Information Architecture: The New Great Stink
Information architecture and London’s sewer system have more in common than you might think.
In 2018, BBC Two aired The Five Billion Pound Super Sewer, a compelling 3-part documentary series tracing the first stages of the largest upgrade to London’s sprawling sewage system for over 150 years.
Amounting to the biggest engineering challenge in decades, the 90-metre-deep super sewer will hopefully solve the alarming problem presented by our city’s current sewage system. Built after The Great Stink of 1858 by Joseph Bazalgette and a team of the world’s best architects and engineers, the scheme was an incredible feat of engineering for its time, but it was originally designed when the population was a mere 2 million. The Victorian sewers are now used by substantially more inhabitants.
According to the latest official figures released by the Office for National Statistics (ONS), London’s population currently rests at 8.8 million, representing an increase of 600,000 since the last Census in 2011. The ONS state that Greater London is the fastest-growing region in the UK, predicting an additional increase of over 700,000 by 2026.
This rapidly swelling population pushes the existing sewer system to its fragile limits, requiring continuous maintenance to operate anywhere near full capacity. As it can’t cope with the slightest rainfall, approximately 39 million tonnes of sewage end up in the Thames every year, harmful ecological and public health impacts thick on the ground.
There are concerns the super sewer, set to hold out for no more than 120 years, is insufficient given the number of people living in our capital city. If that’s so, the decision not to look further into the future must surely be justifiable? Dr. Tse-Hui Teh of the Bartlett School of Planning believes the relatively short-term approach we’ve taken is down to,
“The way that the structure of the water utilities and sewage utilities are regulated in the UK.”
Even if the super sewer really was the best option possible under the circumstances, this contemporary project and its forerunner together underline a staggering ineptitude in effectively closing the colossal divide between current planning capabilities and the power to meet projected future needs.
Comparable divides and the inability to bridge them can be found in the approach to countless other types of system. The technology network is only one of these, and information architects — whether we’re referring to designers, developers, or content strategists — are essentially modern-day equivalents of Bazalgette and his sewer crew.
As with both the Victorian scheme and the new super sewer, a growing and evolving population and their shifting needs have forced the technology network to swell dramatically. And it continues to do so, which makes sense considering there are now many more consumers, all looking for digital systems to offer an abundance of services and advantages.
Information architects regularly face new, increasingly complex and varied customer needs, conflicting objectives, and a shed load of uncertainty. Transforming all of the chaos into some semblance of order, over and over, requires not only a lot of hard work and persistence but also rare vision and perspective.
Those lucky enough to possess such essential attributes find order in the chaos by analysing the existing technology network, forecasting future needs, and subsequently rebuilding or adapting digital systems to meet them. And they must do so in an environment of rapid change, something tripping up even the most talented, forward-thinking information architects.
As mentioned, the super sewer will last for an estimated maximum of 120 years, which doesn’t seem so lengthy in the grand scheme of things. But it does leave over a century before we’ll require any tunnel replacements or augmentations. Dr. Tse-Hui Teh argues,
“We cannot build ever larger and deeper sewers. That’s just too impractical and costly.”
And she’s right. Where would it end?
Compared to digital needs, water resources needs aren’t all that dynamic, so at least there’s a moment or two to figure it out. But when it comes to the technology network, regrettably, information architects don’t have the luxury of a decade-long grace period to consider their next steps. Like the immense challenge posed by creating sewer systems capable of standing the test of time, it’s no walk in the park to produce information infrastructures able to cope with fast change.
This leads me to a key difference between the sewer and information architecture dilemmas. While a sustainable, long-term solution to the former is obviously preferable, perhaps an element of not my problem also exists in reluctantly adopting a comparatively short-term outlook. In other words, there may be a lack of concern among architects and engineers as to what happens in the future seeing as they won’t be around later down the line to suffer the consequences of their ultimately imprudent decisions.
That’s not the case for information architects. If they don’t find creative ways of getting to grips with customer needs faster, they’ll have no choice but to manage the fallout themselves. Theirs is not some remote issue for another person to handle in a distant future. In this sense, they have it harder than both Bazalgette and the team behind the super sewer, shackled by a professional burden to help people understand and navigate the digital environment.
Fortunately, unlike the impracticality and costliness of building ever larger and deeper sewers, technology is such we can continually expand and alter shared information environments to improve the user experience. Information architects have limited time, that’s all, the element of surprise continually keeping them on their toes.
Of course, as we move forward, it’s desirable to achieve stability, but flexibility and scalability are important too. Needless to say, accomplishing a balance between all three — even with teams working round the clock — is a mammoth undertaking. The question is, will the next generations of information architects rise to the task of eliminating the New Great Stink?