SMARTSPACES: the Workplace

9th Dec 2014

Depression and the Workplace

As THECUBE enters its journey into Smart Spaces, we have started to do research within the area of wellbeing. One of the main drivers of a smart space is that it provides an environment that is “good” for you. People have spent too many years working in office spaces that are bad for their health; a recent statistical study discovered that 1 in 20 employees are suffering from workspace based depression.

The lack of a biophilic environment, with poor lighting, too much noise and lack of fresh air, are only some of the reasons people start to feel depressed in their work environments. There is also capacity and layout of a space – if a space is packed with people in rows and rows of cubicles, people feel lost. We need to feel like we can interact in and own a space, both physically and socially in order to feel comfortable.

The analogy that we often use in order to explain how the environment influences our mental state, is sensory deprivation which is used in prisons and by the army as punishment. This lack of stimuli can lead to short and long-term health effects, such as depression, anxiety, and anti-social behaviour. Even thought this is an extreme example, it has shed light into how the brain and environment co-exist. For this reason offices need to do more than just provide a desk, four walls, and some overhead lighting. They should be neurologically nourishing and stimulating environments.

Placemakers, architects and developers have a responsibility to create workspaces that are good for people not as a vanity but a monetary necessity. Since the 1970’s there has been an understanding of how depression affects productivity. As depression settles in the body, it is root cause of chronic diseases which means the workforce is out sick rather than working.

4th Feb 2015

Healthy Communities

As THECUBE continues its research and further develops its understanding of the brain, we discover more and more data that shows the correlations between health and performance. Therefore the recent correlation between economics and health is not that surprising, according to the World Economic Forum “improving the health of a nation’s citizens can directly result in economic growth, because there will be more people able to conduct effective activities in the workforce”. The operative word here, is “effective”, as a tired, depressed, and unhealthy workforce may still produce but it will be effective of smart.

As we stated before the problems we are facing are becoming more complex, and this complexity needs healthy and energised humans to be able to solve them.   

The complexity around health is not the need of more hospitals, it is communicating to the populous that their health matters. In other words, most people do not really care about their health, which is evident from our habits of smoking, excessive drinking, sedentary lifestyle, and eating food that poisons the body. We spend more money curing preventable diseases than in creating health and that will have a continual effect on our economy. If we want a strong and sustainable economy, we need to start providing spaces which support a cultural change and aids our decision making, thus spurring innovation.

15th April 2015

Neuroscience of Space

The alliance between science and technology has always been intrinsic to innovation, however in the last 20 years the development has been unprecedented. Neuroscience specifically has seen an increase of discoveries in the last ten years, so much so that many governments are making it the forefront of their political agendas, with conviction and hope that neuroscience will be the key to unlocking human potential and evolution.  There is a new race to see which country will successfully map the human brain analogous to space race of the 1960’s. Given this perspective, we can begin to extract scientific understanding and apply it to various industries to create smarter human-centric innovations. THECUBE has done this with neuroscience and spaces, using this understanding as a tool to enhance the relationship between physical environments and people.

One of the most potent pieces of research of the last ten years has been the concept of neurogenesis. Neurogenesis is the “generation of new neurons in the adult brain, they serve to maintain a pool of neurons with unique properties for a limited time after their birth, which enables specific types of neural processing”. In other words they are generated by the brain to sustain existing neurons in a specific process. If neurogenesis is inhibited or changed it can lead to many psychiatric diseases, such as depression. Furthermore research has established a link between stimulating physical environments to the creation of new neurons. It might seem far fetched to link physical environments with cognitive function, however research has repeatedly been indicating this notion for decades now. Studies like Brown et al have uncovered that exposure to an enriched environment improves performance in hippocampus-dependant learning tasks. This is important because how well we learn impacts our calibre of problem solving, idea generation, cognitive flexibility., and therefore our innovation potential. Without neurogenesis the brain loses the  ability to function to its full potential or heal itself during disease. To bring this back to the context of space and buildings, we must apply this knowledge to create environments which are stimulating and neurologically nourishing to provide people with enriching places to think, which allows for them to fulfil their potential capacity.

The link between neurogenesis and environment can be explained through the evolutionary and historical relationship between brain and environment, which are in constant communication like an elegant and complex feedback loop. In short, we perceive and understand the world through this relationship. The to and from between brain and environmental stimuli has shaped and influenced every aspect of our self, from our cognitive abilities and behaviour to motor skills and physicality. For example, attention which is a visual cognitive process and has been developed to effectively interpret data, is highly influenced by our environment. If we walk into a dimly lit room, our pupils will dilate and our eyes will focus and attend to items that are more lit than those that are not, which means that only the activities and items in those areas will receive our attention. Another function of attention is responding to salient stimuli. Through evolution, we have developed the ability to be quicker and more focused at attending to noises or activities which are out of the ordinary. For example, when walking down the street distracted by your mobile phone and at a distance you hear an ambulance, immediately your attention would change from phone to the ambulance, which would be the salient stimuli. In both examples, attention is governed by what is around us; in other words, we do not “choose” what we pay attention to, our environment does.

The relationship between the environment and ourselves goes even further than perception and attention. As our perception moulds in tandem with our environment so are our cognitive and behavioural outcomes. For instance, how we conduct ourselves in different event schemas (dinner party vs. funeral vs. workspace) is dictated by physical as well as social cues. For example, in a workspace that is open and flooded in natural light, people will be more inclined to be honest and will behave more trustworthy in that space.

THECUBE itself was designed with this knowledge in mind and has been proven successful, with data showing no cases of theft and over 150 cases of interdisciplinary collaborations over the duration of the past five years. A further survey conducted in the space in 2011 indicates that most people feel, calm, happy, and productive in the space. The perception and sense of themselves in the work environment, allows for them to feel a certain way,  with that feeling turning into a behaviour. This feedback loop between environment, perception, and behaviour is constantly in motion and shaping.

Illustrating how entwined we are to our environment gives us a different perspective on the role and function of spaces. Firstly, we have the opportunity to make environments that aid us in our innovation process.  Each space can be designed with a specific purpose, dependent on the cognitive, behavioural, and industry needs of its inhabitants.

30th March 2015

Changing Culture

To move forward, people need to be inspired: they need building that enhance their creativity and push them to take their future into their own hands. Die?be?do Francis Ke?re?,Architect.

Economic systems and cultures will always run in symbiosis, influencing each other, with ideas, customs and social behaviours. The 20th century created a culture focused on the individual; it urged people to buy, made them yearn for heightened status, and drove competition in the workplace.The 21st century is instead more focused on the “we” or the collective. When there are little resources, people tend to come together to innovate and consume, allowing them to jointly benefit. “Extensive fieldwork has by now established that individuals in all walks of life and all parts of the world voluntarily organise themselves so as to gain the benefits of trade, to provide mutual protection against risk, and to create and enforce rules that protect natural resources.”

As the individuals and inhabitants of the 21st century, we are not the first generation to encounter a cultural revolution. Innovation fundamentally exists as man’s tool for survival.With every historical development and monumental discovery, humans and their cultures matured to accommodate new technologies and processes. Still, the complexity, sum, and rate of unprecedented questions and problems we encounter today is historic. For their 2015 agenda the World Economic Forum announced that “the nature of the challenges we face is increasingly complex.” Every industry is not only adopting new technology, but it is also needing to work collectively to tackle our complex environment. Our new understanding that collectively we are smarter and more capable is leading more companies and startups to work with a different culture in mind, one that is focused on collaboration rather individualism. At the crux of this culture is the open sharing of data, The McKinsey Global Institute projects open-data “can become an instrument for breaking down information gaps across industries, allowing companies to share benchmarks and spread best practices that raise productivity.”

In the same way that cubical offices catered to an individualistic and hierarchical culture, the rising culture of collaboration needs to be supported by its environment. More of an ecosystem, which reinforces these new social interactions and behaviours, as its prominence will only increase over time. With these visible examples of the changes in the economy and culture, we can confidently say that this is leading us to an anthropological shift.This is to say we are entering a new evolution evident in the changes being faced by many industries. Whether it be the energy, finance, property, education, government, or healthcare industry they are all facing increasingly tougher challenges and complex problems that have not been faced before. In an article written in the Harvard Business Review in 2008, these type of problems were described as ‘wicked’ due to their level of complexity and our lack of ability to solve them. A more appropriate name would be ambiguous, as they are problems “which cannot be resolved according to a rule or process or finite steps.” Spaces in the 21st century will need to be more biologically adept to fit with our evolving culture, work and innovation needs.

8th April 2015

A Perspective on Architecture

Modernist architecture, which gained international popularity after the 1930s, was adopted by many architects and architectural educators, turning it into the most dominant style in corporate and institutional buildings of the 20th century.  The main principle of modernist architecture was ‘form follows function’, which means the shape of the building should be primarily based on its intended function or purpose, before the concept of endorsement. In the late 19th century, architect Louis Sullivan, developed the shape of the steel skyscraper, exactly at the moment when technology, taste, and economic forces converged to develop the need for this type of architectural shape.

This was an austere time where WWI was followed by the Great Depression, and WWII, and modernist planning was seen as a popular and logical response to the subsequent insecurity and poverty faced by society. It tapped perfectly into the general consensus, who wanted to mirror the control and safety that military structures provide. It was that era’s economic and cultural position that gave rise to the construction of powerful, linear, and solid buildings. The form of the buildings certainly followed the purpose of the workforce, which was to fall in line, obey, and produce at all cost. However, as time moved along, and peoples post-war attitudes started changing, this type of architecture started to “contradict physical and natural processes, [and instead was] creating buildings, and cities that are inhuman in their form, scale, and construction”.

Humans are biological phenomena. We are made of cells which constantly sense environmental stimuli, this sensorial information is taken in, interpreted, and actioned by the central nervous system, which is composed of the brain and spinal cord. This means “we engage emotionally with the built environment through architectural form and surfaces.” We experience details, surface and space in the same way we relate to and experience people.

Given these new findings, spaces need to move forward to the 21st Century and be designed with more than just aesthetic or form in mind. We need to design spaces that are “neurologically enriching is as important as food and water”. However, biology is only half the picture, we are also social phenomena, our reactions and behaviours are in context to the people we interact with and spaces we inhabit. How we behave, what we produce, and what believe is dependent on the social interaction of others. Therefore, if we are looking to create a workforce that is more collaborative and generates solutions which are innovative it is critical to be aware of to the culture of and biology of spaces. The time is ripe to reconcile architectural design with the rapid technological advancements and the millennials changing changing cultures. It is the combination of biologically designed spaces which are neurologically stimulating,  with healthy company cultures that will create the ecosystems for the innovation we are desperately seeking. The new rise of economic systems will need the support of smart spaces.