Posts tagged with "phil bernstein":
This is the third column of “Practice Values,” a bi-monthly series by architect and technologist Phil Bernstein. The column focuses on the evolving role of the architect at the intersection of design and construction, including subjects such as alternative delivery systems and value generation. Bernstein was formerly vice president at Autodesk and now teaches at the Yale School of Architecture.Disabling (Professional) Expertise
In 1977, social critic Ivan Illich argued that the mid-20th century should be named “The Age of Disabling Professions,” asking whether “if this age, when needs were shaped by professional design, will be remembered with a smile or with a curse.” Illich’s skepticism about the importance and role of doctors, lawyers, and architects was an inflection point in the ascendance of the professional class that began with the industrialization of America. What followed for architects—who, at just about the same time as Illich’s query, were subjected to the emergence of alternative forms of project delivery (like design-build), new incumbents treading on our turf (like construction managers), and influence from extrinsic forces (like lawyers and insurance companies)—was several decades of existential angst with which we are all familiar.
Forty years later, there are more architects, and more work for us, than ever—yet the existential angst remains: If recessions, construction managers, and liability insurance underwriters didn’t manage to dismantle the profession, now what? Answering that question comes the Oxford duo of Richard and Daniel Susskind and their 2015 tome The Future of the Professions, an exhaustive examination of how the broad influences of digital technology may be the end-of-times challenge to the professional class so desired by Illich. The Susskinds argue that it will not be a loss of faith in architects, lawyers, and accountants, but rather the broad democratization of expertise through big data and data sharing, expert systems, and automation that will “transform the work of human experts.” As knowledge work begins the same transfiguration in the world of computation that manufacturing experienced with machine automation, the bespoke relationships curated by architects with clients will be circumvented by widely accessible knowledge systems, architects will no longer be the anointed “gatekeepers” of professional knowledge or judgment, and the increasing complexity of building problems will face economic pressures demanding that architects provide even more service for less money. Large swaths of professional services will be routinized by computers, further decomposing those services into discrete automated tasks. New systems of design and construction delivery will reconstitute from traditional professional scopes disintermediated by algorithms and big data.
But if the essential value of architects is our ability to design—see the world creatively, synthesize disparate information, generate new and innovative ideas—aren’t we safe from this digital onslaught? Not so fast, according to the Susskinds, who ask, “To what problem is judgment the solution?” They cite the 60 million disputes on eBay resolved with automated mediation (and no lawyers), medical advice dispensed by WebMD on smart phones around the world, or the online tax-preparation software used by millions of taxpayers each year; many of these folks would have never dreamt of hiring a lawyer or an accountant. And this is the core of their argument: Technology will democratize expertise, making it available to many more recipients than could ever by curated by 1:1 professional relationships.
Since society created the professional class to codify and distribute professional expertise, shouldn’t this trend to democratization be embraced? And since architects design a small percentage of the built environment, isn’t this trend, in theory, all for the good? Should architects cede our authority to algorithms, it’s likely we’ll lose all control and influence over the forces that often reduce great design aspirations to mediocre results. It is difficult to argue, however, that the changes that automation and the resulting process innovation that the Susskinds predict will put great pressure on the role of our profession while simultaneously eliminating the need for broad swaths of production work like working drawings.
How to respond? As far back as Illich’s original provocation, architects have decried our diminishing influence while embracing new technologies and their opportunities with at best mild enthusiasm and at worst outright hostility. This wave of automation-innovation will be much more profound than CAD or even BIM. Perhaps it offers a chance to deeply examine the value proposition of architecture and architects, and, using our skills, to design our roles in the future supported and accelerated by new technology rather than, once again, threatened by it.
This is the inaugural column “Practice Values,” a new bi-monthly series by architect and technologist Phil Bernstein. The column will focus on the evolving role of the architect at the intersection of design and construction, including subjects such as alternative delivery systems and value generation. Bernstein was formerly vice president at Autodesk and now teaches at the Yale School of Architecture.
This semester, I’m teaching a course called “Exploring New Value Propositions for Practice” that’s based on the premise that the changing role of architects in the building industry requires us to think critically about our value as designers in that system. After studying the structure and dynamics of practice business models, the supply chain, and other examples of innovative design enterprises, they’ll be asked to create a business plan for a “next generation” architectural practice. I’m agnostic as to what this practice does per se, as long as it operates somewhere in the constellation of things that architects can do, but there is one constraint—your proposed firm can’t be paid fixed or hourly rate fees. It has to create value (and profit) through some other strategy.
I want our students to think critically about this question of value propositions: Where do architects contribute to the making of buildings and how is the resulting value realized, and to whose benefit? Technology has begun to change those value equations. Increasing reliance on design information created as a result of the architect’s process—the “big data” of design representations, geometry that drives computer-controlled fabrication equipment, “smart building” telemetry—is but one opportunity to argue that architects are the lynchpin of the building delivery system. But we must both design the methods and protocols that demonstrate our value, and as an important result, reap the financial benefits accordingly. This, it seems to me, is a much more direct route to assuring the relevance of architects to architecture, various television marketing campaigns insisting that clients “look up” to really appreciate their architects notwithstanding.
In discussing these ideas with my architectural colleagues I’m often faced with skepticism that puts this perspective in opposition with two perceived realities of practice. First is the assertion that architecture is in essence an artistic, expressive endeavor that will be sullied by considerations of money, business, or even the implications of digital instrumentation on the design process itself. I agree with the first part of this conclusion, but—as you can imagine—I take exception to the second. That design is the core value of the profession isn’t arguable, but also isn’t the point: The more interesting question is how we best empower clients to understand that value, architects to enable it, and other members of the delivery systems of building to rally behind it. And since architects operate in a supply chain (of building purveyors and consumers) that is a complex web of exchanges of money, information, and risk (and therefore value), how does design make us more valued participants?
I recently spoke on a panel with two other architects to a large group of architecture students. When asked what I thought was a critical issue that would face them in their careers, I answered along the lines of the argument above. In response, a panelist declared to the students that architects don’t enter the profession because they’re interested in money, but rather because of their passion for design—and that he never made much money practicing but was far happier in his career than his very well-paid lawyer sister. The message here was clear: An interest in the business of architecture, or, worse, the resulting financial opportunities, is beneath our dignity as passionate designers.
Both of these assertions are false binaries at best, and potentially harmful conclusions to the profession at worst. Every architect wants clients, collaborators, even builders to realize the value of our design work. That’s wishful thinking, however, until we can position ourselves in the systems of delivery—the financial and technical protocols by which the architect’s ideas are built—and make that case. In subsequent columns I’ll explore how we might do so, and design a profession that might better satisfy our passions and, as a result, our pocketbooks.