Friday, 2 December 2011

Should government have a design strategy?

To a debate on this subject at Design Council CABE yesterday.   Given a roomful of people - from the Design Council's traditional territory as well as its new built environment constituency - who all pretty much agreed with the proposition, there was a surprisingly lively and interesting discussion. One of the main speakers, ex RIBA President Ruth Reed, made the unanswerable point that in times like these, for a group like this to conclude that the answer was 'no' would send out a pretty dumb message to the government - and unsurprisingly, the answer at the end was 'yes' by a substantial majority.

It was suggested by several people that a strategy was a necessary starting point but one that didn't get you anywhere without heavyweight political support and a sustained effort to deliver, but I suspect that a strategy is a nice-to-have rather than a necessary, let alone a sufficient, condition for design to flourish.  There appears to be little correlation between countries that have such strategies and the achieving of design excellence, and a strategy could just be a time-wasting alternative to getting on and doing things (see Yes Minister passim).

We went away with a few good soundbites: the idea that liveability is all very well in placemaking, but what about loveability; and Ben Page of Ipsos Mori on the 'cognitive polyphasia' of the public when it comes to design.

In the end, fine words butter no parsnips etc etc.  When it comes to the role of Government, it was agreed that one of the most useful things they could do, when public procurement remains a significant part of economic activity in spite of everything, is to lead by example and simply behave as if design matters when it comes to its own procurement decision making.  This would require a more risk-averse mind set in the public sector, as well as some senior ministers who actually cared about design.  Achieving that will take more than another half-day talking shop, worthwhile and enjoyable as this one was.

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