Does Data Trump Intuition?

Studying the physical responses to urban environments has traditionally been limited to laboratory settings. However, the BMW Guggenheim Lab, an experimental mobile lab that is part urban think tank and part community centre, teamed up with environmental psychologist, Colin Ellard, to create one of the very first onsite experiments, measuring the effects of different urban settings on participants’ bodies and minds.

The Lab toured the city streets, cemeteries, green spaces, storefronts and public squares of Berlin, New York and Mumbai. They asked participants to self-report their mood, arousal and physiology on a 5 point scale and wear bracelets that measured their skin conductivity (a standard measure of physiological arousal).

The experiment validated some commonly held assumptions:  green environments have positive, relaxing effects on people’s mental states, and areas of mixed use and high permeability (busy areas with many entrances and things to look at and do) boost peoples moods and physiological systems.

Similar experiments are common in the retail world. Researchers use retina scanners and brainwave-reading headbands to capture the unconscious physiology that purports to reveal our true psychological preferences.

The Lab experiments are appropriating these market research methodologies and technologies, using them to inform research that could help shape urban planning and design. The overall aim of this research is to enhance the functionality of urban spaces while increasing our comfort and our happiness.

In the future, urban planners, developers and architects alike could use this testing model to inform or validate decisions they make about how spaces should be developed. How will, and how can, their developments add to the greater happiness and comfort of city dwellers?

Do we trust electronic readouts to accurately report our preferences in the built environment? Where would you draw the line between relying on instinct and past experience to inform decision making vs letting research data lead the way?


November 9, 2013 | No Comments (yet!)

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