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Designers: The New and Expanded Edition

Tom Fisher

One of MDC's projects

One of MDC's projects

No profession seems better poised to prosper in the 21st century than architecture. The on-demand economy, in which goods and services are temporarily accessed rather than permanently owned, favors creative innovators who can imagine new ways of living and working, something at which the architectural profession has always excelled. Architects are trained to envision what doesn’t yet exist, provide for unanticipated needs, and accommodate future changes through greater flexibility. To varying degrees, they are practical futurists, a profile very much in demand in our new paradigm-shifting economy.
Likewise, the rise of what economists refer to as the third or fourth industrial revolution—depending on how they recount our industrial past—has brought a transformation in how we make things. Architects like Albert Kahn played a major role in creating the environments for the early-20th-century industrial revolution ushered in by Henry Ford’s assembly-line process, and the current industrial revolution, fueled by 3D printing, CNC (computerized numerical control) fabrication, and robotics, requires new kinds of facilities and new approaches to zoning that architects seem well suited to lead.
We will, of course, always need buildings, and architects’ building-design skills will still be in demand, especially as the mix of uses in facilities and the density of development will likely increase. New-economy entrepreneurs seem to prefer highly flexible space that allows for rapid change and seemingly radical combinations of activities, with residential, commercial, and light-industrial uses in close proximity to each other—or even in the same building. The 21st century may look increasingly like a high-tech version of preindustrial cities, in which people lived very close to where they worked, shopped, and socialized.
The new economy, though, appears to need design-thinking skills even more. The pressure to do everything faster, cheaper, and better has forced private, public, and nonprofit organizations to reimagine what they do and how they do it, which has made the paradigm-shifting process of design thinking increasingly important. What architects do every day in the design of buildings now also applies to the design of social and organizational phenomena.
In the medical and legal professions, traditional practices such as surgery and litigation have become more rare as less invasive or less costly services have emerged; architecture will likely take the same path. Buildings, which can be both invasive and costly, may become the last option rather than the first one pursued in meeting client or community needs. As a result, projects may start not with site analysis and schematic design but with design thinking to explore all of the ways clients can get their needs met without going through the time and expense of building.
This approach has several benefits. First, it disconnects the architectural profession from the building trades by doing what the construction industry cannot: avoid building. Professions serve people, while businesses sell services, and professions thrive when they are clear about that distinction. Second, it opens up all kinds of new services that architects now rarely offer, such as service design, strategic design, and innovation design, expanding the profession’s reach to those who need design help but not necessarily a building. Only a tiny percentage of the global population has the wealth to commission buildings, but everyone can benefit from design services, just as they can from public health services and legal aid.
Finally, it deepens architects’ engagement with the clients and communities they already serve. Rather than compete with every other firm for those relatively few clients that truly need a building, architects could begin to serve existing clients with a much wider range of services, becoming design consultants, much as attorneys serve as their clients’ legal counsel.
The Metropolitan Design Center at the University of Minnesota, which I now direct, has started down this road. We continue to do urban design and community-engagement work, as the center has done since its founding in the late 1980s with an endowment from the Dayton Hudson Foundation (now Target Foundation), helping communities recognize their assets and see the opportunities they have. Some of the opportunities become projects that architecture firms are commissioned to design, and some become strategies that will guide the communities’ decision-making and inform their identity. All of this work involves the creative imagining, lateral thinking, and connective reasoning that architects and designers do so well.
At the same time, the center has begun to do design work that we know will have no physical outcome. We have started a project with four Minnesota counties—Hennepin, Ramsey, Anoka, and Dakota—in partnership with the university’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs, to engage a range of stakeholders in reimagining the housing process for adult foster care, to give people options in how they live. And we have begun a project, in partnership with Allina Health, to provide the leadership of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta with design-thinking skills so that they can respond to global health challenges more effectively. The list goes on, from helping North Minneapolis youth create a healthier community for themselves to helping a St. Paul middle school deal more creatively with student behavior.
As I write in my new book, Designing Our Way to a Better World, design-related opportunities vastly exceed the amount of work the architecture and design community has traditionally pursued. The world of physical design—the buildings, products, and landscapes around us—encompasses only a small percentage of the systems and services that affect us every day. It’s this broader whole that can benefit from the creative skills of the design community—and ensure that architecture will thrive in the 21st century.
The article was reprinted, with permission, from Architecture Minnesota. Thomas Fisher is director of the Metropolitan Design Center and the Dayton Hudson Chair in Urban Design in the College of Design at the University of Minnesota. He is the author of Designing Our Way to a Better World, published by the University of Minnesota Press.
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