February 2021

The Technology BandAid

Will Lockdown Solutions Really Make Us Better?

I miss the gym; I should clarify that because I don’t miss the actual gym. I miss meeting up with friends afterwards for lunch, maybe even a beer. I miss dressing up a social event with exercise and treating myself to a calorific extravagance justified at least in part (if not in whole) by the “big session” beforehand. We have all done it, justified a little more of something through some prior moment of self-sacrifice. It’s OK to have six Jaffa cakes with my venti caramel latte this morning, because on Tuesday I did 30 minutes on the Peloton. 

In his excellent book There is no Planet B, Mike Berners-Lee talks about this elegantly at a global scale as the rebound effect. If I buy an electric car, does that mean I can drive the school run? If I change all my lights to low energy lamps can I leave the lights on all day? If I recycle my shopping bags, can I fly to Hong Kong on business? Or my favourite example and the pain of all our lives, email. A letter has a carbon footprint of around 29g, an email has a carbon footprint of 4g; on a good day, I get 250 emails. That’s the rebound effect and it is big. 

Over the course of the last 12 months, many businesses just like mine have raced to reinvent themselves for the “new normal”; it has seen the meteoric rise of technological solutions to previously human interactions. Zoom, Teams, Slack, collaborative, cloud-based, remote, mobile, integrated, blah blah blah. I’ve been in many conversations centred around finding a software solution to an apparently new problem. We used to do this, now in lockdown we need some software so we can keep doing it the same way. 

The problem with the rebound effect is that it conceals real problems and compounds them by simply allowing you to do the wrong thing more and more. And for a while it works, until, of course, it doesn't.

In looking at how we can be better at the business of architecture, in all its real-world complexity, here are three ideas that we use to create better systems. 

  • That’s a not a technology problem, it’s a culture problem. It is easy to think that if we can find a better software solution, our process will be better. We invest in new solutions to old problems in the misplaced faith that technology will save us, but the bottom line is that if (fictional) Alex doesn’t file their emails, no software solution is going to fix that cultural problem. The problem isn’t the software, the problem is Alex and the culture that created them. It is easy to collapse people and systems into a single problem, but in reality, they are not. My experience is that people behave as the corporate culture dictates and better technology simply masks problems and compounds them. No amount of technology will make a chef a good painter. When something isn’t working, start with the culture then fix the technology.

  • Get old school. For most of us, what we do is not new. Architecture is not new and the process of getting things built is not new. As crazy as it sounds, if we are to find better technological solutions to our business processes, it pays to ask how we might do this without any technology at all. It pays to understand the process, not as an input/output issue, but as a functional and useful step in achieving our goals. In architecture, the technology of drawing has become incredibly advanced with increasingly sophisticated and specialist software. But the task at hand has not changed, the challenge is a simple one of clear communication. Better drawings rarely mean more complicated ones, it pays to keep things simple; look back, then look forwards. 

  • Be better with people. It is almost inevitable that in the medium term at least, in our day-to-day interactions we will meet people in person less. I have no doubt this will revert in the long term, but maybe not for many months or years. Rather than shrinking away from the limited interactions that we have; we need to get better with people. We need to develop virtual empathy and tune our listening in order to better understand the needs of our clients, teams and collaborators. If we can agree that video conferencing will never replace meeting in person then all of us must get better at communication in all its forms, in person, on a call, on video and yes even in emails. Make sure that each and every interaction is intentional, respectful and generous. 

We have been fortunate enough to be able to transfer our business from physical space to remote space quickly and effectively but likewise it has been a challenging and revealing process to have lockdown, remote working and the pandemic expose the things we could do better. If we are to truly build better systems, we cannot allow the solutions to our old problems shape how we work in the future. If we choose to mask our shortcomings with technological bandaids we risk concealing our weaknesses from ourselves and fooling ourselves that we can weather storms ahead. This in itself is bad enough, but for me worse still is missing the opportunity to simply be better.