“Architects can be quite odd. We tend to stick to our own circles and have a bad habit of engaging only with those in our field.” These words, spoken by architect Jenny Wu of Oyler Wu Collaborative in an early morning panel session on design at SXSW, reflect a gentle but earnest critique of the profession that I share.

I was relieved to hear her criticism, as it resonated with my set objective for attending SXSW: seeking out the discoveries and perspectives of those who work at the margin of architecture – seemingly outside the industry, but with ideas that are tangent and constructive to our work. In connecting to those discoveries and perspectives, I believe that architectural designers like myself can develop a more expansive understanding of opportunity in the built environment to engage and represent more diverse ideas – what we at Overland might call the “embedded potential”.

Perhaps it is the child in me that never let go of aspirations to become a marine biologist or robotics engineer, but I have disciplined myself to stay curious about the world outside of architectural career. In school, I found myself looking up from the architecture magazines to find fresh inspiration from musicians, scientists, politicians, authors, and artists whose work could inspire ideas that I would later work to represent in architectural form. At SXSW, this experience is shared with nearly every conference attendee. The potential to discover innovative solutions in our work could be around any corner. With the focus on collaborative discovery-seeking, inspiration is ripe, and I was overwhelmed by the feeling that our industry has much to learn from marine biologists or robotics engineers to inform our work as architectural designers.

The conversations in Austin covered everything from fashion design to artificial intelligence, municipal policy to sociology, pop-culture to space exploration. Ed Purver of CocoLab shared interactive art installations that inspired new ideas of how art, technology, architecture, and urban design can build upon each other. Inspiring the audience to consider what infrastructure exists in our cities to host permanent or rotating artworks in a way that calls attention to the qualities of our built environment, or how architects can intentionally design space to host public art.

Tania Philip of Shutterstock gave advice on the utilization of AI based on the experience of product designers streamlining data from prototype user-feedback. Architects regular present work to communities, city governments, and clients, and we are constantly seeking new ways to interpret criticism and comments from large populations of the public that are impacted by our work. The session prompted a brainstorm on how architectural designers can adopt prototype strategies from product designers and AI from tech developers to gather community reactions on project proposals in an iterative fashion, with AI compiling and sorting the data into illustrations that may help us interpret large quantities of feedback.

Ben Sheppard of McKinsey & Company shared a thorough report on quantitative evidence of the business value of design in a way that can help creatives to support design decisions with economic and financial justification. In working with business leaders across various sectors to understand their perception of the importance of design, McKinsey & Company was able to identify what information is lacking in design proposals that yields hesitation from funding sources to support design proposals. The research exemplified the importance of building multi-disciplinary teams to define design success both aesthetically and economically.

Sessions persistently concluded with a call to action for collaboration – for each industry to identify the strategic partnerships that may strike previously untapped opportunity and reveal novel solutions. The conference yielded new answers to the question I was asking: “How can those outside of architecture inform the work we do and influence our strategies as creative professionals?” I left Austin with a heightened awareness of my role as a designer and of architecture’s ability to link people and ideas.

What are some ways Overland has responded to this question?

Our teams have taken on the challenge to partner with leading engineers and product developers to envision the capabilities of technology to deliver more affordable, sustainable, and structurally adaptive architecture. Our urban projects reflect ambitions of technological and social innovation to decrease dependency on personal automobiles, reimagining the parking garages we are designing today as core-and-shell infrastructure for future residential occupancy as cities like San Antonio face quickly growing populations and impending housing needs. We respond to the research of psychologists, sociologists, and biologists to deliver spaces that respond to emerging scientific evidence of healthy and prosperous models for the learning environment, working environment, and healing environment.

Internally, we embrace technology for its ability to streamline and liberate our design process and communication capabilities within our project teams. Our investment in technology also provides flexibility to realize ground-breaking and higher-performing design solutions through the utilization of digital sketching, 3D printing, live rendering, virtual reality, environmental simulation, and parametric software in conjunction with traditional sketching and physical modeling tools.

Experts and leaders in fields such as Ecology, Marketing, and Technology are invited to our studio for opportunities of discovery and strategic goal-setting in our projects. Committing to an environment of continued learning, our in-house workshops and Academy sessions provide engaging collaborations aimed to diversify our teams, link research to projects, and challenge our design approach through multi-disciplinary experiences.

Additionally, we promote the integration of art in our designs and design processes by engaging with local artists through gallery shows, lectures, and interviews in our studio to share emerging ideas in the city’s fine-art community. These artists bring powerful creative energy to the studio, inspiring our perspective of architecture that has led to projects which perform as art, are developed by artists, and are designed around the experience and inclusion of works of art.

In summary, SXSW shed light on the expansive potential of the built environment. Architecture is incredibly symbolic and representative of who we are as a society – our culture, our values, our ambitions, and our ideas. The expressive dialogue between people and the architecture that represents them is dynamic and powerful. If we at Overland want to build an environment that reflects our ambitions as a society and outlines the kind of world we aspire to create in our future, our work needs to represent a collaboration of our greatest ideas, visions, discoveries, and interests. In this mission, our role as architects is to step outside of our circles and work with communities, industries, researchers, and ideators outside of our field to comprehensively understand new potentials of the built environment.

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