The Bartlett


Essay 04: Ethical encounters

Why is now the time to talk about ethics in the built environment, and how do we know if we’re asking the right questions?

Thinking through ethics presents an opportunity to grapple with ideas of enduring value

Ethical concerns are rising up the institutional agenda, manifest as codes and procedures in universities and the built environment professions. These can be read as responses to the privatisation and marketisation of knowledge, and the destruction of the welfare state, within which universities and professionals typically operated in the service of the public good. When private interests are allowed to prevail, financial value displaces social value – and we find ourselves in a moral vacuum.

In this context, where universities are being transformed, and usually not democratically, into businesses, the need to behave ethically becomes even stronger. There is also particular responsibility in research and education professionals to conceive, make, use and evolve the built environment for future generations. Research at The Bartlett, for example, often brings together scientific and artistic modes of working, develops new collaborations that go beyond disciplinary and university boundaries, experiments with new technologies and combines large data sets. This nature of intervening in the built environment calls for some deep reflection.

In January 2013, Jane Rendell, who was then Vice Dean of Research at The Bartlett, was tasked with ‘owning the risks’ of research expansion. UCL had recently accepted $10m from the Anglo-Australian mining and petroleum company BHP Billiton to create the UCL International Energy Policy Institute in Adelaide, and the Institute for Sustainable Resources at The Bartlett in London. The answers Rendell received to questions regarding the environmental, social, and governance due diligence procedures undertaken when accepting this charitable gift prompted her to step down from her institutional role as a Vice Dean.

This process brought the concept of ‘critical spatial practice’, that she had introduced with respect to public art, into a questioning encounter with institutional ethical procedures. She has since developed this work into a wider project concerning ethics in built-environment research that has taken place at The Bartlett through an Ethics Working Group, Ethics Commission and several transdisciplinary conferences. This included the two-day symposium ‘Practising Ethics’.

For the Ethics Commission, David Roberts drafted a report, based on 28 interviews that Dr Charlotte Johnson and he conducted with Bartlett staff, mapping ethical approaches, expertise and issues across the faculty. The report sets out the organisational principles, structures, procedures, research and teaching related to ethics at all levels and within each school. The report crosses the spectrum of debates in the sciences, social sciences, humanities and creative practice.

‘Support’ is the basic expectation for the built environment, which is to say that it will hold up – structurally and socially. Support, Roberts argues, must be an essential foundation for ethical matters at The Bartlett, too, across a continuum of research, teaching and enterprise – from the smallest ethical practice of treating a respondent with dignity to assessing funding decisions with transparency.

The interviews revealed the depth and breadth of expertise, experience, good practice and innovative teaching of ethical matters that already exists across The Bartlett. But to ensure that ethical practice is consistent across the faculty, the report calls for support in five key areas: first, vision to integrate ethical procedures within the faculty’s research strategy; second, guidance for staff and students in making ethical decisions; third, collaboration to act in mutual support; fourth, support for staff and student wellbeing; and fifth, giving staff autonomy in ethical deliberations as appropriate to their expertise.

Thinking through ethics presents an opportunity to grapple with ideas of enduring value, compelling staff and students to question their ethical position and expound what kind of practitioners they want to be. The Bartlett Ethics Commission will progress from this initial mapping exercise to develop interactive resources to support built environment researchers engaged in ethical deliberations and decisions.

The Bartlett can take a lead by approaching ethics not as bothersome red tape but an opportunity to enrich research and educate with reflexive curiosity and critical investigation. This proactive stance will allow us to confront how The Bartlett can ensure its principles of autonomy, creativity, equity, integrity and sustainability inform ethical practice across teaching, research and enterprise.

Professor Jane Rendell leads The Bartlett Ethics Commission and co-chairs The Bartlett Ethics Working Group. Dr David Roberts is History & Theory Tutor and Bartlett Ethics Fellow. ‘Ethics in Built Environment Research’ was funded through a Bartlett Small Grants Scheme (July 2014–July 2015).