Who decides the future of design?

David Knight, Flint and Neill

Young designers from across the built environment will meet to discuss the profession’s place in society’s biggest decisions at the IABSE conference on the 10th September. David Knight explains.

Should public money be spent on iconic infrastructure projects? Can a cash strapped public purse really be expected to bear the price of expensive, inefficient and “nice to have” structures whose form outweighs their function?

Or is that precisely what public money is for – to build what the commercial world cannot justify and bring light and excitement to our otherwise functional yet dull public realm?

"The question of how does society balance this investment effect extends nationally - as does the issue of whether, in fact, engineers should have a role in deciding this type of question"

Certainly the recent professional and press debate over plans in London for the new Garden Bridge across the Thames have highlighted this controversial issue of judging what constitutes a suitable use of public money.

In the case of the Garden Bridge, which featured at the last IABSE Future of Design conference in 2014 and will feature again at next month’s 2015 event, the question of whether the economic benefit to the city from increased tourism and the perception of innovation outweigh the cost to the tax-payer is heating as the project gathers planning approvals and pace.

But the issue doesn’t stop in London. The question of how does society balance this investment effect extends nationally - as does the issue of whether, in fact, engineers should have a role in deciding this type of question.

In reality it is fair to say that engineers too often defer to politicians when it comes to such tricky decisions leaving engineering largely invisible to the process – an enabler of other people’s ideas and desires. 

IABSE Future of Design, London 2015, 10th September, Imperial College London. Further details and tickets available from here: www.iabse.org.uk/event/fod-london-2015/

As Keith Clarke, former chief executive of Atkins and a vice president of the ICE said recently: "Some things have always been true about large engineering projects. When they are being planned, financed and designed, they are considered unwanted follies that nobody will use.”

He added: “When they are being built, everybody complains about the disruption and the length of time it takes. Once a project is finished, nobody wants it closed for maintenance and there are complaints that it is too crowded..." 

So should engineers set about changing this by grabbing a greater share of the limelight, credit and responsibility for the decision making? Or should they simply get over the desire for publicity and visibility and focus on the not inconsiderable task of designing a better world? 

As the profession tackles the challenges of creating the infrastructure for the next generation in and environment of economic growth and extreme public sector austerity, we need to have the debate and identify just what role the profession should play in the future of design – not least if we are to inspire and attract the vital talent needed to drive society forward.

Future of Design keynote speakers will include Paul Westbury of Laing O'Rourke, artist Akiko Kobayashi, speaking about a community led Wikihouse build, plus a range of high profile designers from across the sector.

Such discussion, debate and inspiration will be central to the Future of Design conference on 10 September. And what is already clear is that we won't get just one answer.

The future of design will be created by the young designers  - engineers, architects, contractors and suppliers – who are active and engaged in the industry.

The first question therefore is whether that will include you?

David Knight is a structural engineer with Flint and Neill and a member of the IABSE British Group conference orgainising committee