Design in Public Services

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:51 pm on 29th January 2003.

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Photo of Lord Foster of Thames Bank Lord Foster of Thames Bank Crossbench 3:51 pm, 29th January 2003

My Lords, in rising for the first time in your Lordships' House, I am greatly indebted to my noble friend Lord Freyberg for initiating this vitally important debate on something which is so close to my heart.

A debate about design is, for me, a debate about values because I sincerely believe that there is a moral imperative for good design; to do it well and responsibly. Design is not an add-on, it is not a cosmetic, it is not window-dressing. It is a core, primary activity because anything in any part of the world that we inhabit has to be made. But before it is made it has to be designed. There are no exceptions whether it is on the scale of a city, the infrastructure of its buildings, the equipment in them, the infrastructure of streets and public spaces, pavements, the paving slabs, the door handles and even the invisible digital electronic world—it all has to be designed. It is a human act because design is a response to the needs of people, whether they are spiritual or material. The quality of that design affects the quality of all of our lives. As Winston Churchill said,

"we shape our buildings and thereafter they shape us".

He could be talking about infrastructure because the infrastructure of public services is arguably more important than any individual building.

There are many myths about good design or perhaps they are really excuses for bad design. One is that it costs more and that we cannot afford it. Believe me, quality is an attitude of mind. It is not how much one spends of precious resources; it is how wisely one spends them. Resources are money, obviously; time is a very precious resource, but above all, there is creative energy. That is the determining factor, which is more important than money.

Given the power of creative energy, as a nation we are fortunate to have an abundance of talent, which is sought after around the world. Perhaps the most important point of all is that the challenge is to harness that creative energy and bring it close to the decision-making process. Only in that way can we raise standards and genuinely encourage innovation.

Apart from the ability of good design to lift our spirits, to offer delight and pleasure, enlightened design delivers economic benefits. We know that in a hospital a room with a view reduces recovery time. We know that the workplace is a good and desirable place to go as it can provide a better lifestyle, which increases productivity. We know that an airport with views, natural light and sunlight makes travel less stressful but vitally it dramatically reduces energy consumption.

We know that our buildings can be powered by clean, renewable sources of energy. We are not dependent on depleting fossil fuels. The German Reichstag parliament is a working example of that philosophy. But design is not a static one-off event; it is evolutionary. As the components of our environment erode around us over time design initiatives are required to upgrade them and eventually, as they become obsolete, they are required to replace others with more adequate and up to date facilities. In that sense it is evolutionary.

Designers continually face new challenges, some caused by irresponsible past strategies, the threat of global warming and population growth. They affect the balance of an island nation as much as a mega-city on the Pacific Rim. The challenges are the same, only the scale varies.

I passionately believe that we have to build more densely in urban areas and—a vital coupling—when we do that we have to improve the standard of urban living. It may mean building taller, but not always. It certainly means producing more housing of higher quality and at lower cost. I believe passionately that history is on the side of the density argument.

Buildings consume half the energy produced in an industrialised society; transport and industry, the infrastructure, the remainder. Given the link between energy production, pollution and global warming, the threat to the fragile planet's eco-system, there are strong arguments for reducing the energy demands in building and infrastructure.

The quest for a greener, more ecologically responsible design is not about fashion, but about survival. Designers can advocate with passion, but in the end they are only as good as those who lead; those who have the courage and the political will to set standards and raise goals. In that spirit it has been a privilege to participate in this constructive and, I believe, far-reaching debate. I thank your Lordships for your kind attention in listening to me for the first time.