Click to view jaw-droppingly good animation of world road, air and sea transport networks (H/T UrbanVista)

Once upon a time buildings, clothes, kettles and the layout of newspapers were things that were ‘designed’. We could even refer to ‘the design professions’ and be very confident everybody understood we were talking about visual disciplines.

Designers used to be people who worked out optimal ways things could be configured – things like buildings, clothes, graphics, and functional objects. They were the professionals who figured out ahead of time the most efficient trade-offs between useability, manufacturing cost, safety, recyclability, cost of materials, marketability, aesthetics, and more.

There were settled occupations with names – for example, graphic designers, industrial designers, fashion designers and architects. Sometimes they were even called artists but overall these were established and recognised disciplines.

Designers understood their creations had economic and social implications, but they also recognised their key role was to determine how things functioned and looked. Aesthetics could be problematic, but they largely worked according to technical rules that were reliable and predictable.

Now however, most of the world’s population thinks the entire universe was created by an intelligent designer. But at least solar systems and life forms have a physical manifestation that conforms to predictable rules. What’s really worrying to me is this latest etymological outrage – the Federal Government’s new Centre for Excellence in Public Sector Design.

Its charter isn’t to design filing cabinets or grey cardigans, but rather to ‘design’ bureaucratic structures and processes. Its focus is on devising better and more innovative ways to develop policy and deliver services.

Let me be clear that I can see how the term design could be applied to this task. After all, design is a pretty generic expression. And we’ve been applying it in areas like computer programs and industrial processes for years (albeit interchangably with ‘engineering’ and probably because these sorts of processes can be rendered visually i.e. as diagrams). So I acknowledge the term can be applied in many contexts.

What worries me though is that design has long been applied to what are essentially technical tasks – to situations where the inputs, how they’re combined and how they’ll work together, conform to known rules. The act of design, I would argue, implies a high degree of predictability.

It might seem a subtle distinction, but I don’t think design captures the highly political dimension associated with politics, government and bureaucracy. As I see it, design implies a level of certainty and control that it’s dangerous to assume can be achieved with public sector policy and delivery.

It’s not as if the traditional design professions have been hiding some magical process from the bureaucrats in the Australian Public Service. Whether you’re preparing legislation, formulating policy or devising new bureaucratic management arrangements, the process is pretty universal and pretty obvious. It just goes under different names in different contexts.

I’m not precious about design being used in informal settings as a synonym for terms like formulate, devise, arrange, contrive, create, and so on. There aren’t that many terms and so it’s understandable design would be recruited into the fold. But I don’t like to see it being used as the headline term as in the case of the Centre for Excellence in Public Sector Design.

For slightly different reasons I also think the increasing use of the term ‘urban design’ as a substitute for ‘planning’ is regrettable. I’ve no trouble with it in the narrow sense of how a streetscape or public square looks and functions, but I don’t like the implication that complex economic and social processes are technical things that are amenable to good design.

Formal plans prepared for anything larger than a few city blocks more often than not end up functioning within a relatively short period in ways that are nothing like the planners (or designers) envisaged. The reason is planning is an inherently political process – it’s not a technical process with outcomes that’re easy to predict.

Planning is an inadequate term anyway and we’d be wise to replace it, but design would be even worse. With buildings we have a high level of confidence about how they’ll perform. We know they’ll keep the weather out, stay standing upright, and pretty much what they’ll rent for. It makes sense to say we design them.

However city plans don’t offer anything like that level of predictability. That’s because cities are extraordinarily complex systems of mostly intangible processes that aren’t and can’t be designed. We might understand in retrospect how certain outcomes came about, but we almost always have little idea in advance of what will happen.

The best we can do is tweak some parameters that we think maximise the likelihood our preferred future will eventuate. Perhaps a rail line here, a boundary there, a new tax, a subsidy, a regulation, maybe some new management arrangements. But we have nothing like the level of confidence that the term design implies.

Let me finish by invoking no less an authority than Jane Jacobs – the darling of urban designers – in support of my argument. In The death and life of great American cities, she says:

To approach a city, or even a city neighborhood, as if it were a larger architectural problem, capable of being given order by converting it into a disciplined work of art, is to make the mistake of attempting to substitute art for life.

Jacobs likens the impulse to approach cities as architectural design problems as no different to the assumptions of the reactionary Radiant City and Beautiful City movements. “They always were primarily architectural design cults”, she says, “rather than cults of social reform”.

Design in the traditional or architectural sense is an important input to cities, but let’s stop using urban design when we mean planning. And let’s start looking for a better term than planning.