The Case for Human Centric Design writes Mishti Ali of Built-ID

Widening conversations around design and putting people at the centre of these discussion is key to improving the quality of life of entire communities. In a world of constant change, in which design and technology has advanced in leaps and bounds, it has never been easier to ensure that design is inclusive. From Witherford Mason Mann’s London Almshouse, which uses communal spaces to bring together children and the elderly, to Rombout Frieling’s Vertiwalk lift, which allows those with physical disability to manually move between floors, there are already many examples making waves in the industry.

Adaptations made in response to human needs, no matter how small, remind us that every community member is of equal importance and should be treated as such.

Human-centred design democratises the design process by focusing on the needs of the end user, thereby subverting traditional approaches.  As a collaborative approach, it involves three key phases: inspiration, ideation and implementation.  By promoting collaboration over a more individualistic approach, human-based design appeals to man’s nature as a social animal as well as ensuring that the needs of all groups are met, including those that are disenfranchised by traditional design processes.  For example, in 2015, 8.5% of the population of the world was aged 65 or over (617 million people), a figure expected to grow to 12% of the population by 2030, and to a staggering 16.7% of the population by 2050. Despite this, our cities often continue to be designed without an ageing resident in mind.

Even in forward-thinking reports that seek to open up the industry, such as the J. Max Bond Center for Urban Futures’ ‘Inclusion in Architecture’, data on the number of architects or architecture students who self-identify with physical or cognitive impairment is not included. London-based engineer and Emerging Design Medal winner, Ross Atkin, said: ‘Once I started doing research with disabled people, in streets but also at home and in schools, I realised that there were so many ways that their environments were letting them down.  There are things that are difficult and inconvenient for them that wouldn’t be if the people who designed the environment, and the things in it, had better considered their needs.’  His designs include a Responsive Street Furniture project, which uses digital technology to make public infrastructure, such as street lights, road crossings and bollards, responsive to the needs of residents with different disabilities.  The changes that would be necessary to implement such a large-scale project further demonstrate the endemic overlooking of the role played by impairments as individuals navigate day-to-day life.

Taking a closer look at the makeup of the design world, a  survey of the world’s top 100 architecture firms, conducted by Dezeen in 2017, revealed that only 3 were headed by women, and only 2 had management teams that were more than 50% female.  Further to this, data collected by Architects’ Journal in 2019 found that the number of BAME people employed by the top 100 UK architecture firms had dipped to only 11%, and 11 reported employing no BAME individuals.  Such a lack of representation will inevitably translate into a lack of representation in design itself. Although we often take it for granted, the built environment is an integral part of life for many of us.  From the familiarity of schools and hospitals to the imposing shapes of museums and art galleries, architecture can often provoke an unexpectedly visceral reaction. It seems natural, then, that buildings should prioritise the needs of those they seek to serve. In order to promote empathy in design, it is imperative that individuals of all backgrounds are provided with a voice.

That’s why First Base’s emphasis on digital engagement is so important.  For example, digital consultation via the Give My View platform, for the Soapworks development in Bristol, has allowed First Base to build relationships with communities, hear their concerns and allow them to genuinely influence decisions.  For example, in response to Bristol’s declaration of an ecological emergency, First Base also announced their decision to introduce more than 100 plant species into their Soapworks development. By listening to communities, as with their extensive community consultations across their developments, First Base is able go above and beyond to contribute to a built environment that everybody can enjoy and take pride in.

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