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Reassessing the institutions

One of the refreshing aspects of life is to watch how one's views change. A recent example for me was my change of heart over a long held belief that there is a need to amalgamate some of the engineering institutions.

This volte face is a result of my proximity to the institutions, which has shaped a growing respect for the art of the possible and the observation that institutions are naturally evolving. The catalyst for this was a recent Edge Debate, where a past president of the RIBA commented on how professionals may start life in one institution but, with time, develop inter-disciplinary skills.

He likened institutions to layers of a cake, with the individual's professional development extending vertically through the strata. This point was brought home when I was introduced to two 'vertical' groups that I was not aware of: one the Urban Design Alliance (UDAL) and the other the Joint Energy Forum.

Each of these represents focused groups of multi-institutional membership. They are centres of excellence, provide a feedback system for each institution and are a single point of reference for the press and politicians. More importantly, they bring together a range of professionals around the issues, breaking down professional barriers and encouraging crossdisciplinary fellowship.

Along side this, they generate the need for focused communal CPD, which further brings together the professions, sowing the seeds for even greater inter-disciplinary co-operation.

As far as government is concerned, in talking to these groups it is talking to all the institutions involved and, conversely, through such groupings the institutions are beginning to recover some of the ground lost through the fragmentation of the professions. What the government evidently enjoys is finding single sources of expert knowledge.

A similar organisation, but with a more formal constitution, is the pan-industry CIC, set up by the late Ted Happold.

Another example is the Engineering Council, an organisation 'invented' by the Government. Both are umbrella organisations. In the CIC's case, its ambition is to present the views of the built environment professions on multi-disciplinary matters; but where an expert vertical organisation exists, it defers to them. The same is possibly true of the Engineering Council. What is important is that neither stifles the development of these specialist groups.

The value of expert vertical organisations, and why they have caused me to change my priorities, is that, provided the vertical organisations resist the temptation to become institutions in their own right, they can bring together, foster, and influence the professions in a profound and concentrated manner. They can live while the need exists and fade away when they have answered industry's call.

They can give reason for the existence of the smaller more focused institutions, while giving a locus for membership in larger organisations. If, as I believe should be the case, they are funded after a period of fostering by the institutions by affiliation from industry, they will ultimately lead to the evolution of leaner institutions where we can all afford to belong to more than one.

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