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Why Is It So Hard To Innovate In The Public Realm?

22 April 2015

To answer this question we have to look to the past for a bit.

In 1998, Upper Ground and Belvedere Road, behind the National Theatre, was considered an innovative streetscape where a project using high specification materials and street furniture was conceived through a co-design process between stakeholder groups and the local authority. I ask you to take a walk, cycle or drive down these roads today; it is difficult to fathom that this was once a beautiful piece of public realm.  The conditions are dire due to lack of maintenance and the statutory authorities digging it up to access their services.

This scheme was a flag bearer for me of what could go wrong on projects. Was it the fault of the designers having too much free rein over an impressionable stakeholder group? Did the Local Authority just lack the influence to make the palette of material work in the public space, or a combination of the two? As a highways service manager for a Local Authority my reaction to anything that wasn’t standard became hostile. My ideal solution was a barren wasteland of concrete bereft of anything interesting or innovative, because that would just cost money to maintain.

Such was my life in local government – restricted by reducing maintenance budgets, long term value for money maintenance contracts as well as other problems like planning approval, procurement and corporate guidance. I simply couldn’t afford and manage the maintenance.

Let’s fast forward to the present. I am working as a project manager in the private sector but servicing public sector clients. I am directing project teams and developing public realm projects. I dare say that I am innovating. Whether it’s a 15ft steel cut out estuary flock of birds or tailored cast concrete paving slabs, the capital financing is there and I want my projects to be special and leave a lasting legacy. And therein lies the problem – is it just going to be a legacy destined to meet the same fate as Upper Ground?

I’m a foreign national and every time I build something in this country I think to myself – what happens when I return to the UK in 20, 30 40 years time? I want to think about how we can improve the situation and here are my ideas so far:

  • I am going to have to pay more upfront for decent materials and substructures.
  • Can other people manage the maintenance? BIDs are frequently involved as stakeholders and I have seen some take on the maintenance of various Council services / assets recently which has been really positive.
  • Being creative within the specification guidelines of long term council contracts because they are too restrictive at present. Can we use standard materials in a more interesting way?

I’d love to know other people’s thoughts and get a conversation going around this so we can make a change.

Steve Wong, Associate at Parose Projects, Independent Project Manager for the Public Sector