Designing in diversity: people, process and practice

Creating inclusive spaces is a top priority for 82% of built environment practitioners.* But who are the people, processes and practices agitating for real change within the sector itself – and what can we learn from them? On 14 July, we met some of the sector’s changemakers and heard their reflections on how sector is doing when it comes to diversity and inclusion.

To design inclusive spaces we have to look at the workplaces and processes that make these places a reality, as well as the places themselves. So, this event focused on people, process and practice and invited panellists to reflect on their personal experiences of working in the built environment sector.

We were joined by Amanprit Arnold, Senior Policy Officer at Greater London Authority (GLA); Dr Ammar Azzouz, Analyst at Arup and Short-Term Research Associate at University of Oxford; Paul Smith, LHC’s Regional Procurement Manager; and Anthony Were, Development Manager at Metropolitan Thames Valley Housing and Co-chair of Unify BAME. Sadly, due to Covid, Danna Walker, CEO of Built By Us was unable to join us.

Over the course of the morning, our panellists made a number of suggestions relating to both organisational culture, as well as specific processes and approaches that can make the workplaces and organisations in the built environment sector more diverse and inclusive.

“Diversity means having a mix of people. Inclusion is about making the mix work.”

Anthony Were

How to create an organisational culture which supports diverse and inclusive teams

  1. Foster a culture of support

Ammar, who is forcibly displaced from Syria, kicked off the discussion with a call for the built environment sector to think more about the experience of refugees and stateless people – particularly how they access the sector.

Media stories about refugees are often presented in terms of numbers; the number of migrants crossing the channel, the government’s policy to deport people to Rwanda and so on. “But we don’t hear their stories,” said Ammar. “Their stories are taken from them.” We need to treat those living without a stable centre as people, not numbers, and show more empathy.

Anthony echoed this, reminding the audience that to be empathetic we not only need to listen to someone’s experience but also hear it. And it’s not just a question of improving the representation of minorities within an organisation, or the sector as a whole. We also need to ask ourselves, once they are there, are we making them feel welcome?

Being in a minority within an organisation – and, perhaps, shouldering the burden of representing the sector when it comes to working on or speaking about diversity and inclusion – comes with a lot of ‘emotional labour’ that too often goes unacknowledged. Awareness of this additional pressure on practitioners from minority groups is important for organisations who want to create an inclusive culture.

For Amanprit, earlier in her career this also meant several hours of additional admin a week as she booked British Sign Language (BSL) interpreters and guided her managers on the process of government grants and support. In order to foster a more supportive culture at one workplace, she asked her colleagues to go on a deaf awareness course.

  1. Create a space for conversation

“We need to create space at all levels to make mistakes,” said Anthony. We won’t get it right all the time but that shouldn’t stop built environment practitioners from trying. “We need to make people feel comfortable with the need for learning and raising awareness, particularly the people who aren’t currently having these conversations about diversity and inclusion. Otherwise we remain stuck in an echo chamber.”

Creating space for conversation will make it easier to own up to mistakes – and to try to put them right by asking the people you’re trying to recruit or retain or represent what you’re doing wrong.

When LHC launched their procurement framework in May 2020 they received three complaints about the lack of diversity on the framework. This kickstarted a challenge for them – to identify why there was a lack of diversity and do something to tackle it.

“It’s clear that diversity drives innovation. If we limit the people who contribute to the sector, we limit the problems we can solve. So we all have an obligation to change it.”

Paul Smith

So they did a lot of market engagement and reached out to different forums in order to understand why there wasn’t greater diversity in terms of the types of architecture practices on the framework. What they learned made them change their processes, including allowing case studies from overseas and giving people the opportunity to have a face-to-face interview rather than just put everything down in a very formal written application.

As a result, they appointed 14 new companies to the framework, mostly micro-SMEs, and ADS1.1 was the first public sector framework of its kind to appoint seven Black-led practices including four Black, female led practices.

  1. Accept the whole person

Although there’s been a lot of discussion about diversity within the sector over the past few years, we still tend to define people from a minority background by one characteristic – particularly gender but also race and ethnicity.

All our panellists pointed to the need for a stronger focus on intersectionality but also the importance of seeing beyond particular characteristics and accepting a person’s whole self.

This won’t happen overnight – it needs to come from a place of trust between individuals and the organisation. Creating space for conversation and fostering a culture of support will help to build this trust, so people feel more comfortable being their authentic self.

How your organisation’s processes and practices can make the sector more diverse and inclusive

  1. Recruit inclusively

After having worked in the sector for a number of years, Amanprit – who is Deaf – first experienced in inclusive recruitment when she moved to the GLA via Public Practice. For the first time, her employer took on the responsibility of organising a British Sign Language (BSL) interpreter at the interview, and didn’t ask her to reassure them that she could thrive in an environment where a lot of workplace communication took place on conference calls.

She now advocates for and raises awareness of inclusive recruitment and the benefits it brings. Part of this involves reaching out to schools and targeting young people from ethnic minorities, including Deaf young people, in order to build a more diverse pool of future applicants wanting to join the built environment sector.

Ammar urged employers to see beyond the label – and to see that people who have been displaced do not need to be ‘trained’ but rather come to the workplace with a wealth of experience that can be applied.

  1. Make your EDI policy a formal part of your organisation

“Like a new IT system, an Equality, Diversion and Inclusion (EDI) policy needs to be rolled out in a formal way,” said Anthony. It needs champions, advocates and allies – particularly staff who aren’t people of colour to champion the conversation around EDI on their colleagues’ behalf.”

Once it’s rolled out, it needs to become embedded. Amanprit explained that EDI is embedded throughout the organisation at the GLA and every employee has an EDI objective.

“You don’t have to a woman to be in the women’s network.”

Amanprit Arnold

To push culture change across the sector, practitioners should ask partners and suppliers to share how diverse their organisations are. And make it clear that a “50% female workforce” isn’t good enough if all female workers are in a particular department and at a certain level; what we’re looking for is diversity across all levels and in all sectors of the business.

  1. Set up reverse mentoring

Ammar outlined the role the built environment plays in making cities more hospitable to refugees and stateless people, but called on the sector to do more to encourage refugee employment – particularly at a senior level.

The lack of diversity at a senior level led to calls from several panellists for more reverse mentoring. This is when a junior employee mentors a more senior colleague, sharing their experiences and the barriers they face within the organisation and the sector more broadly.

  1. Ask different questions

Since improving its framework, LHC is now helping clients in the public sector better understand the barriers to inclusion and educating them as to what they can do about it. One way of improving the diversity of a council’s procurement process and supply chain, Paul suggested, is to stop asking the same questions.

Instead of asking for proof of experience working and delivering projects in the UK – which will limit the number of businesses and practices who can apply – why not accept experience gained abroad? Or, why not ask how that organisation engages with the communities in the area the council wants the project in?

“Once my eyes were opened to the barriers I was putting up to diverse and emerging talent, it was my responsibility to remove them,” said Paul.

Thanks to Arup for hosting the event. If you’d like to get in touch about this programme please email Anna Odedun. 

The next event in this series will focus on inclusive spaces, and will ask: what are the very best and latest examples of inclusive design solutions? And, what are the key considerations when designing for group with protected characteristics, and when designing for all?

We have a great line-up of speakers, including Dr Jos Boys UCL/The DisOrdianary Architecture project, Make Space for Girls, RNIB and more. Sign up to our mailing list to be the first to hear about it.