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Martin Stockley: CPRE infrastructure lecture 2016

Martin Stockley, deputy chair, HS2 Independent Design Panel - speaking at CPRE's NIC lecture on 6 December 2016 in response to Phil Graham, Chief Executive, National Infrastructure Commission.

One thing that’s very encouraging is where we’ve got to. I read Ian Martin the very entertaining writer’s note this morning where he reported that in 2006 he was given either 3 months or 10 years to live, and here he is 10 years later reminding us that twitter didn’t exist in 2006, there was no such thing and that really quite shocked me. He also listed a series of other things that didn’t exist then (as well as many that did). The point is that 10 years ago getting design onto the government’s agenda was still a battle. There were various design panels going but it was a battle and I think one thing we need to tick off is this is a great leap forward to find that straight away something like HS2 has a dedicated design review panel, that the NIC has Sadie Morgan on the commission as a commissioner and not just somebody tagged on at the end. So that’s a good step forward and I think all that Phil has said this afternoon I really welcome (as the others have said).

I’m going to address initially some of the points Phil made. One of them is, yes, we should be looking at needs of infrastructure, but we also need to look at opportunities. If all we ever do is look at our needs, life is quite a dull place. If you provide for needs essentially you provide for a functional life. Personally I want a life that’s more than functional. I can cope with a bit of dysfunction if life is joyous. We need to look for joyous opportunity in what we do and then make sure it’s at least around 85% functional if we can. That’s the kind of world I want to live in: a highly joyous and a medium-to-high-functional one.

We need to think about how we speak and this ties in with things Deborah was saying. It sounds like a kind of engineering pedantry but the words we use to talk about these things are very informing of either our conscious prejudices or our deep subconscious ones. So I’m going to be mean to Phil now and say that a lot of the words he used were worlds like ‘protect’, ‘maintain’, ‘preserve’, ‘the impact of’ – these are all what I call 'mitigation speak'. This is the kind of thing you say to somebody when you’re about to damage them. If a doctor uses those words he’s not about to tell you you’re really in good health.

With infrastructure we decide to make it, it’s ours, it’s the public’s. It’s not the government’s or local authorities’, it’s ours. They’re just an agency that deliver these things for us. How we decide on them is very critical, then once we decide to make them we should get on and do them not apologetically, but in a celebratory way and look for the joy in the process. What the hell is life worth if every day we get up and plod through the functional arrangements of moving forward?

Phil talked about reaching a consensus: well there are two ways of getting to a kind of consensus and one of them is compromise, and Phil said we all have to learn to compromise. Well the problem with compromise is it’s deeply unsatisfactory. It’s incredibly unstable. The moment circumstances change, everyone goes back to the original position they were in and actually everybody gets what nobody wants with comprise. That’s why we invest in design, because design is the very opposite of compromise. Design isn’t about solutions to things; it’s about the resolution of a whole series of unsolvable problems in some ways and all you’re ever going to do, particularly on infrastructure, is group those together, work out which ones are most important to us today, which ones can we afford to do now and in the future, and resolve together a consensus about what we’re trying to achieve. So design is really critical. It’s a process. It’s not a bit of a process. You can’t plug it on the side. It starts right at the very beginning of what we do and it has to run all the way through because what you do during the design process completely has an impact on the result of your design; the physical thing you produce will be different depending on how you do it and how it is perceived will be different depending on how you do it.

When we first started the Crossrail panel, we met the Crossrail team and I said to them when you finish Crossrail nobody is going to come up to you and pat you on the back and say well done for doing that great railway tunnel. Everybody expects you to be brilliant at making railways and tunnels, but if you ruin Bond Street or Acton or damage lumps of central London nobody will ever forgive you. They’ll remember forever you were the person that did that terrible piece of damage and you didn’t ask us about it either.

If you know exactly what you want, what the hell do you need a designer for? Go buy it. You just need a technical person to make one. For design teams the best client is somebody who knows who they are so that when we question you as a client you know what you think, you don’t have to go through some traumatic process.

Here’s a big problem with infrastructure: first of all governments and local authorities are not clients, they’re an agency, we’re the client the public, and the problem is first of all the public is quite difficult to speak to; it’s quite difficult to learn how to speak to it in a way to get a meaningful answer. When you do get meaningful answers they’re very contradictory. We mustn’t underplay the difficulty of this. What you can do is make sure the process is enriching and involving because actually the technical stuff is easy, we can do anything. If you give me enough money and time we’ll make what you want. It’s one of the big risks for these projects is that most people don’t really realise that we pretty much achieve everything we aim for as individuals and as groups. A lot of the things we aim to do are extraordinary things. The big danger of us as creatures is we sometimes are not very clear what we are aiming for. Being very clear about our aims is critical.

I’ll finish with the thought that if you examine infrastructure historically, not just for our society, but worldwide, it’s actually a cultural thing. We think of it as technical. As 21st century people, we think that infrastructure is technical, but actually it’s a cultural thing. We’re social creatures. We imagined economics. It didn’t exist. We’ve imagined life. That’s what conscious thought has allowed us to do. Other creatures don’t do any of that. The infrastructure is deeply embedded in our culture. Go away from here think of all the pieces of historic infrastructure – the ports and harbours and roads and railways – this is our culture. When historians look back at who we were in the 21st century, the culture that the infrastructure leaves behind is what they will have to judge us by and of course our writing and arts and other cultural activities, so it’s worth thinking about infrastructure as a very significant piece of our culture.

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