London, United Kingdom
Auckland, New Zealand
Masdar City, Abu Dhabi
New York, New York
Woods Bagot’s Global Insights Leader, Francesca Birks, advocates for a more pluralistic, insights-driven, and cross-disciplinary approach to our global challenges.
A design strategist, facilitator, planner and cultural producer with decades of international experience in design, engineering, media and advertising, Francesca Birks knows how to transform data into understanding.
In this piece, written on the eve of 2021, she draws on her twenty years of experience as a trained facilitator, researcher and design strategist to look at our current climate and consider a path to intelligent decisions.
Some would say there has never been a more challenging time to be a designer. Faced with the collective threats of global pandemic, economic recession, social upheaval, and climate change it’s easy to despair of our abilities as design professionals, let alone as humans, to work our way out of this maelstrom. In 2019 the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Climate Change Resilience Index assessed the ability and willingness of the world’s 82 largest economies to confront climate change and found that climate change could directly cost the world economy $7.9 trillion by 2050 due to increased drought, flooding, and crop failures, and that developing countries that are poorer stand to be more adversely affected with Africa expected to lose 4.7% of its GDP by 2050.
If we are honest with ourselves it’s not like we didn’t have warnings: Black Summer bushfires in Australia in 2020, SARS in the early 2000’s, and the Los Angeles racial riots of the 1990’s set off by the brutal beating of Rodney King, among a list of many others. The universe has been imploring with humanity to rise beyond the legacy structures our ancestors have created, take responsibility for past mistakes, and finally make good on the promises of the Paris Agreement in 2016. Yet in a vacuum of strong global leadership, those pleas have gone unanswered and those promises have since unraveled.
“Faced with the collective threats of global pandemic, economic recession, social upheaval, and climate change it’s easy to despair of our abilities as design professionals, let alone as humans, to work our way out of this maelstrom.”
Despite all the doom and gloom of our current predicament, I know at least some of us are not quite ready to throw in the towel, though we may eagerly await the day we can ditch our masks. If anything, now is the time for us to take the horrors of 2020 and ask ourselves, what is the legacy we want to leave behind for our children?
It’s been observed that it becomes easier to understand the major burdens we are placing on future generations when we have children of our own. As a mother of two young children, I agree. When the world imploded and we went into lockdown in the spring of this year, I felt a tremendous sense of guilt and grief for the temporary pains of lost school days and summer camps, and even worse for the longer-term impacts of the calamity we are handing over to our children. It’s as though our Western culture of consumerism has trained us to defer payments and use credit that is not ours to use. So, what will our next steps be? We can sit tight, awaiting the expected vaccine and then return to “normal”, double down on our consumption of the earth’s resources and continue to put millions of people in developing parts of the world at great risk while ignoring the widening equity gap that we are experiencing in the West. Or, we can seize the unique opportunity that this year offers us and start to make more intelligent, empathetic, and empowering long-term decisions.
“If anything, now is the time for us to take the horrors of 2020 and ask ourselves, what is the legacy we want to leave behind for our children?”
It was in these strange and uncertain times, and potentially because of these times, that I decided to join Woods Bagot, an organization that champions empathetic design, human-centered architecture and believes that the values of design are one and the same as the values of end users and the planet. For far too long we have propagated the false separation between humanity’s wellbeing and the health of the environment. For every action that humans take we are creating cumulative, long-lasting impacts. We need to start thinking critically about the future, positioning ourselves in that presumably far-off place and using those insights to guide our decision making today.
As we start envisioning that preferred future, we may need to take stock of some of our presumed norms and methodologies. I was recently struck by an observation made by a urban planner and writer, Allison Arieff, when she said that today’s urban challenges, such as affordable housing, rising sea levels, and a host of others, can no longer be solved by the same old group of professionals. Now is the time for applying our creative skills as designers and leveraging the empirical evidence of data to finally solve some of the greatest challenges that humanity has ever faced. Now is the time to work in partnership with other disciplines, with a respect for the communities that we serve, and with a real comprehension and appreciation for the finite resources which have afforded us the ability to grow as a species. And now is the time to at long last pay respect to Indigenous communities and to bring to light their vast awareness and intrinsic knowledge of sustainable practices. What the Western world is only now starting to appreciate about climate science, Indigenous people have long known.
My responsibility as the new Global Insights Leader is to look at the data, understand the potential impacts, both positively and negatively, and ultimately to analyze the qualitative and quantitative data to help uncover preferred design futures. Insights are a unique and powerful commodity gleaned from studying data and human emotion, intangibles, and feelings. How we choose to respond to these insights is what we want to explore with you. Let’s run some experiments, let’s test our assumptions, and finally let’s chart a better path forward.
“We need to start thinking critically about the future, positioning ourselves in that presumably far-off place and using those insights to guide our decision making today.”
Woods Bagot’s timeline for acheiving Net Zero in the Aviation industry by 2050.
In the coming year we hope you will turn to the W-B Journal for insights on how the aviation industry might reach net zero, for thoughts on the next generation of education and innovation districts, and to envision the challenging but realizable transition from fossil fuel to electric mobility. As we look forward to 2021, we will work hard to earn the interest and attention of our community and to engage in critical discussions to advance our sector. As a profession and as human beings, we must take responsibility for what we design, how we design, and the impact of our work. We can choose to mark 2021 as the year that we dug our heads in the sand and resigned ourselves and future generations to the environmental, social and economic debt we have amassed. Or we can draw on the power of our global collective intelligence to write a history and design a future we can be proud of. I would like to opt for the latter, I am excited to join Woods Bagot to learn and share some of the ways we are working across the globe to solve the challenges we have created for ourselves.
“As a profession and as human beings, we must take responsibility for what we design, how we design, and the impact of our work.”
Talk to Francesca Birks about Why we need global, collective intelligence.