Redesigning Education

How do we build and research ethically?

The Bartlett Ethics Commission aims to develop a practice of ethics for researchers, navigating the relationship between universal principles and particular processes.

Ethics is the study of morality. While normative ethics focus on theories and concepts of morality, applied and practical ethics look at issues which arise within specific social practices and disciplines. There are clearly concerns that come to the fore across the built environment professions concerning, for example, material extraction and carbon emissions, housing and shelter, physical and mental wellbeing.

Even if we wanted to, ethics and social purpose are not something we can avoid. They are at the core of the new Royal Institute of British Architects’ Code of Professional ConductEducation and Professional Development Framework, and Validation Procedures, advocating practitioners develop “professional and communication skills to ensure projects are delivered with integrity and accountability”. The ability to develop these skills is, however, hindered by existing resources.

On the one hand, science-oriented university ethics procedures provide ill-fitting and inaccurate templates to how built environment research is conducted. On the other, practice-oriented publications provide materials to facilitate ethical reasoning but rarely bring together essential guidance, theoretical insight and real-life ethical challenges from the Global South and North.

We decided to develop as a pioneering open-access educational tool for emerging and established built environment practitioners to teach themselves how to identify ethical dilemmas that may arise in research and practice, negotiate their ethical responsibilities, and rehearse strategies to navigate unpredictable environments with care and creativity.

The tool has been developed through a collaboration between the Bartlett Ethics Commission and ‘The Ethics of Research Practice’, part of Knowledge in Action for Urban Equality or KNOW (an ESRC-funded research project working to strengthen pathways to urban equality in thirteen cities in Latin America, Africa and Asia).

The first project involved a critical review of ethical codes and resources of 66 built environment professional bodies, identifying a lack of guidance to facilitate the reflective process that occurs in the act of creating architecture, with a particular need for case studies that illuminate how codes work in action.

The second used literature and fieldwork to examine the ethics of co-producing knowledge through different methods. The literature reveals that where there is an exchange of ideas in research, there are ethical considerations. In the fieldwork, the team explored a range of participatory and visual methodologies – from collaborative historical mapping and transect walks, to photo diaries and participatory drawings – exposing ethical issues including conflicts of interests, power relations and emotional impact.

Common to both has been an investigation into the relation between universal principles and particular processes. Thus, we proposed that it is by developing a practice of ethics that one starts to navigate the relation between the two.

Accountability, Adjacency, Agency, Anonymization, Anxiety, Benefit, Buen Vivir, Care, Co-production, Commons, Confidentiality, Conflicts of Interest, Consent, Emancipatory Pedagogies, Equality, Ethics, Feminist Ethics, Figuration, Gathering, Harm, Honesty, Implication, Integrity, Intersectionality, Judgement, Justice, Morals, Poethics, Positionality, Privacy, Reciprocity, Recognitions, Reflexivity, Rigour, Risk, Self-making, Sentipensar, Situatedness, Translation, Transparency, Trust, Virtue, Vulnerability, Wellbeing

Two questions sit at the heart of our project. ‘What is an ethical practice of built environment research?’ and ‘How do we foster the conditions for emerging and established practitioners to develop this?’ Ethical research practice clearly involves responsibility, reflection and recognition, so a desire to achieve balance between the instructive and reflective has been a fundamental aim of our approach. Each part of the tool kit plays a part in helping build a more ethical form of practice, and so includes a lexicon of core principles, a set of case studies where researchers share their own stories of ethical experiences in the field, a suite of guides, as well as commentaries on existing protocols and suggested readings.

In the case studies for example, researchers share their experience of ethical dilemmas that have arisen during research projects and discuss how they’ve gone about addressing these dilemmas. In gathering these stories, we started to understand how ethical experience involves iterative processes generated in response to what we call ‘hotspots’. In responding to these, researchers draw on core ethical principles and existing protocols – what we call ‘touchstones’ – to decide how to act.

This process can also reveal larger systemic issues related to power and other inequalities. We call these ‘blindspots’. Becoming aware of injustices and working out what a researcher can do about them is part of a process of transformation. This requires mentorship and support since it can often mean challenging an apparently accepted value system. Awareness can also provide opportunities – what we call ‘moonshoots’ – for re-imagining practice and the support structures required to enable an ethical approach.

We’ve seen how, by focusing on experience, more normative lists of ethical concepts – such as consent – extend to include affective states and embodied processes, such as anxiety. This aspect is highlighted when examining the performative dimension of ethics, involving norms embedded in specific contexts. Engaging with the emotions and the senses has drawn our attention to the need for our lexicon to include more expressive materials that operate in the visual and tactile registers and work across languages.

For this reason, our guides aim to introduce a range of built environment ethical issues, stimulating ongoing reflection and expanding ethical awareness through practical and philosophical resources. The guides present both principles to work towards and questions to work through. Their methods respond to the challenge of understanding ethics as a practice informed by principles but not defined by them. The guidelines illuminate the ethical concerns raised by each question and recommend actions which embody ethical principles, supporting self-realisation early on in a project by allowing practitioners to think through their position and the ethical implications of their approach. Taking into account the often cyclical nature of the stages of research, each guide offers advice at all stages of a project: from planning to communicating outputs.

The open-access website is designed to support existing teaching and CPD programmes. We have presented it at international keynotes and in workshops held as part of architecture and development planning education, as well as in NGO settings in the Global South. This research is informing new university procedures and training in architecture, planning and urbanism, and the RIBA Ethics Commission drew upon an early stage of the work to develop their professional ethical guidance. As a piece of co-produced research, students as well as staff, from The Bartlett and beyond, have been involved in writing the tools, and we continue to invite new contributions.

If you have an idea please write to us at:


Prof Jane Rendell

Professor in Critical Spatial Practice, The Bartlett School of Architecture

Dr Yael Padan

Research Associate, The Bartlett School of Architecture

Dr David Roberts

Teaching Fellow and Research Ethics Fellow, The Bartlett School of Architecture

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