Future Shock: Disruptive thinking in a 21st-century design ecosystem

In today’s architectural and design schools, disruptive thinking and entrepreneurial spirit are fostered by STEAM learning to drive design career success
By: | December 2, 2019

James E. Samels is president and CEO of The Education Alliance and senior partner in the law firm of Samels Associates.

“To create, one must first question everything.” Eileen Gray, pioneer of the modern movement of art and design

This month, we are inspired by the prospect of exploring creative instigators and disruptive thinkers in the future-focused fields of computational design, spatial design and robotics. It helps that these fields represent sustainable, well-paying hot jobs.

On our virtual campus visits, we went from Boston Architectural College, Cornell, Pratt and Rhode Island School of Design on the East Coast to Berkeley, Cal Poly and UCLA on the West Coast. These aspirant architectural and design schools have formed multidisciplinary, interprofessional design learning communities that bring together a range of design scholars and practitioners.

Attracting disruptive thinkers, creative instigators

Chartered in 1889 as the Boston Architectural Club, the Boston Architectural College (BAC) has a venerable history of contemporary design. This is the kind of learning that attracts disruptive thinkers and creative instigators to its faculty and student body. Indeed, 97% of BAC students are already working in their creative professions before graduation. These aspiring architects and designers are attracted to the college’s universal philosophy: removing silos and barriers embedded in standard aptitude tests.

Postmodern in its campus infrastructure, BAC is surrounded by the splendor of grand American architectural history in Copley Square with the likes of Henry Hobson Richardson’s Trinity Church, Charles Follen McKim’s “Palace for the People”(the Boston Public Library) and Henry Janeway Hardenbergh’s Fairmont Copley Plaza Hotel.

With degrees in architecture, design, urban renewal and higher education management, Mahesh Daas, BAC’s new president, brings a fresh perspective and bold new direction to BAC’s future growth and development. An award-winning designer and urban development luminary, he is the author of Towards a Robotic Architecture. President Daas shared this incisive perspective: 

“We talk about robots and artificial intelligence for design with anxiety. You have to demystify new technology. If you don’t, you’re driven by fear and baffled by that experience. It is about how we collaboratively use robots in the design and construction process, moving from the design process to making buildings. So it’s not that robots are going to take over and replace humans, but the relationship between humans and robots and how we live and work together becomes more important. One becomes the extension of the other.”

Integrating high-touch, high-tech design

Beyond robotics, what we learned from BAC is that innovative schools of architecture and design value the optimization of natural light; makerspaces; quiet spaces; psychogenic color selection; open stairwells and corridors to engage community contact; flippable classrooms; team tables for collaborative learning; and ergonomic, soft furniture for student “chill” spaces. These schools integrate a high-touch, high-tech approach to the design of flexible, interactive classrooms, and a polycentric student and faculty-focused design philosophy.

These schools integrate a high-touch, high-tech approach to the design of flexible, interactive classrooms, and a polycentric student and faculty-focused design philosophy.

Ask any millennial who commutes to their WeWork shared office and the notion of open architecture and co-located space comes naturally. Their everyday reality is connecting synergies among “wantrepreneurs” and entrepreneurs. This is an environment that feeds enthusiasm that comes with entrepreneurial startups. These “smart collar” workers have the advantage of proximity to stimulate a new level of thought exchange.

This special shared workspace also generates new interest in spatial design, the field of design that measures the architectural and design impact on the human factor inside the building and not just the facade that’s typically envisioned when the field of architecture comes to mind.

Connecting STEM, STEAM learning

Interestingly, computational and spatial design are to architecture and design what systems engineering is to the field of professional engineering and engineering technology. They are higher level, systems scale, data analytics, decision optimization, big picture, outside-the-box solutions.

These multidisciplinary, interprofessional schools have an appetite for both STEM and STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics). BAC and UCLA have intentionally carved out a niche in STEAM-based early-college partnerships with private and secondary schools. 

As we peer over the horizon of future design learning, just consider the creative design cues that resonate with young professionals who are acutely sensitive to robotics, spatial and environmental impact, and sustainable design. At its epicenter, STEAM-driven design learning connects the right and left sides of the brain. At places like BAC and UCLA, STEAM learning communities produce graduates with resilience, resourcefulness and ingenuity–and the kind of entrepreneurial spirit and disruptive thinking that drives design career success in the 21st century.


James E. Samels is president and CEO of The Education Alliance and senior partner in the law firm of Samels Associates, Attorneys at Law.