The Hidden Crisis

This is Step 4 on the pathway to Taking Control.

Architecture has a hidden crisis: A critical erosion of relevance. Built-environment design professions have a choice: Take control, or cede what little control is left. Watch our sun set, or rise.

My experience suggests that only a tiny percentage of designers (say less than 1%) are actively thinking much about these options, and most of those would say the second option is not available: the horse has already bolted.

Architects are NOT irrelevant!

I am not suggesting that architects are irrelevant. I am saying that the relevance of the practice of architecture has been, and continues to be, eroded – and that, in my view, that erosion is largely hidden, and is approaching crisis status. Increasingly, architects, and our fellow design professionals – engineers and others – find themselves with less and less authority. Increasingly, we professionals are employed by developers, contractors, independent project managers, and other agents of the end-user clients.

In this diminution of authority, we trick ourselves into thinking we have less risk and liability – but in reality we’ve just forfeited big slices of effective control over project outcomes – and inadvertently increased the risk.

Taking control

Suggesting that “taking control” is an achievable option is taking a very bold view of the situation; yet I am convinced it is completely achievable.

I see strong evidence that some firms – not many – have been rethinking and redesigning themselves to meet the challenges we all face. Two examples: Gensler and HOK. A review of the priorities expressed in their websites is instructive.

To achieve that vision of Taking Control will require significant change to the way most firms in the architectural and related engineering professions think.

That is why this website advocates “Rethink everything”. There is no other way.

This “web book” started out in 2014 with Rethink Everything as a core theme. This confused reviewers, who questioned the point of the effort and what the site was trying to accomplish – as well as questioning what I wanted out of the effort.

As a result, I came to see that the idea of rethinking is a process idea, not a destination idea. This is an important distinction. While designers generally, and architects particularly, approach projects with a deep sense of process about solving design problems, most see that only in the project context rather than the design process context. As a result, my focus on rethinking couldn’t be seen as anchored to anything tangible.

Ultimately I saw that I had to “anchor” all of the process activity to something tangible, and sufficiently desirable enough to pursue. That is why the focus moved to Taking Control – a tangible destination – that readers can relate to.

That refocus doesn’t change the fact that reaching that destination can be accomplished only by a complete rethink of everything we do. In a way, the inability of reviewers to connect with the importance of the journey is a microcosm of why the profession is in a perilous condition of irrelevance.

No doubt the rethinking discussion will still seem disconnected from the destination to many site visitors. Because I expect that now, I have broken the discussion down into a series of 10 “Steps” toward the destination.

Some of the changes that need to come from that rethinking process are:

  1. Shift our focus from design outcomes to design processes.
  2. Re-align values driving design so they better relate to what clients want.
  3. Move away from the Ayn Rand Fountainhead model of the rugged “change agent” to one of being the team builder and synthesizer.
  4. Embrace risk; learn to manage it successfully.
  5. Stop “interruptive” marketing; learn “inbound” marketing and the social media skills that enable it.
  6. Stop thinking of business development as a firm management activity; start thinking of it as a client relationship management activity.
  7. Cease the idea of competing with other design firms; seek opportunities for cooperation.
  8. Put all of that together into a new vision for the design professions.
  9. Embrace the need for new, structured learning at all levels of the firm.

Any one of these ideas could be a small e-book in its own right. Indeed, point 5 above already is (see Client link on the website).

DesignNode is about linking global thinking on these and related ideas, so I shall not attempt to write the definitive guide to them (that would be a 1,000 page book).

What I will do is explore and synthesize the thinking of others, as well as to present my own conclusions about the opportunities I see for the future of our professions: In particular, I will outline the cases for:

  • Embracing risk and using it to create a competitive marketing edge;
  • Changing our perspective on business development to be an integral part of client relationship management, rather than a firm-centric stand-alone activity;
  • Creating awareness of a Client Comfort Zone™; and
  • Laying out the framework for Taking Control.

Just as the crisis of relevance is hidden, so is the pathway to taking control.

This quest has never left my mind for the past four decades; the solution is waiting invisibly but in plain sight. It has taken me that long to see it.

Most of architects and engineers I know will find reasons to disagree with many of the 9 points above. That is their right, of course. Nevertheless, they will either change course, or see their lights start to wink out. Then their remaining option will be as CAD drafters working for building contractors. Game over.

Support from other thinkers

Support for my conclusions comes from a small group of thinkers; in particular Frank Stasiowski, Thomas Fisher, the RIBA Building Futures group under the leadership of Dickon Robertson, and James Cramer & Scott Simpson. See Practice > Resources for references to their critical works.

Their contributions, and those of many others, are embedded across this site.

One example: Frank Stasiowski, in his book Impact 2020, identifies “10 Urgent Actions You Must Take Now”. The first of those is: “Adopt a Culture of Permanent Change”.

Stasiowski notes: “Change is coming at an unprecedented speed with rapidly evolving breakthroughs in communications and technology coupled with financial and government regimes under pressure.”

DesignNode Navigation

On the right side margin there is a list of links to the 10 Steps. You can jump to any one of these page from any point on the journey. I’d guess that most visitors who get this far will jump to Step 9 to see what’s there, before “wasting their time” plowing through the steps in between.

That’s fine, but knowing what the destination is won’t restore relevance, and won’t tell you what you need to do to get there. Perhaps that’s as it should be – there are limited spaces available at the destination.

Above all, this is an invitation to every reader to join this discussion; to share in the development of a program to ensure that the built-environment professions really do have a future.

Email me with your thoughts

 Next: Step 5

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