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Making design matter to everybody

23 July 2021

An ICE Strategy Session looked at the issues raised by the institution’s new report, What Makes Good Design?, and found that the profession needs to try harder.

Making design matter to everybody

Engineers – all engineers – need to take responsibility for good design in infrastructure, no matter how junior their position or how small the project. This was one of the main lessons that came out of an ICE Strategy Session entitled What Makes Good Design?, held on 20 July.

The event formally launched the findings of a year-long joint investigation by ICE and the National Infrastructure Commission’s Design Group into the extent to which civil engineers understand and feel able to deliver “good design” as defined by the NIC Design Group’s four principles of designing for people, place, value and climate.

"We wanted to understand how the design principles are understood – what are the limits and opportunities?" said Judith Sykes, senior director at Expedition Engineering, ICE Fellow and NIC Design Group member who led the steering group for the report.

"We were shocked that climate came the lowest in terms of attention to mitigation and amelioration."

Too many excuses

Panellist Dr Steve Denton, executive director and head of civil, bridge and ground engineering at WSP, felt that the responses showed too many excuses – engineers arguing that there weren’t enough procedures, or that things were other people’s responsibility.

“We can all make contributions at all stages,” he said.

Even towards the end of a project, it's possible to circumvent a waste of materials or to change an approach to construction, he added.

Professor Sadie Morgan, founding partner of dRMM Architects and chair of the NIC Design Group, said that the whole point of the NIC’s four design principles was that they could be used by all engineers at all times.

“The profession thinks that design adds cost and time,” she said.

“We know that that is not true if it is done early. Don’t pretend that it is nothing to do with you.”

A 'controversial' finding

Another panellist, Dr Liz Sharp, senior lecturer in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at the University of Sheffield, highlighted one of the results she found most striking – that 11% of respondents felt too much attention was paid to the effect on communities.

It was “controversial”, she said, and probably arose from a misunderstanding of the purpose of consultation.

It should not be a matter of presenting people with a design and receiving their, often angry, responses – instead, "we need to start early and draw on the experience of communities rather than treat them as a problem," she said.

Professor Hanif Kara, design director at engineering firm AKT II and an NIC Design Group member, said the report’s findings amplified his concern that civil engineers have lost the trust of the communities they design for: “I still feel that the largest disadvantage is that we have lost trust from communities – both from young engineers and from the wider community.”

Designing better would save energy, he said, and from a selfish point of view would mean that more talented young engineers would want to work for the practice.

Next steps

ICE President Rachel Skinner assured delegates that the institution would be establishing a programme to take forward the report’s recommendations, under the direction of Arup programme director Julie Wood in her role as chair of the Knowledge, Insight and Ethics Community Advisory Board.