By Kathleen Wolf Davis

You have one fellow to thank for the evolution of your utility from a system of top-down processes to the growing focus on innovation, flexibility and change.

And, no, it’s not Elon Musk.

In fact, our fellow isn’t a tech billionaire or a regulator. He’s not even a forward-thinking, here’s-the-future-in-a-nutshell consultant.

He’s not even a scientist, or into data – at least, not the kind we’re all used to with sensor stats, usage rates and load forecasting.

His name is Frank Duffy. Duffy is the British architect and urban designer who brought in one really brilliant concept to facilities management; shearing layers.

Lost yet? Just wait. I promise it will all connect in an ‘a-ha’ moment in the end.

So, what are shearing layers? Conceptually, in a nutshell, this is the idea of breaking down the forest into each living, breathing, working tree – rather the flipside of the old adage.

Duffy taught European and North American urban designers and architects to stop looking at buildings as a whole entity and, instead, start looking at the pieces of it individually:

  • Which take more time to manage?
  • Which take longer to wear out?
  • Which cost more up front?
  • Which cost more in the long run?
  • Keeping the constant of change in mind, how do we then frontload the planning and maintenance schedule to be the most adaptable and flexible?

Duffy believed that we’re so focused on seeing these separate layers as a whole that we let them impact each other when they should, instead, be allowed to change organically on their own without restraints from the timelines inherent in other layers.

In other words, we falsely believe that a building is a building – that all the things inside of it and under it, on i,t and through it come together to make it a single whole.

Instead, with Duffy’s thinking, the building is nothing. It’s an illusion, a shell, and what exists are those things inside, under, on and through; the land it’s on, the foundation with which it’s built, the surfaces that surround it, the services that it provides, the items it houses.

Writer Stewart Brand came along in the 1990s and picked up Duffy’s thought process. He expanded it into a book, and in about 2012, Gartner began its tech variation of Duffy’s theory with their own pace layers.

Pace layers apply Duffy’s idea of the illusion of a whole obfuscating the realities of the working parts to tech-heavy organisations. Duffy had six varying layers and Gartner has condensed these to three: systems of records, systems of differentiation, and systems of innovation.

Duffy shifted focus from the whole to the individual layers. Gartner juggles those layers into a hierarchy, showcasing how old-school management styles once only suited for systems of record are evolving to more flexible approaches that enable faster change with your systems of differentiation and innovation.

Here’s your ‘a-ha’ moment laid out: All these labels on layers may be confusing, but the changes they wrought in corporate groupthink have become decidedly normal today. Think of the pre-Duffy, pre-pace layers mindset as the old silo approach you once had; everything top-down.

This new, separate growth layers approach, with coming change at the forefront of every decision, is already in place – if only by a toe-hold in spots – across this industry.

It used to be that those systems you have were thought about seriously, and perhaps replaced, every 30 years, if not every fifty on the grid end of things. And we thought of them as a whole.

Now, we are drilled down into those detailed layers, with a need for agility and responsiveness creating a need to think about those details daily.

We’re elbows-deep in the details, as my grandfather might say, and Duffy would more than approve.

Rather than having to apply this thinking from the outside in, or the top down, and shake off our old, siloed ways over and over, we seem to be getting very used to understanding organic growth and change and the reworking our structures to take those into account.

We are becoming more agile, more flexible. We are working toward that pace layers goal where systems of innovation are naturally in the lead.

Concepts become foundational thinking when they begin to work organically without force, and both Duffy and Gartner have seen that evolution first-hand – Duffy over the decades since he first developed the architecture concepts and Gartner over the last five years since they unveiled the pace layers.

The conscious uncoupling of organisational and technical strata to inspire innovation and embrace change has been 40-years coming in its journey from Duffy’s brain, through Gartner’s reworking, into our industry.  

But the customer-centric, distributed, transactive utility market of the future continues to come into focus with that thinking in mind.

Both Duffy and Gartner should be proud of their work in this corporate cultural evolution. Soon their innovative layers will simply be how things are and seem natural and pure common sense.

Frank Duffy was born in 1940, and came up with the shearing layers concept in the 1970s. Stewart Brand wrote the definitive book on Duffy’s layers in 1994. Gartner adapted those layers to organisational thinking and technology in 2012. Utilities are expanding outward to put customer and tech innovation at the front of their strategy planning in 2017.

Sometimes, the path to common sense is a long-haul journey.

This partner content was originally written for Oracle Utilities’ blog Insights for the Innovative Utility. You can read more at,

Lauren brings a fresh approach to content. While she’s previously written for publications as diverse as Australian Geographic, The Border Watch and Girlfriend, she’s found her true passion in her current role as an editor in the world of energy and infrastructure trade magazines.

©2024 Utility Magazine. All rights reserved


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