The 2023 FutureBuild conference took place in early March at ExCel London. Its purpose was to provide the stage for inspiring ideas, innovative solutions and knowledge sharing to drive sustainable construction and help us reach our goal of net zero. The end of event press release is here.

One of the presentations to the event was by Jenny Russell, the Director of Education and Learning at RIBA – the Royal Institute of British Architects.  Jenny spoke at the session on Activism: Teaching the new curriculum: education is key to positive action on climate and ecological breakdown. This is what she said:

I have to admit that I must have rewritten this presentation ten times from ten different angles in the run up to today. Primarily because 5 minutes isn’t a long time to answer a huge question. I realise that I could (perhaps I should) use the time to talk about RIBA policy, our Themes and Values for Education, our CPD programme – generally what you may expect from a RIBA talk! – but I have decided against that. What I want to talk about is bigger than policy can cover. 

You say that education is key to positive action on climate and ecological breakdown.  And yes – it is vital. But I think it may not be key – because, in many ways, we are educating to mitigate against our own selfishness – or what 20 years ago we would have called progress – mitigate against an education which taught us how to use fossil fuels like coal, oil and gas, to see progress and prosperity, all of which was done without fully realising the consequences this would have on the planet. However, as our emissions rise, and the planet warms, it is people living in poverty around the world who are paying the price, people who are perhaps living more sustainably than we are. It is our convenience and way of living that is robbing others of their most basic needs and pushing people deeper into poverty – and destroying their homes. 

And action must be taken. 

And while at RIBA in terms of education (through our Themes and Values for Architectural Education), much of our focus is on the education of students to become architects and the education of architects through our CPD programme: Indeed, we are planning to implement our test of competence on climate literacy for our members, which they will have to take every 5 years In order to ensure that their continued education is current. 

More fundamentally, however, we need climate literacy to underpin not just the tertiary curriculum but the national curriculum – at both primary and secondary – and while, in running the National Schools Programme, we are addressing this as a topic when we are invited into schools, as yet, we do not influence the broader curriculum – and this is what we must do. Not simply to be a section of it – but integral to how things are taught. And we can say the same for the architectural education curriculum at tertiary level also. We need school pupils, even from the earliest years, to be thinking about how we care for the planet – actually – how we care for others other than ourselves. And even more so, we need the very youngest in society to understand that all decisions have an outcome or an effect; That even if we don’t see the impact or outcome, it doesn’t mean that that impact is not felt elsewhere. 

By the time that they get to university, what we need are students who already have understanding of these issues – for whom, being responsible in design comes naturally – enabling them at that point to develop the technical skills to support this. We need students who don’t talk about sustainability as part of their design work, but who simply talk about their design work, because sustainability is so intrinsically embedded in it that the two can’t be separated. 

That being said, change to the national curriculum is not a quick fix.  We need to be implementing change at all levels.  And what we teach must be practiced.  And so what do we need?

We need informed and literate staff who won’t just teach it but will live it out in the classroom. We need our response to the climate emergency to infuse/underpin be central to our teaching.  And by doing so we need students to understand the effect caused by the decisions that they take during the design process. That their marks (for in Higher Education it is marks that matter) MUST be affected by unsustainable decisions; far too often, we place climate second to the elusive great design; choose a clean site over the retrofit of a 60s tower block; gloss over the critical technicalities of design for a beautiful concept. 

We need students to understand that the answers will lie in teamwork. In working together with other built environment professions with collaboration across the sector, between design professionals, between designers and constructors and most crucially by engagement with clients and financial institutions. 

And finally, we must recognise that education is not simply a top down process – with the older and ‘wiser’ teaching those younger – We must be willing to be challenged on our own behaviour and pushed to do better – by those that we are trying to teach. 

And so to return to my initial point: Is education key to positive action on climate change? It is certainly vital; however, what is key is personal decision (for each one of us) to act for others and to be willing to be educated. 


Jenny can be contacted at

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