The Entrepreneurship Question was an event that took place at Columbia University on September 16th, 2015. We brought together a real-estate tech founder, an VR entrepreneur, an architecture labor activist, an architecture incubator director, and an architecture business strategist to speculate on the future of the architecture industry, and how graduating students should approach the precarious industry.
Intro by Matthew Lohry
This event is about the state of entrepreneurship within the architecture profession. To gain an understanding of the illusive term, let’s start by thinking about the world outside of architecture.
We all know that technology is changing our relationship to the economy, the nature of employment, and working conditions in many fields of practice. Entire industries have been subsumed by the invention of digital apps, and mobile devices have disintegrated the separation between life and work. Co-working offices, makers-spaces, and incubators are now de facto working environments for an increasing number of people who work within the knowledge economy.
WeWork, one such coworking franchise, accommodates these self-employed, temporary, freelance, and remote working lifestyles. It provides a space where hopeful entrepreneurs share ideas and resources in an environment that offers an array of amenities, from craft beer, to meditation zones and arcade games. Last July, CASE, the BIM consultancy, became WeWork’s first acquisition. The timing corresponds to WeWork’s latest project launch: WeLive. This confirms at least two things: First, it is totally acceptable, if not really cool, to be working virtually all the time. And second: aside from the entrepreneurial cheerleading, WeWorks is, and always has been, a rent-based real estate venture.
In this sense, it’s easier now than ever for anyone with a laptop and an idea to join the ranks of the self-styled startup entrepreneurs. But what is different about this recent wave of start-up entrepreneurship? Let's briefly touch on two conditions, to foreground our conversation:
The first, as described by political theorist Michel Feher, is a shift from the employer to the investor. The entrepreneur does not seek payment in the form of a weekly check. Instead, he or she searches for multi-million dollar venture capital that can only be provided by wealthy investors. Instead of working for an employer, entrepreneurs appeal to a relatively small group of people who get to determine the best ideas, which are overwhelmingly based on their ability to make a financial return. Given the extremely low success rate of start-up ventures, we need to be careful of the assumption that entrepreneurship leads to professional freedom.
The second condition brings us back to the role of digital technology - especially social media platforms that allow us to design, advertise and market our individual subjective identities based on a certain skill or persona. One’s resume is no longer a document typed and printed, but a long thread of images and text that directly or indirectly come to define ones economic product. These forms of self-promotion that blur life and work have drastically changed our relationship to entrepreneurship. Even banal status updates become part of your social media report card.
So what does this mean for the field of Architecture?
As designers we are asked to explore ideas, solve problems, invent new systems, and question methods – but we rarely interrogate how money or alternative forms of value can dictate the applicability of our ideas. Our design prompts in school, for instance, are completely devoid of any consideration of budget, economic viability, or alternative financial strategy. This institutionalized pedagogy follows the modernist separation between design and business. It goes like this: Art is pure - money is bad. Architecture is an art which should not be made impure by the influence of business, which is an extreme irony because our profession is still overwhelmingly represented by high-profile designers who demand huge budgets. This is the illusion of individual artistic genius – the belief that developing one’s signature style is the highest form of professional success, and that architecture can be the product of a single visionary. It is the prevailing ideology of our profession and it prevents us from inventing alternatives.
Take BIG, for example. We all know Bjarke Ingels as the charismatic young design innovator. We don’t however, talk about Sheela Søgaard, the businesswoman who is largely responsible for the exponential rise of BIG projects throughout the world. Sheela, a businesswoman and former McKinsey consultant, saved BIG from the verge of bankruptcy, a result of financial disability that is all too common within contemporary architecture firms, but rarely talked about in professional settings.
The point here is not to advocate a profit-oriented corporate architecture, but to look critically at the role business, economics, and collaboration play in the success or failure of an architecture office. Our goal is to move beyond business-as-usual architecture practice that results in low wages, long working hours, and a disappearing role in the development of cities. There are many positive alternatives to which we can turn our attention.
Take, for example, a young architecture collective from London called Assemble. This group of 14 recently became the first architecture office to be shortlisted for the highly-renowned Turner Prize, awarded by the Tate Modern in London. Assemble’s modest projects are human-scaled interventions that incorporate common or recycled materials. The group is composed not just of architects, but a diverse array of builders, technicians, and educators who came together through similar interests, a common dissatisfaction with establishment architecture, and made real projects happen with limited resources.
Tonight’s event is the product of a similar tendency taking form right here in the studios at GSAPP. Whispers of anxiety about our futures in architecture began to take the form of organized discussion, and now - collaborative projects that exist outside established curriculum. There is currently no space for these questions to be collectively addressed, so we are inventing a venue ourselves. For too long, money and economic class have been a taboo subject within the profession. It’s time we place it in the crosshairs of a critical debate that ranges from personal finance, to new business models, and the viability of capitalism as an economic structure.
To conclude, we hope this lecture will be the start of many debates to come. Through critical discourse, we hope to identify what entrepreneurship has to offer the field of architecture; which questions it can answer and which it cannot. It’s not about catching architecture up to the trend of start-up entrepreneurship, because in this case we are already very far behind. We believe it’s time to make our own bold propositions about architecture's relationship to the economy.
Panel Questions by Julie Pedtke and Manuel Schvartsberg
1. Innovating [subjectivity]
What are the personal skills that we associate with positive entrepreneurship?
How do your architectural skills harness or impede your entrepreneurship?
Some describe entrepreneurship as work that demands “analytical flexibility, creativity, reasoning, and generalized problem-solving as well as complex interpersonal communications such as persuading, selling, and managing others.” These traits could just as easily describe the profession of architecture. If our work is entrepreneurial in nature, why do we find ourselves struggling within traditional architect/client relationships that limit our success both in terms of financial stability and broader social impact?
A big part of entrepreneurship is being able to communicate/persuade effectively. The focus on constant self-promotion tends to blend spheres of life together; is this desirable? How do you role out a media strategy? What are the different levels – personal, institutional, etc?
How might we shift the popular stereotype of the entrepreneur as an individual genius(familiar trope in architecture as well) toward a more social role? [And why is it important that we do so?] This is related to the question of incentives: must these be merely private (profit) or can they be understood more broadly (social)?
How would you define different 'modes' of entrepreneurship? Are there different 'species' (i.e., investors vs coders?) What are the relevant categories to answer such a question?
Entrepreneurship appears to demand 24/7 attention. Is this a healthy [or accessible, ie for those with families/dependents] lifestyle model? What are the bridges between the entrepreneur and civil society – does this problematize the singularized focus of entrepreneurial culture? How can innovations in the private sphere benefit the public at large? [Entrepreneurialism’s lack of diversity; blindness to social problems]
In most media enterprises, the product that is traded is people’s subjectivity (their social networks; consumer profile; etc). Quasi-free services are traded for people’s data lifeworld, which can be capitalized through consumer advertising, and generally higher company valuation. Can this model be incorporated into architecture? How to deal with the privacyconcerns, in both digital and architectural entrepreneurship?
How would the figure of the entrepreneur be envisioned for a post-capitalist world? Do we have other models of creative productivity to draw from (ie, the architect)?
2. Financing [economic organization]
- How do you attract capital? What are the prerequisites in terms of contacts, product, organizational model, skills, etc? (the question of privilege is key here.... but also, less paranoiacally, the question of how to arrange financial resources rationally)
- In the United States, successful entrepreneurs are overwhelmingly white, male, and come from high-income families. Similarly, architecture has a reputation for being a gentleman’s club, with practitioners’ first commissions often provided through personal connections and social networks. What structures or policies do you see overcoming barriers andincreasing access to the profession? Are these structures entrepreneurial in nature, or do they function counter to free market logic?
Tech has shown an ability to grow and gain funding and support quite rapidly. While tech startup failures are many, the few successes are so successful that investors can afford to take the risk. Is there potential in architecture for these kinds of financial successes to subsidize more experimentation and failure? What would architects have to change to develop a similar growth in funding? One aspect might be that tech is scalable while architecture as it currently stands is not seen in this way - one app or software can be used simultaneously by people all over the world, while physical architecture is quite literally grounded in place. Is architecture scalable?
Architecture has traditionally followed a service model in which the client pays the architect through a rate for the services they provide, rather than for a final product. What businesses have successfully emulated similar service models? What factors are driving their innovation and funding that could inspire how architects might evolve to be more financially stable?
How do you manage student debt as a young entrepreneur? Is there a connection between entrepreneurial activity and being in debt? Can our debt be leveraged positively in any way (other than for the banks)? Investors have the state to bail them out (as we saw in 2008) – should the state take a more active role in bailing out young/underprivileged entrepreneurs (for instance, re-structuring student debt)?
The “lean startup” is the newest trend in the business world, promoting speed, flexibility, customer input, and iteration over the traditional business plan. Yet in fields requiring advanced degrees and license to practice, young practitioners are starting out with student debt that is anything but lean. The risk of defaulting on loan payments requires an even bigger financial safety net than would otherwise be necessary, and reduces one’s“freedom to fail.” While lean startup methodologies may increase success rates, is that enough to make it a viable option for everyone? Is institutional reform necessary to lower the cost of entering the profession?
Finance allows resources to be measured and directed, so it is a highly political sphere. Overwhelmingly, however, only shareholders and their agents have access to finance (as a tool and sphere of action). How might alternative approaches to design alter this restrictedaccess to finance? What are alternative ways in which architects could raise capital without relying on a select group of investors, but rather fund their projects in a distributedway through the users themselves? Are there models we can look to such ascrowdfunding or cooperatives that could be applied to large-scale projects?
In architecture, finances are usually understood as either relating to real estate development or handling the owner’s money. What other financial value propositions can be imagined from within architecture? (Ie, using architectural work/value to spread or limit financial risk; designing with financial sustainability in mind; etc.)
How do you relate to the institutional context in terms of financing? Do you pool public capital too? Grants, etc?
How do you handle capital, practically speaking, in different start-up environments? Can we compare this to how it is usually handled by architecture studios?
What kind of financial training/education do you think is necessary in architecture schools?
3. Working [socio-technical organization]
What forms of collective organization should workers (as proto-entrepreneurs) engage today? Unions are 20th century social forms that responded to different models of work, but were an effective vehicle to protect those workers. What does the 21st century version look like? Might architecture learn from the earlier model of the guild, with its focus on mastery as well as cooperation, solidarity?
True innovation re-defines the metrics by which it is measured. How would value be measured in a post-capitalist entrepreneurial business culture? Might this be attempted through different practices at work (employee ownership; supportive life-work balance; etc)? And if the metrics are not determined by self-interested investors, can we imagine other forms of institutionalizing value that are more social (ie, finding ways of measuring and valuing performance, influence, substance, etc, beyond simple private capital accumulation)? What would these institutions look like? Academia is one (partial) example.
Many start-ups have achieved success by combining things that were previously considered incompatible. Is entrepreneurship therefore transdisciplinary by nature? How should architectural education respond to this trend? What disciplinary changes would you like to see happen within the curriculum?
What are the legal as much as the technical challenges in creating a start-up? What are the common pitfalls to avoid?
How do you reconcile shareholder value and employee satisfaction? Can we escape the 'Amazon paradox'?
How to undo the employer/employee (capital/labor) distinction? Is this possible within existing entrepreneurship frameworks?
How do you instill a particular 'culture' at work? For instance, personality-cult leadership vs collaborative ethos. What are the desirable traits for each model? How might different models emerge?