Tuesday 31 August 2021
Place de l'Etoile, Luxembourg, KPF © Karim
London has a central role to play as a leader in global architecture and urban design, and now is the perfect time to be reflecting on London’s position on the world stage. It will be some years before it is clear what components of the current climate relate to Brexit and what is the result of the global pandemic.
If Brexit was a ‘protest vote’, the result of people feeling left behind by the increase in Global and European trade and development, that message has been registered very clearly by Government and developers. In all current discussions, ensuring that projects and cities are relevant to all, with an increased focus on inclusivity and equality, has taken on new urgency.
The international clout and outreach of the design professions in the UK is unique in Europe. London’s strength is the quality of design talent at every scale and level. Our discretionary planning process allows for an exploration of ideas, technologies and design that is not rule-based. It encourages a faster adoption of change, whether that’s social, sustainable or technological elements of a scheme. With talent drawn from around the world and working across cultures, architects are able to absorb and translate many influences.
Taking the best elements of one place and understanding how those ideas can be translated for another. We really enjoy working collaboratively, resulting in projects with cultural and contextual sensitivities whether that’s in Vienna, Bangkok or Shanghai.
Ultimately London’s position as a design capital will depend on our ability to appeal to a young, diverse talent pool and to interesting clients — people who have traditionally been attracted to the openness, tolerance, culture, and vibrancy of London. We need universities that are open to all and a city where young professionals can afford to live and work.
If the government doesn’t establish unreasonable barriers to entry for European workers, the state of the UK economy after COVID-19 will end up defining international talent chooses to move to the UK to study and work.
Major cities still have a very great deal in common and the dialogue and interaction of skills and ideas is important to them all. I’m optimistic about the ability of London to retain its position as a design capital. But it is paramount that London’s tolerance and vibrancy is protected and relished to ensure London maintains its status as a relevant cultural place, a place where innovation and exchange happens.
The coronavirus pandemic has accelerated changes to the way we work that might otherwise have taken decades to have a meaningful impact. Working from home has been tested at an international scale over a prolonged period and ‘hybrid working’ looks set to be a feature of our lives going forward.
After the initial shock phase of the pandemic, clients and businesses in the sector have quickly adapted to working in a digital environment. While face-to- face contact is essential for innovation, to nurture talent and undertake complex tasks, the acceleration of digital working brings new opportunities for UK- based companies to work on international projects without the need to travel as much as before the pandemic. As a global business, AECOM has long recognised the benefits of using digital technologies to draw on the skills of its employees wherever they are located. To reduce our corporate carbon footprint, we make conscious decisions about the need to travel or opt for virtual alternative.
As global economies recover from the health and economic costs of the pandemic, we are likely to see fewer flagship projects come to market. Global clients may well be more cautious in how they spend
their money and the need for resilience and renewal will dominate.
The impacts of the pandemic, the frequency and unpredictability of shock events and growing systemic challenges is on the rise.The world needs to be more resilient to the effects of change, and the built environment has a vital role to play.
Recovery from the pandemic should be a catalyst for change, building back in a way that creates sustainable legacies.There is already a notable shift in the scope of projects, with clients giving more emphasis to environmental and social outcomes, as well as the circular economy — reusing and adapting assets that in the past would have been replaced.
As the climate crisis intensifies, the sector will need to invest in new talent and upskill its existing workforce in areas including resource efficiency and reducing embodied carbon. As countries around the world progress towards reaching carbon reduction commitments, the longer-term challenge is to go beyond net-zero. Creating world-leading, high-value jobs in future-proofed skills like these will increase opportunities for UK businesses to export their expertise.
There is no better time to capitalise on the UK’s capabilities in climate resilience. As host of COP26, the UK will be the focus for the global response to mitigating the impacts of climate change. Businesses must be prepared to engage, show leadership and share their most ambitious and innovative thinking.
Grimshaw thrives on its diversity, and this includes the wide range of nationalities of our employees, with our business, collectively, speaking over 50 different languages. In London alone, 40 per cent of our team originate from outside of the UK.
This results in a rich mix of experiences, cultures and knowledge helping us to everyday inform our work and build a global network, as well as create an agility and ability to work beyond our business locations. In all our work, in the UK and internationally, you can see the evidence of this diversity: a focus on design which is contextually and environmentally appropriate to place; the integration of heritage and high technology to embed buildings and infrastructure successfully into existing cities; and the adoption of innovative tools and processes to transform design, delivery and construction.
The changes we see in our industry, in the UK and internationally, is now a significant consideration. From the impacts of the pandemic restricting international travel and movement and, specifically in the UK, the economic impact of Brexit, there are undoubtedly challenges. We are hopeful that new future trade deals will benefit the architectural profession and advocate for agreements such as the mutual recognition of qualifications.This would help in cutting out the sometimes lengthy and expensive process when recruiting from outside the UK will also, without doubt, help to retain London and its reputation as an innovation hub and encourage greater exchange and export of design and innovation excellence. Potential barriers to this could still occur through difference in salary expectations, university fees and cost of visas which large practices could absorb but maybe trickier for smaller young practices looking to recruit.
Halfway through lockdown in 2020 I was talking to a friend who is a very senior executive in a large US-based financial institution with a significant workforce in London. I was asking her how Brexit, and now the Pandemic, was affecting their presence in London. I wanted to know how many of their many thousands of employees in the UK were being moved to Paris or Frankfurt. Her answer was very interesting. She explained to me that there are no more than twenty executives at the very top of their London operation—well-paid, important people for their operation here.Those American executives feel very personally connected to London — for language reasons and because they love living in London. She suggested that the company’s decision not to move thousands of jobs to another major capital city in Europe was based, largely, on the preference of those very few key executives. When pressed for the main reason those people want to stay in London she said: “its culture”.
That, to me, was the clearest reason I have ever heard for investment and support in London’s world-leading cultural offer. It is absolutely central and crucial to maintaining London’s place in the world as an economic, financial and political powerhouse.
And it is not just high culture that defines London as the cultural capital of the world. From the Royal Opera House, home to the world’s finest ballet and opera companies, through West End commercial theatre (the fastest growing live entertainment sector) to the small, specialist galleries of the East End and the vast amount of community arts across our city, the ecology of London’s arts offer is necessarily complex, interwoven and central to the operation of our capital. For every prima ballerina, performing at the highest international level, there are young dancers in training at ballet schools across the city and for every Tracey Emin there are young artists learning in London’s many art schools — the very best of their kind in the world. Each corner of London’s cultural sector works together in a complex matrix of interwoven support.
Imagine a city with no culture. No paintings, no theatre, no music, no dance, no film. It’s unthinkable. And imagine how much our creative economy would be impacted consequently. When our creative industries are widely recognised as the best in the world and there are buildings in every major world city (many of them cultural spaces) designed by British architects, you can see how important London’s culture is to the life of our country. The lives of everyone in our city and everyone who visits are immeasurably improved by the access to culture of all kinds. Our role in the continued development of our city is to protect its cultural life, create opportunities for it to thrive and improve access to all. We are nothing without it.
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