The Decade Ahead: Design & Social Change in 2020 and Beyond

AEC Social Design trends 2020 SmithGroup

The 2020s will be an era of escalating social change. We expect increasingly divisive political dynamics and rising economic inequality to be counterbalanced by substantive progress led by social movements that will radically increase equity and inclusion. Design will reflect these two divergent dynamics with the rise of the privatization of space and an increasing focus on how design can celebrate diversity and foster inclusion.

Atmosphere of Instability

There’s no denying that political polarization and divisive nationalism is making its way around the globe. From UK’s Brexit to the China-US trade war, and nationalists gaining power in Brazil and Hungary, there is a move toward fragmented politics that center on excluding those labeled as “other.” And the climate crisis will exacerbate this division as increasing numbers of people are displaced by droughts, extreme heat, wildfires and rising sea levels—leading to increasing competition for limited resources like habitable land, arable land and clean water. We believe it is possible these feelings of scarcity and separation will lead to a trend of more private, exclusive spaces, highlighting a separation between “us” and “them.” Brett Wilbur, architect and construction specifier, suggests, “Design will move towards exclusivity by developing inward-facing spaces that turn away from the public exterior. This architecture of fear will likely include private courtyards, internal plazas and large atriums.”

In this atmosphere of instability, competition and space resource challenges, cities and public agencies may face growing budget shortfalls, struggling to fund all but the essential civic projects. We believe the next decade will see new, creative approaches to funding civic improvements and much needed infrastructure investments. Design strategist David Johnson expects to see, “Increasing reliance on private capital to develop the public realm, creating tension between owner’s rights and public benefits, obligating designers to promote inclusive design in these new hybrid spaces.” As we progress into the 2020s, it may become a trend for civic buildings, transportation centers and other traditionally public spaces to be privately sponsored and heavily branded, such as the Salesforce Transit Center in San Francisco. Designers can lead advocacy for civic policies, design and planning strategies the mitigate barriers for at-risk populations that have been historically marginalized. We also expect that while defragmentation and divisiveness may continue at the national level, local entities, in contrast, will become primary sources of innovative solutions in the next decade.

People First

Architecture and design have the power to mitigate and transform exclusionary policies, systems and practices in the civic realm. While it is challenging to overcome divisions and perceived differences, designers will focus on educating and employing just and equitable frameworks with design strategies to mitigate these critical barriers. In tandem, designers will rely on our ability to create meaningful connections and compassion with the at-risk populations in our communities; building a deeper understanding of people’s motives, experiences and challenges. Intensive engagement strategies will become a core component of any design process, relying on designers to establish project goals the create alignment between public and private wishes. “We will create inclusive solutions that embrace individuals and communities, ensuring that the designs we are building provide sustainable, affordable and accessible solutions for all,” says Katrina Kelly-Pitou, an economist and urban systems strategist.

The 2020s will be an era of challenging the systemic inequalities and prejudices prevalent today and of accepting the richness of experience our diverse society presents. “Inclusive design for buildings and sites will challenge long-held but veiled attitudes toward historically marginalized and at-risk identities,” says Lori Singleton, corporate design director. Buildings, sites and cities will no longer be designed in a manner that assumes able-bodied, white men as the unspoken standard. Instead, spaces will be designed for people first, with a focus on creating systemic solutions.

Designing for Equity

“Design will address gender and racial equity in the built environment,” says Merrill St. Leger, urban designer. As a profession, we will grapple with how spaces either promote or obstruct equity, forcing us to go beyond our design training for answers. We will learn to uncover and mitigate our own ingrained biases to create equitable spaces, increasingly working with researchers, sociologists and psychologists to incorporate critical race theory, intersectionality and other social theories to decode existing spatial inequities.

While we’re learning to design for equity, we will rethink what defines a successful project. Stepping beyond the boundaries of our individual projects, design solutions will be evaluated not just by how they affect clients or users, but by the influence and impact on wider society and the environment. According to architect Rachael Johnson, “My work does not stop with the building or site. Designers must acknowledge those we serve and those bystanders we affect. We must take an active role and make positive contributions.” Further, we will be accountable for our impact on those who lack a voice. If a project would disrupt an already underserved community or an important bird flyway, we must take on the role of activist to find productive solutions.

Prioritizing Inclusion

Architect John Moorhead puts it well, “Design affects all of us and must be made by all of us. Our industry must widen the net of inclusion.” To effectively create inclusive equitable spaces, designers must look at our own field to ensure we represent the communities we are serving. Homogenous—all white male—firm leadership, speaking panels, award juries and project teams will be universally unaccepted, giving way to a range of new voices and perspectives. Design media and design awards programs will evaluate the merit of designers and projects through the lenses of justice, equity, diversity and inclusion, choosing to celebrate only those making positive contributions.

The industry will progress to proactively recruit and welcome designers and engineers that represent the intersectional diversity of our population, including historically underrepresented groups, to join our field. “Firms will evolve beyond the initial steps of designating directors of diversity and inclusion, and providing scholarship programs, to create programs that engage young people at multiple touch points throughout their education, establishing a pipeline of diverse, creative talent that will help us create culturally competent, inclusive design,” says Stacie Thornton, senior human resources manager. While we certainly support grassroots programs, like those developed by our colleagues architect Michael Ford (Hip Hop Architecture Camp) and architectural designer Tiffany Brown (400 Forward), we believe that more of the industry will find it imperative to create and institutionalize their own programs, rather than relying on the efforts of individuals.

While we’re recruiting new young designers to the field, we will also learn to retain the design talent already here. We’ll find solutions to the “pinch points” identified by the Equity by Design (EQxD) Survey 2018, which offers insight into the personal and professional milestones that hinder career progression and influence decisions to leave the field. “In the next decade, we will explore how firm and personal values guide meaningful careers and talent retention. We’ll detail the ingredients of a satisfying career in the design field, considering how individuals and firms can positively influence workplace culture and project outcomes through the lens of equitable frameworks,” says Rosa Sheng, director of equity, diversity and inclusion.

The 2020s promise to be full of fast-paced change fueled by evolving technologies, changing attitudes and divisive politics. While the challenges may be great, design will help lead the way to creating a more just and inclusive society.