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Infrastructure projects could help stop SA brain drain

Opinion

South Australian infrastructure projects should be used as an opportunity to tap into the passion and potential of younger designers and help stem the state’s ‘brain drain’, writes architect Chris Greening.

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The continuing creation of infrastructure projects in South Australia is an essential mechanism for increasing the liveability of our growing and densifying state.

Projects such as the O-Bahn extension and the Darlington Interchange are a much-needed shot in the arm for an often under-employed civil and structural construction industry. They also provide an opportunity to give young designers a chance to develop innovative solutions and make their mark on our city’s infrastructure.

Without these major projects, construction-related industries risk the all-too-familiar “brain drain” of young skilled professionals leaving our state for perceived greener pastures.

So how do we capitalise on this infrastructure boom?  While we go to great lengths to stimulate this area of the construction industry, there is potential to further encourage and engage other sectors of our broader consulting skill base.

I recently spoke with Australian Institute of Architects’ gold medal winner Peter Wilson, whose architectural practice Bolles+Wilson is based in Munster, Germany. For some time in Germany, all public works – libraries, community centres and the like – have been the subject of open design tenders.

Smaller and younger design and architecture firms create a concept and are encouraged to team up with their more established counterparts, who have greater experience in delivering projects, to develop the concept into reality.

This model encourages design innovation through a competitive process while fostering education and also ensuring good risk management for public expenditure.

Closer to home, and in a similar vein, our cultural nemeses Melbourne has recently seen a design competition run by the Victorian Government and VicRoads for the Swan Street Bridge upgrade.

An artist's impressions of the Swan Street Bridge upgrade.

An artist’s impressions of the Swan Street Bridge upgrade.

The process involved the sharing of stories about the existing structure to inspire competition entries from architectural firms. This approach not only led to a quality design outcome but also enabled local communities to be part of the new bridge’s development. Inspired thinking, indeed.

In order to stay ahead of the curve in South Australia, we should look to implement and advance these models of design procurement to create better outcomes for state infrastructure projects.

Encouraging youth-driven competitions would enable university graduates to cut their teeth on creating innovative and fresh concepts for civil infrastructure. A design-led approach would strongly promote our state’s innovation capacity and capability, while also giving young designers a leg up to reduce the brain drain.

Currently, younger designers in South Australia have few opportunities available to them as they leave universities, bleary-eyed, to enter into the professional practice.

Those lucky enough to gain employment are often set on a slow learning path that sees them exercise basic skills until faith is developed with their superiors.  While this is important, if we could somehow tap into the design passion of these talented graduates it would enable an untarnished and inspired view of problem-solving to take shape.

It makes sense to promote our best, youngest and brightest designers to assist with the challenge of delivering infrastructure projects

We could come up with solutions without the tempering of more cynical and hardened industry veterans.

There are numerous projects currently on the table that could benefit from this approach, such as the new footbridge across the River Torrens that will form part of the O-Bahn extension and even the O-Bahn tunnel itself. Inspired design thinking about the new O-Bahn’s hard-edged incision on the east Parklands may help to improve the project’s outcome.

The same could be said for elements of the Darlington Upgrade Project. And in our “shovel ready” current frame of mind, I’m sure more opportunities will present themselves.

Our state is seeking to be seen as innovative and creative. It therefore makes sense to promote our best, youngest and brightest designers to assist with the challenge of delivering infrastructure projects.

We need to create a dynamic legacy of exciting solutions that the public of South Australia can feel inspired by every time they drive, walk or ride past them.

Chris Greening is an architect at Matthews Architects.

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