Posted: May 31st, 2011 | Author: Jonathan Bahe | Filed under: Best Practices, Leadership, Planning, Sustainability, Technology | Tags: Cities, design futures council | No Comments »
This month’s GreenSource Magazine has a great interview with Jan Gehl, an architect and founding partner of Gehl Architects and a Senior Fellow of the Design Futures Council. For much of his career, Jan and his team have focused on the development of human-scale strategies to improve cities. Working globally in cities like Copenhagen, Melbourne, Seattle, New York, and Sao Paulo, the firm’s work integrates itself with what Jan calls “the people scale” to better understand how a city’s inhabitants live, work, and play.
In the interview, Jan says, “While there are a lot of planners and architects looking after the airplane and rooftop scales, the treatment of the people scale has been very distant. It is as if nobody has really addressed making good urban habitats for homo sapiens.” As I travel the United States and increasingly the globe to work with clients and meet with thought leaders, I’m struck by how true this is. Many American cities have pockets of good urban space — walkable, pedestrian-scaled, for varied uses — and yet they are just small pockets in an increasingly bland landscape designed for everything but homo sapiens.
It seems strange to need to suggest that architects, interior designers, and urban designers should focus more on how people actually feel in the spaces they create — regardless of the scale at which they work. And yet, we seem to have lost this important ethos as a profession.
Posted: December 7th, 2010 | Author: Scott Simpson | Filed under: Economy, Leadership, Planning, Professional practice, Strategy | Tags: AEC, change | 4 Comments »
A Brief History of the 21st Century and What It Means for Design
A mere 10 years ago, our biggest worry was Y2K. We were bombarded with dire predictions about computers going crazy at one second after midnight on Jan. 1, 2000, snarling all things digital and randomly rearranging our e-mail, financial records, and air traffic control. Some people even canceled their New Years travel plans, fearing that their jumbo jet could become hopelessly lost in the heavens. Alas … didn’t happen. But in the intervening decade, a lot of other stuff did.
With 9/11, the prospect of systematic terrorism on U.S. soil was thrust onto center stage. This was followed in short order by a war that seemed to be over within months but hasn’t ended yet. Then a huge surge in the stock market created historic levels of new wealth, which in turn fueled unprecedented growth and prosperity worldwide, especially in China. Awareness of global warming also made an appearance, just in time to cast a pall over the burst of industrialization. Then, of course, the Great Recession, from which we learned that if enough people in Florida get behind on their mortgage, an entire country can be bankrupted (Iceland). Who knew?
While all this was going on, nerds from Stanford (Larry Page and Sergy Brin) and Harvard (Mark Zuckerberg) were pulling all-nighters inventing Google and Facebook, which allow us to find out pretty much anything we want to know on a 24-7 basis and then share it (along with our most intimate secrets) with thousands of our closest personal friends.
Toss in a few natural disasters (tsunamis, hurricanes, and volcanoes), and just for good measure, add the very real prospect of nuclear proliferation, courtesy of Iran and North Korea. That’s a lot to digest in just a few years.
What have we learned from all this?
The key lesson is connectivity. Politics, finance, commerce, weather — everything is intimately intertwined, we’ve come to understand. Even a very small change, like a degree or two in the average temperature of the ocean, can have huge consequences. As a result, we have developed a new appreciation for systems thinking and the power of context. From this, a different kind of economy has emerged — one that is more about creating networks and experiences than making tangible things. In turn, individual effort is being supplanted by the power of teams, with a focus on partnering, value creation, and collaborative learning. Indeed, mass collaboration is the only way we can succeed from here on out.
Why is this so important for designers? Because design thinking is what creates the interface between technology and people. Design helps us deal with change, making disruptive innovation possible. Case in point: Technology made Internet banking plausible, but it was the design of the ATM that made it accessible and then pervasive. Ditto for cell phones, iPods, and e-books.
Access to huge amounts of information would be meaningless without a way to organize, manage, interpret, and apply it. The amazing tools that have been developed in the past 10 years are merely a preview of things to come. For example, now that the human genome has been decoded, the possibilities for inventing new medical therapies are literally boundless. Google maps already keep us from getting lost, but pretty soon they’ll actually be doing the driving as well, knowing in advance which motels have vacancies.
And what about buildings? Today, they are relatively inert, but in the future, they’ll develop thinking properties, manufacture their own energy, adjust their heating and cooling systems automatically as weather and occupancy change, and even make more coffee when the pot runs low. They might even become kinetic, swiveling on their foundations to catch every available solar ray or gust of wind, essentially becoming very large, self-charging batteries in which people happen to live and work. Design will make all this, and much more, possible.
Throughout history, various classes of leadership have emerged to shape society and culture. There have been religious leaders (pharaohs and popes), military leaders (kings and generals), business leaders (industrialists and financiers) and even artistic leaders (from the Renaissance to rock-n-roll). Because the world has become so complex and interconnected, the next generation of leaders must include a new kind of priesthood: design thinkers.
We’ve already seen how powerful design can be when applied to improving mundane products such as vacuum cleaners and luggage. How much more pervasive will it be when applied to whole systems, such as health care, education, or even government? Could designers create a justice system that is swift, fair, and inexpensive? Why can’t going to court be as simple as renting a car?
You get the idea. Design, which is both a verb and a noun, is about process as well as things. This is powerful stuff. Design enables us to explore the unimaginably small (via the Large Hadron Collider at CERN) and the immensely huge (via the Hubble telescope), plus everything in between. It’s how we envision and invent. Most important, it’s essentially optimistic. Design thinking assumes successful outcomes and carries a conviction that there is always more than one way to solve a problem. Design is also democratic. It’s about what works, and anybody can do it. Design transcends borders and is not inhibited by cultural or language barriers. A great idea travels fast and is easily adopted and adapted.
But here’s a question: What will we call the great designers of the second decade of the 21st century who will provide the new ideas, strategy, and leadership that are so desperately needed? Will they be architects? Architects are creative, to be sure, but to be truly effective, they also need to develop an appetite for risk and entrepreneurship.
Perhaps it’s time that design thinking is applied to the design profession itself. How should we be training the next generation? What do they really need to know? How fast can they learn it, and by what means? How can design thinking be broadened to include other disciplines, such as finance, politics, and medicine? Why not think of business managers as process designers, law enforcement officials as designers of secure neighborhoods, and public health officials as designers of our collective good health? Getting the right answers starts by asking the right questions, and designers can lead the way.
Posted: November 9th, 2010 | Author: James P. Cramer | Filed under: Economy, Leadership, Planning, Professional practice, Strategy, Uncategorized | Tags: Communications, Culture, Leadership, management, Motivation | 13 Comments »
Each day I get asked about — or find myself in a discussion about — executive level leadership. Both the American Institute of Architects and the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards are looking for their next chief executives. Several of the largest firms in the country are also considering transitions in their leadership brought about by economic, demographic, and opportunity shifts in their professional practices.
These search and selection processes give us pause. The stakes are high. How should these organizations determine the best leaders?
Whatever else the leader’s role in an association or professional practice, there are 10 base essentials. When these foundational characteristics are present, the organization functions with energy and competence to serve its mission. Here is what I believe is essential.
1. Leaders act as both visionary and key day-to-day resource for overcoming difficulties. They set the tone for the can-do culture of the organization.
2. They develop and conceptualize the organization’s tactical plans to accomplish strategic ambitions. They develop and keep clarity around goals. This develops strategic optimism.
3. Communications are sincere, open, and energized. The leader is not intimidating and has the wisdom of perspective, good humor, and agility to work with a diversity of situations.
4. Leaders are able to manage demanding schedules, and their agenda is always focused on what matters most.
5. They listen and then coach every situation they find themselves in.
6. Financial matters are monitored, measured, and communicated, and these leaders tend to consistently bring in the bottom line — no matter the excuses of the day.
7. There is an ambassadorial quality about them. They are sought out to problem-solve and inspire along the way while building bridges.
8. Today’s issues are never ignored, and there is a sense that the longer-term plans can be realized through today’s actions – no matter how painful.
9. Resilience is manifested in the language of the leader who is prepared for inevitable surprises.
10. Accountability is never shirked and the leader takes final responsibility for results and outcomes. This is a stand-and-be-counted attitude that becomes contagious in the life of the organization.
Leadership is demanding. Great leaders are rare. These 10 characteristics are framed by lifestyle and attitude. Leaders are not perfect, but they have an uncanny knack for applying sensible, inspired, day-to-day actions that make all the difference.
Posted: September 14th, 2009 | Author: Jonathan Bahe | Filed under: Planning | Tags: community planning, midwest | 2 Comments »
I recently learned of a forthcoming book titled Hollowing Out the Middle: The Rural Brain Drain and What It Means for America by Patrick J. Carr and Maria J. Kefalas. The authors are sociologists who, with funding from the MacArthur Foundation, moved to a small town in Northeast Iowa to “understand the rural brain drain and the exodus of young people from America’s countryside.” A small town in the heartland of the United States, Ellis represents many of the values, problems, and opportunities found across the Midwest. More information on the book can be found at http://hollowingoutthemiddle.com/. I would especially encourage you to check out the trailer for the book — a short slideshow acquainting you with Ellis.
The challenges of brain drain and the shrinking of small communities have a much greater impact than merely on the towns themselves; they have an impact on our entire nation. This is not only a sociological issue — the lens through which Carr and Kefalas study it. For the architecture and design communities, it is also a spatial problem. How can we create unique solutions that bring the power of architecture and design to small communities across the country? When I was growing up, I was fortunate that my hometown had the foresight and means to construct a new public library. For many people in the community, this was their first and only experience in working with an architect. It also shaped my young career, as I later worked for this architect in his small northeast Iowa practice.
As the phenomenon that Carr and Kefalas studied continues to spread, and perhaps accelerate, we have a tremendous opportunity as designers to positively influence these problems. As the authors state, “The emptying out of small towns is a national concern, but there are strategies for arresting the process and creating sustainable, thriving communities.” These are strategies at which architects and designers excel. While perhaps unknowingly on the part of the authors, this is a call to all of us to engage in this issue. By creating sustainable communities and buildings that enhance safety, create better and healthier learning environments for our children, and are vibrant and well-designed, we have a tremendous opportunity as design professionals to help address this issue. Whether it is through existing clients, future clients, or pro bono services, we can begin working toward this effort. This is a perfect example of, as I wrote in my last entry, a time for leadership.
This issue has struck a very personal chord. Ellis is not just a small town in Iowa to me. The images are not just representational of Midwestern people and places. Ellis is, in fact, my hometown.