DISINVESTED, DISRUPTED, DESIGNED
DISINVESTED, DISRUPTED, DESIGNED:
On the Re-Imagining of Transformative ArchitecturesDesign as a service industry is at a critical inflection point; only by adapting can we survive.
Justin Banda, WELL AP, Associate AIA
When the global pandemic finally hit the United States in full force in March of 2020, it represented the single greatest disruption to the world economy that most had encountered in living memory. Reactions at the time ranged from mild annoyance to full-blown panic, but most agreed on one thing: that this would all be over soon.
Eighteen months later, the world is still grappling with the pandemic, and prospects are decidedly more measured; we’ve gone from “this will be over soon” to “it’s likely we’ll be dealing with this for the rest of our lives.” Even with effective vaccines widely available, the economic, social, and personal impacts continue to resonate. 4.07 million people have perished—many of them people who would have otherwise likely still been with us. Although the labor market is slowly recovering, new variants threaten to undo the tenuous progress we think we’ve made, and most of us have grown used to the frequent rule-changes regarding what is and isn’t considered acceptable contact in the age of the pandemic. What’s worse, any positive progress made in the fight towards climate change at the beginning of the American stay-at-home orders was quickly undone the moment people returned to the office, and now we find ourselves besieged by wildfires and heat domes in the west to hurricanes in the east and flooding to the south—all consequences of a climate emergency that has decided it will be ignored no longer. And all the while, one truth has grown painfully clear: this is what disruption feels like.
If you ask Pete Sena, the concept of disruption is widely misunderstood—rather than serving as a catch-all for systemic change, disruption is not a single event, but an ongoing process that becomes part of a system’s DNA. Sena writes,
“Because businesses are framing disruption as a singular event, they are also framing the solution— transformation— as a singular event. A single partner, initiative, or project is deemed the solution and all the resources the company can afford are thrown at it.”1
Because the problem is seen as singular, the solution must also be singular, as the thinking goes, and sinks many an energetic new initiative before it’s left the dock. Leyla Acaroglu believes the concept of disruption has been abused beyond recognition.
“Conceptually, the term means to create an interruption into something that is maintaining a status quo. Colloquially, though, it is much more about making loads of money from the newest, most ‘disruptive’ (read: newer) technology out there… In this context, it’s not about making change; it’s about winning customers, clicks, and clients. [But,] to disrupt is to disturb or intervene… It has nothing to do with coolness or edginess, or even social change or sustainability. [Disruption], in this context, simply has to do with new economic activity that challenges the mainstream business establishment.”2
But disruption is usually preceded (or necessitated) by critical flaws in the status quo— usually following a long period of disinvestment by the system managers (be they the federal, state, or local governments, organization leaders, or any kind of stakeholder). Disruption is the natural consequence of disinvestment and stagnancy.
In relation to America’s critical building infrastructure— our architecture— disruption has been a long time coming. For close to a century, the federal government has systemically chosen to disinvest from the poorest communities in its purview, using racial and economic redlining to section off large swaths of land (and the communities which inhabit the land) as undeserving of remediation. Prior to the passage of the Civil Rights Act and The Fair Housing Act of 1968, those segregative practices were actually codified in the law, serving as part of the decision-making process of local governments around the country.3
Yet even today the policies of systemic disinvestment that were supposedly overruled in the 1960s still haunt our cities, especially in the Midwest, where every major city has seen population declines. In the twenty years or so following World War II, white flight bled major city centers dry as families seeking expansion spread out to the farthest reaches of their metropolitan areas, trading the urban for the suburban. Today, as cities try to entice families and singles into relocating back to their urban hearts, policies such as Chicago’s ban on accessory dwelling units (more commonly known as “ADUs” or “carriage houses”) and Davenport’s struggle to contain the bleeding of students from public to private schools (the loss of funding per student implied therein) only stymie development and halt growth. 4
In Ohio, poverty in urban neighborhoods has expanded. A 2020 study found that 369 neighborhoods spanning Columbus, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Akron, Canton, Dayton, Toledo, and Youngstown either stayed or became high-poverty neighborhoods. The study also found that neighborhood poverty was predisposed to affect Black households the most. “In Columbus, the population living in high-poverty tracts of land jumped from 88,812 in 1980 to 166,530 in 2018.” 5, 6 The middle class is shrinking as disinvestment grows.
Consider the chain of disinvestment using Chicago’s Garfield Park neighborhood as an example. The once-thriving retail strip along Madison Street, flourishing in the 1960s, has today become a hazardous boulevard filled with empty tracts of land and barren storefronts. In 2020, Garfield Park is one of Chicago’s poorest communities, the current population of 20,000 less than half of what it stood at in 1970. One-quarter of the parcels of land sit vacant.
The commonly-circulated narrative attributes the decline of the Madison Street in Garfield Park to a series of race riots following the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968, which left nine dead and 300 injured, and reduced large stretches of Chicago’s West Side to rubble. But a 2020 ProPublica study found a different cause for the neighborhood’s decline.
ProPublica discovered three major causes for Garfield Park’s precipitous decline. “First, no government agency led a comprehensive effort to rebuild Madison Street or the surrounding community. Instead, a succession of government programs attempted to lure private investors,” the study’s authors begin. 7
“Then,” they continue, “the city’s main answer to the neighborhood’s decline was to demolish scores of blighted buildings in a bid to improve public safety. But those aggressive clearance efforts left Madison Street with fewer storefronts for potential entrepreneurs and a glut of empty lots. And in the resulting vacuum, vacant properties became commodities for speculators with little connection to the neighborhood and, in many cases, little interest in developing it.”
Time and again, the systemic response to blight and disinvestment has not been reinvestment, but rather trying to wipe the slate clean, sometimes literally, sometimes figuratively. But that tabula rasa approach fails to address the most important component: resident buy-in. As ProPublica explains: “City leaders didn’t address what would happen if those private businesses simply left and never came back. In the following years, the question would be answered repeatedly: Madison Street would grow emptier… efforts turned out to be too scattered, too small, and too susceptible to shifting politics to make a lasting impact.” The answer to blight is rarely—if ever— to wipe residents from the land and start over.
So what is the solution to widespread systemic indifference and active disinvestment?
The answer to disinvestment is through system shock— when a body is scraped up and bleeding with dirt in the wounds, the answer is to shock the system into self-regeneration with the shock of an antiseptic like hydrogen peroxide. Similarly, the act of disruption in an ailing and disinvested system can serve to shock the status quo into active regeneration.
While disinvestment is primarily a systemic issue, the solutions are not necessarily system-wide, and can be affected by individual actors and organizations within the system, affecting disruption in their industries to spark community growth by bringing the disinvested back to the table. As part of their lauded “Road to 2050” document, the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP) released a roadmap for state and local governments to reinvest in disadvantaged communities. The roadmap highlights some causes of systemic disinvestment, such as longer travel distances, lower-quality education, training, and services, and a mismatch between local property values and revenue requirements which create high property tax rates.
“A critical part of promoting inclusive growth is helping to build economic opportunity and vibrant nodes within disinvested areas that have a historical lack of private investment,” the roadmap goes on to explain. “Most disinvested areas were economically thriving in the past and still have strengths to build upon. Many have highly desirable infrastructure assets, particularly public transit. Rebuilding disinvested areas will be critical to long-term regional prosperity by ensuring that jobs and economic opportunities are available in communities where economically disconnected residents live.” 8
But these changes, while broad, are system-level solutions. As individuals, what is our vehicle for inciting disruption?
“We live in a time of great promise and great peril,” cautions Ninotschka Titchkosky, writing for the Australian Design Review. “At the cusp of the Fourth Industrial Revolution—” (the First Industrial Revolution introducing the switch from hand-made production to mechanized production; the Second introducing electrification and infrastructure; and the Third bringing us to internet and digitalization)— “technologies are becoming embedded in our cities and our lives, blurring the boundaries between the physical, digital, and biological spheres of existence. This is potentially the most significant change that humanity has ever experienced.” 9
The challenge, then, becomes bringing awareness of patterns of disinvestment and disruption into any new wave of technologic advancement. Too frequently, the introduction of new technology comes at the expense of society’s poorest and most vulnerable— consider the computer: an essential tool for 21st century society, but out-of-reach for our oldest and most impoverished, thus placing those benefits out of attainment. 10
The other challenge for the designers of disruption is twofold. On the first of these battlefronts, there is the ever-present specter of cost. Titchkosky explains that “Architects are traditionally a fee for service industry – we get paid to produce things. We aren’t an investment model. This is a challenge for us to shift our thinking into a more balanced view of the way we operate. The reality is you can’t always be paid to develop new ways of doing things.” As a profession, as designers, our challenge is always revenue-driven: disruption is expensive, and as its architects we must innovate in the margins.
The second of these battles is waged between owners and architects. When designers aren’t facing headwinds with suppliers and cost estimators, they must content with the wrath of owners and governments wary of innovation, such as China’s Xi Jinping’s recent call for an end to the construction of modern curiosities like OMA’s CCTV headquarters, or the late Prince Charles’s infamous 1984 speech lambasting modernist buildings as “monstrous carbuncles”. Blaine Brownell sums up the hypocrisy of these criticisms:
“What is unsettling about these and other critiques is not their disapproval of a particular style or approach, but rather their uniform censure of architectural innovation—the aspiration to solve challenges, to improve upon old models, or to simply evade obsolescence. Architecture must innovate in order to grow and maintain relevance and currency in the wake of technological, cultural, and environmental change. Such innovation pushes the boundaries of building, resulting in unanticipated forms and material applications, yet this outcome should hardly be regarded as an affront.”11
Titchkosky helpfully provides a framework for incorporating disruption into architectural praxis. “First, a broad range of early-stage ideas and incremental innovations— anyone can participate in this. Generally, it is not dedicated time, but happens within the current business-as-usual system. Second, promising mid-range ideas— these are innovations that have promise and require a level of practice buy-in and investment through combination of part-time or full-time dedicated people and partnerships or materials. We put a framework around these. Lastly, big bets— these are driven from the strategic direction of the practice. They have dedicated teams and agreed-upon investments, and include things like research projects, which are years-long.”
Ultimately, however, the real challenge of disruption is that true disruption requires a commitment to fundamentally altering the existing paradigm, an act which moves many beyond the limits of their comfort zones. As Joshua Gans explains, “Pulling that off turns out to be more difficult in practice than it sounds in theory: In many cases, disrupted incumbents find themselves unable to transfer the new technologies into their mainstream operations because doing so requires them to fundamentally change the way they manufacture and distribute their products.” 12 This type of rug-pulling usually ends poorly for the incumbent; often, the nimble startup is better-suited to take advantage of this kind of paradigm shift.
We see this especially in the AEC industry. Three years ago, writing for Medium, Chris Woodard warned that the architecture industry was setting itself up for future failure by focusing too heavily on new physical construction, rather than on human experiences within fluid spaces. At the time he wrote, the global pandemic was still three years off, so his warning seems especially prophetic: “Based on the trends of our current business and social climate, this [focus on new construction] seems to be a missed opportunity. Big “tech” firms have shown that the creation and distribution of products is too easily commoditized. There are too many people who can do the same thing… architecture firms are not set up to compete with the WeWork model. Architecture is a product oriented business except now WeWork is providing a service on top of that product.”13
This is not meant to underemphasize the importance of innovative practices, but rather to highlight the point that designers are, ironically enough, often the slowest to change and adopt best practices. Disruption is a siren’s call that tempts many but which few succeed at achieving, which brings us back to Sena’s original paradigm shift: that disruption is not a singular event, but rather an ongoing process resulting from an evolution in mindset. Our challenge is to focus in practice areas we already serve— terra firma rather than terra nova— and expand our practice to include truly disruptive practices in our workflow.
Justin Banda, WELL AP, Associate AIA serves as program director for Legat Architects’ annual Think Tank symposium. He currently serves on the AIA Chicago Board of Directors as an Associate Director and designs programming for various AEC-related emerging professionals groups across the country.
1. Pete Sena, Why Everything You Think About Disruption Is Wrong, DigitalSurgeons, https://www.digitalsurgeons.com/thoughts/strategy/why-everything-you-think-about-disruption-is-wrong...
2. Acaroglu, Leyla. “What Is Disruptive Design?” Medium, April 29, 2019. https://medium.com/disruptive-design/what-is-disruptive-design-5988e290ad88.
3. Mitchell, Bruce C., PhD Senior Researcher, and NCRC. “Reversing the Red Lines: Disinvestment in America’s Cities » NCRC.” Accessed July 16, 2021. https://ncrc.org/reversing-the-red-lines-disinvestment-in-americas-cities/.
4. The Quad-City Times. “Letter to the Editor: Unacceptable,” February 2, 2021. https://qctimes.com/opinion/letters/letter-unacceptable/article_f5de5c0a-535d-516a-9195-bdbb19f54c18....
5. Ferenchik, Mark. “More Columbus and Ohio City Neighborhoods Are High Poverty, Not Gentrified.” The Columbus Dispatch, July 17, 2020. https://www.dispatch.com/story/news/politics/county/2020/07/17/more-columbus-and-ohio-city-neighborh....
6. Ambrose, Graham. “‘A Great Start’: City Leaders Are Encouraged by Early Signs of Success for Refurbishment Program.” Dispatch Argus. Accessed July 16, 2021. https://qconline.com/news/local/a-great-start-city-leaders-are-encouraged-by-early-signs-of-success-....
7. Dumke, Tony Briscoe, Haru Coryne,Mick. “Disinvested: How Government and Private Industry Let the Main Street of a Black Neighborhood Crumble.” ProPublica. Accessed July 16, 2021. https://www.propublica.org/article/disinvested-how-government-and-private-industry-let-the-main-stre...
8. “Disinvested Areas - CMAP.” Accessed July 16, 2021. https://www.cmap.illinois.gov/2050/draft/community/disinvested-areas.
9. Titchkosky, Ninotschka. “Transformation – Disruption and the Future.” Australian Design Review (blog), September 15, 2019. https://www.australiandesignreview.com/architecture/transformation-disruption-and-the-future/.
10. Schwab, Klaus. “The Fourth Industrial Revolution: What It Means and How to Respond.” World Economic Forum, January 14, 2016. https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2016/01/the-fourth-industrial-revolution-what-it-means-and-how-to-res....
11. Brownell, Blaine. “The Disruptive Nature of Architectural Innovation.” Architect Magazine, January 15, 2015. https://www.architectmagazine.com/technology/the-disruptive-nature-of-architectural-innovation_o.
12. Gans, Joshua. “The Other Disruption.” Harvard Business Review, March 1, 2016. https://hbr.org/2016/03/the-other-disruption.
13. Woodward, Chris. “The Coming Disruption of Architecture.” Medium, May 18, 2018. https://medium.com/nyc-design/the-coming-disruption-of-architecture-424d3cac7a5f.