Our future must be diverse

Words:
Steven Kennedy

Rising Star Steven Kennedy calls for the profession to help widen its representation of society

Next Generation workshop held with children prior to leaving school.
Next Generation workshop held with children prior to leaving school. Credit: Erica Choi

The issues surrounding funding and fees are well documented in architecture. They are seen as the primary reasons for architecture’s reputation as one of the most socially exclusive professions. As a consequence, bright children from low to average income families and those from disadvantaged backgrounds are missing out – as is the industry on their skills and intelligence. Yet many in higher education and the industry see these issues of funding and fees as being beyond their control. It acts as a scapegoat, permitting complacency in other areas. There’s little soul-searching to recognise other problems to which solutions are available and within the profession’s control. For me, it is the barriers to entering architecture in the first place which are the most ill considered and lead to a lack of diversity.

Reflecting on my own experience, I struggled with the lack of support while studying architecture. It requires a huge upfront commitment to study this profession and I had little understanding of what was involved before signing up. It was my aspiration to succeed – or perhaps a fear of failure – that saw me through my degree, even while wondering whether I’d made the right choice. It was only when I reached practice that I could see a career ahead of me, in a subject that I would enjoy. But without the right support, information or access to social networks, talent is being lost, and the built environment will continue to be sculpted by only a small section of the population that uses it.

The Next Generation Pavilion at Clerkenwell Design Week 2017 brought children from all backgrounds together to experience making architecture.
The Next Generation Pavilion at Clerkenwell Design Week 2017 brought children from all backgrounds together to experience making architecture. Credit: Richard Winter

The profession needs a grassroots approach to addressing fair access, and needs to work harder to raise the awareness and aspirations of young people from all backgrounds. There is also no point in discussion without action. An example of this is Scale Rule, a collective of engineers, architects and designers seeking to promote inclusion in our built environment. I am a founding member and the group has worked hard to encourage better representation in the industry through community participation projects. One of these was the Next Generation Pavilion which engaged students from all backgrounds in the design process at a pivotal time in their educational decision making process (GCSEs). Through tutorials and workshops we gave students an opportunity to meet, discuss, and be better informed about the possibility of a career in architecture or engineering. This process culminated in an engaging and interactive pavilion at this year’s Clerkenwell Design Week, which also happens to be the festival’s first legacy project.

The architecture profession might also benefit from looking at what other industries are doing to improve their inclusion demographics. Since 2014 the tech industry has been very active in casting a spotlight upon its diversity and inclusion (D&I) demographics and identifying the issue as a business imperative. In the last three years, the percentage of directors now rating D&I as an important issue has risen from 32% to 69% as it becomes increasingly clear that diverse teams yield smarter, more innovative results, which are essential in competitive and creative industries.

The Next Generation Pavilion at Clerkenwell Design Week 2017.
The Next Generation Pavilion at Clerkenwell Design Week 2017. Credit: Richard Winter

Scientific research demonstrates that diverse teams bring unique and varied expertise which improves creative problem solving, and that interaction between different people forces better preparation and anticipation of different viewpoints. Reaching the solution may take more effort, but with a wider perspective, it will be better thought through.

Ultimately, varied representation in our profession will benefit practice, society and cities alike, yet it is still a small subset of society that decides what people would like in the design of their surroundings. As global urbanisation continues apace, the democratic principles in architecture will become more urgent. We need a built environment created by more of us, and we know there are ways of doing this. The industry is slowly changing, but why has it taken this long? 

RIBAJ Rising Stars is a scheme to reward up and coming construction professionals. To nominate someone or put yourself forward for RIBAJ Rising Stars 2017 click here.


 

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