Decision-makers need to give a damn about design

Near and far away. Orkney is far away. It feels remote when you are there. Some neighbourhoods seem far away in some cities.

Remote-ness isn’t always about distance. Post-industrial change, and the effects of the ongoing recession have created a legacy where the narrative of many places is far away from growth, and private sector growth in particular. From a distance, it is easy to think that nothing important happens in these places. They are there, but for some, are kind of not important.

I have a colleague who says his job is to work with local authorities to enable extraordinary things to happen everyday. He provides support to education authorities on the way in which their estates can help deliver the learning curriculum.

This is about the interface of the built environment, learners, teachers, the community, the curriculum and institutions. The intent is to enable life long learners, active citizens, and confident contributors, in all locations. The child is at the heart of the process.

Working in Orkney some time ago this colleague asked a bunch of school children to describe their ideal school. ‘The island is our school,’ they replied. The journey to school everyday through each fold in the landscape is a learning experience. It is a resource, a place resource, a life resource.

It is deeply profound, in any place, that children can articulate the real value of their place. Design in this instance is about working with this narrative to enable these children to be active citizens, confident contributors.

It is not about constraining this potential into a standardised solution.

It is not assuming you know the answer to what they need.

It is not about measuring the cost of everything and missing what value is.

Design in this instance is about having the humility to think creatively about how to work with people to make extraordinary things happen.

Central to this process is the permission to allow things to happen, participation in the narrative of the users, and collaboration by the people who have the power to make things happen.

There are many views of design, and its value. They do not all resonate with the Orkney story. For some, it is a waste of time. In an age of austerity, where we can standardise, cost manage, and mass produce, too much emphasis on design can seem to some to be an expensive added extra. It is easy to assume that it is unimportant to people, to their choices.

This is one view. It’s a view that across 2010 seems to reflect in decisions to reduce support for a range of organisations who have sought to promote the design agenda, including CABE, the HCA and Regional Development Authorities.

In a lecture to the RSA on ‘Cities and Citizenship’ Lord Andrew Mawson said that it is his passionate belief that brutal environments brutalise people. It seems a cruel paradox that it is much easier to create brutal environments than to retrofit them into people places, places where the instant description of that place is in terms of its positive life learning potential.

Today, design, regeneration and the process of shaping the built environment for people appear to be moving further away from the things that matter in the political landscape. In this context, it matters that we reflect on the extraordinary everyday.

Design like you give a damn is a book written by Architecture for Humanity to demonstrate how design can help in the response to humanitarian crises. Perhaps today a challenge is to ensure that decision-makers give a damn about the everyday design and regeneration of the built environment.


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13 years ago

Inspiring stuff. If everyone gave a damn, think what wonderful places we would live and work in – all of us.

Your bit about remoteness touches a chord. I like “remote” places – by which I mean remote to me. What’s great about them is that they can be so civilised, and so unexpected: Orkney is a case in point. A place of great culture, civility, hard work and friendliness – values which make for a great place.

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