- Words by Jason Sayer
- Photo by Freddie Ardley
Finn Williams is Co-Founder & Chief Executive Officer of Public Practice, a London-based, not-for-profit social enterprise that aims to improve the quality and equality of everyday places by building the public sector’s capacity for proactive planning.
What are you trying to achieve and why?
Public Practice is about improving the quality, and equality, of everyday places. The events of the last few weeks and months have highlighted the structural inequalities in our health, our housing, our society. These inequalities are built into our environment. But as built environment practitioners, we have relatively limited agency to really tackle these issues. I certainly felt that in private practice I ended up working for the people that could afford it, and not the everyday places where I was most needed.
We believe the public sector, and local government in particular, is one of the few kinds of organisations where built environment practitioners can tackle these structural issues at scale, and genuinely work in the public interest. So we’re placing architects, planners, urbanists, engineers, surveyors, sustainability experts and others in new roles within public authorities. In the short-term, it’s helping to build the public sector’s capacity for proactive planning. Over the longer-term, we hope we can collectively rewrite the job description of the public planner, and rethink the role of the public sector in the way places change.
What’s your business model?
Public Practice is a not-for-profit social enterprise, and at its core is our placement programme. We recruit cohorts of around 30 Associates every six months who are placed within Authorities for a minimum of 12 months. The Authorities pay their salaries, which are between £30,000-£70,000, and pay us a placement fee of £5,000. This income covers around 70% of the costs of running the programme. The rest is covered by public, private and third sector Partners who give us grant funding which allows us to keep the programme affordable for Authorities and accessible for Associates. The funding from Partners comes without restriction, which means they have no say over how we spend it, and no involvement in how Associates are selected, where they are placed, or what work they do.
How do you measure success?
Measuring our impact is difficult, because planning takes a long time to play out. Ultimately, the judges of whether we’re successful will be future generations that live in the places our Associates are working in. In the meantime, we can measure how much additional capacity we’re building in the public sector: so far that’s 177 placements across 46 Authorities, which adds up to over 35,000 days of additional expertise. We measure how diverse our cohorts are: so far 64% of Associates have been women and 26% from ethically diverse backgrounds. We’re deepening our understanding of the value of less visible but equally important aspects of diversity, including disability, sexuality, neurodiversity, and lived experience. We record the qualitative differences Associates are able to achieve within their first year – within their organisations, and in the field. And we look at what they go on to do after the end of their placements: so far 91% have continued in the public sector.
How did you get where you are today?
My path has been similar to many of the Associates, and many of the others in the Public Practice team: Pooja Agrawal, Nikki Linsell, Claire Jamieson, to name a few. I studied architecture but found the scope of private practice frustratingly narrow – I didn’t want to be designing the right answers to the wrong questions, or even assuming that the answer had to be a building in the first place. So I decided to move upstream to Croydon Council, where I was lucky to work with some outstandingly talented colleagues. The nine years I spent there and then at the GLA were an amazing education in how you can influence the built environment beyond the red line of any building, over much longer lifecycles than any contract, and in the interests of citizens not clients. I co-founded Public Practice with Pooja as an organisation that could help others make a similar move.
What lessons have you learnt?
I went into architecture education at a time when the height of success was seen as putting your signature on a building. Starchitects designing iconic projects for the front pages of magazines. I think I’ve learnt along the way that you can get much more meaningful things done if you’re willing to cede and share authorship. That might mean being pleased if a politician says that your idea is theirs, opening up an initiative to more diverse voices, or trying to get a project to a point where it works without you.
What advice would you give your younger self?
I think I’d keep on reminding myself to speak less and listen more. To ask more questions, and give fewer answers. To be honest I still constantly need this reminder.
What’s the biggest challenge you face in trying to do your job?
I think the biggest challenge I face in trying to do my job is balancing it with not doing my job. I’ve slowly come to the realisation that to work well, you need to learn how to be off work well. Looking after my four- and seven-year-old children during the last year of lockdowns has both made that more evident than ever, and more difficult than ever. Hopefully the experience is helping everyone develop healthier attitudes and expectations about work.
What’s next for you?
Public Practice is really working now within London and the wider South East, for practitioners with at least 3 years’ experience in disciplines like architecture, urban design, planning, landscape and community engagement. The next challenge for us an organisation is how we can scale its impact to a broader range of geographies, careers stages and disciplines. After establishing Public Practice over the last 4 years, I’ve come to the conclusion that this next phase of growth needs someone with new energy and ideas – and I’m delighted that Pooja Agrawal is taking over from me as Chief Executive this summer. I can’t think of anyone better for the job.
For me personally, the next step is taking on the role of City Architect for Malmö in Sweden. In some ways, I’ll be putting myself back in the shoes of being an Associate, and trying to draw on all of the experiences and learning I’ve gathered from Public Practice’s extraordinary community of Associates and Alumni.