chris wise engineer

Where are the professors of engineering judgment?

In these dark days, why doesn’t the world of building take clue from 2009’s International Year of Astronomy? It’s 400 years since Galileo first turned his telescope on the heavens. Soon after, he spotted four little spots of light orbiting the planet Jupiter, a heavenly body that wasn’t the Earth. For the first time Galileo had conclusive proof that we weren’t the centre of the universe.

Galileo Galilei

In the building professions we’ve managed to convince ourselves that the centre of our universe is the great planet Architecture and that most of us are on separate little moons which orbit helplessly under its gravitational grip.

There are other problems with separateness. Sometimes on my computer everything slows down and even comes to a grinding halt because all my files have been split into lots of little pieces for “management” reasons. But this can be fixed….in the Recycle bin I can click a button called “Defragmenter” which joins them back up again. Like magic the system flourishes. If only we had one of these buttons for real.

I mention this because I think we need a bit of Defragmentation in the building industry. It’s time to join things together for the common good. I am heartily sick of being reminded that there are 36 (or is it 38) individual engineering Institutions in this country, all of whom are beavering away on their own little worlds while looking at a microcosm of the universe through the wrong end of their particular telescope. Not to mention the RIBA, which I am told sometimes allows its disciples to believe that they actually are the centre of the universe. Each of these fragments preaches from the vocabulary of commodity (more units, more standards, more commissions, anything as long as its more and we control it), but misses Commodity, Firmness and particularly, Delight.

I think this is bonkers so I’d like to suggest a construct in which these lumbering beasts are put out of their misery and replaced by just 5. I’d perhaps call them Societies (to fight for humanity and evolution) rather than Institutions (which imply ossification and defined boundaries).

My 5 societies would be called Need; Briefing; Conception; Testing; and Judgement. They would be aimed squarely at projects, and roundly at developing our brains. In my mind all 5 are common to any building project, whether it is a school, a stadium, an office, or a bridge. I could go further and suggest that these 5 Societies would be of benefit to anyone on any project at all….fashion, shoes, jet engines, handbags, books, films, even social policy…I’ve seen public policy gurus struggling when it comes to the question of anything beyond Need.

All 5 are needed because all projects follow the same mind map. We have some rather compelling evidence for this….every year I run with my partner Ed McCann a design summer school with the RSA’s Royal Designers for Industry, attended by talented designers from every walk of design life from Nike to Rolls-Royce to Pixar and the Body Shop as well as Happolds, Hopkins and Handbags. It’s pretty clear from these Royal Designer gatherings that everyone there is talking the same language, using the same thought process, and trying to get their heads to a good answer. Very often they discover that their great but fragmentary expertise in one specific discipline knowledge gets in the way of finding a truly good, cross-denominational response to a given Need.

The Society of Need would cover us, society at large, the planet as a system. The Society of Briefing would be a child of the Society of Need and would put what the world needs into some sort of understandable form which would look at true societal value rather than just shareholder profits, lowest cost, or client egotism.

Then we get to the 3 linked bodies that cover “Design”, the Societies of Conception, Testing and Judgement. These replace contemporary things like maths, codes, systems, form and function, although they would include useful bits of those.

Of course, we’d have to change the university system too….gone would be the teeming departments of this or that speciality (many of which are anyway suffering death by 1000 cuts)…to be replaced by just 5 centres of excellence for Need, Briefing, Conception, Testing and Judgment, together with their professors. Everyone would study all 5 subjects at first. I would really love to hear a first-principles conversation between a Professor of Need, a Professor of Judgment, and today’s global industry heavyweights burdened, as some surely are in these times , with rather a lot of baggage.

So that’s it….when you are in the gutter, look at the stars…look up and out….leave your baggage behind….more perspective, try to understand the bigger universe, and don’t pretend you are at the centre. Of course, you probably remember that Galileo was tried and convicted of heresy by the Institutions of his day….but who had the last laugh?


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