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Altering perceptions and unlocking abilities: Studying for the IDBE

29 January 2020 – Dr Jenni Barrett discusses how she applied a social psychology perspective to built environment design collaboration following her Master of Studies (MSt) in Interdisciplinary Design for the Built Environment (IDBE) which led to an academic career and the foundation of coLAB, a consultancy specialising in training and research for the construction industry.

Following a degree in landscape architecture, I worked on regeneration and urban design projects as part of large, multi-disciplinary teams where people had conflicting ideas. Considerable amounts of money were spent resolving issues that were attributed to these personality clashes. I wanted to find out why this was happening and explore solutions to move the construction industry forward, which is when I looked at the IDBE course.

The content really appealed and because of the University’s reputation, I knew that the research and teaching were going to be first class. The course was a blended learning programme, combining one intensive residential week per semester with written research at home. This structure appealed as I was able to digest what I’d learned which had a cross-fertilisation effect.

I remember the day I started, feeling panicked about how I wasn’t academic enough and questioning whether I would be able to keep up with the studies which is ironic considering the trajectory my career has taken. 

A new way of thinking

"The experience was, without doubt, fulfilling and a confidence booster, unlocking abilities and ways of thinking I wasn’t aware that I possessed. Intellectually, it challenged me because I was forced to broaden my thinking and alter perceptions."

The experience was, without doubt, fulfilling and a confidence booster, unlocking abilities and ways of thinking I wasn’t aware that I possessed. Intellectually, it challenged me because I was forced to broaden my thinking and alter perceptions.

The diversity of the tutors was considerable; researchers working on cutting edge projects, leading academics, thinkers and practitioners. They were so skilful in not just teaching me what they knew but coaching and mentoring me to look at things differently; pushing but keeping me autonomous in the way that I approached my work.

My cohort included architects, engineers, each with different perspectives that I simply hadn’t been exposed to in my day job. I made some lifelong friends who I still turn to for contextual conversations about the future of the industry.

Taking a strategic approach

"I look back on this time as an intellectual reordering because the way I thought about things after doing the course had fundamentally shifted. I developed a more strategic and meaningful approach."

I look back on this time as an intellectual reordering because the way I thought about things after doing the course had fundamentally shifted. I developed a more strategic and meaningful approach - I would question and interrogate everything through a different lens.

"I could take all the complexities of the construction industry and understand them in a much more coherent way. In my mind, I had moved beyond being a practitioner in an office."

I could take all the complexities of the construction industry and understand them in a much more coherent way. In my mind, I had moved beyond being a practitioner in an office. I now had the ability to see subjects differently, understand who were the right people to help me on that journey rather than merely responding to what came up on site or in the office.

Challenging the status quo

I now had the confidence to champion change, to challenge the status quo. I felt like I had the knowledge and right after being immersed in the world of thought leaders.

I was working on a number of Private Finance Initiative projects, involving a wide range of disciplines. The learning from IDBE enabled me to look beyond my own set of rigid and defined responsibilities and develop a network that would facilitate good project decisions to understand the issues at the interfaces of the disciplines. This meant that the results were not simply the sum of the different parts but encapsulated design excellence and an interdisciplinary synthesis of ideas.

I honed my skills at writing tenders and conducting interviews during the tender process, developing the necessary gravitas to reassure clients that I could achieve excellence and value. This had a direct effect on tender success rates and business profitability.

Changing direction and sharing knowledge

This transformation culminated in my decision to change my career path. The complete pivot took me from working as a landscape architect to following an academic path.

I had written my IDBE thesis on how personality influences decision making in design teams. My research raised more questions than it answered so I undertook a PhD in social psychology, focussing on the design process and built environment design teams.

I accepted an academic position at the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan), lecturing on architectural management, teaching some of the content I had learned and developed during the IDBE programme, particularly on sustainability and team dynamics and how they influence creativity.

Since then I have worked in a range of roles and the adaptability I got from IDBE instilled within me the confidence to work in different disciplines. I’ve introduced interdisciplinary modules and brought people from industry into the classroom. Knowledge transfer between academia and industry is vital for commercial sustainability and to keep the construction industry at the cutting edge of innovation

"Knowledge transfer between academia and industry is vital for commercial sustainability and to keep the construction industry at the cutting edge of innovation.

Because I worked in industry for 15 years, I struggled to see myself as just an academic. I started the IDBE to answer questions so it only seemed sensible to push those answers back into industry to close the circle, so I set up my own consultancy business. Using my research to underpin training programmes and organisational support is one way that I can facilitate this knowledge transfer.

To deliver the sustainability agenda we need to have those difficult conversations. We can’t innovate if we don’t think beyond what we know and synthesise knowledge from outside our own experiences, disciplines and industries. The IDBE offers that range of experience and calibre of people that really understand the key issues and give you the critical thinking skills and tools to make meaningful and sustainable change.


IDBE explores the importance of multiple disciplines and professions taking a collaborative, ‘design-thinking’ approach in order to successfully deliver sustainable built environment projects. Download the brochure to find out more.

Apply for the IDBE Postgraduate Certificate or the IDBE Master’s

About the author

Jenni Barrett

Dr. Jenni Barrett, a senior lecturer and researcher at the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan) and director of coLAB, completed the Master of Studies (MSt) in Interdisciplinary Design for the Built Environment (IDBE) at the University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership.

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Guest articles on the blog do not necessarily represent the views of, or endorsement by, the Institute or the wider University of Cambridge.

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