The 21st century has ushered in a radically different world than that faced by our predecessors. The rise of globalisation and the information society, the seemingly unassailable dominance of market thinking, the impending threat of environmental degradation and the erosion of social sustainability and tolerance, are just a few of the challenges we face. In addition, each of these issues have been further compounded by the ongoing financial crisis of 2008, burdening governments and individuals with spiralling debt and unemployment, limiting our capacity to act.
All of this conspires to produce a design landscape of unprecedented complexity, one that cannot be adequately addressed by the traditional tools of the design professions.
Calls for a new kind of designer stretch back to the middle of the 20th century, most famously in Buckminster Fuller’s description of a “synthesis of artist, inventor, mechanic, objective economist and evolutionary strategist.”  A role that Bruce Mau has more recently embraced in the establishment of his Institute Without Boundaries, acknowledging that the complexity of today’s problems would necessitate these roles to be taken up by the “collective intelligence of a team”.  MOMA curator of design Paola Antonelli calls for designers to adopt the role of “society’s new pragmatic intellectuals ”¦ changing from form giver to fundamental interpreter of an extraordinarily dynamic reality.”  John Thackara similarly calls for designers to “evolve from being the individual authors of objects or buildings, to being the facilitators of change among large groups of people.” 
But with all of this demand for change, where are the results? While the mainstream may be slow to adapt, there are designers around the world eagerly carving out opportunities for new kinds of engagement, new kinds of collaboration, new kinds of practice and new kinds of design outcomes; overturning the inherited assumptions of the design professions.
Here follows a brief survey of these new roles for designers, each representing potential futures for design practice.
The Community Enabler
The healthy boom of the past two decades has led the architect to become accustomed to producing boutique solutions for private clients; a comfortable scenario that has distracted us from our responsibility for society at large. By reconceiving the role of the architect not as a designer of buildings, but as a custodian of the built environment, the space of opportunity and tools at our disposal are vastly expanded.
Hunter Street Mall Newcastle in full swing during the Red Lantern Night Market, December 2009, following Renew Newcastle’s initiatives. Photo: Marni Jackson.
The Renew Newcastle project, established and led by Marcus Westbury, illustrates the value of people in the improvement of a public space. While millions had been spent by local government on rebuilding the physical aspects of Newcastle’s rundown and largely deserted Hunter St mall, the simple gesture of opening up vacant spaces for use by creative practitioners and businesses has kick-started its revival. 
The Visionary Pragmatist
The stereotype of the architect as an obsessive, black skivvy-wearing aesthete who produces detailed artefacts of beauty is a pervasive one that may sometimes live up to the truth. This is a potentially dangerous perception however, as it promotes our interest in form over our value as strategic thinkers. By promoting our capacity to challenge the underlying assumptions of a problem and to develop responses informed by a larger context, we can hope to be invited into projects at an earlier, more decisive stage, and not as mere cake-decorators.
Elemental, community housing, Iquique, Chile.
Chilean practice Elemental, led by Alejandro Aravena, views the larger contexts of policy, financing and social mobility as equally important territories for the architect to understand and engage. The multi-unit housing project in Iquique proposed a unique solution to the issue of the limited funding allocated per unit of social housing. By providing ‘half of a good house’ , and configuring it in a way that enabled future expansion, the residents can create housing of real personal value and utility.
The Trans-Disciplinary Integrator
The complex, manifold and integrated issues of today cannot be solved by architecture alone. To be truly instrumental, we need to open ourselves to new constructive alliances with thinkers and makers from beyond our discipline.
Design Research Institute studio session. Photo: Stuart Harrison.
RMIT’s Design Research Institute, established in 2008 by Professor Mark Burry, is a research centre directed toward collaboration and information sharing between students and professionals from over 30 disciplinary backgrounds. By harnessing collective expertise, the DRI is able to address major social and environmental dilemmas that do not conform to the traditional boundaries of design training. 
By transcending our own expectations and limits, we can in turn recast society’s expectations of what we are capable of addressing.
The Social Entrepreneur
The economic crisis has been heralded as the end of architecture’s ‘obsession with the image’. What this hope overlooks however, is the powerful narrative potential of architectural communication in catalysing complex visions for the future. Deploying this power to address social aims allows architects to contribute meaningfully to the future of the city by posing the critical question: ‘what if?’
PLOT’s Clover Block proposed for Klovermarken park, Copenhagen, 2006. Image thanks to Felix at JDS.
PLOT’s (now BIG and JDS) scheme for the Klovermarken park was developed in response to Copenhagen’s acute housing shortage. Through a media campaign which promoted their solution to provide 3000 units within in a perimeter block without sacrificing a single sporting field, PLOT were able to generate significant public interest in the project, which led to the government holding a competition for the site. Although PLOT did not win the commission, the project is proceeding nonetheless, providing much-needed housing to the inner city, and demonstrating the value of practical vision.  (I’ve discussed this project before in an earlier post on Unsolicited Architecture.)
The Practicing Researcher
Architecture’s current model of charging as a percentage of the construction cost does little to justify the thinking and intelligence that is embedded in the process. The inability to distinguish our conceptual value from our production-focused value that this model implies also means we are not natural candidates for projects that require the approach of an architect, but that may not result in a building.
OMA/AMO, image from the report ‘Roadmap 2050′, 2010. Thanks to Laura Baird.
AMO, the think tank of the Office of Metropolitan Architecture, was established precisely to focus on this type of work, by applying ‘architectural thinking in its pure form to questions of organisation, identity, culture and program’.  The project Roadmap 2050: A Practical Guide to a Prosperous, Low-Carbon Europe, commissioned by the European Climate Foundation, delivers on its title with a radical scheme of integrated green power generation stretching from North Africa to Norway. By not being constrained to any particular building commission, this research can operate at a scale that holds the potential for real global impact. (I have discussed this project further in an earlier post Whole Earth Rise.)
The Long-Term Strategist
While form is an important aspect of the architect’s repertoire, it is now just one of a larger set of tools directed at achieving results. The challenge of environmental sustainability has brought with it the necessary obligation that buildings perform as designed, and can adapt throughout their life to meet changing demands and targets. We can no longer simply design the object, but must also design the strategy of implementation and long-term evaluation as part of our responsibilities.
‘C_Life’ by ARUP, Sauerbruch Hutton, Experientia and Galley Eco Capital – winning entry of the Sitra Low2No competition.
The Low2No competition organised by the Finnish innovation fund Sitra made these long-term strategies a central requirement of the design brief.  With the ambitious aim of producing an urban development solution in Helsinki that would over time be carbon negative, the teams were asked not only to produce an architectural vision, but a future strategy for delivering these environmental results. By looking beyond the immediate horizon of project completions, the strategist takes on a greater responsibility and interest in a successful outcome.
Design Management Thinker
One of the current buzzwords in the design world at the moment is ‘design thinking’. Although it has many definitions, one interpretation is of the application of a design approach to problems in fields outside of design, such as business and management.  This is heralded as a potential means for designers to expand their reach and to reclaim their instrumentality and relevance to other disciplines.
McKinsey & Company, SOM, et al, Vision 2030 Bahrain. From Al Manakh 2: Gulf Continued.
However, we are also witnessing the rise of its inverse; a more threatening scenario whereby management consultants occupy the territory traditionally held by architects. As the role of cities in the globalised world evolves from simply being designed to deliver quality of life, to being speculative instruments of investment, governments are increasingly turning to financial and management consultants for advice instead of urbanists or architects. This is particularly true in the Gulf region of the Middle East, where McKinsey & Company has produced the Vision 2030 plan for Bahrain, and have reportedly also been developing the plans for Saudi Arabia’s new economic cities.  This potential future should be treated by architects as both a warning and an opportunity for coalition.
The Unsolicited Architect
The potential for architects to address the challenges of the future are limited by our reactive model of commissioning. In a concept outlined by Volume magazine in the issue of the same name, unsolicited architects create their own briefs, identify their own sites, approach their own clients and find their own financing. This requires a more entrepreneurial mindset, as the tools of architecture and architectural thinking are only powerful if they can be unshackled from the constraints of a given brief.
ZUS, De Dependance proposal for Schieblock building, Rotterdam. Via.
Faced with the planned demolition of the building where they have their offices to make way for encroaching gentrification, landscape architects ZUS created ‘De DÃ©pendance’, a counter proposal to reuse the building as a centre for urban culture and a hub for like-minded institutions and businesses.  With support from the municipality and media exposure, they were able to turn around the developer, who now supports their proposal. By developing a viable alternative, instead of merely protesting, ZUS were able to steer the project to an outcome that is both equitable and beneficial for all parties.
- Zung, T. (2002) Buckminster Fuller: Anthology for a New Millennium, St Martin’s Press
- Mao, B. (2010) “Design and the Welfare of All Life” in Tilder, L and Blostein, B. (eds.) Design Ecologies: Essays on the Nature of Design, Princeton Architectural Press, p.12
- Antonelli, P. (2008) Design and the Elastic Mind. New York, Musuem of Modern Art, p.17
- Thackara, J. (2005) In the Bubble: Designing in a Complex World, The MIT Press, p.7
- Presentation on Renew Newcastle by Marcus Westbury at BKK Architects, Melbourne, 7th May 2010
- Harrison, S. & Hyde, R. (2010) Interview with Alejandro Aravena, broadcast on Triple R, 27th April (podcast)
- Burry. M (2010) Design Research Institute Annual Review 08/09, RMIT University
- Lecture by Bjarke Ingels at Monash University, 9th of July 2008
- oma.nl, accessed 18th September 2006
- See the Low2No brief here www.low2no.org/competition/challenge (accessed 11th June 2010). Sitra’s Bryan Boyer has also written extensively on the architect as strategist.
- Brown, T. (2008) “Design Thinking.” Harvard Business Review 86(6): pp.84-92.
- Hyde, R. (2010) “Measuring the Presence of Consultants” in Koolhaas, R. and Reisz, T. (eds.) Al Manakh 2: Gulf Continued, Volume 23, Archis Publishers, p.160
- dedependance.org, accessed 11th June 2010
This piece was written in July 2010 for Architecture Review Australia #116: Future Cites, published under the title ‘Future Practice’. Big Thanks to Mat Ward at AR, Tobias Pond and Timothy Moore for various discussions that helped to shape the text.Posted: December 30th, 2010
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