Make No Small Plans: Three Ways A/E Practices can Shape a New Normal

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Events of the last few weeks have sent shock waves through the A/E industry. There’s no need to go through a litany of the catastrophes that have left us all reeling or the dystopian forecasts that have formed a tumor of doom metastasizing into my soul. You listen to the news. You get the picture.

Stay in. Wash your hands. Be kind and help one another.

But times like these, a wise friend once told me, often come down to simple choices: ONE, fall on the ground and curl up in a fetal position; or, TWO, come out swinging.

SPOILER ALERT: This blog is about Option Two.

I’ve worked in the A/E industry for more than 30 years and the one thing that has always impressed me about the best of the profession is its ability to solve problems. It’s glorious. And inspiring. Net zero? We gotcha’. Tall timber buildings? No prob. A tower that withstands an earthquake? Resilient infrastructure? Check. And check.

Well, here’s another chance.

When we emerge on the other side of this crisis—and make no mistake: we will get through this—the first thing we’re likely to discover is that the old rules no longer apply. That is, the conversation will no longer focus on buildings or the multi-generational workplace or creating places that sell merchandise. It will be about solving problems. Big, hairy, badass problems that keep us from living better, more meaningful lives.

When we emerge on the other side of this crisis—and make no mistake: we will get through this—the first thing we’re likely to discover is that the old rules no longer apply.

And that presents an extraordinary opportunity for A/E firms—a chance to shift the way they think and practice and talk about their work, their people and, frankly, their role in society. If this crisis has taught us anything, it’s that we need new ideas and new ways of thinking. We need to shape a new normal.

Here are three ways to start:

1. Think bigger. And then double it.

Architects and engineers have an ideal opportunity to define how our country moves forward in times of crisis and calamity. Climate change is no doubt top of that list, but disasters like pandemics, hurricanes and terrorist attacks have shown that the we need to come at this differently, especially when it comes to our healthcare armature, our public transit systems, even our communications and power grid.

Do we really expect to design acute care hospitals or ER’s or ICU’s the same after COVID-19? Do we even need to be paying rent on a space when we’ve all tasted the goodness of remote working? Can our universities foster a culture of knowledge exchange and collegiality if there are significantly fewer students on campus? Will people ever return to malls and museums? Arenas? Public parks? Can we design safer schools for our children, for chrissakes? Any of this without the nagging thought that we are not contributing to the ill-health of the community or the collapse of our humanity?

Hard to say right now. And, yes, I’m being purposefully provocative, but I can’t think of a better time to hear and share ideas about how we’re going to address these issues, not to mention safety, access and resiliency, in the future.

2. Think small. Really small.

Snarky, perhaps, but it’s hard not to see the irony of the world’s two greatest superpowers brought to a shuddering halt by something microscopic. We were looking for bombs or snipers and in snuck a virus. To misquote Shakespeare, the enemy of the future will come not in whole battalions but as single spies who cannot be seen or heard.

We know water levels are rising, glaciers are melting and temperatures are climbing, but what does that mean for the unseen world? Or the blips of energy and data that are coursing through our technology infrastructure right now? We need solutions on both sides of the Eamesian cosmic zoom, or I get a sense that we’re going to see a lot more events like this pandemic.

As our built environment becomes simultaneously more complex and more specialized, how can we leap outside the confines of our profession and collaborate more closely with outside experts, specialists and big thinkers?

3. Collaborate or die. No, we really mean it this time.

As our built environment becomes simultaneously more complex and more specialized, how can we leap outside the confines of our profession and collaborate more closely with related experts, specialists and other thinkers? Solving intractable issues like the mental health crisis in the U.S., exacerbated no doubt by the pandemic, will take an eco-system of experts working in concert. Scientists, doctors and nurses, engineers, psychologists, educators, researchers—all need to be part of the design conversation.

So, let’s expand the discussion from bricks and mortar (i.e., hardware) to one that includes specialty “software” that can shape shift, scale and morph depending on whatever the world throws at us. This agility will leave behind the form-versus-function debate and move to one more relevant (and valuable) to our clients, our communities and our world.

Please know that this is not a commercial plea; it goes way beyond that. Much of my adult life has been spent in Washington, D.C., where the free and open access to our civic buildings and museums can easily be taken as a metaphor for our democracy and an expression of the ideals (and ideas) that make the country great. We need to protect those ideals every way we know how. Architects could lead that charge.

Stay healthy. Be bold.

This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. Ignaz

    Thom, Great article, congrats, stay safe and healthy…

    1. Thom McKay

      Thanks, Ignaz. Something I feel passionately about.

  2. Eurico Francisco

    Insightful, timely, and provocative as always. On target again, Thom. Thank you for writing and sharing.

    1. Thom McKay

      Appreciate the kind words, Eurico–means a lot coming from you. We need to come out of this swinging.

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