Science in the city: applying neuroscience to urban design

Cities have long been considered primarily in terms of their buildings and infrastructure.  However, in recent years, a more ‘human-centric’ view has been adopted – focusing on the people who inhabit the city, and how they perceive and respond to the city that surrounds them.

Research from a variety of disciplines agree that buildings and cities have a significant impact upon the people – from their physical and mental health, cognitive development, and wellbeing to their levels of productivity.

Neuroscience offers a new way to further explore this impact – and by doing so, help urban design professionals to create places that promote human health and wellbeing, whilst mitigating the negative impacts of the city environment as far as possible.

 

What is neuroscience?

But what exactly is neuroscience?  And how does it relate to urban design?

A recent report by FutureCatapult looks at how neuroscience can be used to improve the design of urban places, and thus increase human wellbeing and productivity.

It defines neuroscience as “a multidisciplinary branch of biology and is the scientific study of the brain and nervous system, including its interaction with the other parts of the body”.

There are various ‘scales’ or ‘levels’ of neuroscience – from cognitive psychology, right down to the study of individual cells in the brain.  Each level of neuroscience studies different aspects of how the brain functions, and thus offers different ways to explore and understand how humans perceive, respond to and are affected by their surrounding environments.  It has many applications in real life – and one such application is informing city strategy, design and policy.

 

Applying neuroscience research to urban design

Take mental health, for example.  It is a prime example of an area in which neuroscience can be used by city planners and policymakers to help improve human wellbeing.

As FutureCatapult point out in their report, cities have a greater prevalence of mental health problems than rural areas.

They note that several factors associated with cities have been found to contribute to mental health problems. These include certain toxins (produced by traffic, industrial parks), environmental stressors (noise and light pollution), climate conditions (urban heat islands) and social conditions (isolation).  Neuroscience offers a greater understanding how these factors impact on human health and wellbeing, thus creating an evidence base for the design of healthy places.

There are many other ways in which neuroscience research can inform city design.  For example, it has been found that:

  • poor air quality has serious detrimental effects on the natural developments of children’s brains
  • social isolation can accelerate cognitive decline in older people
  • an increase in noise decreases worker productivity
  • light influences brain function during specific cognitive tasks, especially those requiring sustained attention

Such findings can help inform the decisions made by city planners and policymakers, and help create cities that maximise human health, wellbeing and productivity.

Research into the brain’s ‘wayfinding’ processes – that is, how the brain processes visual information and makes sense of unfamiliar environments – is also of interest.  For example, how do people choose which paths to follow?  Are they influenced by street size, shape, colours, noise, or the number of cars? Such information could be used to inform the design of streets and places that are easier to navigate. This is of growing importance given the drive towards the design of inclusive and dementia-friendly places.

Relatedly, neuroscience offers a way to gain a deeper understanding of how non-neurotypical brains process and respond to different environments – for example, people with dementia or autism.  Understanding these different perspectives and responses is key to the creation of spaces that are truly inclusive.

 

Neuroscience in action

But how exactly does one go about examining how brain cells respond to an urban environment?

There are a variety of neuroscience tools that may be used to gather information about human’s experience of the city.

A key tool is mobile electroencephalography (EEG).  Previously, EEG involved equipment that could only be used in a laboratory.  However, technological advances have seen the development of mobile EEG ‘headsets’ that can be worn as research participants navigate different streets and environments of the city.

Mobile EEG enables researchers to measure brain function and activity, as well as the responses of the autonomic nervous system (heart rate, skin conductivity, endocrinological levels).  This can be used to understand how individuals experience urban environments.

For example, mobile EEG has been used to help understand the urban experiences of people with visual impairments.  Other mobile EEG studies have looked at whether using quiet, low traffic streets has a different effect on pedestrians than using streets busy with shops, traffic and other pedestrians.

Eye tracking machines are another tool providing research findings of interest to urban designers.  They study gaze behaviours and cognition, which are in turn related to attention, memory, language, problem solving, and decision making.  Eye tracking can help researchers to understand which features catch and hold attention, visual preferences and experiences. For example, one eye-tracking study found (perhaps unsurprisingly) that humans prefer lush greenery in urban environments.

As these neurological research and related technologies advance, their application will undoubtedly become more sophisticated and widespread.

 

Building upon evidence

The urban population around the world is expanding rapidly and finding solutions to the mental and physical health challenges that cities present is crucial.

By understanding the insights that neuroscience can provide, city planners, policy makers and others involved in urban design can access a growing evidence base upon which to build future cities that are healthy, attractive and inclusive places to live.


The Knowledge Exchange provides information services to local authorities, public agencies, research consultancies and commercial organisations across the UK. 

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A world of evidence … but can we trust that it is any good?

What is good evidence? And how can policymakers and decisionmakers decide what is working and what isn’t, when it comes to deciding where public money is spent and how?

These are the kinds of questions that models and tools such as randomised controlled trials and cost-benefit analysis attempt to answer. The government has also supported the development over the last five years of the What Works Network, which now consists of 10 independent What Works Centres. When talking about impact there’s also been a move to capturing and recognising the value of qualitative data.

As one of our key aims is to support and facilitate the sharing and use of evidence in the public sector, we were interested to read a new publication ‘Mapping the standards of evidence used in UK social policy’.

Standards of evidence

Produced by the Alliance for Useful Evidence, the research has found 18 different Standards of Evidence currently in use across UK social policy.

The report notes that over the last decade there has been increasing interest in grading effectiveness or impact against a level or scale. Typically, the higher up the scale, the more evidence is available. Theoretically this means that decision-makers can have higher confidence in deciding whether a policy or intervention is working.

While all the evidence frameworks generally aim to improve the use of evidence, the different goals of the organisations responsible can shape the frameworks in different ways. They can be used to inform funding decisions, to make recommendations to the wider sector about what works and what doesn’t, or as a resource to help providers to evaluate. And unfortunately this means that the same intervention can be assessed differently depending on which framework is used.

The Alliance for Useful Evidence concludes that while a focus on evidence use is positive, the diversity of evidence standards risks creating confusion. Suggested options for improving the situation include introducing an independent accreditation system, or having a one-stop shop which would make it easier to compare ratings of interventions.

Dissemination and wider engagement

The question of standardising evidence frameworks is just one part of a wider effort to increase transparency. As well as collecting evidence, it’s important that when public money has been invested in carrying out evaluations and impact assessments, that this evidence remain accessible over the longer term and that lessons are learned. It can often seem that government departments have very short organisational memories – especially if they’ve suffered a high churn of staff.

Two projects which we support in Scotland are focused on increasing the dissemination and awareness of evaluation and research evidence. Research Online is Scotland’s labour market information hub. Produced by ourselves and Skills Development Scotland, the portal brings together a range of statistics and research and acts as the centre of a community of practice for labour market researchers, practitioners and policy-makers.

Meanwhile Evaluations Online is a publicly accessible collection of evaluation and research reports from Scottish Enterprise. The reports cover all aspects of Scottish Enterprise’s economic development activities – some of the latest added to the site cover megatrends affecting Scottish tourism, innovation systems and the gender gap, and the commercial flower-growing sector in Scotland.

When working within the policy world it can be easy to suffer from fatigue as ideas appear to be continually recycled, rejected and then revisited as policy fashions change and political parties or factions go in and out of power. The spotlight, often driven by the media, will shine on one hot policy issue – for example, moped crime, cannabis legislation or health spending – and then move on.

Online libraries of evaluations and research reports are one tool which can help support a longer-term culture of learning and improvement within the public sector.

Evidence Week 2018

Inspired by similar objectives, Evidence Week runs from 25th to 28th June 2018 and aims to explore the work of parliamentarians in seeking and scrutinising evidence. It will bring together MPs, peers, parliamentary services and the public to talk about why evidence matters, and how to use and improve research evidence.

This may be the start of wider knowledge sharing about standards of evidence, to help those using them to improve their practice.


The Knowledge Exchange is a member of the Alliance for Useful Evidence. Our databases are used by government and the public sector, as well as private-sector consultancies, to keep abreast of policy news and research in social and public policy.

What’s preventing preventative policy?

governmentBy Stephen Lochore

I recently blogged about the potential benefits of preventative policy-making – an approach that aims to prevent or reduce the risk of social and economic problems. But if prevention really is better than cure, why isn’t prevention universally accepted and implemented?  What are the challenges, barriers and limits to preventative policy?

  • Funding and budgets are usually short-term while preventative policy requires long-term commitment. It may take decades for a preventative approach to deliver outcomes, yet require significant up-front spending. When faced with shrinking budgets, it may seem expedient to cut preventative spending rather than services that more immediately benefit local communities.
  • Changing priorities can undermine preventative approaches.  Much political attention is currently focused towards economic development, and it has become harder for many public bodies to maintain spending on activities that don’t explicitly target economic growth, even if they would save money in the long-term.  Public opinion fluctuates, and often focuses on local solutions rather than high-level holistic approaches.  Yet preventative policy often depends on long-term commitment.
  • Preventative intervention is difficult to evaluate – partly because of the long time-scale, sometimes compounded by a lack of obvious measures of success, but also because the problems such interventions try to address usually cut across policy domains, making it difficult to determine the net impact of any individual initiative among an ever-changing set of interrelated interventions.  To put it another way, preventative policy faces problems of both measurement and attribution.  This puts it at a disadvantage when there is an expectation to demonstrate measurable progress.
  • There is limited evidence about ‘what works’ in preventative policy.  The policy-making cycle operates at a different timescale to that needed to create a robust evidence base.  The Big Lottery suggests longitudinal studies of at least five years to support research into prevention.  People often quip that politicians want quick answers… the other side of the argument is that researchers only want to give comprehensive answers!
  • Public sector budgeting isn’t well suited to those ‘wicked’ issues that cut across departmental and service lines. Preventative spend in one area may save money in another by reducing demand for services.

Long timescales, interdependent issues, and limited evidence, all mean that preventative intervention carries a high level of uncertainty, and can be seen as risky.

There are also some general tensions within policymaking that are exacerbated when taking a preventative approach.

  • Participatory policymaking – communities may prioritise locally identifiable outcomes rather than long-term, holistic interventions.  Issues that are important at a local level (e.g. noise pollution, traffic congestion, litter) are not always the same as those policymakers seek to address, particularly using a preventative approach.
  • Centralised processes to establish good practice and monitor progress versus greater autonomy for localised decision-making and freedom from central interference.
  • Using evidence to follow established practice balanced against policy and research innovation to try and to evaluate new approaches. The relative paucity of evidence about some areas of prevention and early intervention mean that policy risks need to be taken, and policymakers have to accept uncertain returns and some risk to reputation.
  • Activities that have a predictable return or accepted value versus those that have potential for greater positive impact but less certainty.

Despite these challenges, prevention is a policy imperative throughout the UK, if for no other reason than its potential to reduce future public spending. However, it’s particularly notable in Scottish policymaking.

The Scottish Government designated prevention as one of its priorities for reform in its response to the Christie Commission on the Future Delivery of Public Services. The influence of the preventative principle can be seen in the Single Outcome Agreements (SOAs) produced by local authorities and their respective Community Planning Partnership. The guidance to CPPs issued by Scottish Government in 2012 explicitly stated that SOAs “should promote early intervention and preventative approaches”.

Prevention aligns with some of the other principles behind the CPP process in Scotland and public service reform elsewhere  – the idea of co-operation between levels of government, pooling resources and sharing benefits.  It may be risky, but it’s an imperative that all organisations involved in funding, designing and delivering public services ought to embrace.


 

Further reading

Christie Commission on the future delivery of public services

Climate change, Single Outcome Agreements and Community Planning Partnerships

Renewing Scotland’s public services: priorities for reform in response to the Christie Commission

Preventative spending and the ‘Scottish policy style’

The preventative agenda in Scotland is a worthy initiative, but the tensions inherent in its execution may yet undermine it

The Idox Information Service has a wealth of research reports, articles and case studies on public policymaking. Abstracts and access to subscription journal articles are only available to members.

Piloting the use of ‘real time data’ to help decisionmakers – the Right Here, Right Now project

Lynn Naven is from the Glasgow Centre for Population Health and recently took on the role of Project Manager of the ‘Right Here, Right Now’ project. The project aimed to capture, in real time, people’s lived experiences amidst rapid social and economic change, in order to inform policymaking and enable early action. This presentation outlines the rationale behind the project, the findings from the first phase of research and the scope of phase two.

Knowledge insider… a Q&A with Sarah Jennings

sarah jenningsWelcome to the second of our blog series in the run up to our Conference, looking at how we invest in knowledge, this time with Sarah Jennings, Director of Digital and Community Engagement at CapacityGrid. She’s responsible for the Knowledge Hub, an online space for cross-sector collaboration focused on sharing good practice, ideas generation and supporting public sector transformation.

Sarah, what led you to a role promoting and improving knowledge development?  

I started my working career as a specialist librarian. Whilst working at the Royal Society an internal opportunity came up to manage the websites. This was digital in its infancy before the term existed, first generation activity in digital! However it seemed obvious that knowledge and information sharing would be key components.

After that I moved into the education sector, managing the online work at the previous incarnation of SSAT (The Schools Network) when it had responsibility for delivery of the specialist schools and academies remits for government. We specialised in providing support and training in teaching and learning; curriculum; networking and leadership development. This is where I first started to see the real benefits of technology as an enabler for peer-to-peer sharing of knowledge, case studies and best practice across networks of teachers.

Following a spell in regional government, I moved to the Local Government Association. Here I was responsible for the digital estate, including developing our communities of practice. However, people and sectors were still siloed and not sharing to best effect. So the launch of its successor, the Knowledge Hub, was an attempt to tackle this through building networks of people that weren’t necessarily around a theme and made use of emerging social media tools and techniques. I didn’t set off to do this and don’t really see myself as a knowledge manager. I’m more a convener of people. I enjoy connecting people up, facilitating conversations and getting people working together to improve things. I like herding cats; and seem to be quite good at it!

What do you think the main benefits of developing your knowledge are?

Keeping up to date with what is going on, the areas I work in, the sector I work in – I’m the sort of person who likes to devour knowledge.

I enjoy building my own network. I’m always surprised how often I look up someone I met or worked with a while ago and we do something amazing. In most areas I see myself as having a broad-based knowledge, rather than depth, however I do consider I have a reasonable knowledge where digital is concerned, having lived and breathed it for nearly 15 years in one form or another.

I think being multi-disciplinary in today’s world is a useful thing. Jobs are very different now. It’s incredible to think that developments in the last 100 years mean that some process driven professional roles have and will continue to disappear and be replaced by machines. Being multi-disciplinary is the key; a broad knowledge and skill-set means you can work across different roles within the workforce and provide more flexibility to organisational structures.

When people are talking to you about evidence, research or knowledge, what do they most frequently raise as issues?

Often, it’s “there is so much”: how do they navigate it? How do they find it? How do they know whether it’s any good? Even in Knowledge Hub, people need support and help finding what they need and this is the role of our community managers

I take advantage of my information management background, to help them to move through it, navigate. To do this well I have to recognise that everyone’s different – human nature, learning styles and decision making processes. I have to ensure Knowledge Hub caters for this diversity, whether people want formal learning with docs or forums for collaboration.

Big Data is often raised as an issue, knowledge about it, what to do with it and how to use it. Again, there’s too much and how do we know what’s worth using either for evidence or to predict future services?

But the biggest issue people face is “who are the experts?” How do you know who they are and who do you trust? The benefit of collaboration is it’s good for getting a range of information, opinions and expertise and experts, emerge from this process.

What are the hard to spot mistakes when it comes to developing your knowledge, which you really need to avoid?

Social media: your view of the world can be limited by the people you are following. Try not to (always) follow like-minded people because you get a narrow vision and view of the world. It’s important to step out of your area, look at the way people are doing things elsewhere.

Decision making: if I’m making a decision around digital, for example, I tend to talk to other digital people. Again, this can reinforce a stereotype and provide a narrow view.  It’s important to go beyond that, step outside your comfort zone, seek alternative views and break out of the silo. More often than not, we think about how we do something and not always the impact. With Knowledge Hub we are trying to introduce serendipity, introducing people to new groups and opportunities they may not have thought of, or come across, to enable this broadening to happen.

You need to be open minded, like a 360 review; get feedback, challenge your own assumptions. Everyone needs to take a break from the norm and look around them, see if what you are doing has already been tried and tested elsewhere, and you learn from.

This reflective approach is growing and it’s partly because the gender balance is improving, especially in digital, which is challenging the status quo and needs different (perhaps more?) skills. There are different ways of doing things, the best ‘managers’ out there are employing a whole range of different techniques. It’s no longer seen to be passive to have a mentoring approach, admit you don’t have all the answers and seeking help from others – even at the top!

Cass Business School, carried out research with retiring leaders from the baby boom era, asking them what they thought the next generation of leadership would need to look like. The majority said an emotional intelligence approach would be key.

Knowledge is fine but as a concept is no use unless you do something with it. We need to recognise talent and early on. Ideas and innovation can come from anywhere within an organisation. We simply need to know how to unlock it.

How do you think people will be doing evidence, research and knowledge development in 5 years’ time?

Data – It’s at the centre of everything; we are struggling with so much data, is it relevant, how do we use it?

There seems to be a couple of schools of thought on this, do we use it to learn lessons from the past or to predict what the needs are, more demand management? I think it’s a mix of both.  In terms of politics, services and understanding the world around us, this will become easier, the more data and information becomes available and we learn how to interpret it. Things like the “Internet of Things” are both exciting and daunting. To properly take advantage of these opportunities, we will need to get better at how we use data.

Skills – we will need to be cross disciplinary; able to pick up things; be collaborative; have people skills; ask the right questions; do creative analysis; then to question and assimilate what we learn. It’s not one person it’s a team, as it needs more than one person to innovate and take ideas to delivery.

As an individual you can be both specialist and cross disciplinary. It makes you valuable as a resource asset. People with specialist knowledge and the ability to look across multiple areas, will be the ones who succeed going forward, together with sufficient emotional intelligence to exhibit different decision making and leadership styles suited to the circumstance.

If you had a list of ‘best-kept secrets’ about research, evidence and knowledge you would recommend, what would you include and why?

Collaboration – understanding where the places are to go to, the experts and knowledge – people who don’t share will be left behind.

  • Remember to ask the awkward questions
  • Don’t confine where you go for answers

Looking at those people who are getting at the forefront of research, they are doing this now.

For my own expert knowledge:

The GDS especially for implementing good standards and principles, because they’ve invested time, money and effort and there’s no point in reinventing the wheel. For example design principles; website usability; transactions; or user journeys. Their development code is all shared on GitHub, and it’s now being taken up by other countries. Mike Bracken spoke at Innovate2014 about reusing services on a global level, the whole market out there gathering info and feedback on code and improving it. We are at a crossroads, for example the public sector is starting to dictate how a service works, changing the relationship and dynamics between suppliers and buyers to one based on demand, flexibility and co-creation.

Knowledge should be about improvement, where producers respond to demand and how a service needs to be delivered to most effect. The Social Value Act has had an effect on this. The opening up of public assets means IPR is being challenged and how people get recompensed for supplying a service. At the centre of supply and demand there is still knowledge.  We just need to think differently about the wrapper and commercial model.


If you would like to hear Sarah speak about her work and how social approaches can help in knowledge sharing, sign up to our free conference in December here.

You can also read a Q&A with Clive Grace, Local Government Knowledge Navigator.

Knowledge insider … a Q&A with Clive Grace

Clive Grace

In the first of our blog series in the run up to our Conference, looking at our experiences and how we invest in knowledge,  I interviewed Clive Grace, who is speaking at our Glasgow event on the 3rd December. He is part of the ESRC Local Government Knowledge Navigator, a two year project steered by Solace, the LGA and the ESRC to bring the research and local government communities closer together.

Hi Clive, what led you to a role promoting and improving knowledge development? 

“I am a sometime academic, and sometime practitioner, and I believe in cross fertilising my interests. This was particularly enhanced by two reviews I have carried out, looking at the engagement between academic research and local authorities through the Local Authority Research Councils’ Initiative in 2007 and 2010. Continue reading

How preventative policymaking could benefit local authorities

Crossing out problems and writing solutions on a blackboard.By Stephen Lochore

Preventative policy and spending aim to address the root causes of social and economic problems. In public policy, it’s most commonly applied in the fields of health and social care, early years education, welfare and criminal justice (reducing offending).

Early in November, I spoke at a seminar organised by the Scottish Centre on Constitutional Change and SCVO which explored preventative policy in Scotland.  While we inevitably spent some time discussing the challenges, there was a strong collective feeling about the advantages of a preventative approach to policymaking.  Continue reading