Should We Trust Engineers to Design Infrastructure? 6

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Wednesday, September 21st, 2016
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Engineers have traditionally played the role of project designer, engaging the community for feedback and endorsement only. What would happen if we put the power of design in the hands of the end user – the community? Who better to craft their local spaces than the ones who live, work and play there?

Authorities can commission a road, a rail line, a gas or water pipeline, but in the absence of community feedback, they can’t hope to properly understand the effects of that infrastructure unless they consult the people who will actually use it. To that end, they have to consult those who drive the road, take the train, use the gas or the water.

Rewind even further, and authorities may discover that these ‘local experts’ could have provided vital inputs into the challenges and intricacies of the need for, and design of, such infrastructure, including the landscape and local user issues. This way of thinking recognises that the most powerful resources in the room are not always the engineers. Truth be known, engineers have a tendency to focus on the technical outcomes at the expense of the human experiences.

The reality is that the community understands the needs and nuances of their city spaces best. They not only understand the city’s culture and build environment; they define it. Their daily experiences and observations as parents, professionals, students and artisans together tell a story of what the city needs to thrive. Who best then to engage in its formation than the citizens who make it come to life?

Although our heads are important, have we forgotten to also think with our hearts? All too often, engineers and their designs consider only the obvious: safety and buildability. But what might it be like to use that same infrastructure, particularly if you are frail or elderly; have a child in tow; use a wheelchair or don’t speak the language?

Powerful examples of forgetting the end-user abound.

The Myki system in Melbourne, which was originally an innovative move to create a paperless ticketing system, was not user-friendly, particularly for tourists. The city eventually reverted to making travel within the CBD free on the trams.

In the US, where touch screens and keypads control voter results, a recount declared George W. Bush the winner of the Florida vote and presidency in 2000 by 537 votes. However, it was estimated that four to six million ballots were never cast or recorded – a third of which were due to mechanical and technical failures with clogged punch holes on the ballots, a piece of electronic voting that is lower on the technological scale. Leaving the design of digital infrastructure, like electronic voting, to software engineers without thinking of the needs of the people who will use those systems will likely always result in failure, as was the case with the US election (and the recent Australian census).

Is there a different way? Co-designing these projects in conjunction with those who use them might well have resulted in better outcomes first time around. We simply can’t afford our cities and infrastructure to be wonders of engineering that not many people engage with or relate to.

In a recent study, between 48 and 80 per cent of city dwellers across seven countries claimed they wanted to make an active contribution to society. Zef Hemel, deputy director of the City of Amsterdam Planning Department, says they rightfully should.

“Today, it is citizens themselves who are the experts,” Hemel said. “They are well educated, use ICT every day, and know their own environment inside out.

“We therefore have everything to gain by involving them in our thinking about the city of the future and benefiting from this ‘collective brain.’”

But how? Hemel adopted the ‘WikiCity’ model for Amsterdam city – an open planning concept that incorporates the opinions and initiatives of its residents for future city improvements. Taking its cue from Wikipedia, the model asserts the advantage of multiple stakeholder contributions by offering a platform for every individual to envision and collectively shape their city.

Similarly, architect and entrepreneur Ekim Tan developed ‘Play the City’ – a city design and research game that brings investors, developers, architects and, of course, citizens together under the same banner of community design. Tan believes the critical intellectual does not always grasp the sensitivities of members of society. Play the City’s fun, hands-on games often involve 3D models in which players can dialogue throughout the constructive phase until reaching a happy and informed consensus. With home carers and professionals, students and local politicians standing around the same city model, equally invited to the table, it’s proven an effective way to generate full-bodied representation and resolve future conflict.

Beyond community design, our cities also face mounting challenges into the future, namely congestion, urbanisation and pollution. An engineer-centred approach to solving these is efficient, but sterile. A human-centred approach is critical if we want our cities to be liveable. We have everything to gain from harnessing the power of collective design.

Today’s world is increasingly horizontal, with blurred edges between former categories of professionalism and expertise. We need to recognise that local and lived expertise is just as critical as technical expertise. The idea of inviting the community to co-create its own collective space is not a pie-in-the-sky concept; it is a direct response to a fundamental shift in society. To paraphrase Zef Hemel, our society can only benefit from working with our ‘collective brain.’

By Kylie Cochrane, Aurecon
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Discussions
6
  1. Don

    "Leaving the design of digital infrastructure, like electronic voting, to software engineers without thinking of the needs of the people who will use those systems will likely always result in failure, as was the case with the US election (and the recent Australian census)."
    This is the engineers failing to do their job. This is different from ignoring the people's needs.

    Buildings and planning are designed by planners, architects, engineers, etc. Whether they use or community feedback or statistics is up to them like the example of Ekim Tan.

  2. David Stewart

    Let me declare an interest. I am an engineer who has worked across three continents planning, designing and constructing transport infrastructure. Problems arise when engineers are not involved early enough and with enough authority to investigate, cost, examine impacts and confer with the client, including the loosely described "public user" client. The faults lie with policy makers, with planners and with the wide public in insisting they know what they want, and in refusing wise advice earlier enough to allow extensive changes in the proposal, including in not proceeding with it. Engineers are the only profession who can design infrastructure. The confusion arises when other professions claim they design when in fact they are only conceiving ideas for infrastructure.
    David Stewart FIE Aust. NPER Civil.

  3. Tony

    Engineers engineer solutions. This is why we have a plethora of urban designers, architects, landscape architects, etc., to create the "human-centred [sic] approach", many of whom involve (mandatory) community engagement to achieve public solutions. I couldn't imagine the chaos with diverse self-indulgent "community" groups, each with its own egoistic bent all trying to put its finger print on urban outcomes given the latitude to do so. As if designing to meet local planning authority planning constraints isn't difficult enough, herding cats (pun intended) to a compliant design solution will be near impossible. 😉

  4. Barry B

    Engineers are too often narrow, cut-and-dried problem solvers, when our cities and buildings will need innovative solutions to deal with upcoming challenges.

  5. Pete

    Consultation is costly, but essential. But remember too that a camel is a horse designed by a committee.

  6. David Singleton

    I contend that we should trust engineers to plan and design infrastructure, but we should also involve the community. We must involve the community in projects, but that community involvement should start well before the project design stage, involving the community from the outset in project selection.

    Doing this so early on is an approach many people involved may find disturbing. But we must involve community in the earliest decision making, so they have had a chance to decide if a project investment is necessary, what kind of investment,where it should go and how it should be implemented.

    This is why there are people who are starting to explore collaborative decision making and collaborative democracy,such as the citizen democracy movement in NSW.Infrastructure Victoria has used citizen juries to develop transport strategies for Melbourne. ATSE’s infrastructure forum is exploring how a collaborative decision making model might work, and what some of the models might be. The intention is to show that these techniques can be used without some feeling that ‘decision making has been handed over’ to what could perceived to be an ‘ill informed public’.

    Community consultation has been a major part of the development of Infrastructure Victoria’s draft 30-year infrastructure strategy, to be released on 4 Oct.After it is released, IV will seeking further community feedback to be considered in the finalisation of the strategy. Their engagement of community, in my view, will contribute to the strategy’s success and should be a model for the industry in the future.

    The community must be informed about infrastructure investment proposals and have had an opportunity to shape the outcome; engineers can play their part in this.