Summary: Can technology create empathetic design?

Last night (8th March 2016) we opened up our debate series on how to ‘Humanise the Built Environment’ by asking the question ‘can technology create empathetic design?’

Our speakers for the evening were Dr Jon Goodbun, senior lecturer in Architecture from Royal College of Art & Westminster University; Panos Mavros, architect and researcher at the UCL Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis; Harald Brekke, practicing architect and researcher for Kjaer Global, a global trending agency. Our three speakers were chosen as a story runs through their work that fits perfectly with the theme; from etymology meaning to technology enabled understanding to physical application.

Jon Goodbun kicked off the evening looking into the definition of empathy, how we have learnt to understand the meaning of empathy and apply it to our physical surrounds. Empathy is the emotion which gives us the capacity to feel someone else’s position. Most interesting was that the world empathy in the english language is only 100 years old, coming from the German word ‘Einfühlung’ meaning ‘feeling into’, derived from the greek term translating roughly as ‘in-passion / in-suffering’. Empathy as a concept came into vernacular in 19th century Germany in relation to architecture, to describe aesthetic and appreciation of its form. Through the 20th century the meaning took on a form of mimesis and how through the notions of embodied cognition we directly respond to our environment. In science it comes into prevalence through the study into mirror neurons and more recently with studies in Autism Spectrum Disorder. Jon highlighted a case study whereby that ‘as far as certain cognitive maps in the brain are covered, tools really do serve to extend the body’. Overall Jon was asking us to question and to realise that anything we create can become an extension of ourselves, therefore surely the most natural, adaptable and helpful products are the most human ones? In creating alienating products, designs, and buildings are we asking our brains to detach from themselves and relate to something alien? Jon’s work has a running theme of ‘consciousness’, the project below shows an experiment how the blindfolded participants heartbeats synced to the vibrations of a communal audio tool. Can you literally create products that enable people to live/work/play/experience in sync?

Panos Mavros, who recently spoke at the Conscious Cities conference, took us from the meaning of empathy into how technology is being applied in order for us to gain greater understanding of it. His two examples showed us of designing with empathy and designing for empathy. A great example of the withwas the exoskeleton that when worn in public gives its user an understanding of how the elderly of over 75 years old physically move through an urban environment.

To read more on this visit Panos also detailed his project called ‘Cities Unlocked’ that measures and maps the urban experience, the points of stress or comfort, pleasure or agitation experienced in an individual and ultimately asking that could we use new sensing technology in the process of urban design? Rather than looking at technology as being an interaction tool, so commonly used in social media, could we use technology better to understand the mechanics of the brain better to understand how people then make action in response. Whilst using information on social media can be useful data in research it is arguably a considered and motivated decision articulated using a fixed structure of language and context. In twitter where people are confined to 140 characters to express their emption you could argue you’re not getting the true picture. In being able to understand how directly the brain is affected by the urban environment over how we personally act in response to it, we can look to make improvements that reduce the desires to engage personal agendas and angst, essentially two themes that can cause a disassociation with the environment and reduce social wellbeing?

Harald Brekke was chosen to speak because of his work in understanding context more than using technology. Tech can sometimes be overused, can be overbearing and a ‘cheap’ way to detail that what is being provided is new, and therefore right, or even progressive. Harald mostly spoke on a project he worked on in northern Norway called Viken.

The Viken centre was built as a refuge for those suffering from trauma, they set out with the objective of ‘Architecture as a tool for therapy’. The Viken project was not built with science, it was not built with precision data as to ‘x’ material equals ‘y’ result but from the empathetic tone of how to create an environment of wellness, one that relates to its user and its surrounds. Technology in architecture and building doesn’t just have to be digital, natural materials are as ‘smart’ and responsive. Natural wood helps regulate an environment by being able to absorb and release moisture. Harald was questioning how and where to use technology when designing spaces, that using technology should be finding a way to take away the line between the natural world and the built world.

In observation of all three speakers there were echoes of a speech by Will Bentick, a tutor from Makers Academy, questioning David Cameron’s pledge that every child should learn to code, when in fact its not that we need everyone coding, we need everyone to understand what digital tools can do, to add the skill set to the larger construct of problem solving.

When looking at the question of ‘can technology create empathetic design?’ our speakers gave answers in to how we should be looking at technology and not the simple thought process of using technology de facto. Technology should be about giving us greater understanding of empathy and allowing us to attach a greater meaning and purpose to our designs. The speakers were highlighting that technology is a great tool but ultimately useless unless you use it in context. Technology comes in many forms and as in 2016 we get swayed into the smart cities rhetoric of IoT and efficiency, we must remember for whom we are building spaces, designing products and arranging processes of human interaction.

 You can read more on the speakers and keep up to date with their work here:

Dr Jon Goodbun – (@jongoodbun)

Panos Mavros – (MavrosP)

Harald Brekke – (@kjaerglobal)

This talk is the 2nd promoted by THECUBE’s research company, advising organisation on how to humanise the built environment. As advocates of knowledge mobility we run two coworking spaces in London and New York. Our spaces are engineered to be smart spaces looking to increase the output of the individuals by engendering a culture that encourages collaboration and education, most exemplified in the collectives formed within.