Rob combines technology with socially-centred design

Rob Snelling sees architectural engineering as the perfect pathway to address critical sustainability issues in the built environment. We caught up with him to chat about his studies so far, and his recent opportunity to put his skills into practice in Madrid.

Rob Snelling at the On Cities workshop, Madrid. Image: Norman Foster Foundation

What made you choose to study the Master of Architectural Engineering?
This century is full of wicked problems. One way to address these is to have a diversity of problem-solving skills. I’ve always been fascinated with the ways architects and engineers think; in some ways they are very different, in some ways quite similar. As such, I was drawn to the masters as I wanted to foster a diversity of mindsets and approaches to then address critical sustainability issues in the built environment.

What was your favourite subject in the program to date and why?
All the subjects have been quite different, but I particularly enjoyed 21st Century Architecture. The opportunity to write a manifesto as a guide to our careers is an incredibly valuable exercise and was actually of great assistance during the workshop. On the first day, we were asked to deliver a presentation to Norman Foster and the academic body. Having already formulated a design theory, I was able to draw upon the key themes from my manifesto ‘Stealing from Silicon Valley’. Having these kinds of theories in your repertoire is incredibly handy and helped frame my mental approach to the week.

Who has inspired you during your studies here?
I’ve been particularly inspired by Dr Dominique Hes. With issues of sustainability being so complex and emotionally-charged, I’ve always thought back to the way she addresses sustainability with such grace, yet enthusiasm. Both her passion and compassion are admirable and has certainly influenced me to think about sustainability from both its environmental side but equally its human side.

Congratulations on being selected as one of ten students to attend a workshop in Madrid with the Norman Foster Foundation. How did you become involved in this opportunity?
The Norman Foster Foundation has been running for about two years, running four workshops a year, each on very different themes. The Foundation’s vision is to create a global network of interdisciplinary urbanists, all drawn together by an interest in addressing key emerging urban challenges.

Earlier this year, the Foundation announced that the 2019 ‘On Cities’ workshop theme would focus on the use of emerging technology to assist in the sustainable development of informal settlements. I was instantly captivated by this challenge: I’d had some experience in informal settlements through my work with Engineers Without Borders Australia and was very keen to push these learnings further. Plus, the workshop’s emphasis on both technology and socially-centred design mirrored the skills I had developed within the Master of Architectural Engineering.

At the conclusion of the week, the 10 students presented an ‘informal manifesto on the informal city’ (which is now within the Norman Foster Foundation archives) as well as two projects; one is an app that is centred on knowledge sharing, the other is an urban planning and design model. Moving forwards, we are pushing through with our projects and intend to action on them. The workshop is very much just the start of a journey with the Foundation.

Rob in discussion with colleagues
Rob Snelling in discussion with fellow participants at the On Cities workshop, Madrid. Image: Norman Foster Foundation

Can you talk a little about your experience in the workshop in Madrid? 
The workshop was run over a very intensive five days and was facilitated by Luis Bettencourt, with the support of an incredible group of mentors, including Francis Kéré, Alfredo Brillembourg, Janice Perlman, Kenneth Rogoff, Celine D’Cruz and of course Norman Foster.

It is quite challenging to articulate exactly what I learnt; the pace of conversation was so fast that an idea you’d never considered soon became so central to your entire understanding of cities and development. The rapid absorption of concepts was unlike anything I’d undergone, making it perhaps the most challenging and vibrant intellectual environment I’d ever experienced. Our group would have heated and vibrant discussions into the early hours of the morning about what the future city should be, helping us rapidly evolve each other’s understanding of the future city and to see something new about such a familiar problem.

However, what was perhaps most enlightening (but also comforting) was seeing our mentors debate, discuss and learn amongst themselves. The workshop truly humanised the people who you hold up so highly; it is something quite special to see that even if you have won the Pritzker Prize or were the IMF’s chief economist, you will always keep learning (and failing).

Did participating in the workshop change how you thought about architectural engineering? 
I think it has changed how I think about applying the architectural engineering skillset that I have. In the developed world, we place a great (and justified) focus on sustainable building design; yet at the same time, in 2050 one third of the global population will live in slums. These are significant issues requiring an interdisciplinary skillset, combining technology, design, humanities and community-focused design processes. As such, I am now thinking about how to further develop and build my skills in the area of informal settlements.

What are you planning to do when you finish your studies at the Melbourne School of Design?
It’s a challenging question to answer, simply because the nature, scale and type of urban challenges we are addressing are constantly changing. My focus at the moment is to develop a breadth of skills, to then allow me to pivot to the issues that I think need attention. However, there will always be some key principles underpinning my career, notably sustainability, community, technology and urbanism.

I also strongly believe that if you know exactly where you are going, you aren’t stretching your capacity enough. I like to compare it to what we are taught in studios; if you knew the end product before you started, why would you begin?

What advice would you have for other students thinking of studying architectural engineering?
Take advantage of the diversity of skillsets you have and the unique skills that both architecture and engineering provide. Each of the participants in the workshop were selected for different reasons: whether that be having more ‘on the ground’ experience, strong data skills or human-centred design backgrounds. I would say that my key contribution was having an interdisciplinary background and being able to oscillate between these different ways of thinking, thereby helping our team bring these diverse views together. Through the degree, I’ve more and more realised the value of this skill.

Group shot of the On Cities Workshop, Madrid
Rob Snelling alongside the On Cities workshop group in Madrid. Image: Norman Foster Foundation 

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