As chair of AIA Portland's Committee on Equity, Diversity & Inclusion (CoEDI) since 2016, I instituted an annual event focused on progressing equity in the profession. Branded The Future Vision Symposium each year's focus driven by a new topic, 2017's The Value Proposition for Equity & 2018's Voices in the Workplace. The initial day long symposium worked towards defining the value of diverse talent, proposing a quantifiable benefit to a firm's bottom line. The second year sought to understand the individual's role in firm culture, the balance of maintaining your identity while collaborating towards a shared purpose. Initial thoughts about Future Vision 2019 had me evaluating the concept of Equitable Design. As with all rigorous research analysis, I started by Googling the topic and received countless links to information on Universal Design. It's not that I have anything against Universal Design, but it was not what I had expected.
The term equity is often used interchangeably with equality, but it is a fundamentally different concept. Equality is giving everyone the same thing. Equity is giving everyone what they need to be successful. Equality presumes everyone starts at the same place and, with equal measure, can achieve similar success. Equity is a much more nuanced effort that takes into consideration opportunities, needs and, at a broader level, the definition of success. It's assessing the innate strengths and weaknesses of a certain location, structure, environment or individual and leveraging those towards its best outcome. Albert Einstein once said, “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”
In the same way that the terms equity and equality are commonly confused with each other, I suspect that Equitable and Universal Design have met the same fate. My initial curiosity was how does Equitable Design show up or look like? In much the same way that people have a notion of what a modern home looks like or what green (sustainable) architecture is? Not to say it shows up the same for every individual, but everyone has an image in their head that for them defines something as modern or green. In much the same way I was looking for a series of built objects defined as Equitable Design based on the notion of equity. I had assumed that Universal Design would be one element or, metaphorically one tool in the Equitable Design toolkit, but far from the whole.
Broadly, Equitable Design is about adaptability. Starting from a default - a base of knowledge, a "this-is-how-things-have-been-done-forever" place and adapting for the reality of living. The components of Equitable Design range from the macro to the micro level, similar to Sustainable Design which sees impacts from an individual to a global scale.
At the macro-level it involves futurecasting, master planning for a world and a way of living we can only imagine. Climate change, driverless cars, explosive density - how do we design in a way that adapts as we learn in real time? For instance, a company like phenomenally successful WeWork, which has a front row seat in progressing design innovation around more equitable office design. Creating algorithms from data about how people really work (a mix of open & closed spaces) versus how we think they work (wide open spaces) has informed their in-house design team and allowed a more equitable mix of work spaces. If equity is about providing opportunities to thrive then it must ask questions about the disparity of reality versus conceptualized, what value do we take & move forward from this story and what do we leave behind.
At a micro-level Equitable Design revolves around the individual and their relationship with the space. Smart homes, multi-generational housing, multi-tasking furnishings - structures that adapt to a user that will never remain static. As an example, the most recent figures from the Pew Research Center show that a record 20% of Americans live in multigenerational homes. The idea of aging in place has become a main driver as the baby boomer population grows older and housing becomes more expensive. Extended families living together requires a compromise of spaces, a capacity for areas of retreat and community which Equitable Design tools can help navigate.
Focusing on a practice that prioritizes Equitable Design means reframing our conventional questions, refining our research and utilizing a process driven by long range adaptability. Today much of the discourse on equity within the architectural profession focuses internally; such as the need for a more diverse workplace, the social impact of not mirroring our global client base and highlighting the value of talent intrinsic in personal experience. Yet the architecture of the future, our built world, will be defined through the lens of Equitable Design. So although Wikipedia may currently note Equitable Design as a non-existent concept, I believe it deserves just as lengthy of a definition as Sustainable Design or Universal Design and will be the new paradigm of our profession.
Image courtesy of photographer Hope Herman Wumfeld