It’s All Child’s Play

It’s All Child’s Play


Last week I took part in two thought-provoking events at the Institution of Civil Engineers – the Roads 2016 conference and a workshop convened to help develop the National Needs Assessment for the National Infrastructure Commission.

During the conference, there was an excellent session about autonomous vehicles and the role that information can play as a service for improving mobility. At the workshop, we spent some time gazing into our crystal balls to try and determine what the infrastructure needs are likely to be up to 2050.

As I sat on the train back up a thought started to burrow into my mind following some of the discussion after the conference. Were we, the various “experts” assembled at both events, really the best people to try and work out the future of our road network and wider infrastructure needs? Or would it be better to try and gain the views of those who will be the users or consumers of that future infrastructure? In other words, should we have held both events in a primary school?

It sounds flippant, bur bear with me on this one. I have found myself sounding increasingly like my own father in recent times when it comes to talking to my own children about technology in particular. The phrase “when I was your age …” is now quite common in our house, but it just goes to show that there is a generational change in both expertise and expectation that we, as planners and deliverers of infrastructure, should ignore at our peril.

How my daughter Kate, who is nine years old, interacts with technology and her friends is radically different from how I approach it, and so how likely is it that I can take a reasonably accurate stab at how technology will be able to help (or hinder) connectivity in the future when I will be no more than a peripheral user?

And if you think about it, maybe we’ve made this mistake before. One reason why we suffer from congestion on our major road networks now might just be that when they were initially designed and built, nobody predicted how “our” generation would embrace the car as a status symbol and place demands on the network far in excess of what even the most optimistic forecasts could have imagined. Recent growth in the demand for rail travel is continually said to have confounded expectations too, even with the rather variable quality of service in different parts of the country.

As another example, we recently moved office. All of the staff who were below 30 filled all of their possessions and work-related items into no more than one crate each. All of the other staff filled no less than three crates each, mostly with paper, and mostly with reports and papers that had not been looked at for at least three years. The paperless revolution may not have happened as rapidly as once thought, but it is happening, driven by the type of generational change that we should not ignore.

So, next time policy makers and practitioners sit down to try and wrestle with the thorny questions of what infrastructure we need for the future and what impact technology could have, perhaps we should take a little bit of a pause to think about the perspective of the end user and what their needs might be. I laughed to myself on the train at the thought of how much different transport policy might be if left in the hands of a bunch of primary school children by imagining what I may have said if asked that question. However, I did wonder whether approaching the vexed question of what our future infrastructure needs might be with the end user in mind, might just make the process a bit more like child’s play.

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