Design Professionals Should Be Leaders, Not Followers

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Wednesday, March 11th, 2015
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Like a Pig in mud – Big projects demand big thinking.

They also demand clever thinking. Aim for the nation building agenda, worry about the details later. As a result, to shape these projects for the real betterment of our cities and our societies, sometimes guerrilla tactics by those who are perceived to be least equipped to deal with such complexity is required.

Generally, every large infrastructure project begins within the deepest recesses of government; where politicians, senior bureaucrats, advisors and technical specialists realise something may ‘have legs.’ This may have followed high level and strategic transport and city planning, intense industry lobbying, or may have formed part of an election promise.

Regardless, a tick of ministerial approval following limited investigations including pre-feasibility and planning is all that is usually required to kick start all sorts of parallel, internal, government led processes. Consultant briefs are written, lawyers and planners advised, cabinet and elected officials briefed. This is by no means a fait accompli for the given project though, as there are many hurdles and twists and turns ahead.

Decisions, assumptions and tradeoffs have already been made, informed by, sometimes, the slimmest of investigations and background research. The big work for the big project lies ahead. Or does it?

Design, and more importantly design thinking, very often has no role or very limited (and often token) scope at the early stages of a project, though this should not be the case.

To achieve a more integrated approach, designers, including landscape architects, need to stand up and make more informed, wider contributions and start lobbying to make these city-shaping projects better for the people they serve. They must do so at the earliest stage possible.

We must demonstrate our skills through evidence, data, and meaningful analysis, together with learning a bit more political ‘nous.’ Landscape architects have an innate understanding of our cities and regions which comes from understanding the land and working with it, as well as a creative, scientific and pragmatic approach to setting and solving problems.

The typical large infrastructure project is the domain of our friends in the legal and engineering fraternities, who lead the charge in ‘proofing’ ideas from the political domain.

Arguing with an engineer is, to borrow an expression, like fighting a pig in mud – after the first few hours, you realise they are enjoying it. The system of projects and how they are realised is skewed toward solving a problem, and often that problem is not properly explored let alone defined.

Recently, we have witnessed two conservative state governments turfed out after only one term.

The elections became plebiscites on arguably the essential element of nation building from a very narrow perspective – those of asset sales to partly fund some new infrastructure and debt reduction (Queensland) and a new road that was portrayed by many as having questionable benefits (Eastlink, Victoria).

In both these instances, the perhaps well-meaning politicians in support of these initiatives underestimated the sentiment of the voting population – their constituents – in shaping their states.

I would argue that the new challenge is ‘setting the problems’ far more clearly – rather than simply proving one perceived problem identified by a minority few. Members of the community are far more savvy and connected – witness the extraordinary social media activity against Eastlink – and voters are now setting the agenda again. Scoff at community sentiment at your peril.

If designers can accept the process of project procurement as a critical challenge, embracing it rather than waiting for the ‘brief’ to appear or for a call from an engineer, contractor or planner, we can make a positive difference.

With the current federal focus on building more roads and road infrastructure, now is the time to ensure projects (and their relevance, need, use and benefits) are tested before they appear in the ‘tenders’ website. In many cases these are essential pieces of infrastructure, and are indeed worthy, but there are many more worthy projects tossed to one side as a result of philosophical differences.

The design professions are good at making our city strategies more visual, more graphic, more readable, more contextual and more digestible. What we must do is start to better understand the business case process for large projects. Otherwise, the design industry will remain as largely irrelevant boundary riders. There are seismic shifts occurring in the way our city leaders are addressing the problems. Design should be taking a centre and leading role.

The value of design thinking must be fostered across a project – from high level, early phase, strategic budgetary decisions through to the successful business case, impressing on Treasuries across Australia, the selection of rolling stock, cladding and paving types. It doesn’t cost any more – what it needs is for our decision makers and key advisors to open their minds and ask more questions of what designers can do for them.

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