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Reflections on RIBA’s Inclusion by Design Festival

Chief Executive Alan Vallance reflects on his learnings from the RIBA’s Inclusion by Design Festival (28 September to 2 October 2020).

08 October 2020

Over the last couple of weeks, we have hosted a series of enlightening and inspiring events to promote the importance of equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) to the architecture profession and within our own organisation. These events, which coincided with National Inclusion Week and Black History Month, are part of our commitment to share knowledge and break down the discriminatory barriers that exist in our industry.

The Inclusion by Design Festival which took place last week engaged our staff and hundreds of our members with discussions on subjects such as social mobility, disability, race and ethnicity, LGBTQ+ and gender. Our intention was to create a programme of events that tackled the most challenging and difficult issues, such as racism and homophobia, head on and provoked change. We enlisted the help of an expert group of thought leaders to lead discussions including John Amaechi OBE, former NBA star and now organisational psychologist; Professor Elisabeth Kelan, leadership and organisational design expert; James Turner, CEO Sutton Trust; Moud Goba, Co-founder of Black Pride UK and Julie Fleck, an inclusive design expert.

We kicked off the week with our Architecture of Gender event with a keynote presentation from special guest Elisabeth Kelan, PhD. She is a Professor of Leadership and Organisation at the University of Essex. Elisabeth’s research focuses on gender in the workplace, women in leadership and men as change agents for gender equality. Joining the discussion was a panel of senior leaders from across the architecture profession. Professor Kelan stressed the importance of an intersectional approach to inclusion.

"We are as unique as our fingerprints. Therefore, looking at one dimension, like gender, is inherently problematic. It is a cruel category as we are much more complex and multi-faceted and original," said Elisabeth Kelan, PhD.

RIBA’s Executive Sponsor for Gender Adrian Dobson closed the event by announcing a partnership between the RIBA and Professor Kelan, to work on a new research programme on gender issues within the profession and architecture practice. The last comprehensive RIBA research report on this topic, Vanishing Women, was produced in 2003.

Social Mobility and the Talent Question was our second event, which explored social mobility as a dimension of RIBA’s commitment to inclusion and securing the best talent. James Turner, Chief Executive Officer of the Sutton Trust, presented aspects of their 2019 Elitist Britain report and the challenges for organisations like ours. James also provided advice from the Sutton Trust’s recently published Social Mobility in the Workplace guidance. Dr Maria Faraone, Director of the RIBA Studio, a practice based route to qualification, shared some early insights from her research into the barriers to access into the profession.

"Every young person, regardless of where they were born, who their parents were or where they’ve been to school, should have access to the best opportunities to fulfil their talents and aspirations. No avenue should be closed because of someone’s socio-economic background," said James Turner, CEO of Sutton Trust.

The third event, Pride in Architecture, discussed the importance of creating an inclusive culture where all LGBTQ+ individuals can be themselves and feel like they belong within their community as well as their profession.

"Moving forward we have to recognise the diversity within the LGBT community, and for us at Black Pride it was about providing that safe space," said Moud Goba, Co-founder of UK Black Pride.

Kicking off Black History Month, John Amaechi OBE was our special guest speaker for our The Big Questions with John Amaechi OBE event. A panel including architects, senior HR leaders, a student, a race and ethnicity activist and human rights lawyer shared their perspectives and made pledges on action on ethnic equity. RIBA’s Executive Sponsor for Race and Ethnicity, Maxine McKenzie shared her perspective as a mixed-race woman from a working class background working in predominantly white middle class workplaces, and urged the audience to take accountability for driving change on equity. John Amaechi OBE stressed that culture can be defined by the worst behaviour tolerated — the starting point for discussion.

"Urgency in the context of inequality is an economic, social and if you really need it, a moral justice imperative. It’s not positive action, because that would require the presence of a meritocracy," said John Amaechi OBE, Organisational Psychologist.

Bringing our Inclusion by Design Festival to a close was our Accessibility and Design event. Avril Chester, RIBA’s Executive Sponsor for Disability shared her personal relationship to disability and health conditions. Guest panellist Jane Simpson, a member of RIBA’s Architects for Change advisory group, urged more architects to become accessibility consultants.

"Architecture needs to adapt. Instead of thinking ‘What makes a building accessible?’, instead ask ‘What makes a building well designed for everyone?'", said Lesta Woo, Architect.

It was a great week of education and insights. One key theme ran through every event: the profile of our profession’s workforce does not reflect society and we need to refocus our outreach approaches to attract more diversity. There is a clear need for measurable and targeted actions.

I have also been reflecting on another recent event. A couple of weeks ago we invited architectural historian Neal Shasore to give a presentation on our headquarters building in London. 66 Portland Place is a wonderful modernist building, but it has a number of outdated features referencing the British Imperial past that are offensive. Neal’s presentation was fascinating: he discussed the building’s historical context, and we heard a number of perspectives on the potential changes we could make. I thank everyone who has shared their views on this. More on our work to address our collections and building in due course.

Over the past few months, we have invested time and resource in developing a new approach to EDI, which is ambitious and designed to be impactful. Insights from the festival experts, panel discussions and audience feedback will help shape our delivery plan.

I have no doubt that ensuring we draw on a diverse mix of talent and perspectives within the profession and the RIBA, will make us a more attractive, creative, profitable, and responsible industry. Creating an inclusive environment, where people feel free to discuss difficult subjects is only the beginning of supporting cultural change.

If you missed the RIBA Inclusion by Design Festival, or would like to watch one of the events again, they are all free to view on Vimeo. They offer a wealth of important insights and inspiration, so please share the links and your own learnings with your friends, colleagues and networks.

If you have any ideas or comments please email me at ceo@riba.org.

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