Jo is an alumna of Echo++ and the School for Social Entrepreneurs. Her project portfolio includes constructing one room shelters in Vietnam, authoring guidelines for transitional shelters post disaster, researching earthen architecture in low-income communities across Bangladesh and most recently examining community-led approaches to sustainable rural redevelopment in China. Jo regularly speaks on architecture and design for international development and advises on education as part of the RIBA Education Development Group.

What is AzuKo and how did it come about?

It’s difficult to find words to explain AzuKo, though we settled on ‘architecture charity’. Essentially, we are an organisation that champions collaborative design. Architecture is traditionally a very top-down discipline and the last to be involved are the people who live or work in the buildings. We promote an alternative, rights-based approach which encourages architects, clients and communities to work together to create solutions. This may not always turn out to be a new building: sometimes the design process leads to something else entirely: such as the redesign of a service, or training.

We believe the process itself is as much a part of the project as the end result. A lot of what we do is about capacity building: ensuring that, when we do step away, communities feel ownership of the project and are in a position to continue developing.

Would you describe AzuKo as ‘impact-led’ or driven by social/ environmental justice? Why? How? 

I have a strong belief in the benefits of community-led design, rather than a more traditional approach where designers are held up as the only ‘experts’ in the room. Architecture encompasses so many different skills – creative, facilitative, problem-solving – and has the potential to improve lives. However it is taught in a rigid way, with a narrow career path. For me, empathy with local communities was lacking. I don’t believe you can deliver the right solution if you exclude people from the process. AzuKo was created to challenge traditional perceptions about architecture, how we value communities in the design process, how we value lived experience.

How has the Engineers Without Borders movement supported the development, growth and achievement of AzuKo?

I was very fortunate to be accepted onto the Engineers without Borders UK International Placement in 2012. It was a huge opportunity for someone so early in their career to gain that sort of experience, and I’m so grateful to Engineers Without Borders UK for taking a chance on me, somebody from the broader engineering community. I was embedded within a local organisation in Bangladesh called Simple Action for the Environment (SAFE), for three months. I ended up living and working in Bangladesh for four years, and AzuKo continues to partner with SAFE today.

The culture in organisations working in globally responsible design/that are impact driven is often very different to that in mainstream design.  Do you see a link between AzuKo’s culture and the change you’re trying to create? 

Our professional body in the UK, the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) knows that it needs to stay relevant and change with the times. I’m a member of the RIBA Education Development Group (EDG), which encourages greater diversity of thought. My architectural training was very much around buildability and a traditional client – those who can afford architectural fees. No-one taught me that there was any alternative route. While a traditional architecture studio may be a wonderful place to work, it is not necessarily the only option after you graduate.

We’re questioning the future of education, what it should look like for the next generation. It is not easy – it takes 6-7 years to qualify, and the cost of that education alone can exclude many people. The EDG is about breaking down barriers, questioning what the role of architecture is now, and what it could be.

How and what should the architects of the future be taught? 

At AzuKo, we’re currently developing an Ethics in Humanitarian Architecture programme, which in a lot of ways mirrors the Engineering for People Design Challenge that Engineers Without Borders UK has embedded in many university curriculums.

What do you think will be critical in achieving the cultural tipping point?

Designers/architects/engineers need to question their role – which is not always a comfortable thing to do. We need to improve education and engagement. I’ve seen too many well-meaning young designers being dropped into difficult and often deprived environments without proper support, attempting to interpret community needs using preconceived (usually Western and white) notions.

Wanting to use your skills for the betterment of humanity is very laudable, but it needs to be done carefully and with empathy, or it can make things worse. Professionals need to practice humility, because they don’t have all the answers. And as a society, we need to stop evaluating project success using purely monetary values. What price can you put on human rights and wellbeing?

What is AzuKo doing to mainstream globally responsible design?

There is a lack of understanding about what true collaboration really means. Buzzwords like ‘participatory’ and ‘co-design’ are readily adopted as a big tick in the CSR box, but are rarely understood. You can throw as many techniques as you like at a project, but if you don’t have the right mindset then you will fail.

The fact that organisations like Engineers Without Borders UK exist and have a growing membership is a sign that we are beginning to turn a corner. We need to keep building awareness, until co-design and inclusivity are part of the school curriculum and the norm within design practice.

I’m also encouraged by the fact that each generation is more aware than the last about our individual and collective impact. Younger employees are demanding far more from their employers – that they act ethically and with environmental responsibility in mind. The world is facing enormous challenges like urbanisation, mass migration, climate crisis: and the next generation are going to be the ones who will lead on solutions.

What advice would you give organisations trying to mainstream globally responsible design? 

  • Don’t try to reinvent the wheel: look around for organisations who are already doing things well, learn from them, partner with them and build on their work.
  • Learn the difference between sympathy for a cause and empathy with the communities involved. The latter is an ongoing, active practice.
  • Be humble: formal education is not everything, peoples’ life experiences have real value.
  • Don’t simply use money to measure success or worth. Local communities contribute wisdom, expertise, time, labour and resources.
  • Lastly, make sure you are ready to commit. Collaborative design is a whole-life approach. We too are on a journey, and need to be open to change.

Jo Ashbridge is the CEO of AzuKo, the architecture charity she founded in 2014 to grow the impact of collaborative design.

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