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What are the business benefits to architects of looking ahead into the future?

As RIBA prepares to launch its Horizons 2034 series, this professional feature looks at the positive impacts of peering into the future.

07 March 2024

There’s economic and market sector forecasting and then there is longer term future gazing, which is inevitably more speculative but can make stand out winners of those businesses that get it right and position themselves accordingly.

It’s this kind of forward planning that can help to identify the sectors that are doing well and might do well in the future, and those that aren’t doing so well.

In a profession where business pressures are considerable and at times may feel unrelenting, it’s this concept of foresight that could help to bring to a practice’s attention the opportunity for new clients and new sectors, flag potentially emerging risks and allow practices to remain agile and ahead of the curve.

Looking into the future can help shape company strategy and business plans. (Photo: Pexels)

Helping to shape company strategy

Respected analyst Allan Wilen, Economics Director at leading industry forecaster Glenigan, says most effort is directed at the immediate economic outlook, to help shape company strategy and business plans.

“We’re always trying to map out the conditions that are taking shape in the economy, and we are looking at our latest data in terms of projects coming through the pipeline,” he explains. “We take a view on how things are likely to play out, certainly in the near to medium term.”

But forecasting and using foresight can be a tricky business, especially when bigger structural changes don’t follow the narrative and are likely to leave even the forecasters playing catch-up.

For instance, many could see that the trend towards online retailing was developing, but not the scale of demand for industrial warehouse and distribution space it would generate. Nor the scale of the fall-off in retail floorspace that would leave towns and cities with a major surplus that would need repurposing, Allan adds.

And no one could have predicted that COVID-19 would not just accelerate the online retail trend but would introduce a wholesale shift to hybrid working overnight, because the lockdown coincided with (and accelerated) the arrival of software tools that made working from home a simple matter, even for teams of architects working together on major projects.

“This trend didn't mean there wasn't going to be a demand for office space, it’s just that the type of office space was going to change,” he says. “You will see this in terms of environmental requirements and the quality of the buildings, and the flexible workspaces designed to support collaborative working. It will be about all of those things that people will want from an office in the future and that will encourage them to go into the workspace and collaborate.”

Read more about how architects can diversify into other sectors.

Architects should be watching sectoral and economic forecasts. (Photo:

What is horizon scanning?

It’s these broader structural changes that RIBA will be asking thought leaders and acknowledged experts in their fields to look at for its Horizons 2034 programme that gets underway this month (March 2024) and runs until the summer.

Horizon scanning is a systematic process used by governments, institutions and large business organisations alike to identify potential future trends and higher-probability issues that will impact business and society. The 10-year horizon timeline chosen by RIBA aims to look beyond the trends that are already there to see, but not so ahead that predictions drift into the realm of wild speculation or science fiction.

Over the spring and early summer, RIBA will be assembling expert panels to look at four of the most significant global trends impacting the built environment, from changing client needs to technological changes that will see architectural practice evolve, perhaps dramatically. Just consider how far artificial intelligence has come in a little over 12 months.

The four horizons themes are:

  • The Environmental Challenge
  • The Economics of the Built Environment
  • Population Change
  • Technological Innovation

Each theme will be further broken down into four topics that will be separately reported upon. The Environmental Challenge will comprise four horizon-scanning exercises, for instance, examining mitigation, adaptation, biodiversity and engagement and activism. Architects can look forward to seeing the first set of reports on the environmental challenge at the end of March 2024.

The RIBA Horizons 2034 programme has been timed to coincide with RIBA’s bi-centenary so will be a good time to explore the future of practice.

Read more about RIBA’s Horizons 2034 series from RIBA Head of Economics Research, Adrian Malleson.

Being open-minded as forecasters

In terms of how forecasting can help practices right now, every practice is focused on bringing in new work now or over a timeline of a few months, and so should be watching sectoral and economic forecasts, Allan recommends.

But architects may already be positioning themselves for the future undertaking CPD, and analysing data and growing trends in some of the key built environment areas that the RIBA Horizons 2034 series will explore. Getting a foothold and an early reputation in a growth sector is the best way to grow that work progressively over time.

However, change is not a linear progression and Allan advises architects always to be alive to potential spin-off effects that may not be obvious in early days. He cites the Building Safety Act as ostensibly being about better information from a health and safety perspective. But, the sharing of data throughout the design process that the act demands can be expected to have all sorts of potential knock-on effects, from efficiency gains to better building maintenance and a reduction in construction waste.

Similarly with the drive to net zero, the repurposing of buildings rather than demolition and the rise of circular economy ideas. London’s Westminster City Council has just announced it wants to become the UK’s first ‘retrofit-first city’. Who would have forecast that 10 years ago? It all suggests that there will always be a need for open-minded forecasters.

Thanks to Allan Wilen, Economics Director, Glenigan.

Text by Neal Morris. This is a Professional Feature edited by the RIBA Practice team. Send us your feedback and ideas.

RIBA Core Curriculum topic: Business, clients and services.

As part of the flexible RIBA CPD programme, professional features count as microlearning. See further information on the updated RIBA CPD core curriculum and on fulfilling your CPD requirements as a RIBA Chartered Member.

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