Knowledge Futures: Future Proofing the Architectural Firm.

Peter Raisbeck , 10 November 2016

Do we want a downstream future or an upstream one? The choice is ours, and the consequences are far-reaching. Peter Raisbeck outlines two scenarios.

Architecture is an endeavour focused on the creation of knowledge. Architectural knowledge is generated via the design process and then – if you are lucky and get something realised – it is embedded in built and spatial form. This knowledge created by architects, and the professional services through which it is delivered, makes architecture valuable to society.

If architects are to prosper as a discipline in the future, they need to make knowledge a central platform of their practice. Recently, I became interested in how UN Studios conducts research. They focus this through what they call Knowledge Platforms. In short, each platform is a different area of specialised knowledge – UN Studios explains: “the objective of the Knowledge Platforms is to distil knowledge from within the practice of architecture in order to propel design thinking and innovation.”

This model of practice places knowledge, rather than the delivered object, at its centre. This got me thinking about knowledge management and knowledge futures in practice. Of course, proposing that knowledge is central to architectural production is a more complex model than simply saying that architects design buildings. Indeed, this approach is quite different to seeing architecture as simply being about the design of physical buildings (as, unfortunately, too many people do). But, in the digital age the Vitruvian mantra of firmness, commodity and delight is a little bit harder to apply to something as seemingly intangible as knowledge.

Seeing architects as knowledge workers is also more commensurate with their wide-ranging education, their role as systems integrators, and with the ambiguities of living in a networked global system. Moreover, architects are now working in cities beset by a combination of ‘wicked’ problems such as inequity, incessant conflict and climate change. Cities themselves can no longer be understood as stable entities that, through patronage, architects adorn with the symbols of power. In the future, and in order to future-proof themselves, architects must be seen as having a leading role in different kinds of urban innovation that they themselves create.

Notions of future proofing practice should not be about jumping on the latest technology bandwagon or getting excited about the latest procurement method. New developments in both technology and social organisation need to be strategized by architects. In the future, thinking about architectural services in terms of knowledge, rather than simple productivity measures or project delivery, will be more and more important. Indeed, excellence in architecture has always been about more than time and cost outcomes of project delivery.

If knowledge is to be at the forefront of and central to architectural practice there are possible two scenarios that I would like to sketch out – the Downstream Future and Upstream Future. Each involves a different approach to knowledge within a firm, which can be understood as a nexus of practice traditions, organisational structures and leadership and technology management.  Responding to each of these issues in a concerted fashion will make the difference between a downstream or upstream future.

Downstream Future

I guess you could call this future ‘Business As Usual’. In this scenario, knowledge management and research will not be a priority. Effective business and financial integration to support the creation of design knowledge will be neglected – as it is now for many practices.

In this future organisational structures will remain stable. Architects will continue to adopt and practice through existing traditions. Firm hierarchies will be entrenched between directors, associates, project team leaders, graduates and, at the bottom of the food, chain students. Without new organisational knowledge, diversity in teams or in firm leadership will not be challenged. The primary structure will be a firm led by a coterie of individuals adept at getting the actual work who then oversee employee architects.

In this scenario the cultural divide between designers and business-orientated architects will continue. This will hamper the creation of new forms of service delivery and innovation. In this downstream future, price competition around traditional fees and services will continue. There will be a continuing divide between large and small practices, and also between practices and non-architectural firms. Architects who do not create new knowledge will increasingly rely on selling professional services that others can either copy or deliver to clients at a lower cost. Competition with from building designers, project managers and contractors will increase. As a result, interest groups outside of architecture will press for the deregulation of the architectural title. In this downstream scenario even President-Elect Trump could call himself an architect.

In the downstream future architects will continue be buffeted by technological innovation. Architects will grab and lurch from new technology to the next. They will be at the mercy of software vendors. Without adequate business and strategic knowledge, new technologies will be haphazardly implemented or clutched onto without thought of how they impact on a firm’s – or even the professions – overall competitive advantage. Implementation of new technologies in small practices will remain problematic. Firms that do not understand the digitisation of supply chains will result in practices ceding ground to sub-contractors. The subbies will make the technically orientated design decisions before the architects get involved.

I see architectural margins under increasing pressure. In fact, it will be our current business-as-usual conditions, but in a degraded form. By this I mean continuing pressures on profit margins, higher and deeper competition and reactionary reform. In the downstream future architects will continue to undervalue their knowledge and contribution to the built environment.

Consequently, in the downstream future, as a profession architects will continue to rely on their traditional membership-based organisations, such as the Australian Institute of Architects to promote their concerns. Despite the rise of social media, and in a world in which richer and customised content is increasingly the norm, new modes of advertising and community education about what architects do will not emerge.

Upstream Future

I am more optimistic about the upstream future for architects. In this future architects will create upstream knowledge that downstream clients, and others in the industry, can utilise. In the upstream future knowledge creation and management is placed at the centre of the practice. In this future architects will be at the centre of creating new knowledge across all aspects of the built environment. After all that is what our long training equips us to do.  This knowledge will enable architects to charge more for their services in markets that have traditionally been beset by price competition, pseudo cartels and the lowest common denominator of service to clients.

In the upstream future each practice will look at advanced methods of collaboration between and across practices. Architects will no longer be bound by traditional practices centred on a ‘name’ or star architect. Much larger collaborations of small practices coming together with effective governance will help architects be more competitive and gain larger commissions. Moreover, architects will collaborate and form knowledge ecosystems with a full range of other consultants with specialist knowledge: engineers, academics, economists, urban planners and even financial analysts. 

Research will be central to the upstream knowledge future. Every practice, not unlike UN studio, will have a research plan and function embedded within it. Practices will use the output of this research to commercialise new ideas and to create competitive advantages for both themselves and their clients.  Some practices will develop consulting models and templates that will enable them to develop new service offerings. This will particularly be the case in early stages of projects and in asset management, where strategic design thinking is critical. Small like-minded practices will form research pools in order to share the resources and manage the risks of research.

In this future, new forms of firm organisation will emerge. Within practices diverse teams will be led in ways that allow for work/life balance as well as employee remuneration and incentives on a par with other professions. The profession will actively foster emerging leaders. Practices will put effective graduate programs and career pathways in place. Firms will become more diverse in terms of gender, gender orientation, ethnicity and class. A greater knowledge of organisational behaviour will facilitate this. This will enable knowledge-orientated forms to better match themselves to different client groups.

In the upstream future architects will better understand entrepreneurship and commercialisation pathways. As a result, architects will be better able to take advantage of the opportunities that emerging technologies in data analytics, artificial intelligence, robotics, digital supply chains and advanced construction presents. In the Upstream Future architects will think strategically how to best manage the strategic, transactional and IT infrastructure within their firms.

In this scenario, new professional organisations and member alliances will emerge. These organisations will better communicate to the public, promote and brand architecture in a new digital age.

Of course the future never really plays out as we expect. The reality may end up being somewhere between these two scenarios. However, those architects who radically reorientate themselves to knowledge creation and management will be able to more effectively future proof themselves.  Not only that but, those architects who adopt a knowledge centred future will have a lot more fun and maybe even make a buck in the process.

Dr Peter Raisbeck is a senior lecturer in architectural practice at the Melbourne School of Design, University of Melbourne. He has had over 20 years of professional experience as an employee and contractor in architecture and project management, and has an MBA in finance. Peter’s research interests focus on the points of convergence between global finance, construction management and architectural design and practice. He believes that architects must grow their profession by understanding that research, practice and theory are inextricably linked together.

Peter blogs about practice, education and architecture at Peter Raisbeck: surviving the design studio.