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Simple ambitions - Civic innovation and the path to an agile profession serving the common good

Inclusion matters. As we celebrate Black History Month, RIBA's President Elect, Muyiwa Oki shares his story – what sparked his interest in architecture, how he has evolved in his career so far, and his hopes for the profession.

26 October 2022

A sense of inclusion

One of the most basic human needs is to feel included. An inclusive environment is where folks work productively together towards a common goal. It is where the learned society of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) is needed to bring architects, the wider sector, and society together to advance architecture for the benefit of all.

I stood for RIBA President following a grassroots campaign, alongside my peers, which focussed on speaking up for the future architect, and I won!

This win has given a voice to a large section of our community that feels disenfranchised. It is a bold step forward - as the next generation of civic innovators takes responsibility and ownership of our profession.

Inclusion matters everywhere in the world. We must dream about and plan for a new type of architecture — a profession of happier employees and employers whose value is appreciated and rewarded throughout society.

A bit more about me

My values, aspirations, and desire to create and serve the common good, were suitable mixtures of feeling and reason to get me into architecture.

The typical career path for a son of Nigerian immigrants is medicine, law, or accounting and finance. I didn't get joy from these options. Instead, I chose to be an architect because the variety of aspirational roles was seductive. The creative thinker - the artist - the wizard who assembles a purposeful design from thin air.

In more prosaic terms, it seemed like a reasonable thing to do for an 18 year old who liked art, maths, and philosophy. 

David Adjaye was talking about Urban Africa in an exhibition. At the time, he was commissioned to do the African American History Museum in Washington, DC. A savvy building steeped in rich technical details and references to African heritage. I visited it this summer, and it was an inspiring space! 

Now that I have grown up a little, I have worked predominantly on large scale projects with public bodies as clients. Therefore, my career showreel might focus on HS2 Euston. It is the most dynamic project I have worked on so far and holds a special place in my journey as it was the case study for my professional qualification.  

The North London Heat and Power Project (NLHPP) – is a flagship redevelopment of an energy recovery facility in Edmonton, part of the London Borough of Enfield. It invests in a sustainable future by turning household refuse into energy. I would love to go and see how that’s doing. 

My current role as Technical Assessment Lead - delivering Major Estates programs for a public body at Mace, focuses on creating off site manufactured solutions. 

I enjoyed my roles on these projects because they all had an objective bigger than the client or team. At NLHPP, the aim is to humanise waste management by creating a facility in which the local community takes pride.  Projects like these are designed to be ambitious, accessible, and authentic places, all good characteristics to aspire to as a leader, professional, and institute.

Level up to an aspirational profession

I often get asked, why run for RIBA President? 

Initially, outside my day-to-day job, I wanted to be part of the growing conversation about equity in architecture. Unfortunately, the RIBA Presidency has often been perceived as a status symbol rather than a position for civic innovation.

For people from underrepresented groups, this win is a good advert for what can happen if you raise your head above the parapet - wherever that parapet may be. Now I see it as a position that is ripe for an explosion of innovative ways to:  

  • nurture a thriving and forward-thinking architecture community
  • combat the engagement challenge - by capturing and harnessing the power of the membership
  • enable climate action - by reimagining the way architects do business

Like a magpie, I collect inspiration from indiscriminate sources. For example, I got some ‘inspo’ from an unlikely source - the Gilmore Girls. That Warner Bros show, where one of its characters, Mitchum Huntzberger says, “ see, in the real world, it’s not always good enough, to do just what’s asked of you”. In my view, Huntzberger is asking us... What if you design a career that is authentic, outside of the path laid out for you?

This is similar to the core teachings of one of my favourite authors Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who says no matter who you are, you have the energy, influence, and agency to change things for the better, whether it be regarding feminism, racial injustice or climate action.

The ambition was and remains simple, to challenge unfairness and change it, so that everyone can flourish. But, more importantly, people need to design their careers in a way that makes sense to them. So, at RIBA, we can work towards supporting and creating an aspirational profession. Where those who choose to belong can do so successfully - by including, developing, and championing all legitimate avenues for education, training, and practice.

A new direction

A lack of evolution comes at a cost. We must constantly improve dynamically to create innovative solutions to our challenges. And this includes capitalising on the rapidly transforming digital tools available at our fingertips to build an agile and adaptable culture, ready to take on whatever the world throws at us. 

As I prepare for my time as RIBA President, I encourage aspiring architects to: 

  • be accessible, energetic, and authentic
  • choose your own path: it’s not always good enough to do just what’s asked of you
  • ask yourself: How can you best serve the common good?

*Civic innovation: a new idea, method or device that improves a city’s operation and/or the lives of its citizens.

Black history and Black present

As we come together to celebrate Black History Month, here's my pick of just some of the Black-centred events and activities taking place across the UK. If you're able to, do take part. Hopefully they will help to develop your knowledge, awareness and drive to invest in and support the Black community.

Black History Month lecture

Kellogg College, Oxford, Wednesday 26 October 2022, 5.30pm to 6.45pm

Join Iyiola Solanke (Academic Fellow in the Inner Temple, Chair in European Union law at the University of Leeds and Founder of the Black Female Professors Forum) as she discusses decolonising EU law.

Black History Month - Parenting in the UK

Common Room, Sheffield, Wednesday 26 October, 4pm to 5pm

Hosted by Hallam Union, this seminar will feature speakers with lived experience, a Social Worker and a legal expert - discussing UK laws on parenting, working with social service and managing cultural challenges of raising children in the UK.

BFA Film Nights: The Woman King

Everyman Canary Wharf, London, Thursday 27 October 27, 7.45pm to 11pm

Black Females in Architecture are hosting a screening of the film, 'The Woman King' - inspired by real events, this is the remarkable story of the Agojie, the all-female unit of warriors who protected the African Kingdom of Dahomey in the 1800s.

Black History Month awards ceremony and gala dinner

Novotel, Milton Keynes, Saturday 29 October, 6pm

This event will recognise and celebrate people and organisations within the Black community who are contributing positively to the development of Milton Keynes. It will also recognise organisations who proactively support and include Black communities.

Black History Month at Ancient House Museum

Norfolk, October

Norfolk Museums are hosting a range of events and activities throughout October to celebrate Black History Month. These include art workshops and walking trails.

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