Ever since Jonas Salk claimed his discovery of the polio vaccine came when he swapped his basement lab for an Italian monastery, the psychology and cognitive science sectors have been exploring the relationship of physical environments to mental health and cognitive abilities. Fortunately, in 2017 things are now starting to become standardized. New brain-scanning technologies and data processing tools are being built off decades of research in the cognitive processes of the brain, meaning that our next technology revolution in the built environment is going to be about accurate measurements and interpretations of our experience of spaces, places, and environments.
Now, this doesn’t mean that people can be controlled, the brain is too wonderful, magical, mysterious and not fully understood to have thoughts and processes controlled from a top-down point of view. However, it does mean that we can take a bottom-up approach in understanding the small nuances of experience and inform our design process, incrementally helping us become outcome led.
Why the need for change? As Joseph Pine said in his co-authored book, The Experience Economy, “As the nature of economic output changes, so must the efforts that go into it.”
Cognitive Neuroscience looks at the mechanistic processes of our brain and their functions, identifying which chemical substrates relate to one-another affecting cognitive processes. This is now adding a deeper layer of intelligence to the design of the built environment. The ability to refine design based on outputs. Science is now offering a mechanistic and quantitative measurement process to deliver, actual health, wellbeing and productivity from a user generated “bottom-up” view within the built environment industry.
It would be remiss of me to ignore that there have been great promises from consumer friendly products, that have quickly been dismissed by academics – such as lower end EEG devices that bear relation to 3D printer buzz of the early 2000s. The opportunities that technologies such as highly advanced EEG devices, fMRI scanners, and Galvanic Skin Responses is becoming more standardized in application and claim – but the brain data alone is useless. It needs to be looking at problem solving to have value. Its benefit is to be used as a tool to validate and test the metrics for success set at the outset. At our shared research lab with Dr. Spiers of University College London, we have established a multi-modal Virtual Reality lab to coincide with the recording of brain data. All of a sudden we can go from questionably successful questionnaires and intuition to accurate and real time recordings of user-experience to understand what is a good environment and what might not be so great.
On top of VR we’re also seeing booms in Augmented Reality tools such as Meta. It’s exciting to now ask the question of what happens when we add real time fast feedback from planning committees taking all forms of data to improve large urban developments – wouldn’t it be nice if planning only took a few months instead of protracted, costly, and animosity building years.
Wearable technologies such as Catapult are revealing insights into sports related physiology, in real time, which means no more long term approaches to reviewing hypothesis. Whether co-incidental or from awareness, in order to reach sports requirements and stay competitive, the game’s industry has had to evolve and provide more to the consumer as competition increases. It’s clear to see that as the sport embraced science, it’s created a game of the highest competition – how can real estate and the built environment follow suit and use varied technologies and processes to solve current economic, business and societal related problems?
- In shopping centre design, can we understand more why certain members of the public, whether they be elderly or the young, choose not to dwell?
- In hospital and care related design, can we understand more where people get lost and what types of design cause frustration in patients (a significant factor in healing potential)?
- In our public realm, can we understand navigation decisions better so that we can adjust master-planning designs to ensure a smooth wayfinding – after all, a poorly designed app or website will have less visitors than the one that had a better experience.
- In office buildings, can we take notions such as innovation, collaboration and creativity, and understand what that is from a cognitive point of view, and start to build from the brain out?
New technologies are now giving built environment practitioners the abilities to think like a technology company, not in their services but their purposes. In tech, a UX designer is someone who analyses the data, looking at behavioural patterns of users, and measures this against the purpose of the website/app. They’re the ones you don’t see but the ones that make the difference in successful adoption of a product. Taking this type of method into the built environment means that designers, architects, planners and developers can start refining their products to create frictionless and seamless experiences.
After all, as LandSec just rebranded themselves, Everything is Experience.
Products are only smart by default through their connection with our biology. The digital infrastructure comes to support their adaption to demand and the change that happens around them. Human first, tech second. If tech were the only thing we wanted, we’d all still be using the Creative ZenX mp3 player and Steve Jobs would have a much more maligned legacy.
Cloud Technology, smart-phones and 4/5G signal are fundamentally changing our requirements of the built environment. Its purpose is in truth to enhance the activity we use it for, that’s the demand metric for success, not the rental value – did this space enhance me? Therefore, our approach to being outcome led and using the data to achieve that is what will separate failure and redundancy from success and resilience, creating that “product-market-fit”.
“What happens when we stop quantifying ourselves and look to optimise ourselves” - Suzanne Holt Ballard, Neuroscientist.