Why you should vote for Ben to be RIBA president Picture 1

Ben Derbyshire's blog article before voting starts tomorrow

The RIBA can thrive in a post-Brexit world.

When Lord Foster says, “The only constant is change” I suspect he means the planned, predictable, evolutionary kind, not the apparent chaos and uncertainty that seems now to be about to engulf us. But fortune favours the brave, and any organisation with clear purpose and strong leadership should hold fast and be on the look-out at times like this which always throw up opportunities for those sufficiently agile to take advantage.

More than two years ago, before I knew what I know now about the finances of the RIBA, when the Euro-zone and Grexit, not Brexit, were the issues of the day, I campaigned to join RIBA Council on a ticket for change because I felt increasingly dissatisfied by the way in which the Institute was representing my interests as an architect.  I found myself at odds with the corporate PR of the organisation which seemed to be both elitist and centrist; careless of the concerns of rank and file practicing architects.

I won a national seat, joined the Communications Committee, and participated in a Strategy Working Group set up to devise a five-year plan which was approved by Council last December as Advancing Architecture, 2016-20. I soon realised that members of Council were pretty much in the dark as to the management of the organisation, despite their status as trustees of the charity, and so I also started exercising my right as a Councillor to attend the RIBA Board to which, in theory at least, Council delegates day-to-day running of the business. After more than a year of that, I reckon I have come to a pretty good understanding of how the Institute works and thinks.

And so it is that I come to understand that change is upon the RIBA as an overwhelming inevitability.

I started out by seeking change in order to redefine and restore the fortunes of professionalism in a way that is fit for the information age. I believe that professionals should earn the respect of, and become more valued by, society in a meaningful way - so as to replace the essentially class-based professional privileges of the past. The challenge is to learn collaboration, do more research, build a body of knowledge and practise ethical professionalism that is more valued and therefore better remunerated by society.

Then I found that the RIBA had managed itself into a corner with a series of poor decisions which make both organisational and financial restructuring inevitable.  Furthermore, during years of growing national GDP, it had neglected to grow its membership (the bedrock of its very existence) with a competitive value offer and as a result it has lost significant market share to Arb. That trend must be reversed and a growing, more youthful and diverse membership is central to both the major planks of my campaign for change; increasing the influence of architects and improving the fortunes of the profession and its institute.  

And now – Brexit! It is no exaggeration to say that the profession, along with the rest of the building industry, faces wholesale changes in the market surrounding what we do – the policy context, investment, standards, regulation, planning law, procurement, the lot – all facing major change. And the politicians have not begun to get round the table with enough consistency and consensus to give us clear sight. The dust cloud of Brexit engulfs us.

There is nothing to fear, and much to savour in the exciting changes that lie ahead for the institute. If we are to deliver on the Advancing Architecture promise of a stronger voice, a stronger membership and a stronger organisation there will need to be new ways of doing more for less. The institute can present an impressive edifice to promote what architects do by engaging, brokering, communicating multilateral networks and sharing resources with others to achieve better outcomes at less cost. The default question should be to ask whether we can get an outcome better through partnerships than by going it alone. That applies to the work we must do on standards, guidance and regulation following Brexit, on research, awards, culture and the collections, ethics and so on.

What a brilliant opportunity to create a much more responsive, outward-looking, collaborative organisation with a streamlined decision-making structure capable of seizing the day! The RIBA must make a single focus of championing the great work, not just of standard plan-of-work architecture, but of research, multidisciplinary collaboration, public & charitable service, overseas development, community enterprise all the myriad ways in which we work to improve the design and sustainability of the built environment. 

It’s not for the RIBA to dictate how architects on the front line of innovation should be seen by society and our potential clients. It is for the RIBA to listen and learn from the innovating architects everywhere so that they, not it, become the voice of the profession. If that means we don’t always speak with one voice, so much the better – it’s more interesting that way - the RIBA as a global hub, an international melting pot of best practice, broadcasting the voice of its members.

Ben Derbyshire

This article first appeared on BD Online on Monday 4th July.