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No more excuses: why we need to take responsibility for better design 

15 July 2021

A new study reveals ICE members need help in delivering ‘good’ design, as Director of Engineering Knowledge Mark Hansford explains.

No more excuses: why we need to take responsibility for better design 
A huge cultural shift is needed if we as an industry want to deliver better-designed infrastructure. Image credit: Getty Images

This month, ICE is publishing the findings of an extensive year-long study of how our members understand what makes ‘good’ design, as defined by the National Infrastructure Commission’s design principles.

These principles, now adopted by the UK government, define good design as:

  • designing for climate
  • for people
  • for place
  • for value

The principles are set to have a significant impact on the work of the civil engineer. The government has dictated that all infrastructure projects have a board-level design champion in place by the end of 2021 at either the project, programme or organisational level, supported where appropriate by design panels.

Clearly ICE members should be enthused and motivated by the opportunity to perform that role. But to what extent are they equipped?

To find out, ICE and the NIC’s Design Group have collaborated to produce the What makes good design? report. The report is centred around a survey of members in September 2020 and detailed discussions with industry bodies and experts to help ICE gain further insight and to set the survey findings in context.

The engineer's responsibility

So what is the conclusion?

The What makes good design? survey results indicate that civil engineers broadly support the view that wherever they are in the project life cycle, they have a responsibility to influence design. However, they also believe the skills to achieve this are lacking at every level and the factors stopping them are mainly outside of their control.

This conclusion confirms that a huge cultural shift is needed if we as an industry want to deliver better-designed infrastructure; a shift that requires everyone to take responsibility for their part in the process:

  • Instead of blaming a lack of joined-up thinking across the sector, engineers should be pulling different disciplines together and encouraging everyone to dismantle their traditional siloes
  • Instead of claiming that clients are not asking for design that focuses on climate, people, places and value in their project briefs, engineers should be leading the conversations with their clients

In turn, clients need to listen.

The survey results show that some engineers are not aware that they could and should be delivering better-quality design. Others know they lack the knowledge and skills to deliver: a state of conscious incompetence.

An urgent shift to conscious competence is needed to address the challenges ahead and deliver infrastructure that meets the needs of everyone in society.

This report is ICE’s first step towards developing a design literacy programme for civil engineers that promotes climate, people, places and value and equips them with the skills they need to design for the future, to create design champions.

It is a major priority because, put simply, the NIC’s Design Group believes there is a significant gap between what engineers say about good design and what they do.

'Things' rather than 'people'

Paraphrasing from the survey responses, NIC commissioner and NIC Design Group chair Sadie Morgan sums up engineers as singularly trained to think about "things" rather than "people". They often thinking about steel or concrete solutions ahead of behavioural ones and, perhaps most damningly of all, taking a view that "if it’s not in the brief, we can’t do anything about it".

Clearly the first and fundamental role of the civil engineer is to understand steel and concrete and ensure that infrastructure is safe. The recent, shocking, apartment block collapse in Miami, Florida, is another stark warning of what happens when basic concepts are fundamentally misunderstood.

ICE will continue to reassure society that safety is an overarching priority for our infrastructure, and continues to advocate and support the CROSS collaborative reporting scheme and the GIRI eliminating errors drive, two examples of how civil engineers can learn lessons from failure.

However, the wider shortcomings revealed by this study clearly need addressing, and quickly. ICE’s knowledge community will lead on this work in continued collaboration with the NIC Design Group and other key industry bodies and initiatives.

Next steps

To find out more about what needs to be done and how ICE will do it, sign up for the Strategy Session on 20 July where the topic will be explored in more detail.

Sign up now

  • Mark Hansford, director of engineering knowledge at Institution of Civil Engineers