’s more recognizable in the tech industry, and perhaps it’s no surprise that some of the company’s recent clients come from that world: An immense, million-square-foot headquarters for Google in London and a 600,000 square foot campus for it in Mountain View, California. A Mars simulation city in the United Arab Emirates. A Hyperloop transit system.

At the Fast Company Innovation Festival, Søgaard described balancing the company’s creative culture and its business health amid rapid growth–and shared a few insights from which any company can learn.

Sheela Maini Søgaard [Photo: Leitorp]

Build Something Scalable

Søgaard has been responsible for managing BIG’s growth sustainably and for shepherding the company into its next phase of life. When she first joined the company as its CFO, after working for McKinsey & Company and NOMA cofounder Claus Meyer, that meant establishing the most foundational rules–things as simple as not handing over work until the firm had been paid. Today it means managing the firm’s finances and business development, but also the on-boarding of each influx of new talent and everything in between.

Perhaps even more importantly, it means managing the business side of the firm while enabling its creative culture. At the Innovation Festival, Søgaard explained the key has been finding a division of labor that lets the design team do what they do best, whatever the scale and scope of the project. “If everyone actually spends the majority of their time doing what they’re best at, instead of just half of their time, then you end up just essentially lifting the skill set of the firm,” she told the audience. “You have a chance of doing something pretty spectacular if project managers for design processes don’t have to send out invoices, and hire people, and discuss with clients about whether, you know, we should be doing this at this timeline–but that they actually have the support to do that from their operations.”

[Image: BIG]

Broaden The Definition Of Your Business

While BIG cut its teeth on residential developments, in recent years the company has taken on an increasing number of infrastructure, urban planning, and engineering projects. In 2014, the firm won $540 million to build the so-called “Big U,” a system that would ring 10 miles of Manhattan in flood-mitigating berms woven with public programs like recreation areas and walking trails. In 2016 it unveiled designs for Hyperloop One, the California company commercializing Elon Musk’s conceptual proposal and working to build a track connecting Dubai and Abu Dhabi.

In retrospect, it’s easy to see how the firm’s design process led naturally to a broader interpretation of “architecture” as an industry. “We’ve come to realize that if we really want to ensure the design integrity of the projects that we do, and we want to really ensure that the experience the users get when they step into a design . . . the best way of ensuring that is to engage in more areas of the value chain, and engage in more areas of the disciplines that actually end up in the end product,” Søgaard said. That increasingly includes infrastructure, transit, and planning, and this summer BIG formalized a new division–BIG Engineering–dedicated to “breaking down the traditional barriers that have existed between architects and engineers,” as BIG Engineering leader Duncan Horswill said it at the time.

This fall, the company released a project that embodies the shift taking place in its work: the Mars Science City. This complex, built in the deserts outside of Dubai, will serve as a research center and place to stage simulations of technology meant for Mars exploration. That includes Martian building technologies, which may be used to build out the city as it grows. The complex will be a kind of testing lab for planetary building–an urban-scale piece of design that also seeks to develop an entirely new kind of “regional” architecture for Mars.

“Ten years ago, I’m not sure that we would have imagined that we now are the go-to architect for space,” Søgaard added. “It’s so exciting, because that is at least the next frontier–if not the last.”

[Image: BIG/Heatherwick Studio]

Foster Culture Through Creativity

Forty percent of BIG’s workforce is below 30 years of age, and half of it joined within the past two years. That means fostering culture is an important part of managing the business–from the on-boarding process to happy hours to costume contests and periodic trips the entire firm takes together.

At her talk, Søgaard described the firm’s partners as being driven by a positivity inherent to the firm’s design methodology–after all, this is the company that coined the Miesien punchline “yes is more,” and the notion of hedonistic sustainability. “Creativity thrives in positivity,” Søgaard  added. “You need positivity to be innovative and to be creative.”

Despite its rapid expansion, “we’re doing a lot of it the same way that we were before,” Søgaard added. “So the inherent way of working, the inherent culture, the inherent approach to our employees, is founded on those same principles as it always was.”

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