Why Entrepreneurship Needs a Place in Architectural Education

Published on December 30, 2015 | by Lidija Grozdanic
© unsplash - Matthew Wiebe
In the history of architecture, the gap between architectural education and practice has never been as evident and problematic as it is today. A volatile global economy and the emergence of new technologies have had both educators and young professionals in the A/E/C industry re-evaluate their options, and more and more are turning to entrepreneurship. So are schools able to catch up with this new movement?

There is a reason why the term “architecture” is no longer only associated with designing and building physical spaces. The architecture of applications, websites, software and networks all illustrate the manifold nature of what it means to practice architecture today.

Architecture has broadened as a field, merging various disciplines, technologies and products. This expansion requires a new educational model to teach students how to innovate and compete in an industry that is increasingly outward facing.

When we say there is a gap between academia and practice, we don’t only mean that architecture schools are failing to prepare students for entering the workforce. The bigger problem seems to be that, while schools may teach students to be innovative in terms of design, there is an overwhelming lack of similarly pioneering content for the business side of architecture.

This disconnect becomes even more alarming when we compare the industry 10 years ago with the industry today, where entrepreneurship has emerged as the most compelling economic force the world has experienced in the last decades.

It is true that architectural education needs to strike a balance between the theoretical and practical aspects of the profession. But more importantly, architectural courses need to teach students to take a proactive role in building their careers.

RIBA’s recent research found that 80 percent of UK-based employers and 75 percent of students think that architectural schools fail to provide students with the practical tools necessary to enter the workforce. In June 2014, RIBA Appointments carried out two complementary surveys.

One was sent to employers in the architectural industry and the other to architectural students and recent graduates. The surveys show that over 80 percent of employers and 74 percent of students think that architectural schools put theoretical knowledge above practical capability.

More than 50 percent of employers and students think that architectural course content doesn’t accurately reflect the field of architecture today.

Even more importantly, architecture degrees also appear to overlook the teaching of soft (transferable) skills. Over 50 percent of employers feel that students/graduates lack the soft skills needed to practice architecture. The profession’s age distribution is at its peak between the ages of 40 and 44, with only one third of the profession being younger than 40.

This proves that architecture schools are failing to connect architecture with entrepreneurship because older staff members are more likely to stick to conventional approaches in their careers. In addition, the age distribution means that existing businesses tend to operate by way of old models, which often fail to adjust to global trends.

Marketing, management, finance and business plan development are some of the concepts that students need to be familiar with in order to find their own, individual and perhaps unconventional ways of engaging with design. Preparing students for an entrepreneurial career and equipping them with the necessary skills and competencies to compete in a rapidly changing economy is a must.

Teaching the same methods and approaches to architecture will generate graduates armed with tools that are already outdated by the time they enter the workplace. Teaching enterprise-oriented professional development in architecture will bring forth a generation of out-of-the-box thinkers and job creators.

“Educationists should build the capacities of the spirit of inquiry, creativity, entrepreneurial and moral leadership among students and become their role model.”  P. J. Abdul Kalam

An encouraging example of entrepreneurial thinking in schools is the Penn State sponsored business accelerator program, Lion Launch Pad (LionLP), which aims to help student entrepreneurs realize their innovative projects and transform service concepts into viable startups.

Students Aaron Wertman and Josh Kesler were selected to design the program so that they could develop Apparatus X, an adaptable tool trailer that doubles up as a micro-living unit. The team behind Apparatus X plans to take the trailer to New Orleans, where it will help with the recovery efforts in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Another student, Mike Zaengle, designed a project that simulates self-contained ecosystems, to allow people to grow food almost anywhere. The project, called GreenTowers, includes various products that help cultivate urban farming, including tables with aquaponic gardens.

Kevin Pu, a 22-year-old student at Ryerson, is making a splash in the Canadian architecture industry with his research into augmented reality. His Augmented Reality in Development Design (ARIDD) is a piece of software that creates live interactive building models in real time and can be used on an iPad.

Using computer-generated sensory input such as sound, video, graphics or GPS data, users can create and simulate designs in real-world environments. Although there are several examples of this technology being developed by startups all over the world, the interesting angle in this story is that Pu has entered the industry while still a student.

It is important that architects no longer frame their professional identity through the buildings that they design. Venturing from these conventional notions of architecture requires a level of initiative and preparedness to confront uncertainty and obstacles.

The profession in general needs to learn to become more entrepreneurial in its approach and so expand its opportunities beyond the confines of the industry. Lateral thinking and problem solving are soft skills that are considered the innate marks of architects, but these need to be nurtured in order to effectively combine design with entrepreneurship.

It is high time for architecture schools to incorporate lessons into their programs that focus on recognizing opportunities, testing feasibility, analyzing the competition and developing effective business plans.

Designing apps and software, learning about areas peripheral to the discipline of architecture, and understanding how to develop unique designs by him or herself are some of the many ways a student can take advantage of unexplored opportunities within the A/E/C industry. If these skills were to be taught at school, they would empower students to become archipreneurs.

How do you think architecture degrees and programs can be improved to facilitate a more entrepreneurial mindset in students?

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