“Nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could do only a little” (Edmund Burke)
Until the end of the 1980s, anyone could have loaded their suitcases onto a baggage trolley and pushed it the length and breadth of a station and/or airport to take their cases to the embarkation point. That is until someone in the 1990s thought of putting a wheel, invented 6000 years before in Mesopotamia, under a suitcase, completely revolutionising the way of travelling for all of us.
It was, in itself, a banal innovation but, as often happens, the innovation is only banal in retrospect, never in perspective. Human beings lack imagination and have trouble visualising what important future works will be like. The task of the infrastructure designer is to try to find the wheel on the suitcase and, at the same time, be that wheel to generate innovation.
The effectiveness of a designer’s work is very great during feasibility planning and design but then decreases rapidly as the project moves towards the construction of the infrastructure. At the same time, the cost of each stage of planning and design increases. However, if we were able to raise the impact of planning, and consequently the cost, maintaining the overall investment constant, we would have a push-up effect in terms of innovation and sustainability of the whole infrastructure, from the start of the design through to the construction.
What exactly is the role of the designer of sustainable infrastructure? And how can the value of the sustainability of infrastructure be increased?
1. Knowing and using the right tools
The designer must be able to indicate the right tool for each project as not all tools are right each time – not only BIM and Virtual Reality but also Genetic Models and Generative Design, able to exploit artificial intelligence to analyse, for example, thousands of alternative layouts based on the restrictions set out by the designer, returning a structured list based on the quality of the alternatives. This is a very powerful tool that designers must now know how to use because it is this type of instrument that increases the quality of the infrastructure.
2. You don’t create a sustainable project sitting round a table
The context must be known and understood. The more a project integrates and converses with the area, the more sustainable it will be. The designer must actually physically visit the places where the infrastructure will be built and almost establish a feeling with the context. Obviously, more than Google Earth is required for this. The essence of an area must be caught to understand why infrastructure is needed and only then can design begin.
3. Thinking out of the box i.e. asking the right questions
This can’t always be done because sometimes there is a manual and regulations to respect. However, it’s fitting to try and think outside of the box, especially in the initial stages, to give the added value generated by asking the right questions because this is how the problem can be addressed, moving towards the solution. The ability to offer alternative solutions passes via the ability to ask the right questions and helps those with a different point of view to say what they think about problems that are very distant from their own skills.
4. Stakeholder engagement – communication is part of the project
The person responsible for communication must be included in the design team. This doesn’t often happen because the communications team is separated from the design team. However, I’m convinced of the strength a communications expert integrated into the design group can have because the times for sharing must be planned and the project itself must have a different form and presentation depending on the reference audience.
5. Sustainability is everywhere – today being interdisciplinary is essential
Today, the design group is multi-disciplinary by definition; there are professional figures and skills (sociologists, agronomists, wildlife experts, gender experts, etc.) unknown to the infrastructure world 10 years ago. In this process, the co-ordinator or PM has the role of facilitator and so being able to talk to these people is essential, knowing these new languages becomes central to ensuring the sustainability of our projects.
6. Contribute to the natural growth of the supply chain
Not everyone has the maturity to take part in sustainability topics. The role of the designer is to raise the level of the whole work group, including the client. This is essential when working with clients who want to take part in the design because the commissioning body may be faced with subjects for which they have no specific skills. Therefore, it’s important that the designer is able to work with the client, generating a win-win approach that raises the sustainability level of the work.
7. Come out of the cave
The designer must be the most updated person sitting at a table, they must know more than everybody else, they have to know because the same project can’t always be repeated. It would probably be useful, also from the economic view point, but it’s an approach that fails completely. Being updated means analysing other projects, having partnerships with research bodies, looking for new products and taking part in congresses. It’s the designer’s duty to offer a technical and cultural contribution able to improve the design of the infrastructure.
All this is essential because technology is running and so we have to run faster.