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The big city connectivity challenge

Janet Miller | 06 Jan 2016 | Comments

“Everything that wasn’t invented by God was invented by an engineer.”

Although these are the Duke of Edinburgh’s words from a recent radio interview rather than a much heralded philosopher, they will resonate with many of us who feel our profession isn’t always valued for the contribution it makes to the way of life we’ve all become accustomed to.

The comment was later followed with a suggestion that engineers will be the ones who play a leading role in solving the major challenges facing our cities’ growing populations over the next 50 years. We agree, shaping, developing and building our world cities is what we do. But we forget at our peril that it is people that make cities what they are. I’d argue that infrastructure is merely , but importantly, the enabler. Therefore it’s important we do everything we can to ensure we connect and bring together the hard infrastructure we design and build with the soft infrastructure that impacts things like social mobility, green spaces and creativity, which build our successful cities and enrich individuals’ lives.

Broadly speaking, when we talk about tackling the challenges of a rising population we focus on the importance of road and rail connectivity, runways at our airports, houses and digital infrastructure – the things which are often the most tangible. However, when identifying engineering and environmental solutions that will future proof our cities in the long term, I believe we need to elevate the importance of what is often regarded as “soft” infrastructure into the early decision making process. After all, creating places that people want to live, work and spend their leisure time in is equally as important. These “soft” elements are the building blocks of a successful economy – locally and nationally.

In fact, addressing soft infrastructure builds in agility and adaptability, helping to future proof them. And it maximises the benefits that hard infrastructure provides for people and the long term positive impacts on social mobility, community engagement, health and wellbeing and well-designed public realm.

As demands on cities increase it’s vital that while creating infrastructure designed to last for decades, we retain the flexibility to adapt it more effectively to the changing lives of people. Whether this means planning to evolve or evolving our plan – in my mind these are slightly different approaches but have the same outcome – we need end users to drive demand and then have the ability to inform, shape and change the way our cities work.

Coming back to the Duke’s point, yes engineers will of course provide the answers and solutions to many of the challenges facing our urban spaces in the future. But let’s not just make it about great infrastructure, let’s ensure people are at the heart of the decisions which will ultimately create a successful economy and better world for us all.