For Conran & Partners, the Coronavirus crisis has confirmed the advantages of international expansion, says Tim Bowder-Ridger

At a time when frightening human and economic statistics are assaulting us all on an hourly basis, it is difficult to stay true to one of the most important attributes of being an architect – to be optimists. But we must. Ultimately whilst many architects describe themselves as ‘problem-solvers’, I believe we are more than that – we are ‘opportunity-creators’ – and this is surely how we really add value to the world?

There is no doubt that all of us leading architecture and design firms will need to make some very tough decisions over the next few weeks and months to ensure that we survive the short and medium term. This will be achieved primarily through prioritising cash-flow, and the government initiatives for tax relief and furlough will certainly play an important part in softening the impact that would otherwise be forcing immediate root and branch redundancies across the industry.


Top: Conran & Partners’ Hong Kong office
Above: Stephen Ng,Associate Director, UK DIT, and Roderick Tong, Head of HK Studio, at the launch of Conran & Partners’ new Hong Kong studio

There have, nevertheless, been some positive outcomes from our world being turned upside down so suddenly. For instance, getting used to remote working has proven far less challenging than any of us thought and has opened our minds to more flexible ways of balancing home and work; social media has certainly offered a far more positive side of its personality than is usually discussed; and for the likes of me, who normally spends considerable time and creates a significant carbon footprint on long haul flights, it demonstrates that actually quite a lot of activities can be delivered successfully through video conferencing, allowing me to spend more time on the things that really matter.

Considering the regular peaks and troughs our industry faces (this last decade has been a constant of either entering an industry predicament or crawling out of one), we must look further ahead than just a few months and towards the next three-plus years – not least as many of our projects require a year or so to mobilise and much longer to deliver.

As it turns out, the Hong Kong studio may also be very material to how quickly we climb out of the current crisis as a practice”

It is with this regularity of instability in mind that two-and-a-half years ago, amidst the all-consuming Brexit doldrums, we decided to open a studio in Hong Kong to spread our opportunities and risks. Whilst we have been working in that region for over 25 years, this move encouraged a substantial step-up in our workload in the region, albeit we scrupulously share projects between the Hong Kong and London studios to ensure we remain a single entity. But now, as it turns out, this may also be very material to how quickly we climb out of the current crisis as a practice.

Whilst the crisis has had a global impact, it is certainly not a uniform one. East Asia in particular seems to be a very different place to the UK. Singapore, Hong Kong and South Korea for example, are in greater control of the situation than most of the West. Of course, the shut-down is still widespread in this region, but business certainly continues to drive forward more boldly as they seem to treat the situation as the ‘New Normal’.

Furthermore, the region went into crisis earlier and seems to be showing tentative shoots of recovery now – at a point when Europe and the UK in particular are just coming into what might be the peak.

Our studio in Hong Kong, along with rest of the city, embarked on remote working eight weeks ahead of the UK. This effectively provided a dress rehearsal for our larger UK-based teams. Along with some practical and tactical insights, the key lesson we have learnt over that period is that keeping calm and not losing sight of the longer term is the best we can all do in such an unprecedented situation. In a nutshell – stay optimistic.