General Chatting Your Way to Change: Jaffer Muljiani

Chatting Your Way to Change: Jaffer Muljiani

Abbie Harby
"If we were meant to stay in one place we'd have roots instead of feet" and so I move - in cities, between cities, up mountains (and back down again!). And all that using my feet as much as possible - the first mode of transport known to man and the cheapest! I love the outdoors and being in green space. I'm passionate about trying to protect and improve all that we've got and all that we could have to give every single part of nature the best life possible.

Sustainability enthusiasts, city champions and urban development nuts, look no further. We’ve found a true zealot of all things urban: Jaffer Muljiani. From growing up in Muscat, Oman to becoming a ‘real’ Londoner, working as a sustainability consultant and recently being the youngest appointee to the Design Council’s Expert Panel, this humble 2020 Young Leader has a lot going for him. Let’s find out more about Jaffer, gather some insights into his sector and discover what the future of urbanism looks like through his eyes.

From Doing the Math to Questioning Maths

While a young Jaffer Muljiani wouldn’t have named ‘urbanist’, ‘sustainability consultant’ or ‘CityChanger’ as his dream job, he can’t think of anything else he’d rather be doing now. His work as a sustainability consultant at Britain’s second largest design practice BDP (Building Design Partnership) in London has allowed him to combine two passions into one career: social sciences and engineering. Or simply put: people and buildings.

Having completed a Bachelor of Engineering in Material Science and Energy Engineering at the University of Birmingham, Jaffer then found himself contemplating his next step. Coincidentally, he stumbled across a TED talk by Amanda Burden, former Chief City Planner in New York, and from there Jaffer became hooked by urbanism.

Amanda described how a strip next to the Hudson River had been revitalised. Fences that don’t obstruct your view of the river, sun, and sand when you sit down had been installed in the grassy area and suddenly people started to appear as if by magic. Gradually, this area became a hot spot of activity, with a coffee shop popping up and further down the line even a full-scale building development.

So, Jaffer decided that the next stop would be King’s College London for an MSc in Sustainable Cities. This is where he made the leap from a “‘one plus one equals two’ undergraduate degree to a ‘What does one mean? And should we add things together in the first place’ masters”.

“What really got me hooked was that urbanism is so tangible. I can’t have an opinion of heart bypass surgery, but it doesn’t matter what you do for a living – everyone experiences and so can have an opinion on the built environment”.

Though not all can be so lucky, Jaffer was fortunate enough to be offered a job at BDP immediately following his successful graduation from King’s College London. Here, he has been working as a sustainability consultant for 3 years.

A Sustainability What?

Though not a ‘traditional’ job like a doctor, teacher or banker, sustainability consultants are hardly a brand-new addition to the working world. Nevertheless, it overlaps so many branches and incorporates such a varied number of tasks that even after several years in his role at BDP, Jaffer still struggles to explain exactly what it is that he does. In summary: “It’s advocacy. It’s communication. I’m just there to push and prod and pull levers and advocate and ask people to do the right things.”

He goes on to explain that, while we generally know what the solutions are, it requires someone to sit down on a project and remind all the very busy, hard-working experts and hotshots of the sustainability angles. “I’m just shifting the dialogue”, Jaffer says, and that’s what people who are trying to make a building stand up in the first place need.

Currently, our Young Leader is proudly working on several projects including Great Ormond Street’s new children’s cancer centre, AstraZeneca’s new headquarters and the restoration and renewal of the Palace of Westminster. Jaffer explains that working in a large company like BDP, yet within a relatively small team, means he has the benefit of being “a small fish in a small pond, within a big pond, and that way it all works out well because you don’t get left behind”.

Communication and Carrots

We asked Jaffer which skills he has found most valuable in his career so far and he tells us that the crucial skills, in his opinion, are not the technical skills. “Those can be picked up on the job”, Jaffer says.

“I think it comes down to being able to talk and communicate and bring people along with you.”

The three most-valued skills for Jaffer: personability, persuasion, and talking. A lot of work towards future-proofing our cities is about convincing people to take that extra step, put in a little more effort, and showing them how to. Why not try asking a municipality, developer, or business, ‘do you want to make your building more sustainable, higher quality and for people from all walks of life?’. It’s probably a safe bet to say that no-one is going to answer, ‘no’. However, our Young Leader adds, without the little extra push, “it’s so much easier to just do what we’ve always been doing”.

Jaffer Muljiani at Festival of Place
Image Credit: Jaffer Muljiani

In order to bring people along with you and convince them of these sustainability points, Jaffer emphasises that it is just as important to work with carrots as sticks. By this we mean offering rewards, incentives and positivity instead of putting people off and threatening them with punishments. There are already enough ‘sticks’, such as planning laws. Being positively persuasive and showing people what the aims and targets are, how to get there, and which benefits blossom from planting this tree of sustainability tends to be more effective. For instance, showing the public that sustainable urbanism doesn’t just help combat climate change, but it gives them better quality of life. Of course, he adds, that’s not going to change the system, or sway the people making loads of money to change the way they are doing things now – “we need regulation and political governance for that”.

Optimistic Cynic

It’s easy to be pessimistic and get a little down when considering the many challenges ahead of us when developing more sustainable cities that will be practical and beneficial for us, the planet, and future generations. Jaffer said he’d be lying if he said he didn’t often feel the same, explaining that he’s “more scared than anything else”. Yet, there’s still so much buoyancy, confidence, and pride in his voice when he talks about the future.

Jaffer says, “something that does give me a lot of hope is people these days…my generation, generations around me and definitely those younger; they’re so switched on, so clever and want to do really cool things”. Just listening to him speak, it really does feel like there’s light at the end of the tunnel.

“There are a lot of people out there thinking of really interesting ways of dealing with our problems, enhancing people’s lives and doing better with the built environment”, Jaffer continues. And yet, he doesn’t seem to realise that he is one of those very people: pushing boundaries, making people think outside the box and holding our cities’ hands on their journey towards a more sustainable future.

And it’s not only revitalising cities that’s important to Jaffer. Bringing public sector organs back to life is also a development he’d like to see continuing in years to come…

A New Lease of Life

Interestingly, Jaffer told us that in 1976 almost half of all architects in the UK worked for the public sector; in London it’s now 0.13%. Moreover, the number of architects working in local authorities is still dropping: in 2015, 421 ARB registered architects worked for local authorities, which fell to 380 in 2019. These statistics are a worrying signal as without architects in the public sector, the sense of agency is lost. Those working for the public good (e.g., to create our cities that are shared by the public) should be working in the public realm, not just for private firms who are employed by the public sector.

But Jaffer tells us, local authorities are being revived with the public practice system – “A system that London has introduced whereby they’re basically trying to get people with design expertise back into local authorities”. This is just one area of urbanism which enthuses Jaffer and that he’d like to see happen more.

Another aspect he talks animatedly about is that of the shift in attitudes thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. This is another case of a new lease of life being injected into various areas of our urban environments and into society in general. Jaffer offers the examples of cycling and active travel as well as alfresco dining. He elaborates, “Soho is amazing now. When you walk down, the streets are just taken over by chairs and tables and people just sitting outside and enjoying the space. It’s great; this should have happened 10 years ago!”.

Aspiring To Go Above and Beyond

While he’s thoroughly enjoying his current work and talks passionately about his projects, like anyone, he’s still dreaming, thinking bigger and better and determined to go to infinity and beyond to see change happen.

Having dabbled in this a little already, on Jaffer’s wish list would be moving from looking at the building level to “thinking about the wider city and neighbourhood level”. He tells us he’d really like to focus on development on a larger scale and ultimately just “learn more, take on more and begin to understand more about the wider scale of sustainable cities”.

And we reckon this modest Young Leader is on the right track. As Jaffer rightfully points out, “cities are made up of buildings, so now I’ve got this grounding and background, it would be great to try and use that”. Buildings are, basically, the Lego blocks that make up the urban world around us, so who better to help design our cities than people who are familiar and experienced with those pieces.

Summarising his hopes for the future, Jaffer simply says, “wider city stuff, positive influence and it needs to be pushing the boundaries”.

Speak More, Think Less

Jaffer was once given an interesting piece of advice from a mentor: “No one’s thinking about you as much as you think they are”. To put this into a professional context, he explains, that he’s often sat in a meeting and asked himself, “should I ask this question? It’s really silly, of course they’ve considered it. But eventually I’ll just ask it…what’s the worst that can happen?”.

You’ve probably heard it before, but there really is no such thing as silly questions. And the reality is that if you do by chance ask a ‘silly’ question, “no one is going to remember what you said. It applies equally to wearing jeans that you think are a bit out there: walking down the street, someone might think ‘oh, I’m not sure I’d wear that’, but five seconds later, they’ve forgotten about you”. And it’s the same principle in those meetings.

Basically, “just ask the question”, Jaffer proclaims.

Chatterbox is Better than Chatter-Not

And the advice doesn’t stop there. Jaffer has another pearl of wisdom up his sleeve to share with all you CityChangers, namely, “just talk to as many people as you can”. He learnt an incredible amount just by speaking to his peers while studying, communicating with his boss and colleagues, going to events and just putting himself out there. But it’s all about having the right mindset. “You’re not talking to these people for work purposes, to win a project or a professional booking.” No, it’s simply that there are extraordinarily interesting people out there that make you think “’oh, I hadn’t thought about it like that’ and that opens up a part of your brain and gives you a completely different way of looking at things”, Jaffer continues.

“You can’t engineer your way into good urbanism. There has to be the social science element and there is no one right answer for that. So, talk to lots of people.” While it could be easy to get bogged down by the negativity of the news and the scope of the climate crisis we’re now facing, there is no stopping Jaffer, and that means there’s no excuse for us either. If there’s one crucial reflection from Jaffer, it’s, “if our cities aren’t happy and fun, what’s the point?”. Remember all of your work on changing your city for the better “is about the people and their built environment” – so let’s do this for you, for them, for everyone.

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