We need to embed design into the DNA of our built environment and ensure infrastructure connects on a human scale. A new assessment from the NIC points to how it might be done

Sadie morgan bw 2017

Last week the UK’s first ever National Infrastructure Assessment (NIA) was published by the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC). Three years in the making, it analyses the UK’s long-term infrastructure needs up to 2050, setting out recommendations for how these needs should be prioritised and addressed.

All the recommendations are backed by rigorous research and analysis, which has enabled them to be independent, unbiased, and not tainted by political short-term thinking. 

Our recommendations are wide ranging, from full fibre broadband connection across the whole of the country by 2025, a cities fund of £43bn, and ambitious targets on waste and flooding, to switching to low-carbon and renewable sources for the country’s power and heating.

Good design has proven links to a wider set of positive social, economic, and environmental outcomes – including healthy lifestyles, mental health and environmental sustainability

It is our belief that changing to more sustainable energy sources, combined with a move towards electric vehicles, would mean the customer of 2050 would pay the same in real terms for energy as today’s consumer. 

All these recommendations help to fulfil the NIA’s three objectives set: to support sustainable economic growth across all regions of the UK; improve competitiveness; and improve quality of life. It is those last four words that have been the focus of my thoughts and energy.

We have architects to design our buildings, engineers our infrastructure, transport planners our roads and masterplanners to fit it all together. However, too often each focuses on their own individual elements rather than how everything connects together, and this is where the human scale can be missed.

When we focus on the granular and consider individual people it becomes more personal. We start to ask different questions, about individual needs and ease of use. We begin to imagine who those individuals are – our parents, children, friends or colleagues.

Despite all the evidence to the contrary, there is a deep-seated perception that good design adds cost and poses risks to delivering projects on time and on budget

We have a huge responsibility to consider all the different needs of all those who will live, work and play in the buildings we design and build. Sadly this does not always happen, and when it comes to complex or multifaceted projects, time and money are easier to calculate than a person’s quality of life.

Yet good design has proven links to a wider set of positive social, economic, and environmental outcomes – including healthy lifestyles, mental health, environmental sustainability, and enhanced financial and economic values. 

To help understand why design continues to struggle to embed itself into the DNA of our built environment, in February this year the NIC established its design taskforce. I had the privilege of chairing the group, which comprised Lucy Musgrave, Hanif Kara, Isabel Dedring and Tony Burton.

Over the past few months we have questioned infrastructure professionals, reviewed the experience of infrastructure design, and examined best practice from the UK and beyond. 

Our research identified confusion among those delivering national infrastructure projects about the meaning of good design and, despite all the evidence to the contrary, there is a deep-seated perception that good design adds cost and poses risks to delivering projects on time and on budget.

It has also identified a need for more design knowledge among those delivering national infrastructure projects and confirmed the importance of projects having a senior level design champion. Our conclusion was that design needs a more certain place in infrastructure planning. 

Embedding design into infrastructure planning means looking beyond appearance to address the processes through which infrastructure is planned and delivered, and considering how it works and performs.

The message that design is more than just aesthetics and architecture is key. It is about effective problem-solving from the outset, making infrastructure human-scale and user-friendly, developing smarter procurement, enhancing the environment, and improving quality of life, not only for those who benefit directly, but also for the communities and places nearby.

This work has already begun with design initiatives by HS2 Limited, Network Rail and Highways England. We now need to raise design expectations in all future infrastructure investment. To start the process, the NIA makes two recommendations:

  • The NIC will establish a new, independent National Infrastructure Design Group in 2019 to act as a champion of design quality in the nation’s infrastructure.
  • The government should require all national infrastructure projects to include a design champion in their senior governance or board; and to be subject to review and consideration by an independent design panel, supported by new guidance and design principles provided by the National Infrastructure Design Group.

Without this level of design leadership or understanding, we are in danger of wasting opportunities to improve our everyday lives. The moments of interaction with the built environment and infrastructure can make our day easier, better and ultimately more joyful. And we could all certainly do with a little more of that.