Whole systems approach needed to tackle housing issues – Claire Smith, New Civil Engineer


Whole systems approach needed to tackle housing issues – New Civil Engineer

Whole systems approach needed to tackle housing issues


Poor outcomes and unintended consequences could be avoided by using a systems approach to planning housing, according to new research by the National Engineering Policy Centre.

The Sustainable Living Places report, which was led by the Royal Academy of Engineering, is calling for national and local planning policies to be aligned around a common sustainability agenda for both housing and infrastructure.

The report, which was delivered in partnership with the Infrastructure and Projects Authority, says that the planning system must be demystified and stakeholders empowered in order to unlock the potential benefits for society.

According to the report, the current housing crisis provides a real opportunity for change in both the quality of living places and the scale of housing delivery in the UK. However, the complexity of the housing problem demands a systemic approach with 300,000 new properties needed a year to meet demand plus the target to reach carbon net zero by 2050.

The findings suggest that applying a systems approach to a complex policy challenge offers insights on how those perspectives interact to shape the development of a place.

The project focused on applying the systems approach used for infrastructure to the housing market in order to create sustainable living places, which the group defines as happy, healthy, low carbon, adaptive places where people desire to live.

Sustainable Living Places working group chair Tim Chapman said: “As engineers providing independent advice, we wanted to apply our engineering expertise to make life in the UK better. In particular, we had a strong wish to apply the engineering principle of whole-systems thinking into other arenas, where clearly things did not work as well as they could or should.

“We set up a working group of experts, to explore how this thinking might be applied to housing in the UK, a complex challenge, with social, environmental and governance issues.”

Using a participatory systems approach, engineers and professionals representing the multiple disciplines across the system of housing, planning and infrastructure, worked together to develop a shared understanding of the current system of the process. Engineers worked in collaboration with economists, planners, sociologists and community leaders to provide an independent, big picture view of the whole process. Together they created a detailed map that captured challenges and identified opportunities for change. The report identifies key elements of the system and how they impact and interconnect with one another, and pinpoints areas where change can be most effective.

“The first stage of the work has resulted in maps that offer different and exciting opportunities for change in the system,” said Chapman. “More interestingly, it shows that the discipline of whole systems thinking is much more broadly applicable and it can shed new light to traditional problems, where the policy issues are far wider and complex than the engineering ones alone. It also proves that the discipline of engineering in partnership with other professional disciplines can bring a new clarity to policymaking, presenting a high-level and accessible summary of a complex problem involving a panoply of issues.”

The key leverage points for positive change…

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Whole systems approach needed to tackle housing issues – New Civil Engineer