Elizabeth Chu Richter
Carl Bower Elizabeth Chu Richter

With the proliferation of sophisticated software to monitor and guide everything from the medical care of patients to resource consumption in our homes and at work, we can live more efficient and productive lives. However, although omnipresent, digital technology is not omniscient. Care needs to be taken not to diminish the importance of the human factor. Making the hard choices about how we live our lives and build communities should never aspire to be preprogrammed or easy.

This holds especially true for the way architects work with their clients to shape the environment. With the new and extraordinary software programs available to firms, some clients might believe the design process simply involves answering questions on a preprogrammed checklist. To be sure, advances in digital technology do allow individuals to benefit from compressing the time spent on formulaic tasks. Design software can quickly generate many paths to address the client’s needs. But does the number of options really matter if they’re all formulas?

The real value of the tools is not that they make design easy. It’s the opportunity to be even more deliberate—to perform research, to listen to the site, to consider culture and material, and to deeply engage those who will be served by our work. With this information in hand, an array of disciplined options generated by sophisticated digital technology can be sifted and weighed.

It’s this: The listening, feeling, hearing, seeing, and sensing—coupled with the filtering of a lifetime of training and experience—provide the color and depth of authenticity. Informed by talent and experience, our minds do what is still beyond the reach of a computer. We see new connections between disparate parts and use that to create something innovative and truly extraordinary.

Practice in the 21st century means being connected to the world of digital technology. But it should not mean being dependent to the extent that we will stand still if all of our fancy tools go down. As we integrate technology to practice, we should be mindful that what we bring to the design process—the human dimension—is unique. Judgment, experience, and discipline must accompany the use of technology in providing value.

Education and practice have to adapt. It is at the intersection of tools and talent where real creativity happens. And, as it does, a new world of learning, thinking, and business practices will emerge integrating talent, technology, and authenticity.

Elizabeth Chu Richter, FAIA
2015 AIA President