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by Enoch Sears, 2 September 2014
Redesigning the practice of architecture to reach the 95%
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This is an excerpt from an interview with Thomas Fisher, a Professor of Architecture and the Dean of the College of Design at the University of Minnesota. Originally published by the business of architecture

Enoch: When we were talking before on last week's show, you talked a little bit about the disruption that you're seeing. I think that's such a great word for what's happening both in architecture and in academia. Could you tell me a little bit about what you're seeing?

Tom: Well, The digital revolution and the fact that we're moving in to a new industrial revolution is really having a disruptive effect in virtually every industry. We've seen what it's done to the music business and to journalism. I think we're going to see similar kinds of disruption across every industry including the construction industry and including higher education. In fact, there's evidence of how that's already starting to happen.

Maybe just a step back: The economist Jeremy Rifkin has been writing about the rise of a third industrial revolution in which we are moving out of a mass production, mass consumption economy of the 20th century in to what he calls a mass customization economy of the 21st century. What that's doing is, sort of, forcing systems, be it the construction industry as a system or higher Ed as a system, to be much more responsive to individual needs.

For example, in higher Ed, we basically have had a mass production mentality toward education. You come in as a freshman, you leave as a senior. You go through a standard curriculum, and it's a little bit like a an assembly line which is the characteristic metaphor of the second industrial revolution that Henry Ford started about a hundred years ago.

Now, students are coming in and saying, "No, I don't want to just go through a standardized curriculum. I want to be able to combine architecture, and sustainability, and maybe some business courses, and maybe a little bit of sociology. I want to be able to, sort of, customize my education." This runs up against accreditation processes which tend to standardize education, which is, in fact, misaligned with the needs.

Increasingly, students want to customize what they're learning often because they have very specific goals in mind that they want to achieve. So, higher Ed needs to think about how one does that, and schools are starting to figure out ways to allow this kind of mass customization. At the University of Minnesota, for example, we've taken our spring semester courses, divided this semester in half, so there's a whole series of short courses.

So, let's say, a student wants to study architecture but have a strong business focus. You can take a whole series of short business courses that would give you a much stronger basis to do work in that area when you graduate. We're finding students really taking advantage of this ability to, in some ways, customize their education.

Now, architects, should be really good at this, right? Because we're always doing custom solutions to individual clients' needs. So, in one level, our industry and particularly the architecture profession is very well-equipped to thrive in a mass customized economy such as the one we're in.

However, the downside to the profession's business model is that we have problems with the "mass" part. So, we're good on the customization part, we're not so good on the mass customization part unlike other design fields like product design, for example, industrial design, they're really good at the mass part and they're figuring out how to mass customize products.

We're beginning to explore new business models here at Minnesota. For example, the architecture profession has, what I've called a "medical model" of practice which is that we serve the individual needs of fee paying clients in the same way that a doctor does an individual analysis of a patient's illness, and the patient pays for that service through insurance and all of that system that exist there. That's fine for those who can pay our fees.

I think the dilemma that the architecture profession faces is that we serve, maybe, 2%-3% of the world's population. So, I look at the other 95% of the world's population as an enormously promising, untapped market for us. In other words, instead of saying, "Oh, well, there's no way we can serve most people on the planet," we should be saying, "How can we serve everybody on the planet?"

I've been interested in what medicine did. Medicine gave birth to public health to deal with the health needs of everyone on the planet. Public health didn't replace medicine. We still have doctors doing customized solution to patients, but public health has brought medical knowledge to everybody.

I think we're at the verge of giving birth to a public health version of architecture and design where in addition to doing the customized work for our fee paying clients we'll be doing mass customized projects for potentially millions and millions of people.

So, there's an enormous market there because our human population is growing rapidly. People are urbanizing at an unprecedented rate. For the first time in human history, more than 50% of the human population lives in cities, and, in a few decades, it's expected to go up to as high as 75%. So, there's a lot of need for building, but it's not going to be by people paying the traditional architectural fee.

The question is then: How do I organize a business in a way that allows my firm or me to respond to that need? We've been, sort of, working on what a public health version of the field would be, and how firms would get paid, who the clients would be. I mentioned that because I believe it's an entree in to a mass customization way of thinking about architecture: Develop prototypical solutions that can be adapted by local communities in very different clients and very different cultures to meet their needs. It's customizable by local communities, but it's available to the masses.


Read more or listen to the interview online at the business of architecture