Can You Turn Culture into Strategy?

Partisan’s monthly EightyTwenty Gathering is an opportunity for professionals connected to the built environment to meet informally and build upon the conversations they have had at our regular, fortnightly Roundtables.

This time we raised the issue of culture, and specifically, if culture always ends up getting the upper hand over strategy, should it then become strategy?
The Issue with Culture
Culture is organic. When people try and impose a culture, it fails. This applies in the built environment, in business and in life in general.
Effective culture grows until it becomes ingrained in our everyday lives, to the extent that it feels like a natural part of how we live.
If you try an impose a culture, you are likely to end up with a dual system:

1. the surface veneer, which is the outward projection of what we want a culture to be; and
2. the reality, under the surface.

Creating the veneer is relatively easy. Creating the real thing is not. The reason is that real culture is messy. It’s fraught with contradictions and impulsive actions and the often complicated business of living.
Culture and the Built Environment
How does where we live interact or affect how we live?

The Davos Declaration states that a high quality built environment, “Makes a crucial contribution… to achieving a sustainable society, characterised by a high quality of life, cultural diversity, individual and collective well-being, social justice and cohesion, and economic efficiency.”

That sounds like a big ask.

How could this possibly translate into a realistic, practical strategy?

Our guests had a variety of responses to this issue. For people working in the built environment, it is a challenge that impacts on the end user, but also on them as businesses.
One idea is to somehow promote a culture that evolves, rather than to impose a fixed idea or set of ideas as the cultural norm.
This has a practical expression in placemaking strategies, but can be taken further, providing the designer has a clear understanding of a specific local area and the people they are designing an environment for.
It means recognising the identity and distinctiveness of a given culture in order to work with it and meet its growing needs.

Another response was to question how we get to see through the shallow cultural veneer and understand and appreciate the depth of real culture. One answer is to understand how culture might sit between structures and relationships.
Structures and Relationships
Structures are easier to deal with, because they involve processes and systems. Many of these are clearly visible.

Relationships can be much more difficult, because they are all about interpersonal dynamics. Some of these are not explicit but implicit. If you imagine a Venn diagram of structures on one side and relationships on the other, then culture sits in the middle, sharing something of both.

Can culture then become a crossing and bridge the gap between a structural, more surface approach and a deeper, more human one?
Is this what culture as strategy should look like – a sensitivity to the realities of people’s lives and work and how best to translate this into the buildings and places they depend on to manage these realities?
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