Most design professions today rely heavily on data to inform their work. From product designers to service designers, data is collected through numerous rounds of user research, focus groups and user testing. Technology is employed to track eye movements, attention, and undertake thousands of ‘A/B tests’, all before committing to any single design solution. This data-driven approach is so well established that the award-winning Government Digital Services have adopted a principle in their manifesto that explicitly sets out the need to ‘Design with Data’, emphasizing the importance of “data-driven decision-making, not hunches or guesswork”.
When it comes to the design of our built environment, be it buildings, streets or public spaces, the process is a lot less robust. Most architects and urban designers might analyse and collect data such as building heights, development constraints or community assets, but when compared to other design professions, our decisions are mostly done through ‘gut feeling’ or ‘professional expertise’. Compared to other designers, we pay nothing but lip-service to the idea of evidence based design.
One could argue that the design of the built environment is too complex to be understood through data alone. Jan Gehl famously set out how we “know more about good habitats for mountain gorillas, Siberian tigers, or panda bears than we do know about a good urban habitat for Homo sapiens”. But in truth we have been living and designing cities for millenia, and in that time we have learnt a huge amount. We have learnt from Jane Jacobs the importance of mixing land-uses, small blocks, density and diversity; from William Whyte the impact of sunlight in the public realm; and from Alice Coleman the importance of territory and sense of ownership. And we continue to learn today. For example, neuroscientists such as Collin Ellard have shown us how street-level frontage impacts on people’s dwell time, and Nobel Prize winner John O’Keeffe have given us a neurological understanding of how the human brain navigates through space, giving us a robust understanding of what works well for humans and what doesn’t. There is a lot of data about what works and what doesn’t when it comes to designing places.
Yet, built environment professionals today still resist adopting a more evidence and data driven approach to design, for both cultural and economic reasons. But we are now at a turning point where these approaches are becoming inexcusable. The availability of technology and data, combined with the urgent need to design our cities to adapt to complex challenges from climate change, pandemics, inequality and mental wellbeing, makes data driven design not only desirable, but essential.
It’s time we purposefully move into a future where our understanding of places are derived from reams of data collected by sensors embedded in our streets and buildings. Where this data is aggregated and synthesised, giving us information on everything from footfall and dwell time, to emotional well being, productivity and health. Where we can test and prototype designs virtually, before approving or investing significant time or resources. Only when design interventions have been shown to maximise positive outcomes, do we build anything. Once built, these new environments are also embedded with sensors, which allow us to validate the models and predictions used to test them to begin with. This information is used to fine tune our models and assumptions, so that over time they get increasingly better at understanding what works and what doesn’t. In doing so, we build a feedback loop between the forces that shape our built environment and the outcomes that environment has on people.
While this transformation won’t happen overnight, architects and designers need to start rethinking their methods and approach to their work. There have been some early movers, such as Space Syntax, but we’re now seeing a new wave of innovation ranging from the in-house design team at WeWork, to experiments such as Google’s Space for Being, paving the way into the future. As we move into this new world of data driven design, we need to remain aware of its many pitfalls. We need to ensure the tools we build are interrogable, the data we collect is open, and the knowledge we collect is shared. As the African proverb goes “If you want to go fast, go alone, if you want to go far go together”.
Interested in discussing this article? Leave a response below, or it’s not too late to add into the Twitter discussion hosted by Euan on Friday 29 May. Take part in, or follow the Twitter discussion about this and other articles in the series using #SmartPlaces.
You can find out more about the Smart Places series on the Edinburgh Living Lab webpage, including other upcoming authors and key dates for our online events.
Illustrator’s response to Euan’s article and future vision, by Victoria Rose Ball
I really enjoyed the challenge of creating an illustration to go alongside Euan’s article focusing on data, and how I would come up with a design to show something that isn’t a ‘physical’ thing. Usually my work focuses on what is in front of me. I create illustrations of my surroundings, trying to convey how I view the city — my work is often very playful with unusual perspectives and exaggerated colour schemes. However, for this project and with the focus being on data and building planning, I wanted to keep an emphasis on the illustration being true to life, while remaining true to my way of working. I came up with the idea of a blueprint style illustration in response to Euan talking about how architects and urban designers collect data before they begin plans for constructing buildings. To create an illustration that felt a bit out of my comfort zone at first, I tried to think like an architect — what elements would be important in constructing buildings, how would they use data to gather this information which would effect the finished architectural design?
Combining my style with a blueprint type plan came quite naturally — I often start drawings with line work before adding colour, which worked well for the creative choices I’d made for how I wanted the finished piece to look. It was how to convey data within the illustration that was more of a challenge!
Euan Mills — bio
I co-founded the Digital Planning Directorate at Connected Places Catapult where, for 4 years, led a team which worked closely with government, local authority planners, architects and property developers to help them develop and adopt new technologies. Prior to this I spent 16 years working in the built environment industry. Six of these were spent providing design advice to the Mayor of London and his planning team, contributing towards a number of key planning policy and research documents and negotiating major development proposals on behalf of the Mayor. Prior to my time at City Hall I worked as an urban designer at Urban Initiatives, developing masterplans and design codes; and East Architects working on public realm and regeneration strategies. I am also a visiting lecturer at a number of universities, write articles and speak at conferences on the impact of technology on cities. I have a monthly column on the subject for Planning Resource and have been an advisor to the Build Better Build Beautiful Commission.
Find out more about the Smart Places series and online events here.