Future professional identities, tech disruption, transdisciplinary+the future of architecture. An interview with Rob Hyde

Future professional identities, tech disruption, transdisciplinary+the future of architecture. An interview with Rob Hyde

Future professional identities, tech disruption, transdisciplinary+the future of architecture. An interview with Rob Hyde

Manchester, UK

Rob Hyde is an Architect/ Academic/ Researcher/ Designer/ Urbanist/ Consultant/ Strategist/ Futurist at the Manchester School of Architecture [Manchester Metropolitan University + University of Manchester] with diverse experience in industry [Architecture+Technology] and academia. He leads the Masters of Professional Studies Unit where he looks at the possible future contexts/ definitions/ roles/identities of ‘Architect’ in academia, and practice exploring transdisciplinary trajectories among architecture, property, construction, built environment and new technologies. He teaches and is a co-founder of the Complexity Planning and Urbanism [CPU] Masters Studio in Manchester, concerned with developing new theoretical approaches +computational tools using a complexity science framework. Within the School Rob has had responsibility for employment/enterprise and international relationships, developing local/global external cross-disciplinary collaborative networks bridging academia +Industry. Focused on employment, research +knowledge exchange [R+KE] and specialist teaching impact, he demonstrated in contribution to the Schools entry and consistently, placing in the QS top 10 Global Rankings [on Employer Reputation] and on increased research income.

He is also a co-founder/co-director [with Ulysses Sengupta] of CPU-LAB developing applied computational methods and working within a Complexity Science framework on multiple funded projects globally including work on Connected Autonomous Vehicles, IoT infrastructure, Agile Governance, etc. He is  a founder member of ‘DACAS’ a global transdisciplinary network looking at cities as Data through a Complex Adaptive Systems theoretical framework – recent output includes a UN Policy Brief on Sustainability [UN SDG’s] and Smart Cities.

His personal research interest is on ‘risk’ and ‘productivity’ in the context of responding to UN SDG, particularly in relation to the impact of technological transformation/disruption on current and future
challenges  for architects/architecture. Particular focus he places on Professional Identities, Organisational Learning/change, Agile Governance, Transdisciplinarity +the Future of Work, Ethical AI. His upcoming book [with Alan Jones, president of RIBA] ‘Defining Contemporary Professionalism’ explores some of these themes [RIBA Publishing Sept. 2019]

VG: Rob, what is, in your opinion, the biggest challenge today facing the Architects and the profession of Architecture?

RH: This is a big question! One of the biggest challenges for Architects today is demonstrating the value and relevance of the Architect, the Architectural Practice, the Architecture Education System and then being rewarded for the value. We are a profession with value generally based on luxury + speculation and the first to go in the case of a recession while Accountants/ Doctors, Dentists, Lawyers etc are more resilient as they are based on fear – perhaps we need to imbue/cathect fear into the profession to increase resilience and reward?

I also think it is important to understand challenges as a context of both opportunities to be exposed/amplified and threats to be removed/mitigated and to understand this changes over time for organisations [and the individuals within them/ on whom they have impact]. We need to understand that we operate in a ‘Complex Adaptive Profession’ that needs to change in relation to the changes in the context in which we operate [4th industrial revolution etc] – it is of course not the strongest that survive it is the most adaptable to change, therefore as the professions, firms, universities are no more than 200 years old it seems crazy to not continually adapt to our context.

I believe we also need to coach our language around areas clients/ public understand such as ‘risk’ and ‘productivity’ and to provide ‘evidence’ bases for our proposals/ actions. ‘Risk’ reduction can speed up planning, reassure communities, unlock investment from developers etc. ‘Productivity’ in Construction has only increased by 1% in the last 20 years with $1.6T of potential value [McKinsey 2017], which could address the major issues of waste and our industry. ‘Evidence’ is key as it is how to demonstrate/ give confidence in how designerly solutions can address ‘risk’, ‘productivity’ and any other emerging issues rather than only looking back at less risky/less productive tried and tested [+inadequate] solutions – this can be through feedback loops of existing projects or projective simulative modeling.

In a wider context we should all be thinking about how we address the big existential challenges starting with the UN Strategic Development Goals

VG: Architects are often criticized for the poor business skills to do with running a practice, do you believe they have the right training in education? 

RH: No. But I think that there are ‘pockets’ of excellent work being done. I have explored this concept in Manchester, since 2012, and I have found people like Phil Bernstein at Yale and Randy Deutsch in Illinois doing progressive and innovative teaching in this area as well. However, leading edge teaching on business skills is an exception rather than a rule. Many schools are still in denial of taking the realities of the studio work into the real world and separate the two. In fact, I find many professional courses/ exams frustrating because people using methods taught to them 20 years earlier often teach them. This means that the student then waits to become director/ owner of practices [say 10 years] and their knowledge is potentially 30+ years old. This is a recipe for disaster and we are seeing this play out. Lastly, others in the construction industry such as RICS professions in the UK are encouraged to bring in work from day one – this is a difference in both ‘skill–set’ and critically ‘mind-set’. However, if you give these business skills to Architectural students they often run rings around many other Construction industry students and even Business School MBA’s utilising their designerly mind-sets. Unfortunately, the culture of Architectural education/practice/profession stifles this approach.

The key success in the teaching of the Professional Studies Unit in Manchester is the connection with/ extension of studio as problem based learning along with linkage to the tacit knowledge/insight of extensive cross-disciplinary external networks. This allows both the base line explicit professional knowledge to be used to speculate on possible future contexts/ definitions/ roles/ identities of ‘Architect’/ ‘Architecture’ both as individuals’ +organisations [academia, practice/firms, profession] to explore traditional and unorthodox operation at core [Architecture], periphery [Property +Construction/ Built environment] and beyond [Manufacturing, ICT etc.] in order to collaboratively design new fit-for-purpose business/ project/ development: models/structures/processes as ‘proto-practices’. This then allows students to develop their own diverse disciplinary/transdisciplinary trajectories post academia.

Professional Studies p232 [p118 in PDF]


Sample output


VG: You are writing a book on the professionalism of the architectural profession, why did you believe this was a subject you wanted to explore? 

RH:‘Professionalism’ like the word ‘design’ is used constantly without exploration/definition of its depth of meaning or value which is why we [myself and Co-editor Alan Jones the current RIBA President Elect] felt it a critical area that requires further reflection and enquiry. The book has over 60+ diverse contributions from those in Industry/Academia and is some of our networks made manifest making visible tacit knowledge/insight to a wider audience.

It is also interesting what Professionalism means to us internally in the culture of the profession or what it means to the perception of the wider public or indeed the client. It certainly is a powerful asset. For example, I have been asked to speak at several conferences on Ethics and AI – Why do Technology businesses want to hear from an Architect? – What does this indicate?

VG: Which do you think are the next steps in the architectural agenda in order to remain relevant in the technological reality that is arriving?

RH: All businesses will be digital and the current obsession is that everyone should code – however, you can theoretically teach/ instruct AI to code. In my opinion, understanding the potential that technology brings in design thinking thorough thinking computationally is critical. You do not have to know how the computer is put together – but you do need to understand how to use it and the opportunities it affords. We need to understand from our domain knowledge [Urban/Built Environment/ Human Behaviour] how to deal with data sets to find patterns that indicate challenges/use-cases [problems and/or opportunities], to understand when further data is needed [+ how to primarily mine it] and then to offer solutions/applications when needed.

We also need to be able to design the tools – both in order to find the underlying problems and the hidden opportunities. We need to emancipate ourselves from the obsession of fetishising the building to understanding it as part of a system of nested elements [object/ room/ floor/ building/ block/ neighborhood/ city] within overlapping complex, adapting systems/ infrastuctures [physical and non-physical] that change over time.

The answer is not always be a building it may be an intervention or organisational redesign – we are able to take ground from management consultants at the front end informing clients with evidence on intervention and at the back end stay with the solution in use – learning from it both for future projects and to reconfiguration it over time – We should be adaptable hybrids who design adaptable hybrids.

Check out the skill-sets of NESTA report https://www.nesta.org.uk/report/the-future-of-skills-employment-in-2030/ Architectural training/ skillset/mindset has many of the skills currently projected to be required in future – Our skill-sets/mind-sets are and will remain very relevant.

VG: How do you prepare students in your school on this behalf?

RH: Through having fantastic staff who operate through principle of research informed teaching in studio and research units, we also have a spine of Professional Studies running from the undergraduate to Post Graduate studies, my final year Masters Professional Studies unit just finished and the output was phenomenal [Architectural students never cease to amaze].

Critically we have vertical studios [Ateliers] operating independently, which means there is no mono-culture at the school. It is as agnostic [anything goes] as long as you can justify it against the criteria– this makes for a diverse and pluralistic environment from the top that allows bottom-up emergence and hybridisation between studio cultures and other areas such as Professional Studies and methods courses – This is then complimented by courses such as Advanced Digital Design [ADD] etc. running throughout the School.

Importantly the school is embedded into multiple external networks bridging practice and Academia allowing for flow of information/ value between each for collaborative real time intelligence.

VG: In your school, you work a lot on the “digital” through smart city projects. What does it mean for you working on a project entitled smart? What do you see is its main benefits for the architects, industries, and practice?

RH: Smart is an overused word. Perhaps we are in an era of ‘post-smart’ or is it just the ‘Future City’. For me, it is about Data – about what you do with it and what other data is required. With design thinking this is an opportunity for Architects to do the stuff Economists, sociologists, policymakers etc cannot do.

It is also about the contexts of flows – visible and invisible – physical and non-physical. The Architect should consider the context and has the ability to understand this temporally to backcast and forecast and place interventions in this future context understanding impact on all stakeholders. Working in this way opens up so many possibilities for future operation.

Benefits for Architects/Practices is expanded opportunities/ added value to current and future potential clients and for wider industry to get the benefit/value of designerly thinking of Architects/Architecturally trained.

VG: What are the basic skills that young architects need in order to work effectively on these strategies?

RH: Architects need the basic skill-set/ mind-set to work with data and the opportunities afforded. We are never going to be coders or data analysts etc. but we need to develop awareness, knowledge and some ability in these areas.  Some will take this much further by becoming ‘SuperUsers’ [Deutsch 2019]. We develop them in the School – those who will design their own digital tools to find problems/opportunities and then other tools to allow them to solve them.

VG: Could you give us an example of how you and your team/ students work on a smart city project?   

RH: CPU Masters students work on city issues with real-world stakeholders [community, developers, investors, local government etc] on most studio projects and have done since inception of the Unit [as do many of our other studios  at the school].

An example of student work done is on adaptive planning in East Manchester, looking at how sequences of development when run though simulative models have different outcomes. This is important when testing against [and questioning] a City Visions/ Masterplans.  This work was developed into a research paper within CPU-LAB which was presented at the Adaptive Planning for Spatial Transformation conference of the Planning and Complexity strand of AESOP A strategic planning problem: examining the unpredictability of urban transformation based on the changing temporal order of planned projects’ [Soloumou, S. Sengupta, U. Hyde R.]

An example of the work CPU-LAB is doing is the EU funded Horizon2020 Synchronicity Project which consists of 8 large scale pilots of 34 partners across 11 countries focused on developing the European market for IoT.  The aim being to create a common framework on which to develop new services through promoting use of standards and interoperability to make it possible to create a single market for services. Specifically, CPU-LAB is looking at how the City can co-evolve with IoT/Big Data through it enabling more ‘Agile’ Governance.

VG: Manchester is experienced unprecedented growth at present with many new buildings being constructed and many more in planning. How is Manchester planning to become a smart city?

RH: I would say, that Manchester has adopted a hybrid strategy. The city has traditionally utilized collaborations with academia and industry using funded projects to create project vehicles with legacy. A lot of this is through European funding so it will be interesting to see the Brexit impact.

It is also important to note the projects have never been ‘tech-led’ they are cultural/ public policy driven [‘Our Manchester’ etc] – Those within the city are not technologists they are driven by the problem not a predefined solution and this is one of the reasons for success to date and how that success will be amplified in future.

Valina Geropanta and Rob Hyde—


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