Ep. 22: Design for Life


5 min read

Speaker 1: Welcome to the inclusive growth show with Toby Mildon, future-proofing your business by creating a diverse workplace.


Toby Mildon: Hello and welcome to this episode of the inclusive Growth show I'm Toby Mildon. And today, I'm joined by Mei-Yee Man Oram who is the access and inclusive environments lead at ARUP. Mei welcome to the show.


Mei-Yee Man Oram: Thank you very much for having me.


Toby Mildon: Mei, you've got quite an interesting job title. [chuckle] Can you let me know a bit more about what you do and how you got into inclusive design for the build environment? 


Mei-Yee Man Oram: Of course, yeah. So I work for ARUP for those who aren't familiar with the company, it's a large global engineering company, multi-disciplinary, and within that we've got a team that specialized in inclusive design, and we'll talk a little bit more about that later. But essentially how I got into it, I'll be honest, completely by accident, I finished my university studies, I knew that I was very interested in design, very interested in the social impact of design and the build environment, but I wasn't aware of the fact that Inclusive Design as a career path, as a discipline actually existed, so did a bit of work experience at ARUP, came across the team and never left.


Mei-Yee Man Oram: So, that's how I came into the industry. What I do on a daily basis, so we've got a team in London, we've got a team in Manchester that specialize in inclusive design, and what we do is work with developers, work with architects, work with other people in that realm to try to make things much more inclusive, and to maximize the opportunities that there are within how we design to meet the needs of a more diverse population.


Toby Mildon: That's really cool. Can you tell me a bit more about what inclusive design is, what it entails, and why it matters, particularly? 


Mei-Yee Man Oram: Of course, yeah. So inclusive design, essentially, is design that is good for everyone. It's recognizing the fact that we've got a very diverse set of needs across our communities, it's recognizing the fact that people will have different preferences, have different requirements, and have different needs in terms of the build environment and how people like to use and experience the space. And so by designing in a way that thinks about the user needs and thinks about flexibility and choice for individuals within our communities, we're able to create spaces that people are able to use much more independently, and that people are able to use in a much more equitable way as well, not just from a spatial and a physical perspective, but also in terms of how it actually makes them feel and the experience behind it.


Toby Mildon: So inclusive design, presumably has been a discipline that's been around for a while now. But why is it important right now in the 2020s? 


Mei-Yee Man Oram: Yeah. So I think there's a couple of things really. I think there's a moral duty that we have, and the fact that actually, this is something that... It's the right thing to do. It's something that we as designers, as service providers, as anyone who is interacting with anyone else, it's something that we should be doing. There's a need for as well, in relation to all the changes that are happening within our world, in terms of thinking... If we think about the demographic changes that are happening, people are living for longer, working for longer, body shapes and sizes are changing, there's the technology changes as well, and the fact that actually there's a lot more that needs to interface with technology when it comes to the build environment and how that can help people experience of the built space as well, and then there's the environmental side of things as well. Climate change, and again, how that impacts on things like active travel, trying to encourage people to use more sustainable means of transport, and the only way that we can start to address some of those challenges is to really think about who we're designing for and make sure those fit the purpose.


Toby Mildon: It's cool. That's quite a broad set of parameters that you need to bear in mind in order to design inclusively. What are some of the other future trends that you're seeing on the horizon? 


Mei-Yee Man Oram: So I think... Yeah. I mentioned obviously, the aging population and the changing body shapes. I think another thing that we're right in the midst of at the moment, and that is likely to be something that is carried forward on a much longer term is in terms of hygiene, in terms of health and in terms of pandemics as well, obviously we are in the middle of COVID-19 and the responses in relation to that.


Mei-Yee Man Oram: But going forward again, there's a real opportunity there to try and capture what it is that's not working at the moment, and to really try and re-address those and to design things in a much more equitable way that can make things safer as well for people going forward. So lots of lessons from the pandemic at the moment that can be taken forward, I think going to create spaces that are much nicer all around.


Toby Mildon: Yeah, so with the pandemic what are you noticing and well I suppose, what are the lessons that you have learned and that you want to take forward into future designs? 


Mei-Yee Man Oram: Yeah, so we're having a lot of conversations at the moment about... And a lot of this, I suppose we're still learning, there are still things that are being tested. And I think one of the key things here really and in terms of what we do is making sure that we do have the opportunity to test and to get the feedback to make sure that it actually works for everyone. But one of the things... One of the topics that we're... That we are having lots of discussions about at the moment, is the provision of touch-free controls. And I think because of the pandemic, because of the fact that people are very conscious about touching surfaces, this is something which a lot of people have just jumped on and made quite quick decisions about, "Okay, we'll just minimize the amount of surfaces that people have to touch in terms of lift controls, in terms of toilets, in terms of everything within the build space.


Mei-Yee Man Oram: But without necessarily I suppose thinking through and thinking about how that might impact, for example, the blind and partially sighted community, and thinking about how without that touch, how people are actually able to navigate through the building and to get the tactile information that they've been relying on in order to have that equitable experience. And I think there's again, some other things that are coming out as well in terms of the active travel guide I mentioned before. Lots of new work that's being done to... Cycle lanes, to improve those and to increase the opportunity for people to avoid public transport and to avoid personal vehicles as well, but again, without necessarily thinking that completely through, without thinking about the impact that that might have and how we can start to design those cycle lanes in a much more inclusive way rather than just to repeat things that have been tried. Things that already exist.


Toby Mildon: And that's really cool. So, I know that the pandemic has meant that you're a very busy team currently, but on top of that, you were already working on some really cool projects. Can you tell us a bit more about some of those projects that you've been working on? 


Mei-Yee Man Oram: Of course, yeah. One of my team members is working on an office building in Central London at the moment. There's lots of really interesting technologies sort of interfaces that are being introduced as part of that to help enhance user experience, but also just to improve efficiency within the building as well. So things like sensors within evacuation halls to actually detect whether or not there's someone there that needs assistance. There are things like well-being measures that are being introduced or that are being discussed anyway as well, where if you're sitting at your desk for too long then it might encourage you to... Or remind you that you might need to take a short break. So there are things that are being introduced that, again, have that interface with technology and start to explore how technology can help to improve the health and the well-being of occupants within a building. There's a project that we're working on at the moment... And apologies, a few of these are confidential, which is why I'm not mentioning exactly where they are or who the client are, but we are working on a project at the moment with a retailer looking at how they can improve the experience, both from the staff perspective as well as from the customer side as well.


Mei-Yee Man Oram: And again, within that project, we're looking at things where... One of the key things that we did for that project was to actually engage with users from both sides and to really find out what the key challenges are. And one of the things that we're looking at in relation to that project is very much about the sensory experience, thinking about lighting, thinking about acoustics, thinking about how we can start to use some of those less tangible things, I suppose, to shape the space that people are using and to start to make that a lot more intuitive and a lot more friendly for people. And I think that's quite a nice one whenever people sort of hear about what we do, there are sometimes assumptions that access and inclusion means, well, you put in ramps, you put in lifts. And that's what you do for your job, right? 


Toby Mildon: Yeah.


Mei-Yee Man Oram: But actually, I think, again, that particular project, the retailer project, is a really nice example of how actually, it's all encompassing. Everything about that space and everything that makes up that space will have an impact on people and how they experience it.


Toby Mildon: So in effect it's real inclusion, but also looking into intersectionality as well because this is one of the challenges I have when I talk to organizations that when they talk about diversity, they think in a very siloed way, and almost in a hierarchical way as well. They have that gender agenda laid out. And they say, "Okay, right now we are focusing on gender, then next year it's ethnicity, the year after that is LGBT." We may eventually get around to doing something about disability. And then I talk to them about intersectionality that somebody can tick several boxes, if you like.


Mei-Yee Man Oram: Exactly.


Toby Mildon: So you mentioned earlier about the, I suppose, the moral business case for inclusive design. Do any of your clients talk to you about what their return on investment is gonna be, or I suppose the economic results that they would expect to see? And if so, what do you talk to them about? 


Mei-Yee Man Oram: So yeah, there's a few things, I suppose, that come out, which relate to that economic side of inclusion. There's the productivity, the health and the happiness of the individuals that are working within a particular space or occupying a particular space. And there's the fact that longer term, people will... If you design something to be healthy, then there will be more return in the sense that people won't be taking sick days, people won't be... There won't be work-related injuries. There won't be... Is improving the well-being of the occupants and having a longer lasting impact from that sense. There's the economic impact in the sense of being able to... So if we design things well, then actually there is less likelihood, less risk of needing to retrofit things later on.


Mei-Yee Man Oram: If we design things flexibly, then again, it allows our adaptation to happen within a building without having to undergo major refurbishment, major works, which again, will be much more costly if it's not considered from the beginning. In addition to the physical costs of say the materials and the refurbishment as well, there's also obviously the disruption that that will cause going forward as well if people are having to shut down parts of the building or parts of the space in order to make those adjustments. And there's also obviously the time that's wasted as well and the people costs associated with that.


Toby Mildon: That's really cool. So one of the things that I talk to my clients about in terms of the return on investment that they should expect from diversity and inclusion is inclusive growth. Now, growth can mean different things to different people. So I've worked with a retailer who just wanna sell more TVs and then I've worked with a police force who wants better pleasing outcomes and better relationships with their communities. So from your perspective and the work that you do, what does increase of growth mean for you? 


Mei-Yee Man Oram: So I think that it's a couple of things actually. So the first one I would say is very much about the team. Making sure that in terms of who's actually feeding into that design in the first place. Both the people that are on the design team as well as people that are being engaged with from the wider community and from the end users, making sure that that is diverse and making sure that we are listening to a wide range of voices in order to feed into that. And from that then the solutions and the designs that we create should hopefully be inclusive and be suitable for the purpose that they're intended. And so I think inclusive growth for me encapsulates both of that. It's about growing as organizations, growing as communities together and again, bringing in the different voices that make up those communities and also thinking about integrating the different parts of the design team in order that the solution is truly inclusive.


Toby Mildon: That's really cool. Well, thanks Mei. Thank you for joining me on today's episode of The Inclusive Growth Show. If the person listening to this episode wants to learn more about the work that you do and inclusive design, how should they get in touch with you? 


Mei-Yee Man Oram: So we've got a team page on arup.com that you can go to. Our contact details are on there. You'll be able to get in touch with the team through that. I would be really happy to speak to anyone if there's any particular queries or further discussions that people would like to have.


Toby Mildon: Brilliant. And the link to your website is rather long. So there is a link to your team page in the description of this podcast interview if anyone wants to get in touch with you. Mei, thank you ever so much for joining me on today's episode and thank you for listening to this episode of the Inclusive Growth Show with Mei. I hope you found my conversation with Mei interesting with respect to the importance of inclusive design and the necessity to get it right in order to avoid any costly mistakes on your project. Thank you for tuning in and if you know anybody who's interested in the topic of inclusive design, please do share this episode with them. Until then, I look forward to seeing you on the next episode of the Inclusive Growth Show. Thanks very much.


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Speaker 1: Thank you for listening to the Inclusive Growth Show. For further information and resources from Toby and his team, head on over to our Website at Mildon.co.UK.