Specialist skills are valuable assets for any profession but they work most creatively when they’re flexible and adaptable, collaborating with other specialisms and respectful of their interdependence

Sadie Morgan

I was sad to hear of the recent death of the supremely talented Dutch footballer, Johan Cruyff. The sadness is in part because when I set up dRMM Architects 20 years ago with Alex de Rijke and Philip Marsh, we did so on the principle of Total Football, the theory expounded by Cruyff that any outfield player could play in any other position on the pitch with comfort.

In Total Football, a player who moves out of his position is replaced by another from his team, retaining the team’s organisational structure. This sporting analogy seemed to work well for our young studio, with its handful of employees.

At dRMM, we were light on our feet, with a team that understood the different aspects of design from conception to construction, able to drop in and out of position whenever needed. Aside from the spice of variety, working in others’ shoes highlighted the skills and talents of the previous wearer, which developed a culture of mutual respect and understanding. There was something wonderfully liberating about working in this way, enabling individuals to gain insights and create connections that were invaluable to the success of the organisation.

But just as we mourn the death of Cruyff, someone who embodied and encouraged the spirit of a fluid style of play, I reflect on the fact that we operate within an industry that is increasingly based on the very opposite: a more rigid, silo mentality that discourages movement, decreases connections and stifles creativity.

Offering work-based opportunities just to encourage an understanding of your fellow teammate’s role – be that in individual professions or governmental departments – seems like a luxury

Perhaps such specialisation is inevitable – in a tough economic environment, with limited resources, a multi-dimensional skills base just isn’t seen as offering value for money. After all, it requires less investment to train a worker to be good at one particular task, so specialisation should increase productivity and efficiency. Offering work-based opportunities just to encourage an understanding of your fellow teammate’s role – be that in individual professions or governmental departments – seems like a luxury.

It is right that we think hard about where we spend our scarce resources but keeping people rigidly in position can have a profoundly negative effect. The productivity of the UK economy depends not just on squeezing efficiency, but on speeding up and focusing our decision-making process, and that depends on an ability to grasp not just the specifics in front of you, but the wider implications of what that decision implies.

Consider this: it is still more expensive to build in the UK than in comparable countries and many of the increased costs are baked in at the early stages of a project – scoping, design and procurement. I would argue that many of those costs are a direct result of an inability of individuals to think beyond their own specialism and to connect with others.

It’s not just businesses that fall prey to the tendency to retreat into the safety of their respective positions, but government organisations and policy makers too. And in the realm of UK infrastructure, which I have become involved in as part of my work as a commissioner on the National Infrastructure Committee, it has become clear that we need to encourage the sort of broad-minded, collaborative thinking that too much specialism works against.

To achieve a more sustainable economy, the infrastructure of the UK has to work as an integrated system. With the support of local planning authorities and relevant governmental departments, masterplanners, landowners and developers need to work together, navigating projects through numerous political and economic cycles.

To date, the commission has produced three reports, covering Smart Power, Transport for a World City and High Speed North, all of which have been accepted by the government, attracting a £400m investment in support of the recommendations. A theme running through all the reports is the need for a clear vision grounded by strong awareness of the interdependencies between systems and “local” knowledge of the place in which they operate: an awareness of the bigger picture, allied with an appreciation of the individual elements that make it up.

From technology to housing, smart cities to the future of transportation, infrastructure planning requires specific expertise and knowledge, but it needs to be relevant to its position within the whole. We have to look to a future where there is flexibility and adaptability within specialisms with the respect and understanding of the interdependencies between them. Only then will the sum add up to more than its parts, and the equivalent of Cruyff’s Total Football be achieved.

Sadie Morgan is a co-founding director of dRMM Architects. She is also the HS2 design panel chair and sits on the UK’s National Infrastructure Commission