By Wendy Carlson
In the broadest sense, Francesca Birks ’93 is a futurist, though she doesn’t spend her time gazing into a crystal ball to make predictions about what the future might hold. Instead, Birks searches for trends based on qualitative and quantitative data, informed by research and cultural insights, that may affect how our built environment –– cities, urban spaces, parks, architecture, and infrastructure –– evolve over time.
Her work is forward-thinking because, as she explains: “We need to start thinking critically about the future, positioning ourselves in that presumably far-off place and using those insights to guide our decision making today.”
Birks’s official job title is global insights leader for Woods Bagot, a global architectural firm based in South Australia. She often compares her work to that of an archeologist digging through dirt and rubble to uncover fossils: “I examine a variety of sources––ethnographic, spatial analysis data, industry research, interviews with experts, and so on,” she says.
She is also the editor for the Woods Bagot Journal, a publication that focuses on how design can play a role in addressing the issues of sustainability, equity, and inclusion. For example, a recent article focused on urban car congestion and the firm’s proposal to reduce traffic in Sydney by closing off a portion of streets and transforming the spaces into parks, playgrounds, and market gardens. The journal also examined the transition to electric vehicles and Wood Bagot’s “Re-Charge LA” proposal to use electrified mobility as an opportunity to reinvigorate and re-energize urban communities.
To that end, Birks is currently working with architect, urban planner, and filmmaker James Sanders on Renewing the Dream: The Mobility Revolution and the Future of Los Angeles. This publication features a roster of well-known contributors and focuses on how innovations in transportation could meet the challenges Los Angeles is facing, including growing concerns over climate change and equity.
Not stopping at Los Angeles, Birks is also working with EDA, a Salt Lake City architecture and design firm, to create a vision for a new interdisciplinary facility for the Physics & Astronomy and Atmospheric Sciences Departments at the University of Utah. The intention of the work is to highlight an educational focus on climate change and how the sciences can contribute to solutions locally and globally. Birks also lent her design vision to the creation of Lassonde Studios, a student entrepreneurship facility at the university.
In some ways, Birks’s curiosity about the world began at Hotchkiss, where she first embarked on her journey of self- discovery. Her family is from Montreal, Canada. She followed her sister Alexandra ’90 to Hotchkiss.
One of the more memorable experiences she had at Hotchkiss was an opportunity to listen to civil rights activist Maya Angelou during an all-school meeting. Angelou’s words had a profound effect: “She reminded me of our privilege and our responsibility to do more, given all of the opportunities we had,” Birks says.
After graduating from Hotchkiss, Birks earned a B.A. at Brown and an M.B.A. at the University of Toronto. The business degree balanced her creative side and helped land her a stint as a strategic planner at an advertising and design firm before eventually joining the Foresight & Innovation team at global engineering firm Arup. There, she had an opportunity to combine her creativity and her sense of social responsibility by positively influencing the everyday experiences of communities through forward- looking discovery and design.
“Our engineers are accustomed to thinking longer- term about the potential eventualities and contexts in which their work would emerge. Many engineering projects used to take anywhere between 10 to 20 years to design and construct, and so having long- term strategic and creative thinkers to explore future scenarios makes a lot of sense,” she says.
She is a devotee of Jane Jacobs (1916- 2006), an activist in urban design, whose writings advocated a fresh, community- based approach to city building and who also railed against the car-centered approach to urban planning. She is also a major fan of Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan who encouraged his students to be cognizant of the impacts, both positive and negative, of technology on culture and our everyday lives.
As she looks toward the future, Birks hopes to create new pathways for designers to grapple with the many socioeconomic and environmental challenges ahead.
“Some would say there has never been a more challenging time to be a designer,” she says. “Faced with the collective threats of global pandemic, economic recession, social upheaval, and climate change, it’s easy to despair of our abilities as design professionals, let alone as humans, to work our way out of this maelstrom. We need to start thinking critically about the future, positioning ourselves in that presumably far-off place and using those insights to guide our decision-making today. I think we are all starting to discover that strategy is the easy part, and it’s the execution that’s hard. Now more than ever, we need to create alliances and commitments to move towards a more equitable and livable future.”