The Professional's Choice: Human Capitalists

The launch of a very important study, The Professionals’ Choice, at the glitzy Bloomberg Centre on Bastille Day led, inevitably, to an instant leader and letters in BD. They reacted to the most negative of the five scenarios in the book: architects will disappear as most buildings become customised standard products. Simon Foxell’s book deserves a slow read or three, followed by rumination on its thinking.

The RIBA and Cabe have drawn from a wide variety of thinkers to look at the effects of continuing change in the world of all professionals and project them onto the construction disciplines of 2023. Professionals have moved from 19th century rarity as knowledge holders to a 21st century where the majority are knowledge workers and we are all “human capital”. As managerialism in pursuit of public accountability and shareholder value continuously attacks the unmeasurable, the ethical and the long-termist, how do professionals define and defend their position?

Scenario one envisages a highly regulated world in which architects prosper as trusted interpreters of the rules. Scenario two is essentially that put forward by my collaboration club, Be, the “Built Environment Solution Provider”. Architects here work within integrated, lifecycle networks. Scenario three is the infamous technological one where a Soviet-style prefabrication industry emerges from skill shortage, routinising professional work. Scenario four puts social values first, an environment of sustainability and quality of life where designers are central figures. Finally, the managerial scenario sees a merging of the professions in a superinstitute, working to produce measured high performance; value for money but duller.

There could be more scenarios, too, but these five serve to frame a battle between customers wanting to minimise risk and the public and professional’s desire for creativity, expression and placemaking. The commentators in the study ask, can the battle end in win-win, a 1:5:200 world in which creativity produces measurable value, a compromise in which only limited sparks come through, or a zero-sum in which all is dull but predictable?

Architects hold the key. Engineering, surveying and project management all lean towards managerial views, but as professions they are declining in appeal. The public need champions for the long view, for sensory stimulus, social values and true quality.

Marshall McLuhan, the seventies media visionary, saw the post-industrial world as one in which we strive to make our environment into an artwork. There are signs that he is right.

What architects need to do is develop solid evidence of the effects of good design so that we can play the managers at their own game, proving the value of our decisions. Pure aesthetics will still have to slip through in its separate dimension, but the virtues of professional judgment – of “reflection in action” as Donald Schon called it – can prosper if the groundwork is there. We must move, in fact, from being amateurs of design to becoming professionals.

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