The new design taskforce of the National Infrastructure Commission will help us see the bigger picture – and create places for people 

Sadie morgan bw 2017

The experience of our built environment speaks to our national identity; it says something about who we are and what we are good at. Why is it then that the design of our “places” is rarely considered?

We have architects to design our buildings, engineers our infrastructure, and transport planners our roads – and masterplanners to fit it all together. But when it comes to how our built environment connects together, the human scale is often lost. 

Plans might work at 1:500 or 1:1,000, but at 1:1, the focus becomes more granular, more personal. We start to ask different questions, and our thoughts turn to individual need and ease of use. We begin to imagine who those individuals are who might use a place: is it my elderly aunt, who walks with a stick, uneasy on her feet? My spritely mother, whose hearing isn’t what it used to be? My daughters, who never look up, only down, yet still manage to navigate the lampposts? Is it the Part 2 architect in my office, wheelchair-bound, who leaves home in the morning two hours earlier than his colleagues, just to get to work on time? Or my tiny niece in her pushchair, or my sister flustered in unfamiliar streets with toddlers in tow?

We have architects to design our buildings, engineers our infrastructure, and transport planners our roads – and masterplanners to fit it all together. But when it comes to how our built environment connects together, the human scale is often lost

Those of us who are responsible for designing and building the places in which we all live, work and play have a huge responsibility to think about those of us who are going to be living, working and playing in them.

Design isn’t just about aesthetics; it’s about problem-solving. It’s about making sure that things work intuitively and well for everybody. If you can think of the problems and opportunities early on, you can avoid or embrace them – and not just for today but for 20, 50 or 100 years from now. 

To look ahead and plan for the future for such places, you need a vision, and to create that vision you need to work with people who can think and imagine the future. 

For me, the belief that good design can be transformative has been integral to my professional life. When I founded dRMM Architects with Alex de Rijke and Philip Marsh, we set out to create architecture that is innovative, high-quality and socially useful, bound by an aspiration to make things better. And why wouldn’t we want to?

Yet this kind of thinking often falls through the cracks. When it comes to multi-faceted projects, with overly complex bureaucracy, time and money are much easier to calculate than quality of life. There is no metric or line in the spreadsheet for that. There is also no body that looks holistically at the design of our built environment and our infrastructure, no champion to make sure that all these grand designs join up with real life, and no voice that offers an alternative human perspective to that of gross value added; one that connects the vision and economic arguments to the people and places on the ground and that promotes the benefits of good design.

That is why I am so delighted that the National Infrastructure Commission is setting up a design taskforce. The idea is to build upon the hugely positive consultation response from the draft proposals set out in the National Infrastructure Assessment and to create a taskforce whose aim will be to make a more detailed case for quality design in infrastructure. It will take a strategic look at how to join up infrastructure sectors, design disciplines and communities, and use technology as an enabler for more collaborative project approaches.

The taskforce will also give advice on how to join up the work of specific design panels such as HS2 and Highways England. It will, too, benchmark global exemplars and outline some initial design principles. It will champion what infrastructure design means, raising its profile and illustrating how value can be enhanced. It will set out the case for a permanent design-focused group, its governance, and what the makeup of its permanent membership might be. And it will challenge professional bodies to drive modernisation and to embrace innovation. 

We at the National Infrastructure Commission aim to publish the findings of the design taskforce alongside the final National Infrastructure Assessment, as a basis for further engagement and discussion ahead of finalising the plan. The response from our initial consultation on the idea of setting up a design taskforce showed widespread enthusiasm and interest for such a group. As an industry we need to harness this focus on quality of life, put creativity back onto the front foot and put good design firmly back on the infrastructure map.