James Milne explores why data should shape our decisions for the benefit of our communities.

As almost his first act on re-entering Downing street after the election, the Prime Minister’s chief advisor, Dominic Cummings sent the political commentariat into meltdown with a wide ranging-blogpost touting for “weirdos and misfits” and speaking of “trillion dollar bills lying on the street”, in other words, lots of opportunity to make huge improvements. The connecting thread in all this was the ability to leverage data to gain insight into the challenges the country faces.

This vision, coupled with the Government’s newfound enthusiasm for investment in Northern Towns, is encouraging for North East firms operating at the cutting edge of our industry.  The practical implications in terms of funding and projects remains to be seen, but it seems clear that the message from Number 10 is that this Government intends to be data-driven, and those that want to prosper under them would be wise to follow that lead.

In this regard, Mr Cummings is responding to a growing excitement amongst planners, designers and programmers about the opportunities our newly connected, big data enabling society presents. Take, for example, Tom Forth of the Open Data Institute (ODI) in Leeds, and his work on Public Transport in Birmingham – together with the Bus companies and the Council, the ODI has logged every bus journey in the city in recent months.  This project enables research that advances our understanding of how cities function on a macro level, but also where interventions to provide new bus priority infrastructure are most needed.  The value of this kind of information for Local Authorities and inward investment organisations is clear.

We believe that the ability to demonstrate evidence-based design is going to be one of the four key differentiators for architects and urban designers – and by extension for consortia incorporating their services – in the coming decade, alongside skills and knowledge in climate adaptation & mitigation, meaningful community consultation, and health & wellbeing.  On top of this, we’re convinced that an evidence-based, data-driven approach can provide useful insights that help improve our work, benefitting us and the communities we serve through the projects we deliver.

We have already begun this process in our work with Gateshead council on the RIBA Future Places scheme, using open source data from Northumbria Police and the Office of National Statistics to inform our analysis of Gateshead Town centre.  We also incorporated data the Council had collected through a consultation survey on the Town Centre, to make sure that residents’ views were reflected in the design process.

What does this mean for us as an organisation?  We want to ensure we know where to find the open source data that’s already out there, and how to collect additional data that can benefit the design process. We want to be adept in analysing and clearly presenting that data to inform and justify our design decisions, improve buy-in from stakeholders and the general public, and give our clients confidence in the decisions they make.  We want to work with others who are as excited by these opportunities as we are.

In the 21st century, it’s no longer good enough for Architects just to declare themselves experts and to impose their vision on the wider world; we need to be able to justify our proposals and build consensus amongst stakeholders and the public.  Skills in community consultation and data analysis will be key to achieving this and will continue to be an area we focus on in our R&D as we move into this new decade.