La Vita Intellettuale blank insert smallatti
Bologna - Salone del Podestà di Palazzo Re-Enzo 13-14 febbraio 2007

Il ruolo del professionista nell’era della conoscenza /
The role of the professional in the age of consciousness

I am very pleased to be presenting this in Bologna, in “
un pianeta porticato” and following the earlier contributions from the US-UK viewpoint I am happy to bring you a further report from Planet Anglo-America.

In the last two decades we have undoubtedly seen the ‘
professionalisation’ of the middle classes’, as described by Gerald Hanlon in his paper, and the society that I can describe, that of the UK, now expects a very different service from its professionals than it did only twenty years ago. For that reason my remarks will be less about the profession of architecture, to which I belong, and more about the professions in the UK in general.

In that context the discussion about the legal protection of the professions in Italy was both interesting and relevant. We had a very similar argument about the status of architects in the UK twenty-five years ago when our government required the profession to abandon their mandatory minimum fee scale. However, the profession is still around and much healthier, despite the fierce arguments over whether we would be forced to sacrifice quality for lower cost. Instead professionals have been forced to explain to their clients, to those who hire us, what it is that we provide for their money and why we should be charging higher fees than the apparently equivalent professional next door and why we believe our service to be better.

We now have to be upfront about the quality of our work; it is something that we have to argue for. If we believe in quality, because that is what we wish to produce and provide, then we must find ways of convincing the general public and our clients that it is something that they want as well.

Because of the challenges to the way professionals work and operate in the UK there has been a perception that we have been going through a crisis in professionalism and, although I suspect that the nature of the challenge in Italy is different, we are all facing constant change. And we don’t like change, we would prefer it if the world would just stop for long enough for us to catch up and sort ourselves out. But we, as professionals, need to be better prepared for inevitable change, to look forward to see what changes are approaching and to do our best to be ready and prepared to deal with them.

This is the context for a study I carried out when I was Vice-chair of the think-tank Building Futures – a collaboration between the Royal Institution of British Architects and the UK Government advisory body The Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE) - that resulted in a book published in 2003 entitled ‘
The professionals’ choice – the future of the built environment professions’. This was followed by another study looking at the general drivers for change in the built environment, ‘Riding the Rapids’ [2004] commissioned from the writer and urban thinker Charles Landry, as well as reports on the future of education and healthcare buildings amongst others.

The professionals’ choice’ was based on a scenario planning exercise undertaken with a wide range of partners, but critically another UK think tank – The Work Foundation, and produced five separate scenarios for the future of the built environment professions. But initially we looked across the range of professions and we saw that the old professions; architecture, law, medicine etc. were all struggling to maintain their position in a society in which large numbers of people considered themselves to be professional or to be acting in a professional capacity. The study therefore concluded that the old professions needed to be constantly looking ahead and preparing themselves for a very different world.

To help us we looked at definitions of what it was to be a professional and a member of a profession and proposed the following:

In addition we identified a number of changes that were affecting society in general and the built environment in particular:

I would like to address these issues in turn, but end by concentrating mainly on the third – the issue of knowledge for the professional and looking at where the value created by the knowledge worker in 21
st century economies is likely to be found.

There is nothing new in a lack of trust in professionals. We only need to remember George Bernard Shaw’s much quoted statement the “the professions are a conspiracy against the laity” from his play The Doctor’s Dilemma of 1906. And in the UK now there is certainly a very high level of mistrust. In the professions generally this has resulted in much greater level of legislation, guidance, form filling and the use of performance indicators. There appears to be a greater willingness amongst the public to trust the opinion of a celebrity than believe an ‘expert’. Perhaps that is because celebrities stand out against the anonymity of everyday life, they have a track-record, however dubious, that is harder to fake than professional credentials – which as we know can be brought mail-order and in bulk from the internet.

In architecture this has resulted in schemes to score design quality using complex batteries of questions and increased calls for ‘value for money’, but more seriously it has led to the downgrading of the profession in the decision making chain. Frequently the architect will now work for the builder, working to his values, rather than directly for the client or user. This culture of design and build, and latterly ‘Public Private Partnerships’ and the Private Finance Initiative has taken responsibility away from the professional. Those who commission projects have frequently chosen not to trust the professional – preferring instead to believe in the power of the market to produce the best outcome.

The need to regulate the market and prevent abuse is of course one of the reasons why the professions were originally established. Perhaps this is a cyclical relationship and one that will continue to evolve if there is again felt a need to find people to trust possibly because the alternative of not trusting is just too horrific.

Changing World

A rapid turn for the worse in economic, social or environmental conditions may well trigger just such a response and it is one of the jobs of the professions to prepare now for the future, to look ahead and have developed solutions to offer.

Climate change is undoubtedly one of the most serious threats that is facing us and one that requires a collective consolidated professional response. I recently had a part in persuading my professional institution to accept the principle of Contraction and Convergence – a strategy for survival and one that prescribes a degree of global equity and very significant reduction in the emissions of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Agreeing with such a framework provides the Royal Institute of British Architects with the ability to consider what very much more specific actions are necessary. For one we believe that professionals are going to have to be much more rigorous in what they do. They need to be far more responsible – that is to behave more ethically. Behaving ethically is, again, one of the central pillars of being a professional.

Last week I saw the 2004 Nobel peace prize winner, Wangari Maathai, from Kenya, speak, in part about climate change but more about her history as a campaigner for women’s role in society, for the protection and enhancement of natural habitats, for political rights and the importance of planting trees – as many and as diverse a range as possible. But for an audience of architects she had one very significant story. Twenty years ago she was part of a campaign to prevent the building of a forty-storey tower on a site in the middle of Nairobi – a site that was one of the last areas of park left in the city. The campaign only turned around and succeeded when the Kenyan Association of Architects took out a full page advertisement in a Nairobi paper condemning the proposals. Architects campaigning against buildings – extraordinary, but professionally responsible.

We are all going to have to change the way we behave to reduce the amount of CO
2 we emit, but professionals are essential to help wider society achieve that goal using their skill, their knowledge and above all their willingness to collectively act in ways that they know to be correct.


Which brings me back to knowledge, for undoubtedly professionals are knowledge workers. But it is also important not to confuse various other definitions that are been used including ‘
the creative class’ and ‘the intellectual’. I am a professional, I work in a professional capacity and to professional standards. It happens that as an architect I also use creativity as part of my business offer and I hope I also have a contribution to make as an intellectual. But although these roles are in the same territory and significantly overlap they are distinct and should not be confused, for when we consider the issue of knowledge for the professions it should be addressed with clarity.

The most detailed and wide-ranging knowledge is now widely available to anyone, and especially those with a computer and a broadband connection. Doctors are very used to their patients coming to consultations with in depth knowledge about their condition and all the treatments and remedies. The patient may know far more about the subject than the doctor they’ve come to see. But they still come.

I can sit at my computer and do research that would only a very short time ago have required long and lengthy visits to some of the world’s best libraries. I can also carry out complex transactions without any other human agency being involved. Many have seen this as inevitably short–circuiting the need for the professional intermediary. In ‘
The professionals’ choice’ one of the writers – a professor and head of a leading school of construction management in the UK – predicted the automation of much of the UK’s building industry. The customer for a new home would in his mischievous view and within twenty years be able to develop the specification, design, make detailed individual choices, get consents, guarantees and loans and finally just push the Return button to start the delivery lorries moving towards the building plot. No architect, engineer or surveyor would have been necessary on that particular building. The systems, once developed would be able to handle almost all of it without them.

So what in a culture of universalised and instantly accessible knowledge will be role of the professional? It is no longer be as the sacred keeper of privileged knowledge. It has been suggested that instead of knowledge, that extensive assemblage of facts, rules and methodologies, the professional provides that much rarer commodity – ‘
judgement. The professional is the intermediary who can make decisions. Decisions on quality, on cultural value, on diagnoses of conditions and between rival claimants for advantage. This requires a different attitude to knowledge and of the skills of professionals.

It is worthwhile here to defer to the chemist and social philosopher Michael Polanyi (1891–1976) who made the celebrated distinction between codified and tacit knowledge. Codified knowledge is all that information and methodology that can be, in some form or other, captured, recorded and retrieved: essentially all that information we can find in libraries, in cyberspace, in expert systems, that is transmitted directly by education and can be tested by examinations.

Tacit knowledge, in Polanyi’s phrase is “
that which we cannot tell”. Like codified knowledge it covers a broad area including hunches, intuition and ideas, emotional knowledge and acts of creation and discovery. But tacit knowledge is also always in the process of becoming codified knowledge. Yesterday’s intuitive response is becoming tomorrow’s received and tested wisdom. There is a constant flow of knowledge across the boundary between the two and mostly in the direction of codification. Yet it is tacit knowledge that tomorrow’s professionals need to have – it will be their most important item of stock; the only really valuable thing they have to offer the world.

It is true that professionals have always exercised judgement, have always used soft skills in addition to hard knowledge. The difference now, is that it is the only thing they have left that marks them out as different from those simply using knowledge and skill as tools and commodities in the marketplace – often with the assistance of formidable computer power. The challenge for professionals now is to be developing more tacit knowledge as that that they already have is formalised and embodied in extensively managed knowledge banks and systems.

But like advance in science this is not something to be done on one’s own. There is a role for the individual genius but it is not the most significant one. The development of useful tacit knowledge is a collective and collaborative endeavour that requires another aspect that Polanyi insisted on – ‘dialogue within an open community’ – the community of shared purpose, of interest, that is another of the pillars of professionalism; although possibly re-defined to be far more open and accepting than is traditional for professional bodies.

So far as we know there is an infinite supply of tacit knowledge, unlike oil or uranium deposits, but mining it can be hard work to sustain over many decades of a professional’s career. We need to go into training now to be in shape for the challenge. The new vocation of the professional is to be constantly imaginative, innovative and creative, not for the sake of the new and shocking, but to discover ways of dealing with some of the most pressing problems that the world has to face. That is if we are able to improve our overall position rather than be overwhelmed by the forces affecting the planet.

The professional needs to respond to this by looking outward, to see how their particular set of analytic and synthetic skills can be developed, to see where the challenges are and how to meet them. The danger is a retreat behind professional boundaries and the defence of the status quo. One of the most important things we must do is to expand the idea of professionalism again, and to rediscover the importance of working together, of sharing, for the common good.

There is plenty for professionals to do in our more challenging world, a world where much of the work we used to do will have been outsourced overseas; to India, to China, to Vietnam. Instead we need the develop the ability and skills to do other, possibly more interesting things. They will become the real core of what we sell, of what we do, of who we are. But in order to do that, we need to look out, to be open to embrace development elsewhere; we must not retreat behind professional boundaries and we must not try to defend too hard the status quo. We must find new territory to conquer and work together for the common good as professionals within professional bodies, as forward thinking, creative and engaged citizens.

Simon Foxell – February/April 2007

Pasted Graphic 2