Dr. Calvin Kam

A Culture Unsure

by Dave Gilmore
CEO, DesignIntelligence
March 18, 2021

DI’s Dave Gilmore posits a new lingua franca for professionals in their quest for action, relevance, and reinvention.

In 2020, several pre-existent dysfunctions across our culture were rapidly brought forward, exposed, elevated, and ignited. These issues would have eventually found the light of exposure but the acceleration of so many at once has us on our heels trying to take them all in.

We described these movements as “crises” last year. What they really are societal disorders spreading uncertainty and disease across our culture. For as long as history has been recorded, discrimination, prejudice, marginalization, and exclusivism have played central roles in wars, conflicts, riots, and genocides.

At least since the industrial revolution, humankind’s abandonment of responsibility towards the earth and its natural resources has grown to where we find ourselves today: a world depleted, polluted, and marred.
In response, climate is revolting with heat indexes that rise higher each year, air quality that diminishes at record levels, weather patterns that manifesting extremes not witnessed by prior generations, tides that rise higher and faster than any models predicted, destructive regenerative storms on land and sea occurring more often with greater ferocity, and the list goes on.

The powers of language, image, sound, and pervasive technology have combined to turn from good, better, and best to become instruments of distortion, disorientation, and dissolution. Reasonable people have set aside rationality to embrace misinformation as truth, to replace empirical fact with speculation, and to deploy cursory perusal instead of rigorous research in the pursuit of truth.

Politics oscillates from extreme to extreme. Amid such gyrations, hyperbole replaces integrity, exaggeration displaces veracity, and posturing kicks authenticity to the curb. The longer these conditions occur the more distorted they become. In time, the prior founding truths of society are no longer recognizable or deemed applicable.  

Retreating to isolated independence becomes the norm in a culture unsure. Interdependence, collegiality, and collaboration lose the purity of their meaning when manipulated for political or marginalizing purposes.

A New Lingua Franca

At DesignIntelligence, we believe the built environment industry must move from a reactive, knee-jerk posture to one of initiating action, responsibility, and balance. We are promoting and encouraging a new dialogue to explore and discover an updated lingua franca for our industry. We affirm so much of what this industry has accomplished, and we will continue to, but we recognize the shortcomings undermining our collective relevance and the positive possibilities we could achieve. It’s time for new definitions of old language to come forward. Take the word “value,” for instance. How has it been defined and used these past fifty, twenty-five, or five years? It’s become a word with many meanings, over-used for promoting and selling, mis-used to posture supposed outcomes. In its over-use and misuse, it has devolved into a cliché – a word without distinction or a universally applicable meaning. To have meaning, we need specific, qualifying language. The value of what? To whom? In effecting change, language, and metrics matter.

Our vocabulary must expand. We must learn to use new language. Our expressed influence must accelerate new equitable outcomes. Our skillsets and expertise must be refreshed and enlarged. Our perspective must be radically altered, broadened, and transformed.

Many investing in new dwellings, spaces, and gathering places are befuddled by the dynamics of 2020.  Imagine holding millions of square feet of property now in question. Imagine the conflicts with banks, investors, and tenants around cash flow, debt service, and unmet proforma expectations. Imagine the anxiety of not knowing what to do when everyone is demanding you do something. Imagine bearing the cost in stress, relationship strain, employee anxiety, diminishing bank accounts, and reputational assaults day in and day out with no one offering viable, rational, defensible solutions. Who is coming alongside to offer these portfolio investors solutions that address their direct business challenges? I’ll state it for the record, a building or building design is only a partial solution, not the full solution these folks are looking for.

Non-industry disruptors have figured this out and are moving into the built environment in droves to address real challenges with real, whole solutions — something the native built environment hasn’t done, leaving the door open for others to enter.

The future of the built environment industry continues to be uncertain. Misalignment is occurring across the broad landscape of professions and trades that make-up this industry. Demographics are shifting at a head-swirling pace. Baby Boomers, once thought to be rapidly moving to the exits, are not doing so in the numbers predicted. Many firm founders and principals are staying engaged for fiscal or mental health reasons. Younger generations are moving into leadership roles still needing experienced, seasoned mentors to support their risk-taking and new business models. Wholly new leadership structures are rapidly being devised and developed. New equity sharing models are on the drawing boards to reward performance via non-traditional recognition. Lessons from admired non-built environment industries are being assimilated.

2020 was a year of re-posturing, mostly to react, cope, protect, survive, and sustain. 2021 will be a year of transformation and reinvention. Some organizations will not survive.  Some will cease to exist due to failed leadership and the absence of resilient business practices. Others will close their doors due to fatigue and cooled passion. Many will merge hoping for new possibilities, while others will thrive, driven forward by new dialogue, delivery methods, and demographics.  

Reinvention and Relevance

At DesignIntelligence we posit that reinvention is triggered by the question of relevance. Much of what’s being offered as value by built environment professionals is being questioned by newly altered buying markets. As such, buyers will look to alternative sourcing for solutions. Each organization must confront what they’re willing to change to ensure sustainable relevance. This involves honest introspection, not an inventory of rationalized excuses to avoid the pain of change.

Meaningful introspection usually leads to new choices and different decisions. As you lean into your organization’s search for certainty, we encourage you to view the future through an optimistic lens. Transforming your organization and what it brings to the market in this post-pandemic period just might result in you being the best and most effective you’ve ever been.



Dave Gilmore is President and CEO of DesignIntelligence

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In September 2020, DesignIntelligence hosted a virtual conference on The Future of Environmental Responsibility. A stellar cast of presenters shared thought leadership on a wide range of sustainability-related topics. In closing our event, Dave Gilmore challenged participants to continue the conversation…the challenge was accepted.


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