Design in Public Services

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:09 pm on 29th January 2003.

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Photo of Baroness Greengross Baroness Greengross Crossbench 4:09 pm, 29th January 2003

My Lords, I add my congratulations to the noble Lord, Lord Freyberg, on securing the debate. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Foster, how much I enjoyed his excellent and very inspiring maiden speech.

The debate is timely and important, given the Government's focus on public services and the intention of putting the patient, client, user and consumer at the centre of all provision. If those people are to be at the centre of all provision, an inclusive approach to design is essential. I want to put that in the context of this profound social revolution through which we are living: the age revolution.

I was privileged to have been involved in a Design Council initiative called "Living Longer", involving Professor Roger Coleman at the Royal College of Art and the charity that I chair, the ILC-UK. We looked at design in the new context that we face. I was also involved in another initiative with the Royal Society of Arts involving an international competition for postgraduate students.

Many public services are no longer appropriate, given the change in the population that we are going through. The same is true of housing and consumer and household products. More older and many more disabled people are living alone and are keen to maintain their independence and, above all, their autonomy. They want to live, work, shop and enjoy their leisure in a safe and secure environment that is tailored to their needs and which adapts to their needs as they go through life and age.

It is the combination of the ageing population that we are experiencing with rapid technological and consequential social change that is the big issue. It is imperative to include and not exclude through design. In addition, the Disability Discrimination Act and related legislation gives rights to people who are discriminated against by bad design. They can and will take the offenders to court. That will also apply in the workplace when anti-age-discrimination legislation is introduced. There is a carrot and a stick for providers—and "providers" includes government. There is a need to develop products and services that work for us all, throughout our lives, and do not present obstacles to social participation. Those that do so will succeed and those that do not will fail. That is especially true for public services and in particular for housing, transport, education, health and caring services and leisure. Those public services can and must be at the leading edge of design.

With regard to ageing, what Peter Laslet described as the secular shift in ageing is recent. As little as 50 years ago the probability of surviving to enjoy an extended period after work was so low as not to be worth investing in. Now everyone worries that they have invested too little, as does the state, which 50 years ago embarked on a pension scheme that involved not investment but only income and expenditure. Now we know that that is becoming unsustainable. The big thing to realise is that the shift from young to old societies has never happened before in the history of mankind. This is uncharted territory and we are all learning as we go along.

Instead of thinking about retirement we must think of continuing to work into our seventies. That has enormous implications for the type and extent of our public services, and not just their design in physical terms. It also means that the people involved must be involved in the actual design of what they use and need. They must participate; that includes older people and those with disabilities. They must have the goods and services that give them that possibility and ensure their continuing independence. They must be available as part of any mainstream consumer offers. If people are to work longer, they will also have more money to spend, and the producers of goods and services are beginning to realise that.

What can we do? We must encourage the adoption of inclusive design thinking and practice. People in the design profession have been working on those ideas for some years now, but inclusivity is rarely asked for in design briefs. That must change, and measures must be taken to encourage industry to change its practices in that regard and to "mainstream" inclusive design.

The British Standards Institution has decided to introduce a BS in the 7000 series on inclusive design management. That standard is now in the drafting stage and should be completed for publication during the course of this year. That is important because it will encourage industry to engage with those issues and, in tandem with the DDA, it will expose those that do not take reasonable steps to ensure that the design needs of older people and those with disabilities are taken into account.

I shall add a few examples to the many that have so far been given. We must have a "life course" approach to design and flexible homes that adapt to us as we go through life. We might want semi-independence for our teenage children but also a granny flat; it is not impossible to design homes in that way. Leisure centres and parks should cater for all ages and the judicious use of street lighting for safe and secure living has been mentioned. Glass must be used and the design of bus stations and railway stations should be considered. Schools could be very adventurous because with interactive learning age becomes irrelevant and we can have learning centres that cater for everyone—teenagers and older. Interactive learning is only one part of an holistic approach to design, which can transform people's lives throughout their lives and make age in fact irrelevant.