Designers can help win the fight against crime

From a lecture to the Royal Society of Arts on intelligent design by a member of the Policing and Reduction of Crime Unit

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Most designers tend to assume that the users of their products will treat them as intended, and with goodwill. Let's take a common household example - the wheelie bin. We all know what it's meant for. But, but as the police attest, burglars find it most convenient for giving them a leg up. It's as if there are ladders helpfully left against many people's fences and walls. Why didn't the designers of wheelie bins ever take this into consideration? Should they have given them a sloping top, perhaps? It's tempting to envisage a collapsing lid that could trap the burglar.

Most designers tend to assume that the users of their products will treat them as intended, and with goodwill. Let's take a common household example - the wheelie bin. We all know what it's meant for. But, but as the police attest, burglars find it most convenient for giving them a leg up. It's as if there are ladders helpfully left against many people's fences and walls. Why didn't the designers of wheelie bins ever take this into consideration? Should they have given them a sloping top, perhaps? It's tempting to envisage a collapsing lid that could trap the burglar.

That was an example of failure to design against crime from the present day. If we expect designers or student designers to go foraging for themselves in the world of knowledge and bring back a ready-made "how to do crime prevention" kit, they - and we - would be disappointed. The knowledge is there, but it often lacks clear and consistent terminology and tends to push people towards superficial cookbook replication rather than producing solutions customised to specific crime problems, and intelligently applying fundamental principles.

This shortcoming is holding back the development of crime prevention across the board as a professional discipline. Working within the sphere of general crime prevention, one of my tasks over the last few years has been to try to put the keystone in this edifice. I want to develop a unifying conceptual framework.

The focus should be on situational prevention - getting upstream of crime. A good design - although it may have been serendipitous - is the volt lighting system on London Underground trains. Even though the fluorescent tubes are exposed, very few are stolen because they are no use to anyone else - without their own very large train set. This also makes for speedy maintenance, since the lights need no special security housing.

The opposite problem happened with the windscreen wipers I lost from my car. Easy removal on grounds of damage repair and cheap maintenance combine with the high price of replacement parts to make them a good prospect for theft.

Some years ago the London Underground designed a poster campaign as part of a programme to cut graffiti on trains. They were aware of the risk of provoking the graffiti merchants to greater efforts through insults, so after careful research the message chosen was "every day is wash day on the Underground". The picture showed the prized artwork literally going down the plughole before it had a chance to go on show round the network.

Even more subtle was the manager of a Nottingham shopping centre. Faced with youths hanging around the upper deck and spitting over the parapet to the level below, he was aware of the risk of retaliation against overt measures. So he did two things - gave the floor by the parapet an uncomfortable slope, and installed those hot lights that some people fit in bathrooms. After that, the young people kept away, wholly unaware they were being manipulated and hence not driven to strike back.

I'd just like to turn to the sheer creativity of last year's winners in the Student Design Awards. A design by Angelika Seeschaaft delighted us by the sheer number of ways you could take the structure of a bike from entirely new angles, and adapt it for security. The handlebars swing forward to grip a railing or lamp post. The saddle swings back, and a notch engages the rear wheel and locks it. The pedals lock vertically, so that the thief's foot rests on the edge not the flat - and this can engage in a slot in the kerb. The crossbar itself substitutes for the classic D-lock - it unclips and passes round a post.

We've all seen the sorry sight of mangled D-locks cast aside, and the bike, presumably, vanished. But here, you have to wreck the bike itself in order to steal it. That's what I call less crime, by design.

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