Is this the age of panic or opportunity? Change is inevitable. The important question to ask isn’t about fear as much as it is about relevancy.

Is this the age of panic or opportunity? Why will some professionals and their firms find themselves on a burning platform of unsustainable practices and behaviors in 2008?

Continuous opportunities and threats will reveal themselves whether we are ready or not. Being prepared for what’s next is what this issue of DesignIntelligence is all about.

Every design firm is a package of potential. This potential is in constant emergence. During times of uncertainty and rapid change, some firms are caught off guard. They are not anticipating the future. And when change happens they equate it with fear or crisis. Yet even in the face of serious changes and shifts, as is revealed later in this issue, crisis is an unnecessary and overly sensational view. It’s also beside the point.

Change is inevitable. The important question to ask isn’t about fear as much as it is about relevancy. Will your future professional definition be broader, will it bring more responsibility? Will your future include seeing a clearer picture of your true value? Will it include a more satisfying role for you? Will this role be one of authenticity, more responsibility, and more influence?

What do successful professionals have in common? They are often the ones driving change.

Come to think about it — professionals must change. The alternative — a narrower definition, a predisposition to being spooked by the threat of integrated practice for instance — is out of the question if the professions are to have a more viable future.

Many of the profession’s leading firms and organizations are going through top-to-bottom transformations. They are becoming more dynamic, more communicative, and more confident. They do not panic. This change brings people and their organizations new strength and vitality — which they in turn are able to bring to their clients.

Design Leaders are Not Paralyzed by Threats

This is an important point: In firms large and small, professionals become successful by helping their clients negotiate the same forces of change transforming every aspect of their own lives. They bring to today’s challenges their training, experience, vision, and a knack for innovative thinking. Moreover, they care.

Some people in our industry talk a good game about innovation and then don’t deliver. They cling to what it was in their history that got them to this point in time. Ironically, their greatest enemy may be their past success. Riding the rails instead of learning to fly can be fatal because our industry as it is today is no longer relevant to serving clients’ needs tomorrow. The future won’t need today’s architects. Real estate practices have changed; the economy, professional fees, and financing methods are different and will further transform design.

The design marketplace of the future will have new parameters and technologies. Buildings will be somewhat if not altogether different. What all this adds up to depends on how you calculate: For some, this is a liberating time; for others, it’s downright uncomfortable.

Consider for a moment viewing change as a friend. In today’s environment, firms and organizations are finding creative ways to deliver increased value. These firms are building stronger relationships where it matters and many are actually delivering more than they promise their clients. In the changing marketplace, professionals who are making change their ally are exploring new ways of being profitable and expanding their business models. They are strategic about the future. They do not focus on downward fee pressure trends. Instead, they view change as akin to a chess game. They are committed to making smart moves and then to energetic implementation and follow-through as well. They win more and lose less. As they keep score, they not only see and feel success, but they can imagine more clearly future options and pathways to even more success ahead.

Fear of Falling?

Does this sound like your situation? Don’t despair. You can use the energy of change to transform. If the responsibility is yours, so is the opportunity.

Strategic planning and its implementation can bring you and your practice into its full potential. You can make it fresh and creative. Don’t allow yourself to become stale. Lead a rush of new ideas. Release the adrenaline. Coach your staff and talk about the urgency of change. Pay attention to the way you manage time and make time to have more contact with your clients. You’ll become a trusted resource and a valued partner. Don’t despair, you too can become the change that our industry and your clients need and value.

The economic climate in which to practice will be a rising challenge, and it will not be as forgiving as in the past three years. It will be more competitive. Moreover, big changes are likely in store and the underlying foundation strength is eroding. Last year, David Walker, the comptroller general of the United States, said that chronic health care under-funding, immigration, and overseas military commitments will threaten a financial crisis in our country. I read Walker’s comments just prior to moderating the Construction Forecast Conference at the National Press Club. It was an unusually downbeat assessment of the future economy. His outlook: “chilling long-term simulations.”

Walker’s comments are relevant to all strategic planning in our industry. We need to keep in our peripheral vision the notion that there may be dramatic tax increases, slashed government services (think transportation, schools, and infrastructure), and large-scale dumping by foreign governments of holdings of U.S. debt. Moreover, the current U.S. policies on education, energy, the environment, immigration, and Iraq also are on unsustainable paths. This is one reason that our construction outlook for the United States is decidedly down from last year. The United States was considered the world’s superpower. This is changing, especially in 2008. Now is the end of emerging markets as we have known them. Along with the new superpowers, including China and India, we are witnessing the rise of emerging markets competing head-to-head with U.S. economic realities.

Einstein on Design

I recently read the new Walter Isaacson book, Einstein (Simon and Schuster, 2007). I’m recommending it to clients and friends. It has memorable anecdotes that relate to the times we are in. In one story, Albert Einstein’s students complained about their test paper. The problems they had been asked to solve, they said, were the same as the ones he had given a year earlier. Well, yes, Einstein agreed, the questions were indeed identical. What the students needed to understand, however, was that the answers had changed.

This Einstein story serves as a useful metaphor for the anguished debates about how the serious problems we face may be answered in new ways. Answers are changing. Many of the old solutions are beyond repair. And some problems may not have ultimate solutions. Here we need coping skills for these dilemmas and situations to mitigate their severity. We believe Einstein would agree: Design takes on new meaning and importance.

Regarding the power of design, trend migration shows that design will increasingly be important to business, the environment, and human health. This is true in product design, interiors, landscape architecture, and architecture. Smart money is being invested in architecture and design, and many experts believe we’ll see an increasing level of sophistication among client groups and a strong trend in favor of self-empowerment and energized, entrepreneurial initiatives in architecture and design as well. This could lead to a shifting of authority and changes in the balance of power on delivery. The marketplace could demand more transparency in its selections and solutions. Furthermore, the licensing and regulatory agencies will be challenged. At the same time, they could lead the charge to redefine parameters for health, safety, and welfare. The world of design need not be shackled to traditions or fee schedules or styles. At the end of the day, architecture and design is dependent on talent, safety, security, education, and ideas.

These are the interesting times we have imagined. Let’s hope they lead to wise decisions both inside and outside the design professions. Our prediction: tectonic shifts. Play this game strategically, with anticipation, and consider a hedge factor or two.

In the pages that follow we look into new ways that high-definition value can be generated in today’s professional practices. You will also find new data and insight to support your strategic planning and tilt the odds in your favor for a successful year — even in the face of adversity.