Behavioural science and placemaking - rethinking people’s relationship with place

Weston Baxter

Contact Dr Weston Baxter

Design rationale informed by behavioural science is key to rethinking people’s relationship with place. It could also hold the key to re-establishing meaningful human connections as the world emerges from lockdown. Dr Weston Baxter, Behavioural Design Consultant and Assistant Professor at Imperial College London, explains how.

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Behavioural science is still largely untapped within design. One of the biggest problems is that this area of research and insight is treated as an add-on and lacks the contextualisation that could be achieved if it were a more integral part of the design process. At Imperial College, I head an interdisciplinary design research group called the Interaction Foundry. Our goal is to help design teams integrate behavioural science into their work processes, so they better understand behaviour, frame opportunities for design interventions, and accurately embody behavioural insights in final design outputs. Typically, we apply our expertise to interventions that aim to enrich the user experience and enhance efficiency and productivity, with a key focus on workspaces, community cohesion, and human connection and proximity. 

'Often, corporate investment in ​‘smart’ workspace overlooks the fundamentals of human behaviour and connections, which are far more important drivers of progress and efficiency than technological gadgetry and workflow optimisation. Indeed, placemaking must never rely on technology alone. We need to diagnose the digital, physical and cultural aspects of space to show how people work together, and how workspaces can be improved.'

Making workspaces work

In the workplace, we use behavioural science to help organisations design meaningful spaces that not only improve productivity but also enhance the experience of workers. In the current age of hotdesking and temporary workstations, space in offices and studios can feel impermanent and impersonal, which is known to negatively impact productivity and sense of belonging. Research shows that people can rapidly feel a natural sense of ownership over the spaces they inhabit, which can lead to territorial behaviour even in areas designed to be open, non-siloed, and communal. 

As behavioural science consultants, we assess design intent versus actual use to understand whether or not a workspace is fit for purpose. Have designers considered the multiple interactions that might occur within a space? Have they anticipated the multiple distractions that could impede productivity? Do employees feel like mere visitors in the workspaces created for them? With proper care, we can design the space, products, services and policies to help a person feel a sense of ownership for a temporary workspace, even if only used for two hours at a time. In doing so, we can help make such workspaces work for employees, without unwanted territorial behaviour.

Often, corporate investment in smart’ workspace overlooks the fundamentals of human behaviour and connections, which are far more important drivers of progress and efficiency than technological gadgetry and workflow optimisation. Indeed, placemaking must never rely on technology alone. We need to diagnose the digital, physical and cultural aspects of space to show how people work together, and how workspaces can be improved. Through a deep contextual understanding of all these aspects of place, we can shape productive and viable behavioural settings, positively impacting employee happiness, health and output. 

Community cohesion

Behavioural science can also help us to anticipate and navigate the complex social issues linked to regeneration. Once again, our core focus here is on the design of space and a sense of ownership. In cities and urban environments, we see multiple demographics sharing spaces which nobody legally owns, but to which many people feel deeply connected. As new developments are constructed alongside existing spaces, divisions along social, cultural and aesthetic lines can lead to community fractures and exclusions. 

Behavioural science enables us to understand why these divisions occur and how we can avoid them through pre-emptive and consultative design solutions. Community engagement is critical to understanding people’s sense of identity, access and ownership, and what they need from urban spaces. In order to overcome the challenge of territorialism, it’s vital to bring local people onboard and co-create the future of cities and urban environments with them. But this is not just about human-centric, people-focused design. It’s about conducting immersive research into human behaviour and attitudes and leveraging data to help us frame and create space in a way that works. In short, it’s about achieving sustainable placemaking and community cohesion through scientifically informed design solutions. 

Conducting immersive work that generates deep insight and guides a project does not need to take a long time when done properly. Even days of work early in the process can lead to more focus and direction, saving time in the long run and providing confidence that the project will achieve the desired results.

Human connection, contamination and COVID-19

Above all, behavioural science enables us to understand the constraints and opportunities that accompany each client project. The design of space can significantly impact the experience and outcomes of human connectivity. We work with clients in a variety of settings from innovation labs to business conferences to understand the cultural and physical barriers that are preventing meaningful connections, as well as the spatial arrangements and structures that may be creating obstructions. We then propose design interventions to help reconfigure and improve those structures, minimising the constraint and maximising opportunity – for example, enhancing micro-venues within conference settings to enable more organic connection and communication. 

Of course, in these strange and challenging times, we’re having to reassess the whole notion of human connection and proximity. COVID-19 is necessitating a radical review of approaches to workspace, public space, and placemaking. The concept of contamination’ has long been a part of how we understand and influence interactions within specific work or social spaces, but we are now taking this thinking mainstream. When spaces are inhabited by more than one person, we need to consider the impact this has on things like movement, concentration and communication. How do spaces become tainted’ as occupancy and usage increase?

To address these issues, we need to think about contamination of space in the broadest sense. Interactions become contaminated, both in terms of germs and health, but also in terms of visual and auditory distraction that can hinder productivity and sense of belonging. In the workplace, post-COVID-19, organisations will need to rethink shared and personal space to optimise cleanliness and minimise distraction. We make great effort to design a space that enables successful interactions, both with the features of the space itself and between the people who occupy it. We need to do more to understand how such interactions change with multiple users and uses. 

Some people have claimed the global pandemic will bring about the demise of open-plan working, and trigger a return to siloed pods and insulated workstations. Personally, I think this would be retrograde move. I believe the present crisis provides an opportunity to use our understanding of human behaviour to create new, imaginative and intuitive spaces that promote both safety and productivity, leading to sustainable placemaking in our offices and urban environments centred upon rich human connection.