‘It’s so hard to explain process, but this is what connects us, not the outcome but the process,’ says Roo Rogers on the first occasion that he sits down with his father, architect Richard Rogers for a public conversation at London’s Second Home in Spitalfields. ‘Growing up I watched his insistence that everybody can participate in design whether you’re the assistant or the highly qualified architect,’ he says of his father, ‘and I’ve incorporated that into everything I do.’
Roo describes his upbringing as political, inclusive, grounded in social responsibility – in effect, a ‘human centred’ upbringing. Life lessons in compassion, translated into lessons in business; watching his mother Ruth Rogers’ entrepreneurial approach to the River Café – her ability to manage with ‘grace, kindness and charm’, and Richard’s ability to mediate and build ground-breaking architectural designs using those very same skills.
A childhood memory of Roo’s – secondary to poking scissors into a plug socket – was poking tiny humans into an architectural model during a late night install for the Royal Academy exhibition ‘London as it could be’ in 1986. Disappointment in the piecemeal approach to the Conservative-led development of London driven purely by profit, had sparked Rogers to propose new urban plans, along with ideas from Norman Foster and James Stirling, that put forward a more cohesive vision for the city.
‘I was part of putting human beings into a future of what London could one day be. That was the beginning of understanding the role of designers in making places great. I grew up in a space where I witnessed everyday the power and potential of people to make other people realise their potential,’ says Roo.
A human centred approach has driven Roo’s career. Motivated by social responsibility, he spent the early 2000s directing documentaries pitched at young people under Drive Thu Pictures. Later in the decade he founded OZOlab, an innovation and business incubator. In 2011 he co-authored ‘What's Mine Is Yours: The Rise of Collaborative Consumption’, a book that predated the soaring success and consequent disruption that the sharing economy would bring.
Then in 2013 he joined Yves Béhar’s fuseproject as partner and launched the Spring Accelerator, a division that supports entrepreneurs and businesses that have the potential to transforms the lives of adolescent girls. His journey continues still, as he describes his growing passion for working in emerging contexts in countries of South Asia and Africa.
‘It’s been my endeavour to use my upbringing and share that as widely as possible, I’ve always been working on blending business and social impact. I find business the most interesting medium to effect change,’ he says.
What is human centred design?
In a materialistic world driven by results and products, it’s often easy to skip over the importance of process and behaviours. Human centred design is driven by a set of holistic processes that include systems for empathy, listening, inclusiveness and talent – tools that can be sourced and applied globally and across contexts to create a product.
‘There are anthropological ways of understanding behaviour and listening,’ says Roo. And importantly he says: ‘Don’t listen to everybody all the time, you have to choose who you listen to and then you have to make a decision – that’s where research and design come into play together. Human centred research tells you to listen and human centred design tells you to make something.’
Systems in practice
Richard recently paid his son a visit in Nepal where Roo is working on a project for the Spring Accelerator. The few days Richard was there involved meeting with 80 members of the community to listen, research and understand where Roo might be able to apply business structures to available resources.
Roo discusses a case study in Pakistan that shows the result of his work, an after school education business called Dot and Line. His research revealed a $4billion market centred on the societal importance for children’s education within the Islamic culture. He paired this intelligence with utilising an able workforce of educated women with older children who could be trained into teachers. Combining this with standardising a curriculum and price, branding, and franchising – the business sky rocketed.
From research to results, Roo’s human centred approach succeeded in creating a stable business structure that reaps long term benefits financially and socially.
He’s not afraid to claim that generating profit is part of his work. Yet the focus is on long-term profit, not short term. He is uncomfortable with the current dominance of capitalism that has created a society where governments are listening to corporations before human beings – where capitalism is essentially breaking down democracy.
‘I’m not actually completely anti-capitalist, but I challenge the question by which money has to make money so fast. Think about the people you are trying to serve. The perception that there is so much demand and there is no discernment or need to listen is wrong.’
Roo has seen examples of businesses approaching emerging markets with what they perceive as transformative solutions, yet that do not fit into the social context and fail – a repeating episode in business that is driven by the ever-present and existing frameworks of colonialism.
‘Challenge colonialism,’ says Roo.
‘It’s in the psychology and the way people think, it’s in the confidence of those people and it’s very hard to deal with. The best way to deal with it is a design process.
Human centered design gets rid of arrogance and prejudice. The perception of countries defines how those countries perform in a global economic context. The perception changes the way talent flows, capital flows, business flows. I’m interested in working in places where perception is not reality.’
A human centred leap
The human centred process can be applied across industries. Richard flips a question and bounces it back to us all, demonstrating how human centred design can be applied and directed to anything and anyone. It can be exemplified by the very conversation that sees two practitioners of different disciplines sitting side by side in total agreement, regardless of specialised parameters.
It can also be applied across time frames – and generations. The Pompidou, a bastion of human centred design, was a great and unexpected leap forward in the history of architecture. It opened in 1977, Richard was 44 years old, Roo will soon turn 44, and the same processes are still being applied.
Listenening to the moment, Richard looked at European society with a fresh perspective, as Roo looks at a emerging market. He saw the need to design a cultural institution that was a place for everyone – a new population that was increasingly secular, on the advent of digitalisation, with a booming middle class experiencing a liberal cultural emancipation – the Pompidou was a design solution.
Richard describes the design as a cross between Times Square and the British Museum – an old model set on a newly socially democratic plain – most importantly, with a piazza. Through six years of struggling to get the design off the ground, seven court hearings and only two pieces of positive media, the success of the leap was proved by the queues of people waiting in lines to enter the building.
‘Everything is new in its time. When Lloyds opened, I sat next to the dean of St Pauls. He told me how Christopher Wren, who was in his mid-seventies and had been designing and building for 40 years, became fed up with people telling him he was no good because he was modern, and built a 20ft high wattle fence around St Pauls until it was built. It doesn’t change – we still have to take that leap. Don’t believe that style is the important thing, the important thing is the relationship between zeitgeist and the process of construction – there’s a very big marriage between the two,’ says Richard.
‘The future is purely the present going faster and faster, what we have to resist is the present not dealing with real problems. We live in a very unfair society, we have to put our wit towards making it fairer,’ says Richard, who sees ‘shelter’ as the most important problem facing the future of the UK, quoting the lack of supply of quality, well-designed and built social housing as key and missing from the last 30 years and current context.
‘The only constant we are sure of is that everything will change. It’s been changing for the last 6000 years and it will continue to, so the only hope is that we all put our brains towards changing it.’ The discussion between Richard and Roo revealed another constant, a human-centred approach to design, that might just give us the confidence to take the next leap. §