The director at consultant Cirkadia on the importance of social value, her love of dress design and why Nigerian food is the cuisine to watch


Dr Olutayo Adebowale

Why did you choose construction as a career?

I didn’t choose a career in construction, it sort of chose me. I did a degree in biological sciences, and this gave me a really useful foundation for my PhD in industrial wastewater treatment. That was the catalyst for my move into construction. Funnily enough, this profession was never an option given to me in my career advice sessions. Perhaps because I didn’t fit the norm.

What has been your biggest career challenge to date?

Completing my PhD, and then deciding whether or not to move out of academia, but I’m glad I made the move. I am fortunate to still have the opportunity to teach and inspire young people through my role as chair of governors of an inner city federation of two primary schools. That in itself can be quite challenging, but so rewarding.

If you could change one thing about the industry, what would it be?

There needs to be more diversity, to truly reflect the richness of the communities we live in and serve. There is a pool of talent out there that, arguably, goes unrecognised.

What have you worked on that you are most proud of?

This is a tough question as I have a long list, but a highlight is my involvement with the Design Council’s expert network and the Design in the Public Sector Programme that I am working on at the moment.

The programme is delivered in a partnership between the Local Government Association and Design Council, working with local authorities across England to help explore, define and address their local climate-change challenges. The resulting ideas from this programme have been truly inspirational.

Another project that I am particularly proud of is the Design Council’s “Beyond Net Zero – A Systemic Design Approach”, which was launched on Earth Day, and has since had more than 11,000 downloads.

Most helpful advice you were given?

There is always more than one way to the market. This marvellous piece of advice was given to me by my mum, and it has served me very well over the years.

What’s your favourite building in the world?

The Glasgow School of Art, before it was almost burnt to the ground. I particularly liked the library and the way it was designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh, so that the light coming through the windows fell on to the tables as though they were reflecting the shadows of trees in a forest. Truly magical.

What single piece of advice would you give to someone just starting out in your profession?

It’s an exciting career and the joy of working on projects where you know that, through good design and consideration of sustainability, you are making life better, and the world a greener more sustainable place, is so rewarding.

But I would also have to say that it is a profession where diversity is lacking and, for women, we are a long way from equality. So be prepared to dig deep, stand firm, think outside the box, strive for equality and get that work-life balance that’s in line with your other important life roles.

Glasgow School of Art, by Charles Rennie Mackintosh, pictured in 2005

Source: Steve Cadman / Flickr

Glasgow School of Art, by Charles Rennie Mackintosh, pictured in 2005

Who do you most admire in the construction industry?

The person I most admired is and was Professor Walter Menzies, who sadly passed away. He was, and is arguably still, a true inspiration to many. He was an architect by training, and an amazing catalyst for sustainable regeneration in the North-west.

What famous building do you wish you’d worked on?

I think it would have to be one of Antoni Gaudi’s, so beautifully designed, and without a computer in site!

Which famous building do you most dislike?

Any building which has missed the opportunity to make life better by design.

What’s it like being you?

In my professional life I am often the only woman of colour, or indeed person of colour, sat around the boardroom table, and to my dismay this hasn’t changed much over the last 30 years. But I love the opportunity I have to influence projects in the design stage to make them more sustainable, and to increase the wider public benefits they can accrue, an example of this is working on flood alleviation schemes in my role as sustainable economics lead for the NW Regional Flood and Coastal Committee.

A sewing machine and patterns for dressmaking


Olutayo has a passion for  designing and making dresses

What do you think your best quality is?

I like to think that my best quality is kindness, as I believe you should always treat people like you would like to be treated.

What trait do you most dislike in yourself? And in other people?

I like to ponder, perhaps for too long, and see things from different angles, I think it’s the academic in me. In others ignorance.

Do you have a life philosophy?

Try to see the positive, and put work in perspective to the rest of your life.

Name three things that you like

Only three? Family and friends, (yes that’s one), the great outdoors, and meditation.



She says Akara – and Nigerian food more generally – is the street food of the future

What’s a secret skill we don’t know you have?

I love dress designing and dress making.

What’s your most prized possession?

My traditional Nigerian outfit that my grandmother gave me.

Early bird or night owl?

Early bird. There is nothing quite as nice as an early morning run with the sound of birds, and watching the squirrels scuttle up the trees, magical! But I do have my night-owl moments.

What’s your favourite food?

My mum’s Nigerian Akara is to die for! It has the texture of a burger but made with black-eyed beans … amazing! Nigerian food may well be the next generation of street food … watch this space.

What would your superpower be?

To create world peace and a fairer, more sustainable world.

Dr Olutayo Adebowale is a sustainability strategist and director at Cirkadia and Design Council expert ambassador