Radical uncertainty rules professional futures
14 October 2021 , Paul Finch
You have to laugh when you hear broadcasters claiming to be able to foresee the future, or just as bad, seeking answers from people who cannot have any idea what is going to happen either. The truth is none of them know.
I amuse myself by listening to the Radio 4 Today programme, counting the number of times phoney predictions, or the eliciting of them, take place before I head off for work. The only real predictions on the programme, as apposed to speculation, are the semi-serious tips about horses likely to win later that day. Let us say that nobody will get rich following BBC advice.
Tame journalists telling us what is ‘expected’ to happen later in the day, or next week, are an insult to the profession. Either they are being spoon-fed information from press offices, which by definition should be treated with suspicion, or they are making it up themselves. Why don’t they tell us what happened yesterday and give us some explanations and context?
The desire to masquerade as seers is not, of course, confined to journalism. The financial markets are all based on expectations about unknown futures, which is why, when something like the 2008 financial crisis took place, there was such shock. The pundits, gurus and analysts didn’t see it coming, even though claiming omniscience on a daily basis about how the market will perform. There is even that nutcase idea that the market is always right, and that stock prices are an exact reflection of true value. This is only true in the sense that the market is always wrong.
History tells us that when it comes to predicting the way the world will change, all bets are off. For example, I have just read an intriguing reminder of the vagaries of US politics in the context of the near-unbelievable prospect of Donald Trump becoming a serious presidential contender again. The reminder not to make easy assumptions is this: the Democrat Adlai Stevenson ran against General Eisenhauer (Republican) in the 1952 and 1956 US elections. In one case the states he took all went to Trump (a Republican) in 2016. By contrast, the states taken by Eisenhauer went to Democrat Hilary Clinton. Who knows what will happen at the next election?
Away from politics, it is sometimes easier to have a decent go at anticipating changes that will affect architects. We know, for example, that the regulatory framework within which the profession operates is going to change. We are confident that things are likely to get tougher as a result of the evidence that emerged at the Grenfell Tower inquiry about how the construction section operates (at worst) these days. That is what the government says it wants.
The rational response in respect of forthcoming changes is to try to influence them, and the RIBA will have an important job of informing and persuading government, rather than simply waiting for the Architects’ Registration Board to pronounce. And it might ponder the presidential theme of the later Fred Pooley: competence. What today constitutes competence? This is not a matter of prediction but of proposition.
For example, is it reasonable to expect that qualified architects will have a working knowledge of construction materials and generic products, in respect of what the old National Building Agency defined as ‘properties, characteristics and attributes’? If not, why not? It was certainly the case within living memory that these matters would be taught in schools of architecture. One thinks of former RIBA president Owen Luder, who has just passed away at a ripe old age, who studied architecture at the Brixton School of Building. Technical teaching counted for more than understanding the latest trends in philosophy and their implications for the mother of the arts.
Similarly, is it reasonable to expect architects to have a solid foundation in fire design? Again, this used to be something that was core to courses of architecture, but if it is still the case it is difficult to discern, with some honourable exceptions. If it is to be taught, should this take place at undergraduate or graduate level? Should it be a niche subject leading to further specialism?
We seem to be getting a grip on the carbon question, and the benefits of retrofit/recycling, but how is this being incorporated into the academic world? This is not a criticism about what schools are doing, it is a question prompted by recent events and trends. Moreover, the combined effects of materials specification, carbon and construction process are not just technical matters – on the contrary they are matters for research and discussion.
For example, the attempt on the part of some to almost criminalise the use of concrete in construction, with the inevitable suggestion that it will always be better to use timber, is a gross simplification which needs to be tested thoroughly, as it starting to happen. These things are not simple, but an easy area for the simple-minded to claim not just comprehensive knowledge, but moral authority. And of course unerring accuracy about what the future holds.