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Friend or foe – are service agencies a threat to the A&D industry?

Jan 20, 2020
  • Article by Tracey Porter

Some of Australia’s largest professional service networks are now turning their hand to design-led activities. But what impact is this type of disruption likely to have on those who traditionally dominate this space?   

Diversity is key when it comes to how we define our future habitats. 
But can the design capabilities of management-style consultancies ever match those whose business model relies solely on built environment commissions?

That is the multimillion-dollar question facing the sector as the inroads made by service agencies such as PwC, Deloitte and WeWork into the design space begin to take effect.

Deloitte Experience design head Robbie Robertson, who leads a team of 14 spatial strategists, interior designers and architects across Melbourne and Sydney, was the founder of MashUp – a customer experience strategy and design consultancy acquired by Deloitte Digital in 2015 to respond to what Deloitte’s describes as client demand for better digital and physical integration expertise.

Robertson says since that time Deloitte’s spatial practice has worked with a number of large organisations, both in Australia and abroad, including Deloitte’s new Melbourne workplace (currently under construction), which he believes will “set a new standard in employee experience, enable new ways of working with our clients and foster a balanced and energised community that supports the convergence of work and life”.

Robertson argues that while there is a significant rise in the number of service agencies heading down this route, traditional architectural practices have nothing to fear from such ventures.

Instead, Robertson says, his team’s role is to respond to the complex issues of multifaceted integration and develop both use cases and business cases to help organisations make the right strategic choices.

“We are not trying to emulate [the traditional] model, but enhance it by focusing on spatial strategy, technology integration, new proposition design and testing. We are working with the large architectural agencies, not against them.

“The days of the siloed approach are gone; clients are looking for teams to work together to help solve complex issues across their organisations.”
WeWork is another service agency looking to make the most of its in-house design skillset.

While it won’t disclose the projects it has undertaken locally, from a global perspective WeWork’s design teams have worked on building and design concepts in 528 different physical locations.

WeWork Design and Delivery global head Ebbie Wisecarver says services agencies such as hers are in a unique position to offer potential clients a level of insight that traditional architecture firms cannot.

Wisecaver says the reason for this is two-fold. First, because WeWork co-founder Miguel McKelvey studied and practised architecture, meaning good architecture has been ingrained in the incubation of the WeWork ethos. Second, it is because developing, innovating and operating office space means WeWork is also able to understand the utilisation of the spaces and has embedded knowledge and data around what makes for good workspaces. 

“Outside of our designers, we also have workplace specialists who pull from the projects we’ve done to date and their professional experience in workplace strategy.  We use this knowledge to develop and provide space types, spatial rules and metrics that meet the varying needs of our enterprise members. Whether this is for a law firm or for a technology company, we have experience in what these members want and need,” Wisecarver says. 

“We are able to provide configured spaces with minimal adjustment and customisation, and have the ability to provide a more bespoke playbook for those members needing a space type that we don’t typically offer. A typical architecture firm doesn’t necessarily have this type of experience.” 

Unsurprisingly, Curtin University School of Design and Built Environment discipline lead Philip Ely offers a different perspective entirely.

Ely argues the move by service agencies into service design, design thinking and customer experience is less about authentic design principles and more about bolstering their bottom line.

The right playbook

“It’s a land grab for clients that can be partly attributed to the emergence of design thinking and the belief that anyone can design if they are given the right playbook, toolbox or method cards. Given that many of these activities rely on participatory methods – working with stakeholders, communities and end users – it is only one small step to providing these services for building projects.” 

Ely says while he can only offer a broader design perspective, his impression is that much of the design capabilities of these agencies is led by business analysts and consultants who draw on design methods and the expertise of service designers, but aren’t themselves designers. 

The difference may be that traditional management and accounting firms are not truly design thinkers and actors and never will be, he says. 

“It is not part of the working culture of these organisations. The genuine spark of creativity will only ever come from designers and architects, who are able to design and visualise futures beyond those emergent from design process models.”

Whether it is symptomatic of a failure to influence at the boardroom table, prompted by a client interest in more agile and lean methods, or a result of the streamlining of design projects into usual business processes offered by the [service] consultancies, Ely says he hopes this type of disruption will encourage design and architectural firms to re-evaluate what they offer to their prospective clients – at least in the short term.

“What we’re experiencing is part of the cycle of disruption and reinvention that designers have had to grapple with for the last 100 years. We’ve seen the professionalisation of design practice (post-Bauhaus), postwar industrial boom for design and architecture, and now slowly a ‘de-professionalisation’ borne of technological development (anyone can design anything on a desktop) and business logic (design method for all). 

“However, I believe that there is still a role for design in providing creativity, privileging human-centredness and in looking after our planet; I’m sure management consultancies and accountancy firms are ill-equipped to deliver on this.”

Ely says the future of design and architecture as fields will continue to be in a permanent state of flux, with new forms of speculative, critical, social and ethical design already emerging.

“It is incumbent on our design communities to come together to confront any perceived threats to our industry and formulate new ways of working that set us apart from business-as-usual.”

This topic was debated at length at the inaugural BoAD (Business of Architecture and Design Conference). You

Image: 10 Devonshire Square, London © WeWork

 

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