Despite everything, there have been successes and positive shifts of focus in 2020. We must build on this to create a better environment


For an optimist it is never easy to look back on a year in a negative light. However, the shadow of 2020 will always be felt because of the enormous cost in both lives and livelihoods that came with it. As we acknowledge the losses we shared, we must also look to the lessons we learnt.

As communities, this was the year where we showed unparalleled adaptability, strength and determination. Not least because we knew we needed to build a better world to come out to the other side. So, as we head towards 2021, with hopes of a vaccine inviting that glimmer of light we all so desperately need, we should respect the sacrifices that we have all made, by taking stock of our successes.

Just last month, the government outlined a requirement for the appointment of design champions at board level on all infrastructure projects of national significance, with the support of design review panels. This was in official response to the National Infrastructure Commission’s national infrastructure assessment, which I have been working on as a commissioner with my colleagues over the past few years; and the launch of our infrastructure design principles titled Climate, People, Place, Value.

This acceptance is a sign that good design is moving up the national agenda. It is truly a positive shift in focus that now needs to be followed through with positive implementation.

It is not enough to celebrate milestone decisions, however; they are just a first step. The second is to ensure that individuals and teams are given the space and leeway to do the work that it takes to make design, wellbeing and sustainability central to future development.

We have got the point of principle covered – there is now registered willingness to make these drivers a priority; next we have to empower people in all relevant industries to feel as though they can get the job done.

Good design is moving up the national agenda. It is a truly positive shift in focus that now needs to be followed through with positive implementation

This is already happening. The Institution of Civil Engineers is working hard to introduce a design leadership programme, appointing design champions within individual projects  and discovering how that focus can translate among the engineering profession.

On matters of climate, grassroots organisations such as the Architects Climate Action Network have grown to an impressive scope, developing working streams of action that help to address very pragmatic areas of the profession. The London Energy Transformation Initiative has similarly produced solid guidance that helps practitioners to get closer to where they need to be on sustainability. Meanwhile Architects Declare is helping groups from all over the world come together to share knowledge. It is this kind of affirmative attitude and initiative that should encourage others to take more practical action.

We need more of this. We also need to work on delivering a message that converting our industry into one led by sustainable, high-quality design is not unachievable. For that, so-called higher powers must prioritise approachability.

Within the Quality of Life Foundation, our team has been working hard to build documentation and guidelines around actionable objectives towards prioritising wellbeing. Our reasoning is that, if you are able to show simple, understandable steps, inciting real change becomes much less scary. The passing of legislation and national requirements is crucial to meaningful progress, but policy must also be paired with reinforcement and encouragement at practice level.

Here’s what needs to happen. Collectively, at whatever level of industry, we all need to understand how these principled goals can be embedded in the process of making places – how do we make good, sustainable and healthy design actually happen?

In depth: What the National Infrastructure Strategy means for construction

Next year will be the year where we all have to step up and take hold of the responsibility of our intentions. The environment, our health and the cohesion of our built environment cannot afford for us not to do so.

The good news is that we have never had a better practice ground for collective responsibility and diligence. The year of covid-19 taught us all two major things – firstly, what our priorities are (to safeguard our health, the health of our communities and the health of the planet); and secondly, how well equipped we can be in a crisis.

When an external force as unrelenting as this virus threatens us communally, it forces us to equalise, encourages us to collaborate and demands that we innovate. These three things are also the recipe for improving our built environment through better design, more climate action and greater emphasis on wellbeing.

The three are completely intertwined and mutually reinforcing. All the big issues of the day can be mitigated – and that is our collective job for 2021.

Sadie Morgan is a co-founding director of dRMM, chair of the Quality of Life Foundation and a design advocate for the GLA