chris wise engineer

Lost in translation

Can design and politics be cultural bedfellows? This morning we had a Design Council meeting at 10 Downing Street. The theme was the vital role of “Design” in tackling the recession. More specifically, how could the design community help a cash-strapped government to spend every penny of our tax money more wisely. A massive subject, but to make it easier we were gently taken through examples of how good design in the private sector helps such things as global competitiveness, sales, and profitability. Translation: more corporation tax, more income tax, shorter dole queues.

Then there was a, not insignificant, conversation about how to design for the public sector, where the government spends well over £100 billion per year. Among the design trail-blazers shown was a hospital bedside cabinet from the Design Out Bugs prototype programme. It is a single moulding which is wipe clean and gives nowhere for superbugs to hide. Translation: Simple, clean, efficient, intelligent.

Afterwards I had a conversation with a Director from one of the Strategic Health Authorities who said that, of course, such a cupboard ought to be a fabulous buy for the NHS because it was win:win:win…..reduced infection, more beds, less distress. But she went on to say that under Health Service rules she couldn’t actually buy such a cupboard for her hospitals, because, taken in isolation, it was more expensive than traditional flat-pack formica. Strict procurement rules for the thousands of NHS items means she cannot offset say, the savings in treatment costs from improved infection control against a more expensive product. Translation: Take the broad view and the total sum to the NHS (and hence to the taxpayer) is less.

Our lives as designers are governed by these inconsistencies. On reflection, the problem boils down to two things, beginning with the uncontrollable compulsion to compartmentalise everything….I think it’s called the stovepipe mentality. Multiple professional institutions ploughing their own furrow. Multiple government departments with ring-fenced budgets. Multiple university research teams with only a single speciality.

I was beginning to feel a bit rotten about this when up popped designer after designer who showed the Ministers knock-out designs which transcended any sort of Mothers-Pride slicing. They spanned health, transport, education, whatever. Out of this emerged “A Good Idea”: why shouldn’t Design, as an umbrella, take its place as a core skill alongside the STEM subjects of Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths. We’ll see what happens.

Well-meaning governance, in its stovepipe form at least, is bad value. I well remember the Environment Agency insisting we put thousands of pounds-worth of Kentish ragstone onto the riverbed around the Millennium Bridge to protect the common lugworms. My brother, an A+E consultant, said that he could run 12 intensive care beds in London for a year for the same money. Yet we couldn’t even hypothetically suggest to the EA that they backed off the lugworms and let us give the money to the health service instead….there was simply no government mechanism to prioritise people over spineless pudgy worms. Likewise, the one-piece bedside cupboards may be a great idea doomed never to see a patient because of the NHS procurement rules, but I really hope not. We simply must be able to design a system to provide safer equipment for sick patients, otherwise what hope for unfettered creativity on low carbon homes, renewable energy, sustainable transport, rising sea levels, global water shortage and all of that scary stuff.

There is compelling evidence that “luvvie” communication among designers leads to poor understanding by politicians…even the simple word “design” has a thousand definitions. As engineers and designers, we are doubly hamstrung by having to speak about terrible concepts like “stress” (see a counsellor) and “strain” (see a doctor). I have a great deal of sympathy for our victims.

Across cultures, as across a political table, it is but a short step from earnest cultural expression to surrealism. In Spain, working on the Barcelona Tower, we Brits were often greeted in meetings by 30 Catalans puffing cheroots in line abreast, for all the world like massed rifles. Then they’d take us out for a lunch made entirely of roasted leeks.

Even when two cultures try to share a common language, the heffalump-pit awaits the unwary: a Fosters director tells about working on the design of Century Tower in Tokyo…every morning he would greet his Japanese collaborators with a cheery ”Good morning, Chaps”…only to be met with frowns. Next time, he tried with a bigger smile and an even heartier “Good morning, Chaps”, but even bigger frowns. After a few months he asked if there was, heaven forbid, a problem. “Only one thing, Director-san. Please stop calling us “Japs”.”

When the footballer Ian Rush said “Moving from Wales to Italy is like moving to a different country” he got it in one. Perhaps a Cabinet post beckons.

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