Today’s guest is Cameron Sinclair, the co-founder of Architecture For Humanity, the director of the Jolie-Pitt Foundation, head of social innovation for AirBnB, and a pioneer in humanitarian architecture. He has dedicated his life to making the world a better place through more conscious and community-focused architecture.
Some of the topics we discuss:
- Gaining true perspective through tragedy
- How to use architecture to improve humanity
- Universal Basic Income and the balance between fixing the old world and creating a new one
- How to stay courageous
- How to recognize when you are in a bad situation
- The difference between a startup and a stay-through
- Learning to deal with detractors
“building for a world worth living in”
- Former Co-founder of Architecture for Humanity
- Former Director of Jolie-Pitt Foundation
- Former Head of social innovation for Airbnb.
- Currently, the founder of Frontline Care that is bringing shelters to take care of frontline healthcare workers
Using Architecture To Improve Communities
You develop shelter solutions.You develop schools for refugee children, you develop mobile, HIV or now COVID health centers. You develop cultural sustainability and preservation projects. And that in my mind when way beyond my definition of architects. So, so I’d love to hear a little bit about, what’s your definition of architecture?
So, that takes me back earlier because I feel like I was duped into being an architect. I grew up in a very rough part of East London. There was a lot of violence. there were no trees, there wasn’t this sort of surrounding, it wasn’t a peaceful place. And as a young kid, I used to run away from home all the time, and I wasn’t running away to get away from my parents, but I was curious about other neighborhoods in London.
And so by the time I was six, seven, eight years old, I was basically going to other parts of London by myself and understanding that different urban environments resulted in different outcomes. A nice park, a well-formatted, like, you know, gathering place. People were happy and they smiled. And, and at the time I didn’t know it was socioeconomic reasons, right?
Because when you’re poor, you don’t think you’re poor, you think your neighbor’s poor. Right? So no one actually said, well, Cameron, you guys come from a poor household and you live in a rough neighborhood. That’s why it’s so bad. I was like, why is this architecture better? And so as a six-year-old or seven year old, I thought maybe if you build better architecture, you could actually improve communities.
And so I became an architect because I felt that it was a vessel where people discover how to become better humans, and that as we put things into the world, we’re not just affecting the client, we’re affecting everybody in that ecosystem. So when you’re building something in the middle of a city.
It’s not just the owner of that building. It’s everybody that surrounds that building that gets affected by either positively or negatively. So by the time I went to architecture school, I was absolutely convinced that that’s what the role of the architect was, was to either positively improve the planet or to be a detriment.
And I wanted to make sure that I was going to positively improve the planet.
Finding Your Purpose With Personal Crisis
One of the things we say on this podcast quite a lot is our superpower comes from our biggest wounds. So were there something in the past that happened, that inspired to say, Hey, when someone is in need, I’m going to help to the best mobility. Is there any stories like that?
in terms of a personal story, so, my sister and I, are almost the same age, almost identical. She’s 10, 11 months older than me, as we like to say Irish twins. And, she was born with a very severe case of type one diabetes. she ended up in hospital probably a couple of, a couple of months a year. And her doctor at the time said that she had a year to live and the next year they said she had a year to live.
And as a result, and quite naturally, my parents spent a lot of time and attention and care on her and gave me kind of a lot of leeway to do what I want. But it was almost like in a house that’s, there was always a conversation of finality and, and the fact that like, you know. And, I’m sure a lot of people that watch this or you know, have somebody in their life that, you know, gets a terminal illness or has, has a very tragic accident or has something that is really a shock, right? And it shocks everybody and everyone rallies around.
But when you have someone who’s so close to you and your family, that is always on the edge. of not making it. You come to terms with that and you begin to realize that like there are bigger issues at play and you’re very thankful at the time you had.
And you know, when I started working in disasters, I began to recognize similar attributes and people that are going through a crisis where they were, they were actually much more resilient than almost anybody else I’ve met. I mean. I was in New York during nine 11 and folks who were downtown on end Manhattan had a much stronger resilience than people that were outside the city because their perception of the disaster was so great and they couldn’t process it.
Whereas when you’re in it, you kind of say, okay, this is the new normal. We have to live in this. Right? And here’s how we’re going to respond. And you know, you know, I have a million stories of like, you know, during the tsunami of 2004 in Indonesia, I met a couple that asked me about designing a house, and they were two people who had lost every member of their family except a couple of kids.
That they’d lost their spouses and the housing for people were very basic, like a very basic wood box or a metal box, but that wasn’t a nuanced approach to housing for new families. And these two people through this disaster had fallen in love. They didn’t know each other, but they had a shared situation.
They had a shared trauma, which they had lost their spouses and they were trying to raise their kids. They didn’t have a job and all they were asking me as an architect to do was to design them a place, whether they can come together and be a new family that is not in the humanitarian design book.
Right? There’s no like, but what you find is like, there’s such incredible resilience in this space that, you know, the real vulnerabilities are the people like us, the workers, the ones that don’t see the blind spots.
Putting Others First Because We Are All Connected
No one ever taught me that I come first and that I was always told that we live in a very interconnected, what hold up and what we do over here affects things over here. And so I wasn’t, you know, I didn’t grow up in the smartest household or like the most well-read family. But there was a sense that, it, we’re all kind of in this together and, we have to figure out a way to move forward and, you know, sometimes we’re going to have a very tight, close family that helps that happen. Other, your family is a much broader spectrum of people.
And even now, I think my closest friends, Live in a much more global perspective because I’ve ended up attracting, and I’ve also found kinship and people that also think very similarly. so I don’t know. I think, it’s funny, I was, I was on a call a couple of weeks ago where the theme of the coal was, why being selfish is better for everybody.
Was that the premise of the call? Sure. and, and the speaker was trying to explain why putting yourself first eventually helps other people, but he prefaced that by saying, without being deeply competitive.
So he asked you to negated entire argument. Because you know, the part about being selfish and, and, and putting yourself, us is about creating a competition between you and everything else around you.
The moment you say, look, we’re not in a competitive landscape. We’re figuring out how to work collaboratively. You’re not being selfish. So I kind of feel like people are, then they’re made to feel guilty for not being putting themselves first.
Right. It should, that shouldn’t be the default. You shouldn’t apologize for putting your fellow man at an equal level, you know?
And so, I don’t know, I’ve just, I just haven’t come from a society or from a community or a culture where, Like, I certainly, again, this plays into like, you know, the downside and being so giving is sometimes you, you know, you don’t capitalize on the opportunities you have. So I, I know over the last decade, two decades, I could’ve made a lot of money.
And most people don’t realize, like for instance, with architecture for humanity, I used to charge for speaking fees. It used to be a big thing in the architecture industry. People get really upset with me. The fact I was, I had CAA as an agent and they were charging five figure fees for me to go and give speeches.
But what most people didn’t know and I never explained publicly cause I felt like I didn’t need to, I didn’t have to do that, was a hundred percent of that money was donated to run the organization. Right, and it was five fold of what? Well, even 10 fold of what my salary was certain years, and it covered a lot of people’s salaries that I felt were important to be a part of the organization.
That wasn’t a selfless act. That was an act of saying, okay, there’s a mechanism for me to make money. I can eat them, put it in my bank account, but the thing that I really believe in and care about would end up suffering and choking. And then I, my purpose wouldn’t be fulfilled. So I’m going to take this and put it over here, but I’m not going to tell people because it’s like, then you muddy the waters of the why. Right?
And for me, it was much better just to be like, okay, this is, you know, the only people that really knew was the COO and the accountants, right? That like all this money was just being diverted into the organization to help underwrite things. So. You know, you know, over the course of, over the course of 10 years, that was close to 1.2, one point $5 million that I decided not to give myself the Ted prize. I decided not to give myself. Right.
And it wasn’t out of being, selfless. I think there were selfish reasons I did it, but the selfish reasons what to allow the collective to grow. So it’s, it’s like the, the, the complexity of your decision making. Sometimes there are selfish reasons. There’s reasons or for the betterment of others.
Yeah. I think that egoic mind wants really clean cut answers, black or white. But rarely is our black and white. It’s shades of gray and the, you pick the one that it’s goonna forward your purpose, your mission, your core values.
How To Stay Courageous When Facing Difficulties
Even just with your physical wellbeing, running into a disaster as a one component. another component is the courage to speak up. Knowing that, other critics, people who are jealous are gonna now look at you as a target potentially right? So where did you, what’s the source of your courage such that. You’re willing to do the difficult thing, the challenging thing?
Well, I think there’s a couple of things. I mean, you know, the source of my courage is also a challenge, which is, I do have a level of stubbornness when somebody doesn’t believe in me.
and so, and I think entrepreneurs have this, and actually the more vocal someone comes out about how they think you’re going to fail at something or how you think it’s stupid or they think it’s inappropriate or you should just keep quiet, the more you’re willing to speak out.
I have a couple of interesting examples. So at the time with architecture humanity, my cofounder and I. Felt that there was, there was an award that was being given primarily to male architects and they weren’t recognizing some of the female partners or the female architects in the field. And so we spoke out about it and a board of directors formally reprimanded us for weighing into a subject that, that had nothing to do with our organization.
And it was just basically like, you guys just keep quiet about this. Right? And so. You know, rather than shut up, we just became more vocal about it because it almost became like a question of like, why would you silence someone for speaking up against this particular issue? I also felt strongly about architects being Somewhat culpable in the human rights violations that were happening around the world with large scale development. And the fact that I knew that based on some research and some documentation I had done of certain architects who had unknowingly, allowed that to be human trafficking in the construction of their buildings.
And I wanted to have a very open and honest conversation about the fact that we as an industry are culpable in the trafficking of humans, right? Like, we always focus on say, sex trafficking, but there’s many forms of human trafficking. And when I did that, that ended up becoming, a source of, of, debate.
And people got very, Yeah, divided about it, and certainly put a target on my back and it was kind of a surprise rather than us having a Frank, honest conversation about it, having, you know, architects becoming incredibly defensive. So I think it’s, I don’t know. I think, You have a belief mechanism and when you get questioned in that belief mechanism and you’re willing to back down, maybe you didn’t have that belief in the first place.
Maybe it was just an idea that you were exploring.
I was offered a job about three years ago to work for a startup company, making a lot of money, a lot of money. figuring out their social impact.
The same time I was working on the schools on the Syrian border where I wasn’t getting paid to fundraise, but the idea of the project in Syria was so compelling. Even though I wouldn’t be financially benefited, it was more important for me to finish that and not take the other job.
I wouldn’t have been true to myself, so the other project, because that’s not why I did the project. So I think, you know, people are very dismissive. It’s not courage. It’s do you value yourself? And when that value gets questioned, are you willing to fold and bend because of it?
Hmm. Mm Hmm. Right. Hmm. I love that.
when someone says, you know, the question you like, you know, how can you raise a family? Or how can you be a decent kind of, parent because you know, you could have just taken a job with lots of money and your kid could go to some fancy college.
I’m hoping at some point that my kid realizes that I took the more difficult road because my core values dictated me to do that. And it was the right thing to do, even if it caused kind of a financial and a social challenging situations.
Yeah. the hardest thing, and also the simplest thing is know thyself. That to me is one of the life’s challenge. Really know thyself and operate and behave and say, and do things based on how you have determined to live. And then you, my friend, have for me and outside of point of view, do that. And that’s what I meant courage is not necessarily the external challenge, but the courage to face the criticisms as self doubts, the, the, the difficulties, the judgment from within and without, right?
And ask massive personal blowback because, people say this phrase as if it’s a negative phrase. They say, Oh, you’re nothing but a do gooder. like, Oh, just want to like, you know, one of those guys who just wants to help the planet, right?
Oh, you’re in this just to get your name out there, right? And saying like, you’re dedicating your entire existence towards the solution. You know, the, we’ve somehow turned helping your fellow man as a negative thing, even in the media when someone says, Like do good design or do good innovation or do good housing.
Also in first, everything else is bad. And so we’ll let our professionals then take it as a critic. Like if you get, and this happened to me my, for for years, when someone would give me some award or something that said I was a do good architect. So many famous, very well known architects. Would get upset and would be verbally dismissive as if I was somehow saying that their work was not good.
but I was just helping poor people and those people are willing to take anything. And so, you know, I think. It’s not just the complexity of doing the work, it’s the fact that you’re willing to have your entire reputation and, personal bias against you be dismissive.
Intermediary Technology Is What Takes Us Into The Future
“if I look at two schools of thought regarding humanitarian work as an example, one would be there’s all our shit that’s broken, let me go fix broken stuff. That’s one way of looking at it.
Another way of looking at is forget about the broken stuff. Let’s just invent a new future that’s so compelling. People are like, Oh, I want that. Let me forego the old paradigm, the old way of doing things. What is your thought about one or the other or neither.
Well, the first one brings disappointment because you’ve just fixed something that you know is going to break again. So people are still a little bit, you know, they’re just like, Ugh, we still have to do this.
The problem with the utopian, like future-proofing solution that’s going to leapfrog you to the next, you know, like, I like a good example. I love UBI. I think universal basic income is a fantastic way to sync about, how we.
Allow a whole society to live a, you know, a, a baseline existence, right. With the, with the resources and the wealth that’s in the ground and in the air. but the systems of capitalism are so deeply rooted in so many systems that for UBI to like take off, it has to push capitalism through an understanding.
Right of like, the future is here. This is what it looks like. So at the moment, there’s lots of these little experiments, whether they’re here in Hudson, New York, or they’re in, you know, Stockton or other areas of the United States where people are doing little experiments to show the solution how the solution could work.
So you have to kind of coax the past into the future. You know, in 2000, you’re going to look at even look this up. In 2001, there was an interview that was in the New York times, with the UN and myself. And the title of the, of the article was, we’ve got tenths, we’ve got talents, we have tents, T, E, N, T, 10.
And this was in reference to refugees. And you know, for the last 20 years, the UN has said, well, we have tents. We don’t need anything else. And the humanitarian, wildest says, a refugee camp isn’t camping. Right? It’s not a joyful experience that these people are there for a decade. You cannot be building tents.
You have to figure out an urban planning strategy that is about building temporary cities that will evolve and emerge. You cannot do this. But the UN doesn’t believe that because that system doesn’t exist. So you have to eventually, slowly. Pull them along. And you know, I’ve been a harsh, harsh critic of better shelter, which is the Ikea funded solution.
But to be honest, they actually tried to do that. They didn’t build a tent, a permanent solution. They didn’t build a tent. They built something that was midway in between that allowed the UN to see what the future looked like. So, you know. It’s very rare that there’s a leapfrog technology. Like everyone’s like, yeah, we got smart phones, and then we, we had this like, great moment.
Well, guess what? Before this, there was Palm pilots. There were razors, there were, there was all sorts of semi smart phones where we will, I remember having something from T-Mobile, which was like. You would flip the screen. Yeah. Yeah. You know, and it was like literally the screen was this big, it was like a lozenge and it was a horrible phone, but I could send a text message to somebody.
That was it. Right. So there’s been intermediary technologies that have driven us to the new new future. So yeah, I think it’s really hard. what, what tends to happen is those pioneering people that do the leapfrog technologies never financially benefit from it because they’re too far ahead of everybody else.
And so they ended up taking all the liability and the risk everybody else and their company probably will fail. So this comes from, this comes from a history. So my father, there were three companies in the world that was, that were really focused on photo archiving and imaging. One of them was Kodak, one of them was called leaf, and the other was my father’s and my father was way ahead of everyone else.
And he would invent stuff all the time. But you know. It turns out that he was, say, 10 years ahead of everybody. And as a result, Getty images and Corbus and others, other photo archiving systems came into place after these three companies. My father’s company went under Kodak, went bankrupt, and I don’t even know if leaf exists anymore, but like these were three companies that like hedged their bets into this future.
And we’re just too ahead of the game.
The Difference Between A Startup and A Stay-Through
” So we talked about out the difference between a startup and a stay through.
And what does it mean to be, to take a different mindset on being an entrepreneur? Do you want me to continue?
Yes, please. Please elaborate.
Okay. Okay. So, so what I’ve been doing for my last, for the last 35 years of my life, but professionally, the last 20 years has not changed. It’s not been like I haven’t started a jello company and then started a car company and then started like a stapler company.
Right. And we know friends who have done that. You know, you, you meet someone that like, yeah, I had a restaurant business and then I started this thing that was making skateboards out of recycled plastic bottles from the ocean. I just like, how do you go? But you know. I’ve been very, consistent in the things I wanted to do.
And it’s like one overarching journey that’s about how do we create better ways of living for the world, right? And that doesn’t necessarily mean architecture, but what is the, what is the systems that we need to put in place to have a better way of living life based on. The world that we’re living in right now, because the world that we lived in in 1945 it’s very different from what 2025 is going to look like.
And so, you know, along that line, there’s a period where I did a nonprofit, I did a for purpose design studio. I worked for a foundation. And now I’m, I have a hybrid organization that’s doing some work philanthropically, but also I’m coming up with a, a for profit venture, which is more to do with, kind of direct engagement around our architecture and living.
And so, and that, you know, we’ll launch very soon, but, Okay. If you would ask me 10 years ago, what are you interested in? It’d be the exactly the same thing I’m interested in now is how do we create buildings and communities that create betterment for society and for those occupy the buildings themselves?
So, you know, I, The idea of startup sounds like I have an idea. I want to get it out there, and if it gets funded, then I’m going to believe in the idea. That to me is crazy. It’s crazy, right? It’s kind of like saying like, I think I like mango ice cream. I’m going to launch a campaign for me to try mango ice cream.
And then you eat it and you’re like, nah, just didn’t work out. Just, just couldn’t get it together. I’m really into pistachio now. Right. You know, it’s, it’s just, you know, for me, it’s like when you have a real purpose driven company, our purpose driven philanthropy has legs and it, and it’s come, it’s evolved and it’s moved and it’s so, Yeah, the, the, that, that to me is the stay through
what, so what I hear you say, you didn’t say this, but this, this is that internal faith, internal belief that this will go the way that I want it to go. but at the same time, you’re not attached to the mechanisms of just going to help fulfill this purpose.
Is that accurate?
Absolutely. I mean, you know, I trained to be an architect. And I tried to work in the field of architecture, and then I worked into the field of philanthropy. And I’ve worked in other fields where I’ve used the idea of building or creating space as a way to better people’s lives. And if you took a legal definition, 80% of what I did was not architecture.
So, but it still had the same. the same thread. yeah, I, you know, if you take somebody like Steve jobs, you know, and make these analogies, the Elon Musk’s, the Steve jobs, you know, it’s not like. He, you know, when he invented or when he was part of the team that invented the iPhone or the iPad, or even the iMac, right.
Some of the, the Connell’s of understanding and the philosophy of it was the same as when he did the Apple Toohey and the Lisa
Right? That was, that was, that was, and so, you know, you know, there’s a lot of great innovators out there that they just need to find the right time to have their solution discovered. And, and, and, and, and that’s what luck is. It’s perseverance and strength to believe an idea that will suddenly get elevated into the social conscience.
And most people don’t understand that. They just say, Oh, he was lucky. She got really lucky with that idea. Nobody got lucky with an idea. Maybe that idea was created yesterday and it entered the social consciousness in 24 hours. Maybe the idea was 24 years ago and it entered the social consciousness today, right?
It’s the same. It’s almost the same amount of tenacity and work. It’s what you do with it. Once you get recognized.
Yeah. It’s that overnight success takes 10 20 years for all my success to happen.
And, and I think it’s important to recognize those people that do have overnight successes then spend the next 10 to 20 years evolving that success.
When You Question Everything You’re Doing, It’s Time To Be Reincarnated
So you have reinvented yourself many, many times. Can you share with us, I’m looking at the highest of highs and the lowest of lows and your roller coaster experience of reinventing yourself. What are some of the felt sensations or indicators to yourself to say, Hmm, it’s time to end or it’s time to push through, you know what I mean?
it’s more like, Are you evolving or are you kind of like going through a rebirth or renewal? Right. You know, cause reinventing sometimes means an evolution. And sometimes it’s like literally a reincarnation, right?
You know, you come back as a different animal and, and that happens in life. And, There are moments where I question everything I’m doing and then it’s time to be reincarnated. It’s, I mean, and that doesn’t mean that your core philosophies and your ideas change. It just means that the circumstances that you suggest you find yourself in are just not working.
And that doesn’t mean that you then say, well, I’m not responsible for things in the past. We all own our histories and you have to continue to own that history, but you know, you just, you know, you feel it in. You feel it in your gut and you feel it in your head when it’s time to change. But when it’s time to evolve, you feel that in your gut and you feel it in your heart, right?
It is unstoppable and it’s almost like no matter what people are saying that you cannot do this, you are driven well beyond what your mind can think. Your mind has to catch up. Right? Yo, your heart is saying, you got a saying like, let’s do this. Your heart is like, this is it. You got it. You got to double down; your head is like, wait, wait, I haven’t figured this all out. Right.
And so like, whereas when you’re like, something’s wrong here, you’re really thinking about all the challenges and you know, how is this affecting certain people and you know, and are you proud or not proud of the decisions that you’ve made?
You know. Have you had to compromise? I think in some of the instances where I kind of, what I would say re re re-emerged as a new person, I really questions a lot of the decision making that I had to make cause I had to, it was like the best of a bad situation and the moment that you have the best of a bad situation, you’re in a bad situation, right?
No one stops to say, wait a minute. Like I have two difficult choices. Like maybe making that choice is the wrong question to ask. Maybe the right question is, why am I making this decision when I know that both options are bad, right? And maybe the entire thing just doesn’t work. And so it could be a personal relationship.
It doesn’t happen. We haven’t even delved into personal relationships, but like it could be a personal relationship or it could be a professional relationship and yeah. You know, you end up, realizing that you’re hurting too many people by trying to make the best, worst choice. and that shouldn’t be how life is.
How To Change the World With Humanitarian Architecture
” if someone who is watching this, they’re inspired by your story, your commitment, your journey of all these things that you’ve done, right? the highest of highs, as well as the lowest of loads. Knowing everything that you know now, if they want to make a difference in the humanitarian architectural round, what a three or five things that you will recommend them to start thinking about before they walk on that path?
The first and most important thing is understanding that you need deep empathy for the very people you’re trying to help. And that that stories are much more complex than you’ve been told and that their histories are embedded in their future.
The second is, there’s nothing worse than showing up with an idea and walking away.
It brings false hope to a community, right? If I’ve been asked, you know, just in the last two, two days to work on Navajo nation and work on pine Ridge and elsewhere. I’m not committing to them because I don’t have the capacity to actually follow through cause I don’t have the funding or the resources.
Right now. When I do, I can commit. And that’s a conversation that starts. But so many designers come in with a passionate idea and they present it and the community gets excited and they turn around and say, but I don’t have the money. I don’t have the resources. Let’s see what we can do. And then false hope has given.
The third is. be willing to do anything that the community does. a story in that is, I lived up in the Northern part of Mongolia with a tribe of reindeer herders. And on the first night, you know, I drank reindeer milk milk and I ate reindeer. Just like everyone else and I had to learn how to play a Mongolian form of poker and drink a lot of vodka to make it through to the next day.
And only then did we stop conversation. Right. Mixture of strange milk. Well, I was going to say fermented milk, strange meat, Mancha gambling is not what I signed up for. But that’s what the community wanted to do. And it was that test of saying like, are you willing to come to the table for us?
And then the final thing I think is, the, the more you get done in this life, the more detractors you’re gonna have.
And the more that people will, pull you down on a surface level. And diminish what you do because it seems plausible or impossible, what you’ve been able to achieve. And so, and you’re going to have failures too. And it’s really interesting to see the people that will, there’ll be much more vocal when you’re going through your toughest moments. And they’re not helpful at all when you need help, right, and I know this with even close friends who, when I’ve asked for a donation to help on a project, they said, no, no, I’m busy. My startup is trying to do around, we need to raise a few million. I’m busy.
And then when I’ve worked on something and it’s not worked out, they’re the first people to say like, look, you see this nonprofit stuff doesn’t work. So you have to understand that sometimes there’s people in your close circle, even family that will, take delight in seeing you go through challenging circumstances.
So that’s not ending on a high, but it’s ending on a reality.