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Future-focused thinking can be the key to business success

Uncovering the risks and opportunities of the future will lay the groundwork for a flourishing practice, explains Adrian Malleson as the RIBA launches its first-ever horizon-scanning programme RIBA Horizons 2034

Credit: Foresight at Arup

With the endless stream of challenges thrown at the profession over the last few years, adapting to the ever-changing present is a full-time job.

Some in the industry say that setting their sights on the future horizon has become a cornerstone of their success. But why do they look to the future? How do they assess emerging threats and opportunities? And is future-focused thinking a useful way to spend valuable time?

Running a business can include many different things: bidding for projects; creating designs; working with clients and contractors; hiring and looking after staff; creating and sustaining a team; managing cashflow, payroll and accounts; finding a place to work and looking after it; building and maintaining an IT infrastructure; and so on. They all take time. But there’s one thing that is ever-tempting to leave for another day: future thinking – looking beyond the near term to the further future, uncovering the risks and openings it offers and acting upon them now.

Yet according to experts, it might be the most important thing to do now.

‘If organisations manage their operations on the basis that previous success will ensure future success …. they are building-in failure through an inability to adapt to the changing environment.
Institute of Risk Management

Below, three very different organisations – London-based practice David Miller Architects (DMA), north-west located developer Urban Splash and global engineering and design consultant Arup – explain the importance of future thinking to their success.  

Making future thinking part of business

Fiona Clarke is the practice director at David Miller, a practice that spearheaded BIM and which continues to take a technology-led approach to finding design solutions.  While acknowledging that the pandemic depleted practice reserves, she is quick to highlight the importance of a future focus.

‘The context in which practices work has changed substantially and continues to evolve at pace’, she notes. ‘But it’s only by trying to imagine where this may lead that we can give ourselves the chance to adapt. It might seem counter-intuitive to innovate when the safety net is stretched thin, but making change now is exactly what we should be doing to try and achieve longer-term security.’

Urban Splash places a future focus at the heart of its organisation, having appointed Suzy Jones as director of the future. Jones explains that ‘thinking beyond immediate horizons is something the company does perpetually. It helps us gain the insight needed to navigate the landscape ahead, comprehending and preparing for the challenges that are coming down the tracks and, ultimately, creating the types of places people value.’

She stresses that there’s much to consider. ‘What people value constantly shifts,’ she says, ‘and as we find ourselves in the midst of multiple interwoven and complex challenges, those shifts are accelerating.’ By having one person dedicated to future thinking, Urban Splash is well-placed to get ahead of those changes.

As a global player, Arup is active in a wide range of geographies, markets, and services and so needs to think about the future both globally and locally. Josef Hargrave, Arup’s director and global foresight leader, explains that ‘dedicated thought leadership and trends research on the future of cities or building typologies enables a look at the issues shaping our clients and markets’. This future focus permeates the organisation, with Arup ‘developing a “futures mindset” and applying a foresight lens to everything we do’. Arup also makes much of its future thinking available to all through its ‘Inspire’ platform. It’s worth a look.

Long-term thinking is central to Urban Splash’s business planning. Their New Islington Scheme in Manchester was 20 years in the making.
Long-term thinking is central to Urban Splash’s business planning. Their New Islington Scheme in Manchester was 20 years in the making. Credit: Urban Splash and Joel Chester Fildes

How to think about the future

If future thinking is reduced to prediction, it’s easy to get it wrong.  Despite prophecy, nuclear-powered vacuum cleaners didn’t become a reality, cars weren’t a passing fad, alchemy eludes us and Apple remains firmly in the hardware game.

Better to have an aim in mind when thinking about the future. Better still, think about the future in a way that fits you and your organisation, and which helps you meet your aims.

Clarke looks to ‘find synergies between projects to make us more efficient’ and is not afraid to try new ideas. ‘We know that not all the new ideas will stick,’ she says, ‘but the ones that do will add value. We’ve learned over the years that what may seem implausible is often the best approach!’

For Clarke, identifying future trends is a collaborative endeavour, and she is actively involved with cross-sector groups, learning from what others are doing and so keeping informed of the broader picture. She gives a special mention to two London initiatives: the Fitzrovia Partnership and the Heart of the City.

Jones, meanwhile, stresses that following a rigid method is not always the best approach. ‘Urban Splash doesn’t have a blueprint for horizon scanning,’ she says. ‘The methods I use really depend on what I am trying to achieve.’

Curiosity is the lifeblood of future thinking, and giving room to curiosity can make for a successful business. Jones explains that ‘the one constant tool at my disposal is my curiosity; I am curious about everything and keen to join the dots. Urban Splash recognises how this type of thinking translates into decision-making and commercial success.’

Hargrave emphasises the importance of a flexible approach, using ‘a wide range of methods, tools, and engagements, from dedicated horizon scanning activities to in-depth research projects and stakeholder engagements’.  For Arup, the essence of future thinking is ‘about making a connection between what we see changing in the world – through observations, conversations, and detailed scanning – to the decisions, activities, and plans happening inside the firm and with our clients’.

He is equally clear that future thinking is of little use if it is just speculation about what might be. ‘The biggest pitfall of foresight work is not being clear on its purpose or desired outcomes,’ he says. ‘Foresight for the sake of foresight is not helpful to anyone but it’s something that happens often. People get excited about exploring the future but then often don’t know what to do with it.’ Before devoting time and resources to future thinking, it is worth doing the preparatory work – how could what you do today be made better by your future thinking?

  • Credit: Foresight at Arup
  • Credit: Foresight at Arup
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Using future thinking to change today

While David Miller Architects is a leader in architecture technology adoption and innovation, Clarke explains that future thinking isn’t always tech and it isn’t always about revolutionary changes. Instead, future thinking can help identify evidence-based, incremental improvements in perhaps unexpected places. ‘After pilots last year, our practice management team have just rolled out a new personal development system to streamline and improve how we manage appraisals and training,’ she says.

Future thinking can be as much about people as about technology.

Urban Splash chief executive Julian Curnuck notes that ‘because we have a dedicated resource who is constantly thinking about the full cycle of our developments (which are often 20-plus years long), we are forced to consider the very long term. Ultimately this will help us to create better places which address the needs of the people who live, work and visit them long into the future.’ Jones underscores this point. ‘As a regeneration specialist, our business cycles can be lengthy,’ she says. ‘We are making decisions now that will impact people in 10 or 20 years time.’

A future focus also helps Urban Splash create the corporate strategies it needs for long-term success.

Clarity in future thinking can help bring an understanding of what the future might be and how it can be shaped. The clearer the desired future, the better the chance of action now to create it.

This is certainly true at Arup, and Hargrave explains it like this: ‘If we want to shape and enable a sustainable future, we must first explore what this future should and could look like. Once we know the vision and direction of travel, we can agree the steps needed to get us there. Here foresight can help manage uncertainty and act as a vehicle for strategic dialogue and decision making.‘

Time is always short, but the future is long.

The message from these organisations is clear. Purposeful future thinking can help your business thrive, to anticipate, respond to and shape the future.

RIBA Horizons 2034

The buildings that architects design and repurpose will become the environment in which future lives are lived. They will shape how nearly all people live. Architects are among those leading the transformation of the built environment. RIBA Horizons 2034 aims to provide stimulus, to encourage new and innovative approaches to shared challenges.

Throughout 2024, the RIBA will be running a programme of activities to support future Thinking under the banner of RIBA Horizons 2034, bringing global expertise to explore some of the most significant global megatrends that will affect architecture and the built environment over the coming 10 years.

The programme will offer an exploration of our possible futures and a foundation for action today and explore four key themes and their potential effects over the next 10 years:

  • The Environmental Challenge
  • The Economics of the Built Environment
  • Population Growth and Change
  • Technological Innovation

Between them, these themes capture some of the most pressing issues that we face today.

Each theme will be covered by an exploration of four supporting topics, and each topic will be covered by a horizon scan. For example, Technological Innovation will be covered by four scans: Innovation Strategy, Digitisation in Design, Automation in Construction and Artificial Intelligence. These scans will be provided by world-leading experts in each field.

The findings or the programme will be delivered to members through architecture.com and will be supported by discussions of the findings, including RIBA Academy events, roundtables, forums for conversation between members and experts, and RIBA Journal articles.

These activities will give members an opportunity to pause, look ahead and better plan.

Together we can make the future a better place

We can only make the future better by planning for it, and we can only plan for it if we understand it. RIBA Horizons 2034 will help us get that understanding.

Adrian Malleson is RIBA head of economic research and analysis

 

Horizons 2034 sponsored by Autodesk

 

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