The UK's national rail network owner, Network Rail, recently announced an international Footbridge Design Ideas Competition. The competition is being administered by the RIBA Competitions office, and seeks architects or engineers (or teams of both) to present their ideas no later than Tuesday 18th September.
The organisers ask for ideas which are "innovative, challenge presumptions and raise expectations for the quality of future designs". I get the impression there is a perception that design quality in the UK railway network is often poor (I think this is true), and an ambition to see if anything better can be suggested.
Entrants must be either professionally qualified, or students. There is a nominal registration fee of £50 for professionals or £25 for students, presumably to minimise the number of contributions from complete jokers. Submission requirements are not especially onerous, being two A2-sized digital layouts, three images, and a declaration form.
There is only one prize, a "Design Fund" worth £20,000 which is expected to be awarded to the best entry, although could presumably be split. There is no potential design contract being dangled, with Network Rail essentially purchasing the ideas to use as they see fit with no further input from the winning competitor.
For the promoter, this is a cheap way of generating fresh and imaginative proposals. For competitors, it's a chance to freshen up their creative muscles, enjoy the pleasure of collaboration, and hope for a bit of positive publicity.
What's notable about this contest is that it is not Network Rail's first attempt to improve design quality in this area. They held a shortlisted design competition a few years ago, but I don't think much came of it.
They are also, in parallel with the new competition, looking to procure a consultant designer to develop a new footbridge design, again with a substantial architectural contribution. This is not announced publicly, only to Network Rail's pre-registered suppliers. The successful designer will be appointed through a conventional price / quality bid, and given the opportunity to work with the client and relevant stakeholders to come up with a new design or range of complementary designs.
It doesn't feel very joined up, but represents well the issues that large public bodies can have with procurement of creative design. Open competitions tend to generate more imaginative ideas, but may highlight teams who the client would find difficult to work with in follow-on stages; more direct procurement will lead to more predictable outcomes but gives the advantages of control. I think there is no perfect answer to this dilemma.