Reinier de Graaf: 10 tips for becoming an urban consultant

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OMA's Reinier de Graaf top ten for urban planning consultants

At your service: 10 tips for becoming a successful urban consultant

Opinion: OMA partner Reinier de Graaf offers his top 10 tips for architects interested in branching out into urban consultancy, including "avoid writing" and "invoice early and invoice often".


Once considered the world's "master builders", architects are gradually being edged out by an ever-expanding, nebulous body of advisors.

Faced with their waning position in the global economy, architects must find new and unconventional strategies to regain lost ground. The city as a recently discovered domain of knowledge provides the perfect opportunity.

From smart cities, to connected communities, mayoral insecurity and corporate social "responsibility", here's how to make a buck in the new urban economy, where everybody can be a consultant:

1. Frequently attend conferences. Don't mingle with members of your profession, but find the odd mayor looking for answers. Inevitably he or she will be disappointed. Make animated conversation, tell him or her you share their frustrations. Appear to be listening.

Emphasise the limited value of established professional approaches in today's world; dismiss them as crude generalisations not equipped to deal with contemporary issues.

Present your own approach, rooted in particular experiences – your experiences. Upon parting, hand over your business card and politely suggest the two of you join forces and find a reason to "collaborate".

2. Let no less than 10 and no more than 21 days pass before you, or rather your company, sends a letter, reminding the mayor of your meeting. Give him or her credit for the suggestion to "work together", thereby elevating your own suggestion to the status of an official invite.

You can then offer to visit the city in order to conduct an X-ray of its problems. Offer to pay for your own travel. (This will be the last non-reimbursable expense.)

3. When visiting the city, start by paying compliments. Of course, the essence of your presence is to be critical, but it may be wise to – at least for a while – prolong the suspense. Let people guess what it is exactly that you have to offer.

On your first visit as an advisor (don't ever admit that it is your first visit altogether), say you are "touched by the city's history, culture and spirit". In spite of "recent setbacks", the city's vitality seems irrepressible. (Make sure that most of your compliments pertain to the city's people and not to the city itself.) Don't go as far as to suggest that the city might not need your advice, but use your complimentary observations as the first subtle disclaimer of the validity of any eventual recommendations.

4. Then, casually observe the remarkable similarity between the place that you are visiting and other places. This is the first moment when you start becoming an authority. Find a good city to reference, preferably one far away and not particularly well known.

In picking a city, draw from personal experiences. Take a city you once worked in. Trumpet the unsung qualities of that city. The experience you "bring to the table" doesn't have to be strictly limited to work; a short period of residence or even a history of repeated visits will also do.

Still, in terms of credible advice, there is nothing like using one's own home town as the ultimate reference. As soon as the subject at hand can be related to childhood memories, all professional advice turns personal. You become the source you quote.

5. Your value as a consultant relies on the extent to which others credit you for being able to predict the future. Signal a shared transformation process between the city you have selected as a reference and the city you are serving. Claim that process has evolved slightly further in the city of reference.

The present condition of the city of reference then becomes a sneak preview of the future condition of the city you are serving. All that needs to be done is follow the course of a path already carved out.

6. In order to prevent having to reinvent the wheel for every new job, make sure the objectives and aspirations you advocate are universally applicable. Make sure nothing you cite as a potential result of your work can be measured or quantified.

In consultancy terms: the more the indices of success and failure are interchangeable, the better. Avoid talking about form; talk about principles. Avoid all references to the physical. Instead, talk about regeneration, vibrant communities, public realm, cooperative planning, neighbourhoods, family life, health... All these phenomena will, in some form or fashion, already be in place. The good thing is that later you will be able to claim them as a result of your work.

7. Avoid writing. Insist on giving verbal advice. Present this approach as a means to limit the client's financial expenditure on you. When writing becomes an inescapable part of your deliverables, avoid a narrative, stick to bullet points (Microsoft PowerPoint offers a wide array of choices).

Make sure to insert "help to endeavour" in front of every verb. Unless you stumble across a major breakthrough which you want to claim as your own (the chances of which are slim), do not insist on taking credit for your work. In fact it is preferable to shield yourself by having your deliverables carry a brand other than your own. You don't want to limit business. Future clients may not necessarily share the same interests as the present one.

8. As a final disclaimer, insist that – your recommendations notwithstanding – each place is unique and should devise its own specific solutions to its own specific problems.

Again, pay extensive compliments to the city you are serving. Speak of its unlimited potential. Only this time widen the perspective: reference other cities in the country, not as models, but as a source of inspiration. Don't hesitate to invoke national pride. It can be a rich source of future work.

9. Manage your itinerary. Plan appointments elsewhere by the time your recommendations could materialise. In case they do not materialise, also plan appointments elsewhere.

10. Invoice early and invoice often.


Reinier de Graaf is a partner in the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) where he directs the work of AMO, the research and design studio established as a counterpart to OMA's architectural practice.