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Diversity & Inclusion: The New Approach Needed to Avoid Cultural Irrelevance

January 3, 2019 | Chris Stulpin

Discussions of diversity and inclusion have been taking place in our industry for years. But the question remains: are we making any progress?

Unfortunately, the way we approach diversity hasn’t kept up with the rapid changes we’re seeing in our culture, such as the ways our population is evolving, the fact that we live in a post-demographic society, or the expanding gig economy that’s influencing our desire for greater flexibility. We can no longer afford to think of diversity in terms of the groups we’re born into, but must shift our language to discuss the more meaningful differences we bring to the workplace—differences in the ways we work, think, solve problems and approach situations. Recent research from Deloitte supports the need for a broader definition of diversity, stating that high-performing teams are both cognitively and demographically diverse. There’s much more work to be done regarding diversity in order to move on to the most critical element: inclusion.

The relevance of design in a changing cultural landscape

In today’s cultural and political climate, we don’t have to look far to find examples of severe division in America. We’ve drawn lines between ourselves based on race, gender, political party, sexual orientation, religious beliefs, values, abilities, and the list goes on. A quick dose of any news broadcast depicts a nation divided against itself, where, after years of conversation about the need for true equality and the importance of inclusion, we still fail to provide real and meaningful opportunity to entire groups of people. Some industries are certainly having a harder time with this than others—and the architecture and design discipline has long been one of them.

The good news, though, is that cultural change is taking place at a scale and a speed that we’ve not seen before. Fundamental shifts are happening in society today that are creating new ways in which we live, work and play. Industries must embrace diversity to remain relevant to the clients and communities they serve. This is especially true for architecture and design professionals, as we help shape the environments in which greater diversity and inclusion can take place. To design spaces that are relevant to all, we must do a better job of bringing more diverse perspectives to the table within our own firms—and making sure they’re not simply silent representatives, but genuinely equipped to drive the discipline forward. “The true impact of a diverse workforce comes from an organization’s ability to cultivate an environment that reflects the unique perspectives of every member of their team. Everyone has a voice and a part to play in an inclusive environment,” said Joline Manning, Chief Human Resources Officer for Tarkett North America.

Why is the design industry so critical?

The lack of diversity and inclusion in the architecture and design field has significant repercussions, both for the future of our communities and the financial success of our design firms. The planning and design of a community is so influential to the way its citizens interact with each other. It is not only our privilege, but also our obligation to create spaces and city plans that celebrate diverse heritages. According to Alfonso Medina, Founder of T38 Studio Source, as quoted in an article published by Curbed, “There are so many aspects to the practice of architecture; it’s not just designing a building. It’s also understanding how communities work and how master planning can have an impact in the lives of so many people. And when people are from different backgrounds, they are the ones who really understand how their communities work, and how they could make them better.”

Beyond what could be argued as an ethical duty, research suggests that giving diversity and inclusion real prominence in our strategic thinking is an absolute requirement for economic survival. In studying the importance of diversity to the information technology industry, researchers at Deloitte have found that “organizations with inclusive cultures are twice as likely to meet or exceed financial targets as those without, three times as likely to be high-performing, six times more likely to be innovative and agile, and eight times more likely to achieve better business outcomes.” Design firms that fail to diversify the faces (and the thought processes) around their tables will eventually lack relevance and put themselves out of business.

What’s been done so far

Some progress has been made in capturing the current state of certain corners of the design and construction professions. Equity by Design, for example, has conducted its Equity in Architecture Survey, and is currently analyzing 2018 results from nearly 15,000 responses. According to the latest numbers reported by the National Architectural Accrediting Board, we are making improvements with regard to the number of women enrolling in architecture school (up five percent between 2008 and 2015). But ethnic diversity is still quite disparate in architecture programs across the country. When you consider the American Latino population is expected to grow by 57 percent between 2015 and 2050, and Muslims will make up 30 percent of the world population by 2050, it becomes clear that, without a change of course, architects and designers will continue to fall behind in their ability to represent the society they serve. Gathering information on where we stand is the first critical step to moving forward, but our ongoing research must consider the new, broader understanding of both demographic and cognitive diversity, as well as the flexibility needed to support every employee.

Where we must go from here

First, we’ll need to gather better data to help us understand post-demographic diversity. Which areas of diversity have we been overlooking? Who has been alienated from the industry, costing us broader representation of thought? To help with this, Tarkett is exploring new industry research that will benefit our entire community.

Once we know who is missing, we can start to understand why they’ve not considered architecture and design a viable career option, or perhaps, why they’ve chosen to enter and quickly leave the field. Our new research will help provide a successful plan of action that considers all barriers to entry, and provide a comprehensive plan to address them. We predict such a plan could begin with the protection of art programs in underprivileged elementary schools, proactive university recruitment programs, working partnerships between industry professionals and academia, an updated curriculum that celebrates the work and contributions of a more diverse group of innovators, and the creation of happier, more flexible workplaces to support this diverse new workforce and improve retention. This can’t be a one-size-fits-all solution, but an inclusive new atmosphere that considers the individual needs and differences of each employee, bringing our efforts to a diversity of one.

The future is ours to create

Design is a uniquely empathetic endeavor; the best designs come from a true understanding of our clients and the end users of our spaces. If we are not able to represent end users during the design process, we will continue to lose ground for diversity and inclusion, not just within architecture classrooms and firms, but in every hospital, workplace, storefront and learning environment we create. As an industry, we can choose to work together and take proactive measures for greater inclusion, or wilt into the shadows of cultural irrelevance. None of us disagrees with which of these is the correct path forward. But we have to fight the temptation to just make this a check-the-box numbers game. Stay tuned. More work and conversation to come.

Chris Stulpin is chief creative officer for Tarkett North America.