Looking forward together

All too often different parts of the design community work in silos and fail to engage or collaborate. But now, more than ever, we must reach out to our peers, rethink our approach and transform our built environment

To celebrate being alive a year after being diagnosed with breast cancer, I signed up to two physical challenges: a cycle from Porto to Lisbon and a climb up Mount Kilimanjaro, one at the start and one at the end of the summer.

Last week I completed the first of these and came away with a profound sense of the importance of working as a team. Many of the women who completed the 500km/8,000m cycle in 35°C heat did so only with a determination and spirit gained from being around others feeling the same pain.

As a profession, architects often feel that pain too but choose to do so alone. For too long we have been pitted against each other, and are punch drunk from numerous bouts in the ring of the competition. The profession has been left wary and suspicious of their peers, reticent to engage with each other or share confidences.

Nowhere is this clearer than in the current ongoing debate about the future of our built environment. Reimagining our built environment is one of the greatest opportunities we have to move resolutely towards a better future, and to put a healthier, more compassionate and greener philosophy into place, yet in my work helping and advising government, I am constantly amazed and disappointed at how little I hear from the design and architecture community.

It used to be that, as renaissance men and women, we were able to multitask, to offer a broad and multi-dimensional perspective, not tied down to specific duties. Architects and engineers were at the forefront of leading big-scale projects that were future-proofed for hundreds of years. But the lack of a clear and coordinated voice means we might miss out on the chance to shape the debate about the built environment in the years ahead.

The UK consistently nurtures some of the best engineering, technical and architectural minds in the world, and we still have both the maverick brilliance and the skills to imagine and design a better future

So why aren’t we putting forward a co-ordinated vision for what our built environment will and should look like over 20-50 years? Why aren’t we having rigorous open debates and pushing policy changes rather than reacting against them? If we have no opinions of what the future looks like, how can we position ourselves within it?

The UK consistently nurtures some of the best engineering, technical and architectural minds in the world, and we still have both the maverick brilliance and the skills to imagine and design a better future. Yet our professional institutions remain as silos, focusing solely on their own members at the expense of integration and collaboration. Architects and engineers, for example, should be getting together via the RIBA and ICE to discuss the opportunities that £200bn worth of investment in infrastructure can generate.

Integration needs to happen in design, manufacture and delivery in a much more seamless way. The bringing together of talented individuals who already have the ability and skill to imagine the future, and then connect them together would be a positive start.

We have to think hard about our relevance in a world where technology and digital advances are likely to change the profession beyond recognition in the years to come. It is frightening how few of us – myself included – have tackled or thought about this potential, both negative and positive. Without the ability to adapt and evolve over the next 20-50 years, architects will become at best irrelevant and at worst extinct.

The good news is that if anybody has the ability to navigate and adapt to a changing and highly challenging new environment, it is architects and designers. We are adaptable, inventive and imaginative problem solvers who can multitask and make decisions quickly. We have to start to analyse what we are good at and learn how to apply it to a changing brief.

I recently decided to put my money where my mouth was and alongside my fellow peers Deborah Saunt (DSDHA) and Selina Mason (LDA design) hosted a dinner in order to debate and discuss how as a profession we could influence and guide the meaningful design of infrastructure.

Our aim was to reassess outdated approaches focused on the notion of a fixed built project and to ask instead what is it that transformational design can do to create far wider-reaching benefits that address local as well as national issues. We wanted to reframe the conversation about infrastructure, challenge traditional ideas and set infrastructure strategy and investment on a new course, placing transformational design at its core.

It is the beginning of a series of conversations that we hope will identify the opportunities for change, and the policies and processes that need to be redrawn to move infrastructure into the future. I would encourage you all to do something similar. For the record, it’s much more pleasant than a long cycle or mountainous climb, but the outcome – working together to overcome a challenge with your peers – is much the same.

Sadie Morgan is a co-founding director of dRMM Architects. She is also the HS2 design panel chair and sits on the UK’s National Infrastructure Commission.

You can donate to www.virginmoneygiving.com/team/nationalinfrastructureclimbers to help support Sadie in her climb of Kilimanjaro.

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