The Age of Anxiety

Futures Rambling # 109 By Laurie Aznavoorian   

The following article was written for WORKTECH Academy – the fastest growing global online knowledge platform and member network exploring the future of work and workplace. The Academy showcases best corporate practice, academic research, thought-leadership, business tools and industry trends. For more information go to Worktechacademy.com

She’ll be right mate. That’s what we used to say in Australia, but the situation here is clearly not right. It’s hard to breath and most of us can’t tell whether our eyes are watering due to air quality or the visions we see on television of koalas suffering and people being evacuated from burning shores. We’re no longer happy little Vegemite’s.

Americans aren’t much better. Life expectancy fell for a third year in a row due to ‘deaths of despair’, which is the phrase they use when one succumbs to alcohol, drugs or suicide. And not to be left out, one in four people in the UK suffer from loneliness. It’s so bad a Minister for Loneliness has been appointed.

Selecting an uplifting moniker to define the dawn of this new decade may be a challenge. Some are already calling it the age of anxiety.

For architects and designers, it’s a conundrum. It pains us to look at the humanitarian crisis unfolding around us and feel we can’t do more to solve problems. After all, our training taught us buildings should bring joy to the heart, and we drank the Christopher Alexander Kool Aid – “a person is so far formed by his surroundings, that his state of harmony depends entirely on his harmony with his surroundings.”

“A person is so far formed by his surroundings, that his state of harmony depends entirely on his harmony with his surroundings.”

Christopher Alexander

Surely, we can fix this, but how? For some time, we have been keenly interested in sociology, neuroscience and psychology, but to date it’s bore scant application to our practice. This is understandable, measuring the cognitive effects of space and understanding it’s impacts on human behaviour isn’t easy. What’s easy is designing pretty breakout areas, popping in a plant and fruit bowl and ticking the box that says wellbeing.

But perhaps our anxiety may elicit a greater call to action, after all, if having the World Health Organisation deem depression as a leading cause of disability worldwide is not motivation, what is? The good news is today we have a little help. Researchers have identified specialised cells in the hippocampal region of our brain that are attuned to the arrangement of space and cognitive scientists have leveraged new technologies to measure space’s impact.

Wearable devices can monitor psychological arousal using skin conduction, smartphone apps conduct user surveys about their emotional state and EEG headsets measure brain activity relating to mental states and mood. All of these are important developments that will give us a much better idea of the kind of environments people like or find stimulating.

If we’re serious about creating environments that address the maladies of our age, we also need to go back to basics and pepper what we know with science to leverage the properties of space to promote better cognitive engagement, for instance:

Details and scale – both add visual depth which triggers sensory imagination.

Tactile sensations – stimulate our visual and auditory cortices.

Curved surfaces –generate an ’approach’ behavior, as opposed to sharp angled shapes and spaces that cause discomfort and fear.

Architectural variation – is so appealing that studies indicate humans will cross the road to be near buildings that have more variation.

Volume – data indicates people think more creatively and have a better response to abstract concepts when seated in rooms with high ceilings

The impact of space on human behaviors is not only a manifestation of the space itself, but a response to how it can be used. Neuroscientist studying navigation found that when people can relate things to one another they feel connected, and don’t suffer the negative impacts of feeling lost or disoriented. Connection and belonging are further enhanced by our ability to exercise agency over the spaces we occupy, it leads to a sense of ownership. 

Architects and designers possess an intuitive awareness of the impact of space on behavior, but paired with better science and diagnostic tools, we can back that intuition up. Perhaps a combination of gut and data will give us the tools we need to take a stab at addressing the growing maw in our social fabric? We can hope, but let’s be realistic, there’s work to be done convincing some (who pay the bills) that investment in people is a worthy cause. 

Perhaps a combination of gut and data will give us the tools we need to take a stab at addressing the growing maw in our social fabric?

And then there is the caution we should practice regarding the panacea of new technology. We’re still waiting for the flying cars, alternative energy and a cure for cancer. We may wish to develop a plan B considering the ways technology has failed us: misinformation, social media, hacking and the horrible bioethical issues associated with gene editing to name a few.

Sometimes it’s hard not to feel a twinge of ‘techno pessimism’, perhaps that’s par for the course in the Age of Anxiety. But what architects and designers are very good at is solving problems, it looks like the times have brought us a new one to contemplate.  

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