Tragedies underline that we must understand ‘why’ before deciding ‘what’ to build

Recent events have stressed how involved construction is with communities and shows that we must take the long view when planning urban environments

Three recent national tragedies have dominated the news agenda and underlined the value and power of community when it comes to meeting and overcoming the challenges that follow such events. It is a power that every built environment professional should keep at the top of their mind. The Manchester bombing, terror attacks in London and, most recently, the catastrophic Grenfell Tower fire highlight how intertwined our infrastructure is with our lives and communities.

While we cannot necessarily prevent terrorists, we can design with public and community protection in mind; while we cannot always prevent domestic fires, we can design to minimise the loss of life that follows. Too often our day-to-day work is focused on what we are designing and delivering. However, investment in infrastructure must fundamentally focus first on understanding the why – keeping in mind the role of investment in sustaining, enhancing and protecting the lives of the people and communities that it serves.

It was a point highlighted at a recent workshop organised by the UK Collaboratorium for Research on Infrastructure and Cities (UKCRIC). To create sustainable cities that meet the needs of a growing, increasingly urban and globally transient population, we must work harder to understand and define socio-economic issues likely to impact and drive these new types of communities. Only then should we attempt to solve the architectural and engineering challenges.

We must resist the urge to focus solely on the solutions and instead seek answers to bigger, longer-term questions

The Digital Built Britain (DBB) programme appreciates this distinction. It sets out to keep the question of why we are building infrastructure high on its list of priorities.

As a government-backed programme bringing together the world of BIM and digital engineering with smart cities and developments around the Internet of Things, DBB has long realised that simply focusing on delivering the “what” of here and now isn’t enough. Instead, our goal, as the UKCRIC workshop highlighted, is to leverage a multidisciplinary approach to first understand the questions that that will drive the solutions to our future built environment.

Of course, putting the “why” before the “what” is not always as easy as it sounds. It requires a different approach from both clients and professionals. We need to learn the skills of analysis, listening and looking across a much wider horizon – indeed a horizon as wide as our citizens occupy in the day-to-day cycle of work, rest and play. The micro-pressures of current short-term political terms and policy cycles, short-term gain and the need for political results and ribbon cutting are temptations we must continue to move away from to deliver a long-term sustainable future for all.

So, in the wake of recent national tragedies, we must resist the urge to focus solely on the solutions – the bomb-proofed arenas, security-hardened urban landscapes, the fire-proofed residential blocks – and instead seek answers to bigger, longer-term questions around how we want to design our future towns and cities and manage security of our communities, through both the built and cyber environments

By bringing together understanding around cities, embedding digital technology into our lives and developing a focus on social outcomes and whole-life value from our infrastructure investment, Digital Built Britain hopes to transform the way we approach the entire process of built environment planning, delivery and service operation.

Through this transformation we will create built environment solutions that are not simply more productive, lower carbon and more efficient to construct and operate (although this is crucial) but that are also designed to meet the changing needs of a modern and increasingly urban community.

To get this right we must understand the social need. How do people want to live in the future? What creates a cohesive and safe community? And what levels of security would people find acceptable? Fundamentally, it will mean redefining our concept of what constitutes a “good outcome”.

We must appreciate that design of the built environment is no longer the preserve of engineers and architects but a collective, multidisciplinary response to understand the true questions for and define the needs of our communities.

Mark Bew leads the UK’s Digital Built Britain programme and is chairman of engineering consultancy PCSG

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