Strategic vs. Project Thinking: Sticking your head up the dead bear’s bum of Projects

Here at this low class, sex, drugs and rock and roll, architect focused, in-the-gutter blog it helps the blog stats to write popular tags like “Sticking your head up a dead bear’s bum.” Sticking your head up bear’s bum” is one of those lost, and now inappropriate, Australian sayings that thankfully is no longer in use. It can be used in a derogatory sense as a direct call to action—best not to overthink that—or it can suggest a kind of head in the sand attitude. The original line comes from the Australian film The Adventures of Barry McKenzie, and I have adapted the line here for my own purposes.

In my lovely mannered, patrician and bland-boosterish world of academia, it is not a saying that I am loathe to bandy about that much.

So, enough of the self-indulgence, the point is that for far too long architects have stuck their head up the dead bear’s bum of projects.

What Architects are good at 

Architects are great at spatial thinking, great at design thinking great and great at integrating knowledge across the construction, engineering and most consulting disciplines. Architects are good at looking at details (for those of you who can still actually detail) and then look at the larger urban scale all in the same breath. They are trained to shift their view to focus at different scales. As a result, architects are great at managing ambiguity and tackling the wicked problems.

The is what architects are supposed to do and what architects are good at. However, all of these skills and unique ways of thinking are hampered by the fact that architects are too often are stuck and blinkered by the project mindset. Everything is about the project. In practices large and small it’s all about the projects: big projects, little projects, built projects, or unbuilt projects, school projects, retail projects, domestic projects, commercial projects and urban design projects. Bathroom and toilet projects. Architects compare themselves to other architects through the lens of projects; their awards systems are based around projects, and the internal management systems of firms are founded, not around strategic management, producing design knowledge or the talent but the holy than holy projects. It’s always about the project.

The curse of the Project Centric

This project-centric focus keeps architects chained and enslaved in their own small pond. This pond is becoming increasingly smaller because of this very focus. Broader, market trends, macroeconomic changes, and the impact of future technologies on the profession often go unnoticed. Architects are clueless because of this lack of strategic thought. The profession is still only just grappling with the idea of advocacy; let alone producing any industry research about the impact of future technologies on it. Many strategic decision makers in practices medium, small and large are so project focused that they cannot see the forest for the trees.

As a result of this overbearing project centricity, the competitive advantage and value of architects is slowly being eroded. We have already lost construction administration, and Design Development is hard to argue the value of, design thinking has been taken, and repackaged by the graphic and industrial designers. A raft of new technologies, such as Big Data and AI, is slowly eating away at our design thinking skills. Some architects still think a digital strategy is about getting onto Instagram.

Architects are going to lose 

So if my argument is correct, that architects can’t think strategically outside of the project mentality, it follows that this lack of strategy, will in time, diminish the domain and agency of architects. We have already lost project management, and the banks are screwing us over our contracts. So where might the next pinch points be?

download.jpg

Maybe it’s time we stopped letting the special technical nerdy types from running the IT department in practices. Maybe uni administrators should stop thinking that just teaching software skills or techniques is all we need to do in Architecture schools. Alternatively, we should stop thinking that being “strategic” when it comes to new technologies, is about curating the images in an Instagram profile. Wooo Hooo. Half the Instagram profiles of practices in my city say the words: Award Winning Architects. So what? However, it’s all about those projects, isn’t it? The elusive award-winning project. The one we would all die for.

Drinking the kool-aid 

powers-boothe-in-guyana-tragedy.jpg

Architects have really drunk the Parametric and BIM kool-aid but at the cutting edge of practice as well as in the teensy weensy practices, and in the so-called professional associations. However, did anyone ever stop to think how architects might manage these new technologies in a strategic sense? All too often, architects have a kind of buy it and plug it in and play mentality when it comes to new technology. The new technologies are the kinds of things that make the project go faster, or cheaper or maybe sometimes better.

Architects have not been able to manage IT within their practices strategically. Yes, they have jumped onto BIM and the people I hate it when the students say: “why don’t we learn BIM at architecture school.” For the universities administrators BIM, and all other such widget technologies, is precisely the kind of curricula that they would love the architecture students to learn: easy to teach, the students think they are learning a skill (even if they are not learning to think) and a great way to make money. I mean WTF?

Architects might still have an opportunity to shape digital strategy. However, if they are not careful the digital strategies in the property and construction arena will be taken up either by new specialists, marketing, and asset managers who can run the data analytics. In workplace design, Big Data and associated analytics and AI are going to sweep the floor. Architects need to figure out how the Internet-of-Things is going to change things. Moreover, How will BIM data be connected to other broader IT data systems and analytics?

bimanalytics-infographic.jpg

Big Data, BIM and AI and will get together with the property and construction types, and before you know it, we will lose Feasibility Studies as a source of income. God help us when the nerdy nerds start thinking about data analytics in construction. As BIM and AI conjoin, the result may be a new take on generative designing, and then as AI begins to develop options to make design decisions where we will end up then? Just following the pack I guess.

General and strategic management skills

One more thought I would be rich, if I got a buck for every time, someone said we don’t teach business skills in architecture, or when people say architects lack in business skills. Teaching ourselves a few numerate business skills is not going to help and I am beginning to weary of this mantra. It’s the general, and strategic management skills architects don’t have I tried to find those in the Australian AACA competencies, but hey who wrote these new competencies? These are skills are critical to understanding all the activities that architectural practice encompasses. They are critical to understanding the universe outside of the architect’s bubble. Sticking your head up the dead bear’s bum of Projects is not doing us any favours.

Yep, maybe I have been hanging out with the copywriters too much. However, seriously, for those who know me well, I guess I am wondering how much truth-to-power stuff I can actually get away with these days now that I have some kind of immunity in my own version of Survivor. So stay tuned and we can see how outrageous I can be in the face of mediocrity.

Big Data and Architects Part 2: Getting ready for Hackable urbanism

This week I have been visiting quite a few crits and jury sessions at my graduate architecture school. After last week’s post every time the students saw me coming they appeared to panic. Nonetheless, I sat in the back of most of the crits and listened. It was great.

The experience, of looking at countless analytical diagrams, did make me think about the impact of big data on urban strategy and urban design techniques. Then I bumped into the poster near the lifts. It’s great the AA is coming for a summer break to MSD, our winter break, and our MSD grad school is having lots of great speakers. All the details are here, and I would encourage people to go along.

Sadly, I won’t be around to indulge in this fest as I will be in the northern hemisphere hanging out with what’s left of the Architecture Biennale after its Vernissage partay trashing. Even so, the poster got me thinking about architects and the technology thing yet again. As regular readers of this blog know I am over the whole parametric hoo-ha. Maybe it’s just the culture that goes with parametrics in architecture that I dislike.

However, what concerns me is that with all the obsession with new gadgets and technologies architects have arguably relegated the logistics of informatics to a forgotten territory. The new architect-as-maker paradigm has turned design aesthetics into a construction supply chain wet dream; a meta-narrative of commercial innovation; a fantasy that we architects can be like subbies (sub-contractors) and tradies.  An architectural focus on the technology of gimmicks, the making stuff, is one thing but what about data analytics? (My previous post on big data and practice can be found here).

Technology management and strategy is not something that is taught at architecture school, and I am wondering how the design studio and architects in general will, and should respond to the mass of data and information now coming down the pipeline. So to help, and to prove I am not a complete IT atavistic type here are a few clues to help you get your head around so-called big data.

Redundant Instruments

In engineering and manufacturing, policy types are starting to talk Industry 4.0. However, for architects hunkered down in the maker-space construction supply chains it’s like we are doing all the bits but not the strategy that goes with it. However, the broader question should be: Are all the old polarities of architectural and urban design technique relevant? Typology, functional zoning, densification, “activation” and the like. A lot of the architect’s toolkit of urban analytics appears to be related to the Smithson’s notions of diagramming, and while I would be the first to point to the importance of these legacies, the new digital technologies are swamping these approaches and techniques of urban analysis.

smithson-golden-lane.jpg

However, cities are no longer the economic engines of American industry or post-war reconstruction. It was these types of post-1945 cities that the Smithson’s and the other post CIAM architects employed their toolkit of pencils, butter paper sketches, ideograms and collages to analyse.

With the rise of policy concepts like Industry 4.0 and the so-called internet-of-things (which always makes me think of this) architects and urbanist are now facing a different set of conditions.

Data analytics is a design issue

gcp-map-2.jpg

How do architects design with data? Even the interns at Hadid’s are beginning to experiment with the Internet of things in workplace design. A few people have started to discuss the idea of data augmented design. However, most of the current work in this field appears to be focused on transport planning and logistics.

Perhaps the first step for architects is to begin to understand the basics of IT infrastructure. Hey, where does all that data go? As physical entities, Data Warehousing appears to exist on the periphery and in the cracks of cities. Where does all that go and who is responsible for data security. In the wake of Cambridge Analytica how is public and urban data captured, stored, secured and surveilled? What are the physical interfaces between this hidden ecology and the servers that it all resides in?

https_blueprint-api-production.s3.amazonaws.comuploadscardimage736957b3740dd8-c006-47b1-8136-8a4346f9cff8

 As Lev Manovich and Agustin Indaco, argue analysing social media posts can yield much information about the built environment.

Data is big really big

That’s why it is called big data. With the onslaught of digitisation, every action generates and spits out data. There is social media of course but once the Internet of Things kicks in it will probably get bigger. Plus it is not just about physical objects spitting out information. There is all the data collected from social media and google apps.

AURIN which is a data provider to researchers have over Over 3500 datasets from 98 sources cover disciplines including demography, property and housing, transport, health, energy and water.

Agency and the Hackable city

It’s pretty easy to mouth off about It’s pretty easy to leave it to the experts. However, in doing so architects risk losing ground unless we can integrate our ways of spatial thinking with these  The size and scale of new data sets and the skills needed to analyse these sets is not something architects should avoid if they are to be serious about tackling the urban design of future cities and settlements.

The hackable city project in the Netherlands posits that there are opportunities for

“platforms offer for modes of collaborative city making that empower (hyper)local stakeholders in an open and democratic society.”

Such sentiments may sound naïve, but they a are better than blind ignorance of the network of platforms that now consume and shape our cities.

Big Data is about decision making

Tools like SPSS and Matlab are ways architects can start to develop some of these things.  But, hey we don’t even do excel at architecture school. Moreover, our idea of research methods is stuff about “creativity” and “design as research”. But maybe what we need are skills in topics including decision-making under uncertainty, optimal location allocation of resources, decision trees, linear programming, Monte Carlo simulations. Not to mention, linear and nonlinear regression, parametric classification techniques and model selection. Then there are methods like Neural Networks and AHP (you can read my paper on AHP here).

Predictive analytics

A lot of the work on predictive analytics in architecture and urban design appears to be centred on transport planning, pedestrian networks and agent and swarm-based modelling. Another development is the push for what has been called citizen design science. This is the idea that new technologies and data can be employed to help citizens to provide input and feedback into urban design and planning processes. I kind of like the idea of “crowdsourcing” opinions. I also wonder how that might work in the context of informal settlements. Predictive analytics would also be of benefit to Post Occupancy Evaluation techniques which architects are now increasingly returning to understand what the heck they are doing.

In understanding the dynamics of urban flexibility and reconstruction the idea of the hackable city and the idea of citizens agency. Such techniques might help architects and planners to abandon the old notions of analysis based on functional zoning and urban circulation.

 Data Visualisation

peter-alison-smithson-upper-lawn-pavilion-xoio-lasse-rode-13.jpg

Data Visualisation is where architects can go a bit crazy and really excel (excuse the pun).  We all love a good diagram. Data visualisation is not about going down to the VR lab and hanging out in a VR hospital word or classroom to see what it is like. Is VR and AR really where it’s at for the future of architectural design? I think other technologies for gathering user data will be more critical than gimmicks.

In fact, I would rather hang out in a VR network diagram or graph. Data Visualisation would be like the Smithson’s diagrams on steroids. No, actually it would be more like meeting Alison and Peter Smithson in their little home the Upper Lawn Pavilion and giving them a few lines of coke and then seeing what happens on the butter paper.

Big Data and Architects Part 1: Big vs. Little Data in the Architectural Practice

The Big Picture

The image accompanying this blog is my Google Analytics map from the cities across the globe from which I have had new visitors this year: The blog is big in Samara and Almaty and of course Dunedin and Lagos. So, thank you everyone who has visited from near and far. 

Cities_Blog

There has been a lot of talk about big data and data analytics of late. I saw a talk at work the other day about metrics concerning global-cities and thought: Wow ! We all love the macro-view. It makes us feel that we are above it all. Big data nowadays is kind of like a juggernaut as online information is constantly being gathered by big, big, big firms like Google and Faceybook. Arguably Trump employed data analytics from Cambridge Analytica to win HIS election. Of course, much closer to home is AURIN.

It’s easy to get seduced by the big picture stuff and BIG DATA; it has become such a catchphrase for the academic, consulting and elite chattering classes; So, I thought I might devote a few blogs to discussing it from the architect’s perspective.

For the architect it is not so much about BIG data but in fact LITTLE data.

Little Data = Data generated within and circulating through the architect’s firm.

Architects are too small and certainly not the cloud platform or solutions we might find at Google.

I am quite interested on following Meltwater a firm that gathers and gains insights from the realm of online data that exists outside of “internal reporting systems.” I guess when I saw those words I wondered about the internal and external reporting systems of architects. Do these systems actually exist? Or, is it all just seat of the pants decision-making and guess-work in the architect’s office? Their CEO of Meltwater has written a book which looks good and can be found here.

It’s probably a good idea to start with some of the basics of what I might call Little Data pertaining to the architect’s studio. Then further blogs will cover big data, data analytics and strategic intelligence (including its politics and ethics) and most importantly how data analytics might be employed in the design studio. I might even throw in a bit of critical theory for fun.

Think of this as a crash course in data, information and knowledge management. For most architects there is probably three or four types of data that they need to gather (and scrubbed), and manage in order to make effective decisions.

1. Internal Firm Data and Information:

Information about the firm internally is really critical. Especially, given that for architects the primary input is the amount of hours worked accurate data on this is crucial. Another category of data central to the firm This can then be mapped against the fixed and variable expenses that the firm incurs in doing the work. Of course, in Australia, as is the case elsewhere, keeping time and wages records (like overtime) is an important thing to do under the Architects award.

2. Broader Industry Structure Data and Information:

This covers information about the broader Industry, other similar, or contrasting  firms and how all of these things are performing. How much profit should a firm be making, how many hours should it be spending on particular project phases? How much should be spent on marketing each year, for example, and how does this compare to other architectural firms?

Yes, all architects really need to pressure our professional associations, groupings and even governments to continually collect and distribute this kind of information about the market for architectural services.

3. External Facing Data and Information:

This includes information about potential clients, potential areas or sites of development and expertise. In the real world they call this Business Intelligence. If an architectural firm is to be entrepreneurial and anticipate future work then it needs to develop a base of research and knowledge in particular area. For any firm it is important to understand that overall demographics and needs of the entities or agents that might fund architectural work.

For this reason data gathered around the strategic imperatives, culture, asset management, site, planning and regulatory contexts, demographics and anything at all to do with the client is important. How is client’s business and operations structured? Who should we develop relationships with?A good question to ask is: where is the money coming from and who actually owns a company that might give you work?

4. Online Information:

A rapidly rising subset, if not the only one to be concerned with, is online information. This could mean anything from collecting data and about the firm’s own websites or new media channels like Instagram or Farcebook. Or collecting (scraping, is the term used, I think) information, from online, about areas of knowledge the firm is interested in. I will discuss this more in future posts.

So what ?

Once you have all of this data a firm might then be in a situation to make some reasonable design decisions. But all of this data, once gathered needs to be readily at hand. In other words it needs to be in some kind of legible and easily accessible data, information and knowledge management system. Maybe it’s an just an excel spreadsheet, database or maybe that’s  a IT system with a legible file directory.

It’s not rocket science but too often data, information and Knowledge Management in architectural firms is not seen as high priority.  But, how many architectural firms have a knowledge manager or even think about having a Knowledge Management function within their firms.

For small firm’s it is a stretch to even get the right information and data systems, even if it is only an excel spreadsheet of contacts, in place and for large firms too often data is spread across to many different silos and knowledge is too often locked into people’s heads or hidden from view by management.

Too often architects are sucked in by the production and delivery orientated technologies. Yet in the future, for both clients of architects managing data, information and producing knowledge will be where it is at. Not producing actual things. This is especially the case,  in terms of design and design outcomes, so let’s hope architects don’t miss the boat on this one.