A hands-on leader, Andy Cohen oversees Gensler’s global platform and its day-to-day operations. DesignIntelligence talked with him to ask how he sees the future evolution and market demand of the professions, how client needs will impact his firm, globalization, and more.
DesignIntelligence: Let’s start by talking about the future of market demand. How do you see client needs evolving in the future?
Andy Cohen: This is the most dynamic time for the future of our world. As architects, designers and urban planners, what we’re seeing, and you’re hearing it in the news every day, is an incredible number of complex and important drivers of change. First, technology’s impact on design and, specifically, process innovations from AR and VR to technological breakthroughs like driverless cars. We have been leading research and industry presentations on the game-changing impacts of the driverless car on the future of our cities.
Second, demographics. The millennial generation is becoming the majority in the workforce, and, therefore, there needs to be a new approach to how we design by integrating live, work and play. For example, the significant dynamic change in mobility and millennial buying trends can make a tremendous impact in how we approach and deliver design.
Third, the profound impacts of climate change. Tied with urban planning, we are living through the greatest period of urbanization in the history of our world. Sustainable design in the building sector has become the catalyst and driver toward environmental design and how we can help design smart buildings that cap CO2 emissions—and give energy back to the grid.
And finally, globalization and its global political implications. There’s a lot of change going on right now and we as design leaders are at the epicenter. We are intensely focused on the current global volatility and all of these trends that are rippling around the world. These are all the issues our clients experience every day—as we work closely with them through our powerful global network.
Our vision at Gensler is “to create a better world through the power of design.” Our collective intelligence and diverse talent allows us to create innovative designs that our clients need in this time of dramatic change. The power of our design really matters, and it’s changing and impacting millions of people’s lives around the world every day.
One of the themes that our teams have been out there speaking a lot about is the tremendous, game-changing impact of the driverless car on the future of cities and the human experience. Our research shows that no longer will cars dominate our cities. We’ll be able to take our city streets and parking lots and give them back to the people, and in turn, help to enrich the human experience. We’ll be able to implement everything we’ve been talking about—by creating cities that are about walkability, vibrancy, green spaces, dynamic amenities and sustainability.
I’m hearing from every technology and automotive expert that we collaborate with that in the next 10 to 15 years the autonomous vehicle revolution will take place. When it does, we, as architects and urban designers, have the opportunity to really reshape our global cities for the next generation.
DI: As all of these trends continue to drive change, how do they affect the service offerings and business models for a firm like Gensler? In other words, what will the firm of the future do and how will that firm be structured to do it?
AC: We take pride in our collaborative leadership model. We call it the “One-Firm Firm.” We really act as one, integrated, seamless practice around the world. We design projects in many countries; in fact, last year we designed projects in more than 100 countries. Our strength in design innovation, thought leadership and knowledge sharing is integrated around the world and focused on our “One-Firm Firm” strategy. For example, our foundation is the belief in human-centered design. Clients are increasingly putting people at the center of performance and their visions and strategies. We’re seeing it over and over again.
These are the key areas where we think we can make an impact and differentiate ourselves in the local and global markets. Over the course of a year, we work with 3,500 clients on 8,000 projects. This is all accomplished by having diversity of leadership, diversity of knowledge, diversity of talent, and bringing those diverse talents together through an integrated global platform.
DI: It sounds like the best mix of centralization and decentralization.
AC: That’s a good point. In fact, to prove the focus on our “One-Firm Firm” culture, we actually don’t have a headquarters right now. We used to have a headquarters in San Francisco, but now Diane Hoskins, my Co-CEO partner, is located in D.C. and I’m located in L.A. Our executive committee, Joe Brancato and Robin Klehr Avia, are located in New York, and Dan Winey is in San Francisco, our board of directors and management committee span the globe. We are decentralized, but always connected—in this world of technology it doesn’t matter where you sit. Because of this, we practice a collaborative leadership model and a flat organization. We work fluidly around the world leveraging all our global resources to create the best teams. In most cases, we have two leaders who are leading each office, region, practice area and design synergy team. We really believe one plus one equals five. If you take the best expertise and passions of people and you put them together, it really creates a better and stronger leadership team. Diversity drives innovation.
DI: How do you find the right balance between creating that common Gensler experience for people who work for the firm and assimilation into local culture?
AC: One of our key strategies is to be local while also being a global firm of knowledge. We’re not a firm that flies in and out on clients. Every office has grown organically from strong local roots. We believe strongly in being located close to our clients, to be their trusted advisor. That’s why we have 45 global offices in 10 regions. We want to be local and global to best serve our clients. When we open an office, we usually open it with someone who’s been with the firm for 20, 25, 30 years, a veteran that knows and understands our unique culture, values and guiding principles really well. We pair that Gensler veteran with a local leader who has the local knowledge and talent and is steeped in the local culture. This is what helps us tailor the team specifically for each client. Because we’re local, we can be next to our clients and really understand their goals and aspirations. In turn, the global reach allows us to bring in the best expertise and practice leaders from around the firm as well. It’s a global expertise, but laser-focused locally with our clients.
That combination of leadership skills and “One-Firm Firm” culture is the opportunity. We are embedded in the local culture and as the office matures, up to 90 percent of the office consists of local talent.
DI: Do you think that there will continue to be a diversity of delivery models into the future? Will you still have to do different things in different ways in different places?
AC: Yes, different countries absolutely do it differently. The one area where we don’t like to provide services is when it’s a competitive design bid build process. We do a lot of “negotiated bid” projects where we’re working hand in glove with the construction industry in a collaborative partnership. Whether it’s a design build or negotiated bid process, the contractor and builders are on a unified team with us. It’s an integrated team. Our goal is a seamless, integrated design and construction process for our clients.
DI: When you think about the future of architecture and design, what are other key issues?
AC: The subject that comes up over and over again is talent: attracting and retaining the best people—our firm is all about our talented, entrepreneurial people. We have 5,500 current team members, and we’re constantly focused on our training and learning programs to continue to create the best place to work. We encourage risk-taking and enlisting the entrepreneurial mindset, and we believe that’s the future. Design is only as good as the talent you have, so we’re spending a lot of time on investing in our current talent and attracting talent with diverse, unique backgrounds.
DI: Tell me more about how you feel research will play a role in design.
AC: Having the latest trends, the latest information, and the latest research at our fingertips, not only informs our projects and work, but it will only make our work better. The only way we can be the industry leader is to have a really robust research group that is looking at the latest trends, driving innovation and change—then making sure that we’re implementing this unique knowledge and research directly into our design work.
Our design philosophy is centered on enhancing the human experience. As a firm and community, we are committed to making a positive impact on how people live and work in our modern world. To truly enhance the lives of people, our design approach is informed by insight, observation and research. We call this the design/research cycle.
As our lives are molded by remarkable flux and transformational change, our projects are becoming more nuanced and complex than ever. It’s clear to us that design solutions for this new world cannot be based on yesterday’s models. Great design today directly addresses the transformational forces shaping our world with elegant, empirical solutions that enhance human experience and chart a new path forward.
That’s where our research comes in. Our people are taking on the toughest questions of our day, applying research findings to real-world challenges and creating positive impact for our clients and communities. Not only do the insights we uncover shape the innovative outcomes of our large projects like Shanghai Tower; they also inform our approach to every project we touch, from a retail store to a law firm design. Research is woven into everything we design.
Andy Cohen is Co-CEO of Gensler.