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Infrastructure blog

The importance of good design in making infrastructure work for society

14 February 2020

ICE Fellow, Judith Sykes, discusses the importance of good infrastructure design and her experiences of serving on the National Infrastructure Commission’s Design Group.

The importance of good design in making infrastructure work for society
Looking at infrastructure through principles of design will help communities flourish

As engineers, we understand the power of our profession. What we do is about mastering our environment and making it work for people. Indeed, our Institution is constituted to foster and promote the art and science of civil engineering for the benefit of society.

As members, under our codes of conduct, we have a duty to behave ethically and take account of broader public interest, including the wellbeing of future generations. But it’s not just about people. We must also have due regard of the environment and sympathetic management of natural resources.

I was delighted to be appointed to the National Infrastructure Commission’s Design Group last year and these two challenges – to ensure engineering complements people and the environment – are central to our thinking. The group comprises leaders in engineering, architecture, landscape and transport. Our aim is to ensure excellent design is at the heart of how nationally significant projects are planned and delivered from day one.

Last week, we launched the UK’s first ever Design Principles for National Infrastructure: climate, people, places and value. By looking at major projects through the lens of these four considerations, we can ensure our infrastructure leaves a proud inheritance that supports flourishing communities and an enriched environment.

First, we believe infrastructure must help set the trajectory for the UK to achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 or sooner – as well as being capable of adapting to climate change. Engineers have a key role in delivering this outcome and I am pleased that this will be the focus of this year’s State of the Nation.

Second, projects should be built on a human scale, be instinctive to use and seek opportunities to improve the quality of life for people who live and work nearby. Similarly, schemes should provide a sense of local identity, supporting the natural and built environment, promoting biodiversity and enhancing ecosystems.

Finally, infrastructure should add value beyond its headline purpose, seeking to solve multiple problems and make the best possible use of public money. These principles should be applied to all economic infrastructure: digital communications, energy, transport, flood management, water and waste. They matter for all projects, whether visible or hidden, imposing or unobtrusive.

The concept of design doesn’t always feel like a natural fit for engineers – partly because there continues to be a lack of understanding about what it is. Contrary to popular belief, it’s not solely about aesthetics – it’s about making sure projects work well too.

While engineering is inherently a creative process, many of our peers don’t see themselves as designers – but that needs to change.

Good design relies on a combination of talents. We need to buck the trend of increasingly siloed disciplines and see the principles as a catalyst for greater collaboration. To rise to the tests of the 21st century, bringing together different perspectives will be essential.

While the principles will help to demystify the design process, as a profession, we need to start taking steps to build our design competency. This is especially relevant to how well we integrate infrastructure with places, support restoration of habitats and make sure the schemes we deliver are accessible for everyone’s needs.

We should always be mindful to consider the wider context before jumping to solutions, particularly in the investment and options development phases of a project. The greatest value is delivered by choosing the right infrastructure and solutions that deliver multiple benefits. We need a more integrated approach to selecting options. We need to be prepared to join forces on a much wider scale, bringing together different agencies and infrastructure providers. And we need to engage meaningfully with a really diverse range of stakeholders to ensure we are defining societal outcomes at the outset.

Any engineer working in infrastructure today finds themselves at an exciting juncture. All of us can be innovators and play a part in shaping a greener and more socially responsible future. Through the publication of the principles, a design challenge has been thrown down for our profession. I encourage everyone to adopt our guide and position us at the forefront of driving this agenda. And as a profession, we see ourselves as designers, practising the art of engineering and creative problem solving.

Judith is a Director of Expedition Engineering. She was appointed to the National Infrastructure Commissions Design Group in 2019 and is a member of the ICE’s 2020 State of the Nation Steering Group for its forthcoming report on achieving net-zero emissions.

  • Judith Sykes, lead fellow for the programme and senior director at Expedition Engineering