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On 31st October last year (Halloween!) we sat in Portcullis house, supported by friends from Respublica, to launch our Productive Places whitepaper and debate its findings.

It was a busy room and a hot debate exploring how the built environment, if correctly designed, can boost national productivity, and increase our quality of life.

On that evening our paper was only the start of the conversation; to leverage the full contribution of the local built environment, we knew more work was needed. 

This blog is a summary of what we’ve achieved over the past eight months and what’s to come. It’s also a call to action and an offer – if you are interested in this topic, get in touch. Collaboration is vital if we are going to succeed in changing the way we think, assess and design our environments so that they are as productive as can be.

Productive places are connected, cohesive and competitive

To start, a quick reminder why productivity is so important.

Something is happening in Britain that hasn’t happened to any developed nation since the industrial revolution.  It’s not a good thing and is significantly impacting your quality of life.  The ‘thing’ is our flatlining productivity levels which have not increased since the 2008 economic crash.

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 Figure 1 – Productivity pre- and post-recession (Source: ONS)

This may feel like a distant issue, one for the policy makers, politicians and macro-economists, but it’s impacting all of us now. Why is this?
  • As Barny Evans argues, productivity improvements by businesses are the only real way to pay ourselves more – meaning productivity growth impact wages.
  • There is a huge divergence of productivity levels within the UK (around 44%) between the most and least productive places – meaning the divide between the haves and the have not’s is increasing.
  • We are failing on international comparisons and lag other G7 economies like Italy, France, Germany, and the US – meaning British people work longer hours to produce the same output.

What’s being done?

Since October last year we have convened a working group of multi-disciplinary professionals – economists, planners, sustainability consultants, transport engineers and future mobility experts – to explore the SHARE framework offered in our original paper.

The result has been an expanding of our world view from a focus solely on place to a three-tiered approach:

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We think this evolution better captures the full extent of opportunities to drive design led productivity enhancements at various scales and reap the full potential of investment activities.

We’ve also continued our engagement exercise with private clients, public authorities and co-professionals to ensure the full breadth of productivity determinants have been captured. 

Finally, we’re close to completing a tool for assessing the productivity potential of a region, neighbourhood, borough, county, or a design, at all three scales I mentioned earlier.

It does this by distilling down the determinants of productivity and provides an evidence driven methodology for rating performance – here is a snippet from the cluster scale assessment.

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Fig-1: Example of assessment wheel for a Cluster

 Some, but not all, determinants span the three wheels. For example, the affordability of housing is hugely determinant of productivity. At a cluster scale, we would be interested in the numbers of affordable homes as a percentage of total homes, at a connectivity scale, we would look at how close those units are to jobs and public services, and at a place scale, it would be an assessment of how well designed they are.

It’s an incredibly exciting time for us and we’re looking forward to launching the tool in the next few months, after a test run and refinement exercise.  

Get involved!

If this is a topic of interest we’d love to hear from you – public or private sector.

We’re testing a beta version of the tool and welcome any thoughts, views or feedback you may have. Especially if you have, or are considering, developing a large site, or writing a strategic plan.

We think this new approach will spark a big change in how we look at development, ensuring productivity is considered from the outset, sitting alongside economic and environmental considerations. 

This blog was written by Harry Knibb, Associate Director at WSP.

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