Every single person and organisation knows what they do. Some understand how they do it – whether they call it their USP, proprietary process or differentiated value proposition. But very few people or organisations can articulate or even know themselves why they do what they do. When asked why their organisation exists or what makes them get out of bed in the morning there is no response because they haven’t considered what their purpose, cause or belief is, what they are striving to achieve.
Most companies and leaders think, act and communicate by telling others what they do, but the most inspiring organisations and individuals all start with why they do it. They understand that their goal is not to do work with everyone who needs what they have, but with people who believe what they believe. Ultimately, what someone does simply reinforces why they do it. For me, understanding why you are doing what you do professionally is crucial if you want to produce great work.
But the word ‘why’ can be far more complex than it may first appear. When someone asks you a question that starts with ‘why’ your answer invariably assumes that the person asking the question has a certain level of understanding. For example, if you tell someone that your Aunt is in hospital they may ask ‘Why?’ You may answer that she went out, fell on some ice and broke her hip. This would satisfy most people, but it makes assumptions. It assumes that the person asking the question knows ice is slippery, that the hospital is the place to go if you seriously hurt yourself, even that when you fall gravity acts to pull you down. As subjects get more complex or specialist it becomes critical that all parties to a conversation are making the same assumptions about what is already taken as understood. If it is a relative of the Aunt asking another relative the question ‘Why?’ the assumptions would be very different than if it were two doctors that were responsible for the Aunts medical treatment having the same conversation.
Designing streets and other public spaces is no different. If someone asks why are junctions important, why are staggered crossings undesirable or why promote cycling, it is important that before we respond we understand what is being assumed.
I believe that urbanity, especially in its ultimate form – the city – is mankind’s greatest achievement. It is the ability of our cities to comfortably accommodate so many people so close to one another that makes them unparalleled engines for economic growth; promoters of social cohesion; melting pots for cultural discovery; and the answer to truly sustainable living. This is because the proximity to each other that they afford makes interaction and exchange so efficient – whether its ideas, goods, social norms, money, skills, knowledge or services. This is why cities are such great places to live, learn, work and play. And nowhere is this exchange more efficient, more visceral or more fragile than in our streets and other public spaces.
At the same time the way that we choose to move around our cities – on foot, by bicycle, public transport or private car – not only influences this ability to interact and exchange with more people more of the time, but also defines how our cities are laid out. As a result I believe that with both the success and form of our towns and cities dependent on their streets, their design becomes fundamental to the quality of all our lives.
My work should simply serve as proof of these beliefs.