Can architects ever be influential enough to lead change?

It is one thing to say that the architectural profession should work differently to stop climate change, it is quite another to make the necessary change happen....

The climate crisis is enormous. It is almost beyond human comprehension. But there is no doubt that those who create the built environment can play a major role in mitigating its effects. This is not just about architects and nor can it be: architects are small players in a vast industry that needs to change. Individuals or even collaborating practices will not be able to make the necessary changes alone.

However, it may be that architects can play an important catalytic role: influencing the hearts and minds of everyone involved in creating the built environment. In all honesty, unless architects can do that, even their most substantive efforts are likely to be insignificant.

Advocacy is tough. It is no use simply being righteously convinced that something should happen, or that you know how others should behave. To be successful, you have to be able to convince people that they should change their ways, dance to a different tune and, in turn, take others with them on a new journey.

There is no doubt that instigating a change in attitude to climate change within our industry will require a monumental shift in how it is both designed and delivered. Fundamental changes to working practices and design outputs will be required, but these will not be achieved without the agreement and enthusiastic involvement of others, be they design colleagues and collaborators; client advisers; policy makers; planning authorities; fundraisers; financiers; and, of course, clients.

To influence this rag-tag band of people, all of whom will have diverse and often conflicting long and short-term aims, needs subtle persuasion and handholding. Architects will need to be able to convince, using language and arguments that their audiences instinctively understand. They will need to persuade, to encourage people to compromise on their short-term gains and fully embrace change in their longer-term agendas.

Many of these people will, quite possibly, think that they do not have the skills, the understanding, the time or the money to instigate the radical changes that are needed. They will be fearful of deviating from tried and tested methodologies that have served them well in the past, in favour of processes that may demand radical changes within their organisations and which may well affect their business returns and standing in the industry. Indeed, they will probably need to re-evaluate their own measures of success which may well be in conflict with a climate-crisis-driven agenda.

So, yes, architects need to convince themselves about what needs to change and how it could happen but more importantly, they need to arm themselves with the tools to convince others, so they can go out and be influential.

Some ideas...

  • Work out who you need to influence if you are to create meaningful change; step out of your bubble, talk to others in the industry - those who really make things happen.
  • Engage as professionals. Collaboration and sharing knowledge are good ways to start changing minds, whether with other consultants, clients, manufacturers, legislators or others.
  • Do you have solutions as well as questions? If you can present solutions that work for those you are trying to convince, then they are more likely to listen.
  • Do you need to do some research to really understand the options that are available to the industry? If the research has already been done, do you understand it – as an individual or as a practice – and, are you able to explain it in such a way as to convince those you wish to influence?
  • If you want to make a difference you will need to communicate with people who don’t speak – or think – like an architect and who probably hold very different value systems to you. What arguments might convince a financier or a funder, or a letting agent or a politician?
  • Recognise that small steps in the right direction are better than no steps - help others to have the confidence to act even if their actions are not as radical as you would like.
  • Clarity of thought, informed and compelling arguments, confidence and assertiveness (as opposed to aggression), along with a good dollop of humility will take you a long way.
  • How can you as an individual – or as a practice – reassure your clients that it is ok to take a step into the unknown and embrace change?

Threatening people with annihilation hasn’t worked. We’ve wasted 30 odd years doing that. Shouting at them, or excluding them from the conversation won't help either. What is needed is small - fast - steps that we can all embrace and implement: actions that can pile up to make larger actions, build confidence and lead us towards a built environment that doesn’t keep taking, or even remaining neutral but one that starts to give back to the world through regenerative design.