Transformation must start with good design

Carole-Anne Davies argues that design must be understood, championed and protected

This essay originally appeared in Metro & Me, a collection of essays exploring the potential of the South Wales Metro as a catalyst for change. 


In Paris in 2016, and later that year at the LSE, Lord Stern set out the once in lifetime opportunity (that just about still exists) for the transformation of our economy and the achievement of greater resilience against the effects of climate change. The opportunity is local and global. Much of it resides in using the public purse to achieve genuine public value and a good deal of it arises from our infrastructure needs.


We cannot afford to stand paralysed as we watch the Arctic ice retreat dramatically. Whilst our context is challenging it is not without opportunities and Stern was crystal clear on the pros and cons:


“The way investments are made, in transport, energy, water, buildings and land, will determine whether we can hold global warming to well below 2 centigrade degrees, or whether we are doomed to cities where people can neither move nor breathe, and to ecosystems that will collapse. If we get it right, making all future infrastructure investment sustainable,  we will boost growth in the shorter term, launch a dynamic wave of innovation and growth in the medium term, and embark on the only long-term growth path which can be sustained. The consequences of getting it wrong are unthinkable.”


In Wales right now we hold a clutch of opportunities in our palms. The introduction of the National Development Framework and the opportunity for strategic and spatial planning; a place-led emphasis in national planning policy; ambitious infrastructure plans; culture-led revivals of historically important assets such as at Cyfarthfa, in Merthyr Tydfil; and improved connectivity across our long separated valleys. We have all to play for. If Stern were seeking a place in the UK with its ducks already in a row, surely that place should be Wales.


At the top of the list of Welsh projects is the Metro, large scale in its level of investment, its ambition and the scope of its potential. The transformation of key elements of public transport in Wales is perhaps the most important project on the table, holding as it does the capacity to galvanise and enable many other developments. But if is to realise this potential, it must demonstrate commitment to the highest design quality and embed that commitment in the project’s DNA.


Design must be understood, championed and protected at political and executive level. It must be invested in across every aspect and fully integrated in the daily working practices of those who are responsible for delivery.


Here in 2018 the clock ticks on Metro. Key appointments have been made that crank up the momentum toward delivery. The profile of the project is high as is public expectation. The list of ‘we will’ items published in the project information carries commitments that rely fundamentally on high design quality for their success. From information and ticketing to end to end wifi and apps, from signage and wayfinding to increased frequency and service capacity, from new and refurbished stock and stations – across all these the success or otherwise of Metro will be judged on the quality of problem solving, AKA design.


Sound, creative, innovative problem-solving has been repeatedly shown to lift necessary development out of the ordinary. It is achievable only through the retention of exceptional design expertise and the consistent application of design processes, end to end. For transformative impact on quality of life, connectivity and environmental enhancement, design must be at the core – at the very heart.


This was recently expressed in the Assessment Report of the National Infrastructure Commission, Chaired by Sir John Armitt:


“Good design can save money, reduce risks, add value, deliver more projects on time and create infrastructure that looks good and works well for everyone. All nationally significant infrastructure projects should have a board level design champion, and use an independent design panel to maximise the value provided by the infrastructure.”


Across all areas of ownership and operational responsibility, we ought to be able to slice a section through Metro and find good design apparent in every stratum.


We are not yet there. We have a small window of opportunity to lock in the design understanding, skill and commitment that can lift Metro beyond mere compliance. Compliance is not a strategic objective – it’s a baseline obligation. Public value through customer experience, social value for the wider community, urban renewal, excellent engineering, urban design, architecture, place- making and whole life value for the long term, all require that we reach further and aim higher.


An inclusive, collaborative approach is crucial: a culture where learning is actively sought from those with wider experience, and applied toward a common purpose, focussed on quality and excellence. To facilitate this there is one more essential ingredient, which Stern also touched on – leadership. In every successful case study, leadership and the clarity of vision and openness that accompanies it, is the critical factor in realising higher outcomes.


Looking back we hail the vision pursued by the change-makers of history – whether Telford or Brunel, Curie or Turing; in engineering, architecture, science and technology. Too often today, hot on the heels of that wonderment at past achievements, comes the killer shut-down ‘of course we couldn’t do it here, not today’. Couldn’t do what? Take a leadership position that commits to quality, ambition and accountability? Seize an economic opportunity through projects of a scale that stimulate and necessitate innovation? Invest public money not for short-term lowest capital cost but long term, highest quality, public good?


If we are to avoid the waste that blights the environment and all our lives, and avoid the sacrifice of the interests of future generations, we can and must do the right thing, in the wider public interest. In Wales we have already set down legislation for the wellbeing of future generations and embedded it in policy and a raft of public duties. We have set in train a de-carbonisation agenda. We are so very close to using these and other tools effectively to change and raise our game. Now is not the time for a failure of nerve. As Stern reminds us:


“The transition to the zero-carbon economy can create vibrant and cohesive economies and communities, where we can tackle poverty on all its dimensions. Delay is profoundly dangerous. We know what to do. We look to you, as leaders of the world, to be just that, leaders.”


And in case you were wondering – that means us.


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Carole-Anne Davies is Chief Executive of the Design Commission for Wales.

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