Earlier this year, leading names in architecture including Lord Rogers and David Chipperfield wrote an open letter to the Guardian. The letter highlighted the potential damage to their industry if EU staff currently working in the UK could not stay post-Brexit.
The letter was an excellent example of an industry speaking up on an issue of real importance not just to its future, but to the future of the UK more broadly.
Architects are in a strong position to do this; their work stands around us on every street and, as the financial crisis a few years ago showed, its fortunes are closely intertwined with those of the wider economy.
But are architects missing a trick by not doing more to offer new insights and fresh perspectives on the pressing issues affecting them, their customers and their staff?
Beyond Brexit, architects are knowledgeable about a vast range of issues. Building design, the urban realm, the role of green spaces, how our interaction with spaces affect our health and wellbeing, the future of the workplace – the list goes on.
But when these issues appear in the public arena, in the media or at a policy level, I would argue that architecture firms could do more to take a thought leadership position and contribute new evidence and insights that develop understanding still further.
Done well, new insights on pressing issues can do more than enhance reputation. They can lead to new conversations and commercial opportunities. And it needn’t be the preserve of the biggest architecture firms either, who you would expect to have the resources to do this sort of work (and some of them do). Thought leadership can help challengers to the big firms – who can’t rely on award wins or a well-known figurehead to drive brand awareness – to stand out from the crowd.
What might this look like in practice? Take the future of the workplace – no doubt an important and interesting issue to any architecture practice with business clients. Could a fresh perspective come from exploring the psychological impact of light or space on office behaviour and productivity?
Architects may look at financial and professional services for inspiration. Grant Thornton’s work on the issue of Women in Business is not done to support a particular service line, but because the issue is hugely important – and interesting – for their clients. It uses thought leadership to push the debate on and engagement with the content is extensive.
It is a bold step for firms to take. But considering how much architects have to contribute to some of our most pressing societal issues, maybe now is the time for firms to think differently about how they communicate. Thought leadership provides the foundation for real reputational and commercial success.