Blending Infrastructure & Experience

Experience and infrastructure, especially in the built environment have a complex interaction. At the recent Rail Delivery Group ‘Stations for All’ Summit, David Watts, MD of CCD, explored some of the issues and how we might unpack this complexity, and how blending infrastructure and experience can bring a new perspective.

This blog summarises some of the main thoughts that David presented to the conference as well as some of the wider talking points at the event.

London King's Cross & St Pancras

How are people-related decisions around infrastructure usually made? Mostly it is driven by data around the operational and business or commercial needs – how big does a space have to be to accommodate the numbers of passengers forecast to move through it? How much space do we need for retail to achieve a certain income?

Rarely is there anything to describe how we might want passengers to feel and behave.

Some aspects of the experience might come in as designers address issues such as a sense of place, thinking about the quality of the space, the materials etc.  But rarely do projects map out how we want different passengers to feel and how some of their varying needs might be met. One of the main reasons is that this relates more to what happens in the space rather than the overall space itself.

In the talk, David used the analogy of the space as a stage.  The performance, equating to the experience, comes from the services, the products, the staff etc that inhabit the space. The design of the theatre plays a lesser role in the experience when you see a play.

Designers and other professionals all bring their different perspectives to this challenge. But usually they are focused on the human; the passenger, or the member of staff. This lens is important as it is the one that captures all the aspects of “experience” which are multi-channel and multi-sensory.

Experience is about a left-to-right journey of which the station or the infrastructure is only one part or even one moment. It’s about connecting the dots across the journey, including the before and after, and that’s what we do.

Passenger experience in rail is often undermined by a mindset that the railway runs a train set that just happens to have people on it. This plays back into the drivers for major infrastructure projects being data-driven and operational. If we want to change the experience of passengers, we must change this mindset and be more people-centric in our thinking, our design, our operations and our businesses.

‘Passenger experience’ is a term that is widely used but seldom defined. Experience is complex and individual, and understanding it is going further than big data, movement data and basic demographics. Ethnographer Tricia Wang coined the term “thick data”, which highlights the importance of richer, qualitative data, and the dangers of over-reliance on qualitative and big data alone. As she said,

you can’t see tears and smiles on a spreadsheet”.

What surprises and delights your passengers?

We must connect with the wider purpose of our transport systems and businesses. Designing infrastructure is not getting passengers from A to B, but getting them home to their families, taking them on the trip of a lifetime, or giving them a moment of quiet and peace on the way home from work. Understanding your passenger is not just the movement data of where they are travelling to and from, but the “thick data”: why they are there, what are they doing, what do they feel.

The stations of the future are touted as ecosystems and destinations; places for experience, connection and community. How can we bring this into today, with infrastructure that already exists? And how can we ensure that visions for the future remain human-centred?

No single channel can do this alone. It’s not about creating more apps or just making nicer buildings. The answer is to do them all and to take an integrated approach.

The role of the local community is interesting as a force to add human touch, create a sense of place and design a better place for the station as part of the local fabric. There are already examples of community-maintained gardens at local stations throughout the UK. Energy Gardens use London Overground stations to create community greening projects, including a Living Wall at Penge West Station.

A human-first mindset isn’t about disregarding the importance of operations, systems and business. The first step is gaining a deeper understanding of user needs and bringing humanness and complex infrastructure together in an integrated way. Starting with people isn’t to disregard the commercial imperative, it’s the path to better services, more sales and better business.

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David Watts

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