You better start swimmin’

Times are a-changing. How can the profession keep up?

Whatever aspect of human endeavour or global dynamics you look at, the rate of change is speeding up exponentially. The five main drivers for change – Social, Technological, Environmental, Economic, Political – spell a STEEP learning curve for the profession.

Social
A population explosion and rapid urbanisation means we need to double the capacity of our global built environment by 2100. And demography is also changing, with a rapidly aging and shrinking society in the developed world as the emerging world gets younger.

What does all this mean for architects and the RIBA? There are great opportunities to create solutions for our built environment with more capacity that is also sustainable, resource efficient and flexible to serve the needs of our rapidly changing society.

The RIBA is addressing these issues and changing its education system, membership offer and knowledge base to be relevant to the 21st century profession. It has also launched an active equality/diversity/inclusion campaign to help the profession better represent and understand the society it needs to serve.

Technological

The industrial revolution transformed the world in 150 years, but the digital revolution’s tsunami of disruptive change is taking a fraction of that time. Can we keep up with it ? Better still, get ahead and use it to our advantage?

Architecture is becoming a global digital commodity. What was once done with pen, paper and drawing boards is transforming to clouds of BIM data. Construction is moving from site assembly to factory construction and on to insitu 3D printed solutions, with intelligent materials and systems that respond to the ‘internet of things’.

The traditional role of professions, as the guardians and purveyors of specialist knowledge, becomes less relevant with this freely accessible knowledge. Now architects need to interpret all this information – as ethical ‘synthesisers of knowledge’. Professional boundaries will blur as design teams are made up not of architects, engineers, surveyors and technicians, but creatives and coders of data working in collaborative supply chains with developers and constructors.

Over the next 10 years, 90 per cent of the world’s construction growth is predicted to be in emerging markets

Environmental

Climate change and scarcity of essential resources such as water, food, land energy and minerals fundamentally affect the built environment, which accounts for about half of our increased release and use of carbon.

The great opportunity and challenge for architects is to transform our existing buildings and to create new resource efficient, zero carbon and resilient built environments – that can recover from the upheaval of natural disasters and economic/political change. This will require a new set of skills, design approaches and the education of clients and users. The RIBA is already preparing and supporting the profession for this with more focus on sustainable design, improving building performance and the recent international summit on creating resilient cities.

Economic

Over the next 10 years, 90 per cent of the world’s construction growth is predicted to be in emerging markets, but this only accounts for 8% of UK architects’ workload. If the RIBA and its members are to retain their impact and high regard globally and continue to be at the forefront of design innovation, they must be a bigger part of these markets.

This has led to an increased focus on internationalisation at the RIBA, helping members to work overseas and setting international standards for professional qualification and ways of working. RIBA validated schools are now educating more international than UK students and looking to build international membership and professional networks for all architects who share and promote RIBA’s professional values. This means UK-based architects are part of a globally renowned and influential institute and professional fraternity.

Political

The global political landscape is also changing. Cold War dynamics are gone, replaced with new uncertainties and conflicts. There is political and ideological turmoil across north Africa and the Middle East while China and other emerging powers are asserting their influence in resource rich parts of the world.

The UK’s international military and manufacturing dominance is diminishing. If UKplc is to prosper as a world leading knowledge economy this needs to be replaced by ‘know-how’ advantage and influence. The creative industries are now the most valuable sector for UK export earnings, with London as the global hub for architecture. This is another great opportunity for the RIBA and its members to be at the global forefront of innovation, expertise and professionalism.

Our future?

Only architects, with their lateral thinking skills, creative problem solving abilities, breadth of knowledge blended across arts and sciences, holistic and synthesising viewpoint, social awareness and the sense of professional responsibility to tackle this STEEP learning curve and the great challenges it throws up.

The future will be different. Our profession, with the RIBA, can help make that difference positive, and prosper.

Richard Brindley is outgoing RIBA executive director of membership and profession