- Digest by Holly Harrington
Daniel Pink’s six books, including A Whole New Mind, are largely about aspects of business thinking and human behaviour. In A Whole New Mind he makes the case for the leading role of ‘right-brainers’ (read: more creative people) in the future. For architects, urbanists and all built environment professionals, this book is particularly useful in its discussion of the so-called ‘Conceptual Age’. Pink explains its genesis and arrival through a discussion on the right and left sides of the brain and their cognitive functions — although much of this discussion is now familiar to many. While rote left-brained intellectual tasks (accounts, archiving, diagnostics) follow menial labour to low-wage developing countries, the developed world turns to right-brained pursuits in creativity, culture and caring suited to better educated citizens and those enjoying a prolonged post-retirement life. Thus, the Conceptual Age follows the Industrial and Information ages and is a key formulation to guide the future of architecture and the city.
The book begins by describing the current shift in societal culture and mindset as that of moving away from solely valuing logical, analytical and sequential mindsets towards valuing those who think creatively, intuitively and holistically. Pink correlates this with the two sides of the brain being responsible for different cognitive functions which he simplifies to logic versus creativity, or “text” and “context”. The left hemisphere controls logical, factual, and linear forms of thinking, whereas the right hemisphere is intuitive, holistic and non-linear. The modern age has valued L-directed mindsets and careers driving commerce and technological advances. R-directed mindsets, meanwhile, have often been viewed as secondary, explaining why parents often advise against careers in creative arts, or culture. But the hemispheres do not operate singularly; they work together at all times so the right brain/ left brain descriptions are metaphors for the discussion.
Because linear, logical, left-brain thinking is programmable and systematic, it has become dominant. Advancements in technology, production and mass production becoming more affordable, brought many into an Age of Abundance, and this L-directed outcome is now so commonplace, that we are awash in knowledge, technology and material goods.
In addition to the difference between the right and left hemispheres of the brain, Pink narrates the progression of society from the Agricultural Age to the Information Age. If we were to look back even further than this, we would see that the pendulum of right/left brain dominance has swung back and forth many times already and the Conceptual Age is returning to a balance where right-brain attributes are no longer secondary to the systematic and rule based left-brain functions.
Creativity, which is right-brain led, is the saviour of the incoming era: the Conceptual Age, stipulates Pink. Materially sated by the ages of industry and information, society is looking for something new. Right-brain attributes, or rather, more creative approaches, may not yet be mainstream, but many industry pillars follow Ford Motors in considering themselves to be in the ‘art business’ rather than simple manufacturing. As creativity resists being programmed, it becomes more prized as an attribute.
The second part of the book highlights six aptitudes required for this new era; Design, Story, Symphony, Empathy, Play and Meaning. These attributes speak strongly to all creatives already as they are the main components of our skillset. But if creatives already have these valuable skills, what difference will it make going forward? Whilst, particularly so as architects, our skillset remains the same, it is likely that the demand for certain types of architecture and responses to our built environment will adjust to follow the shifting values of this new age.
Because society prioritised L-directed thinking, the full potential and benefit of R-directed thinking was less appreciated until recently. With a shift in values, compounded by the pandemic, society is craving something new and is already looking to creatives to imagine new ways of being and doing for the future.
Without dwelling much on ‘Design’, Symphony, Empathy and Meaning are topics to explore further as a professional in the built environment.
To compose or conduct a symphony, one must be able to see the ‘big picture’ — to see the woods from the brass so to speak — and to be able to merge and combine many moving parts into a pleasing, consolidated and harmonious whole. Composing and conducting is much like what architects, urbanists, lead designers, and project managers do when developing a building or project. The symphonist’s skillset mirrors the architect’s roles as generalist, and synthesiser in understanding and creating our built surroundings. For example, we have all seen many articles about buildings not addressing context, urban realm not addressing the pedestrian, or piecemeal planning policy being released, but if the ‘big picture’ and new value sets become in demand this will hopefully change. There are already many discussions on the transformation of cities in line with new values. As an example, public realm projects may become more directly linked to building projects and vice versa with a whole fresh set of values including local needs and local identity to be considered that may have been before merely a nice to have. This section of the book also serves as a reminder that these skills held by architects and most creatives can be applied in many ways; moreover, that these skillsets cannot be programmed or automated.
Empathy is an attribute discussed next as ‘an essential part of ‘Design’ and also linked to ‘Symphony’ and ‘Meaning’. Pink outlines a ‘whole new healthcare’ in America where empathy becomes central. If this previously L-directed profession experienced a shift towards empathetic skills, there is no doubt creative industries should do so even more. Designers craft and create spaces and environments with an understanding of the needs and desires of the end user. But with modernity, the voice of the end user has been quietened, particularly in the residential sector. Here, return on investment became the main goal of developers making it difficult for architects to provide more than a bare minimum; maximising floor plates, value engineering, etcetera, etcetera — you know the drill. As values continue to shift towards more enjoyable and meaningful lifestyles, this, one hopes, will filter into architectural briefs.
As we afford better and healthier lifestyles, our ageing population grows. Instead of viewing this negatively, our educated and creative older members of society can be assets. Rather than competing with low-wage and outsourced labour, we can benefit from their experience, insight and wisdom. An ageing population has boosted demand for later living developments, alternative ways of living and additional health care facilities which will all require a greater empathy in our design processes.
Now that many in the west have experienced to some degree the Age of Abundance, the quest for more possessions is shifting to a thirst for more ‘Meaning’ in our lives and our work. The surge in popularity for books such as Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens, Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow and James Clear’s Atomic Habits, exemplifies this. For Pink, this is already visible in the ‘proliferation of yoga studios, evangelical bookstores and ‘green’ products’, all viewed by many in the recent past as hippy-dippy, touchy-feely. Now are becoming mainstream along with as consumers becoming more discerning in where and to whom their money goes or how their products are made. But how do these trends in consumerism affect the built environment – expanding from an ethical, sustainable, cruelty free, no-nasties lipstick up to the scale and complexities of a building or even cities?
This will filter into client briefs over time, mostly because of end user demands, desires and expectations – just as with the lipstick above or any other products over the years. People want to live more meaningful lives, which will translate to all aspects of the built environment. Indeed, this aim is in the London School of Architecture’s mission statement. Sustainability, for example, living closer to nature, and in healthier environments could result in architects seeing demands for greener buildings, higher performance standards, larger and better designed amenity spaces and so on. Pink suggests we ‘take happiness seriously’, but it is likely that such standards may start to play an even bigger role going forward as we all demand more from our built environments and improved and more meaningful ways of living with one another in cities and on the planet.
Whilst geared at more L-directed brains, Pink includes useful exercises and suggestions to enhance right brain activity. Many of these tools refresh and remind us of daily human connections and why we find them valuable, enjoyable and important. These valuable tools remind creatives and architects not to forget who we are designing for and why. They assist empathy, understanding, contextual awareness and brainstorming approaches often forgotten once in the professional world.
In essence, this book describes a societal shift, already underway due to changing circumstances and values, which will likely be compounded by the pandemic in accelerating a yearning and demand for a greater sense of connection and meaning in our lives. While Pink doesn’t directly discuss the built environment, it is important for all its respective professionals to be aware of these shifting values to get ahead of the game and use the creative skillsets to guide the future for the better. Commissions, client briefs and user demands will change with time. Ideally change in society and our built environment should be pushed and progressed by those who do have the capacity to view the larger picture. We need creative, outside-the-box thinking to imagine, transform our futures for the better, and to ring in these societal changes.
As the world gets more complex, it is increasingly difficult to keep up with even the most essential reading. This is particularly so for architects because so many fields of learning impact upon its creation, interpretation and assessment.
To accumulate into a useful archive, each issue of Citizen includes digests of writings readers deem particularly useful or revelatory. Because the best writing tends to be of long-term value, digests are not restricted to those of recently published material. And the selection is largely left to readers to reflect the diversity of architects’ interests and inspirations.
Readers willing to contribute to this ongoing series are encouraged to first contact the editors proposing a book or article they consider particularly appropriate.