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 Conduct, Education 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 practisingethics.org 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.