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THE FUTURE OF THE PROFESSIONS The challenge of reforming the professions of the built environment

The Professor

It has become almost a commonplace to suggest that the professions are at a watershed – or even under siege. That, with the new culture of accountability in society, there is a ‘crisis of trust’ in their conduct and a serious questioning of their continued relevance. Seen as self-serving and insufficiently accountable by a more transparent and less deferential public, they struggle to position themselves and retain people’s esteem.

Personally, I have been prophesying the decline of the professions as we know them for almost 25 years, arguing that, despite constant flummery to the contrary, they don’t: collaborate in any meaningful way; strategise with any real purpose; innovate excitingly or expeditiously; pressurise perceptively or impartially; lead imaginatively or audaciously; and, they certainly don’t excite the young.

The realisation that the professions are not immutable, especially those contributing to the stewardship of the built environment, is, at last, dawning. They are an artefact that we have built to meet a particular set of needs in a print-based industrial society. We cannot afford them, they are often antiquated, the expertise of the best is enjoyed only by a few, and their workings are not transparent. They will be replaced by feasible alternatives. Two possible paths present themselves:

Technological Transformation.

It is argued that we are on the brink of a period of fundamental and irreversible change in the way that the expertise of specialists within established professions is made available in society. In their book The Future of the Professions (2015), Richard and Daniel Susskind explore how technology will be the main driver of this change, so that, in the long run, we will neither need nor want professionals to work in the way that they did in the 20th century.

They cite growing evidence that this transformation is already underway. More people signed up for Harvard’s online courses in a single year, for example, than have attended the actual University in its 377 years of existence. In the same spirit, there are a greater number of unique visits each month to the WebMD network, a collection of health websites, than to all the doctors working in the United States. In the legal world, three times as many disagreements each year amongst eBay traders are resolved using ‘online dispute resolution’ than there are lawsuits filed in the entire US court system. At WikiHouse, an online community designed a house that could be ‘printed’ and assembled for less than £50,000, which was built successfully in London in 2014.

How will we share expertise in society? In a technology-based Internet society, increasingly capable machines, operating on their own, or with non-specialist users, will take on many of the tasks that have been an historic preserve of the professions. We can anticipate an ‘incremental transformation’ in the way that we produce and distribute expertise in society leading eventually to a dismantling of the traditional professions.

Radical Reform.

As one who has consistently and confidently proclaimed the eventual and necessary ‘passing’ of the built environment professions I recently, and refreshingly, read a book by Simon Foxell entitled Professionalism for the Built Environment (2018) which has made me significantly change my mind. Insightfully, having described their historical foundations and subsequent flourishing, he skilfully reviews what many of us see as their present malfunctioning, misdirection and marginalisation. Foresightfully, he then provides a strategic exploration of their future prospects, promise and potential, examining a series of interlinked propositions for framing future policy for professionalism in urban planning and development. These propositions are arranged under six fields as following.

The Professor

About John Ratcliffe

John Ratcliffe

John Ratcliffe is President of The Futures Academy, which he founded in 2000, and a Fellow of Oxford Brookes University. Until 2009, he was a Director of the Dublin Institute of Technology, where he remains as Professor Emeritus. In the past, he has served as: Secretary-General of the World Futures Studies Federation; Vice-President of the European Futurists Conference; Chairman of the London Branch of the RICS, and first Chair of the Institution’s International Policy Committee; and, Chairman of the European Policy and Practice Committee for the Urban Land Institute. A prolific author and public orator, he has acted as a consultant to countries, cities, corporations, colleges and communities in the area of Strategic Foresight, and is currently conducting several projects in the fields of: “Cities of Tomorrow”; “Future Horizons for Global Real Estate”; and, “Anticipatory Leadership”. Familiarly, his favourite adage is Einstein’s: “Imagination is more important than knowledge”.

Articles by John Ratcliffe

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