Designing for positive behaviours

St Paul's Cathedral, London, England

By Heather Cameron

“We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us” – Winston Churchill, 1943

This much borrowed saying from the former prime minister was made during the 1943 debate over the rebuilding of the House of Commons following its bombing during the Blitz. Although many were in favour of expanding the building to accommodate the greater number of MPs, Churchill insisted he would like it restored to its old form, convenience and dignity. He believed that the shape of the old Chamber was responsible for the two-party system which is the essence of British parliamentary democracy.

Indeed, it has since been widely acknowledged that the built environment has a direct impact on the way we live and work, thus affecting our health, wellbeing and productivity. A new report from the Design Commission, which opens with Churchill’s statement, is described as “a very valuable contribution” to the debate on how the design of the built environment can influence the way people think and behave, “making a healthier, happier and more prosperous and sustainable country”.

Impact of design

The report, which follows a year-long inquiry, is described as providing “solid evidence in difficult areas” on what it is in the built environment that makes people’s lives better. Evidence was gathered on four specific areas believed to be the most important to national policy:

  • health and wellbeing
  • environmental sustainability
  • social cohesion
  • innovation and productivity

It is suggested that design acts at two levels: it can affect individual choices of behaviour, which can then affect health and sustainability; and it can affect the way people are brought together or kept apart, which can then affect communication and creativity, or social cohesion.

The inquiry therefore looked into how people’s behaviour, health and wellbeing are affected by their surroundings; the role design can play in encouraging environmentally sustainable behaviours; the role design can play in social cohesion through its effects on creating or inhibiting co-presence in space; and how the design of work environments can drive innovation and improve efficiency, therefore tackling the current ‘productivity crisis’.

The evidence

The evidence highlights the built environment as “a major contributing factor to public health”. A range of public health issues, including air pollution and obesity, were suggested to be directly linked to factors within the built environment. Other recent research has similarly highlighted this link between health and urban design.

Evidence of the potential for design to positively influence sustainability behaviours, such as greater cycling and walking activity, was also highlighted, with New York cited as a good practice example.

Providing evidence on social cohesion, a senior university lecturer stated that “to divorce the physical from the social environment is inappropriate”. Other submissions referred to the “alienating effects” of various aspects of modern corporate life on civic participation, including estate management, crime and safety, the perceived negative impacts of poorly-conceived urban planning and poor or no maintenance.

Well-designed places, on the other hand, are suggested to improve access and facilitate social cohesion. Nevertheless, the evidence also noted that regardless of how well designed a place may be, “neglecting its aftercare will lead to antisocial behaviour and environmental damage.”

The relationship between the built environment and productive behaviours is supported by substantial evidence, according to the report. In the context of the UK, a lack of access to daylight and fresh air is cited as a reason for offices failing to get the best out of their workers. One study cited, indicated an increase in levels of both wellbeing and productivity in office environments with so-called ‘natural elements’.

Policy – “muddled and fragmented”

While there is evidence of good practice throughout the UK, a principal argument from the report is that more needs to be done.

Policy making for the built environment has traditionally been “muddled and fragmented”, according to the report. It suggests that there is a lack of understanding of the significance of the influence of the built environment on behaviour among policy makers at all levels and therefore makes recommendations for central government, local government and the private sector.

It argues that the relationship between government and local authorities requires reconsideration, calling for greater power at local government level.

Despite encouraging steps with regard to devolution in positively impacting behaviour and quality outcomes, such as in London, it is suggested that more can be done in terms of better collaboration between all stakeholders.

It is also noted that as national policy will be now be conducted in the context of Brexit, adaptation of the regulatory regime will be required.

Final thoughts

The key message from the Design Commission’s inquiry is evidently that the design of the built environment is particularly important in the context of current challenging times for the UK:

 “The way we design our built environment could be one of our greatest strengths in navigating the course ahead… If we get this right, we can build a Britain that is healthier, happier and more productive.”


If you enjoyed reading this, you may be interested in some of our previous posts on related topics:

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The UK digital economy: how can the government support digital businesses?

By Steven McGinty

Last month, the House of Commons Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) Committee launched an inquiry into the UK’s digital economy. Iain Wright MP, the Chair of the Committee, explained that:

Digital technology is rapidly changing the economic landscape in which firms operate. Nothing short of a digital and tech revolution is taking place, with new entrepreneurs and business models emerging and existing businesses having to adapt quickly to keep pace.”

The inquiry will focus on three areas:

  • Government actions affecting businesses in the digital economy;
  • how to maximise the opportunities and overcome challenges in the sector;
  • how the sector can contribute to improving national productivity.

The BIS Committee is asking for submissions from those involved in the digital economy, including digital businesses and companies hoping to benefit from technology.

 Why should the government support the digital economy?

Innovate UK expect that, by 2015, the UK digital economy will account for 10% of GDP. Tech City UK report that the sector employs 1.5 million people (about 7.5% of the total workforce); although this is expected to increase by 5.4% by 2020. In 2013-2014, 15% of all the companies formed were digital businesses. Most were based outside of London (74%) and nearly all were SMEs (98%). The majority (90%) of digital companies expect revenues to grow within the next year.

Technology clusters

Technology clusters play an important role in the UK’s digital economy. There are 21 clusters across the UK, with expertise ranging from software development to marketing and advertising. The majority of digital businesses consider themselves part of a cluster (65%). Bournemouth has the fastest growing digital cluster, with a 212% increase in the number of companies formed since 2010. Its specialism is digital marketing and advertising.

This growth suggests specific focus should be given to technology clusters. Tech City UK found that a third of digital companies highlighted access to funding as a challenge, particularly outside of London and the South East.  One suggestion offered by Tech City UK is that businesses need to take advantage of European funding where possible.

Other forms of support could include: providing fast and accessible broadband; access to a pool of skilled employees; suitable workspace, particularly in the South East; and business and mentoring advice.

Digital Economy Strategy 2015-2018

At the beginning of the year, Innovate UK set out a strategy to support UK businesses in getting the most out of digital technology. It sets out five main objectives:

  • Encouraging digital innovators
  • Focusing on the user
  • Equipping the digital innovator
  • Growing infrastructure, platforms and ecosystems
  • Ensuring sustainability.

Within the strategy, actions are put forward for how these goals will be achieved. For instance, to ensure sustainability, Innovate UK would work closely with UK research councils to encourage cross-disciplinary academic collaboration and help connect it to real-world business needs. If even some progress is made with each of these objectives it would be hugely beneficial for the UK digital economy.

Innovation centres – the Digital Catapult

The Digital Catapult is a national centre that aims to accelerate the UK’s best digital ideas to the marketplace, in order to create new products, services and jobs. It was established in 2014 by Innovate UK and is based in the Knowledge Quarter in Kings Cross. There are also three local centres in the North East and Tees Valley (NETV), Brighton, and Yorkshire.

The Digital Catapult centres focus on the challenges associated with: closed organisational data; personal data; creative content; and the internet of things (IoT). The centres are involved in a number of projects, including IoTUK, which has been launched as part of a £40 million government investment in the internet of things (the use of networks to allow the exchange and collection of data from everyday objects, such as fridges). The programme aims to increase the adoption of high quality IoT technologies and services throughout business and the public sector.

Regina Moran, CEO at Fujitsu UK&I, notes that:

The IoT has the potential to turn ideas in a hyper-connected world into fully realised digital services but it has challenges ahead and it’s encouraging to see the Government investing in its development.”

 Regulation

The Prime Minister, David Cameron, has managed to convince the European Commission (EC) to review the VAT regime for tech start-ups, arguing that it punished British entrepreneurs. The regime, which was implemented in January, forced companies to pay tax in every country they traded in rather than their headquarters. It also eliminated a £81,000 threshold for which companies have to register for VAT duty.

However, the Commission has recognised that this was adversely affecting small businesses. Therefore, measures such as the reintroduction of the VAT threshold and a single registration scheme for cross-border taxes, will be included in the Commission’s consultation.

The UK government’s approach shows a commitment to providing a competitive business environment and a single European market in digital services. It’s likely that most digital businesses would support the government’s approach.

Concluding remarks

The upcoming BIS Committee inquiry will provide an opportunity to reflect on the government’s approach so far. Although evidence confirms that the digital economy has been growing, there may be areas that the UK is failing to capitalise on. In a highly competitive globalised economy, it’s important that the UK exploits any strategic advantage, ensuring that innovative ideas are brought to the market quickly.

The inquiry will also provide an opportunity for a dialogue between the government and the private sector. This increased collaboration can only be good news for the UK’s digital businesses.

Here at Idox, we take an active interest in the future of the digital economy and eagerly await the Committee’s findings.


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Enjoy this article? Read our other recent blogs relating to the digital economy:

IDOX Plc announced on 8 October 2015 that it had acquired the UK trading arm of Reading Room Ltd. Reading Room, founded in 1996, is a digital consultancy business with a focus on delivering websites and digital services that enable its customers to make critical shifts into digital business and client engagement. It has an international reputation for its award winning and innovative approaches to strategic consultancy, design, and technical delivery.

Happiness and productivity, and how our Ask A Researcher enquiry service can help to increase at least one of these things…

Smiley face

Image created by Sergio Barros from the Noun Project

by Laura Dobie

It’s the International Day of Happiness today. To mark the occasion on the blog, we’re going to take a closer look at a recent literature search that we did on happiness and productivity, and how the service can help our members to be more productive in their work.

Ask A Researcher

The Idox Information Service offers an Ask A Researcher enquiry service, which is very popular with our members who need to source and synthesise evidence and policy documents to meet tight deadlines. We’re often told that our searches save our members a day’s work or more, were they to conduct the searches and synthesise the research themselves, and they free up our members to work on other areas and achieve more with their day.

They can ask us to search for information on their behalf, and our team of research officers will conduct complex searches of our in-house database (over 200,000 references across a broad range of subjects in relation to economic and social policy), and other sources, where appropriate, to compile lists of relevant references to send back to the enquirer.

We don’t just send on a list of references for you to sift through: our research officers will also produce a research summary to accompany the results, which provides an analysis of the references that we have retrieved. This highlights:

  • Trends;
  • Key findings;
  • Implications for policy and practice; and
  • Significant research reports and articles, which are particularly relevant to the enquirer’s needs.

If the enquirer has asked a specific question, we will do our best to find an answer in the documents that we have sourced and present this in the summary.

Literature search on happiness and productivity

We recently carried out a search on our database for research which examined the link between levels of happiness in organisations and productivity and organisational performance. You can view this sample search here.

This search provides an ideal example of what we’re trying to do with the Ask A Researcher service: rather than simply compiling references, we have specifically highlighted resources in the results (and key words in the abstracts) which help to answer the research question.

The results describe the search terms and date limits which were used, and provide an overview of the content of the resources which were retrieved.

The summary highlights key documents within the results which are particularly pertinent to the research question, including:

  • MacLeod and Clarke’s concept of employee engagement: an analysis based on the Workplace Employment Relations Study, which explores employee engagement and organisational performance. It found that high levels of employee engagement were strongly associated with both financial performance and labour productivity.
  • Healthy staff equal healthy profits, IN Management Today, Jul/Aug 2013, pp56-57, which observes that organisations which look after the wellbeing of their employees see a return in greater commitment and higher productivity. It stressed the importance of effective communication of employee benefits, which can have a significant impact on productivity.
  • A government literature review, which has investigated the business benefits of adopting work-life balance practices, highlighting the positive association between flexible working and productivity and reduced absences, and between family friendly policies and retention and reduced absences. It observes that “A large body of evidence demonstrates that effective outcomes at the level of the individual, including job commitment, ‘happiness’, satisfaction, engagement and, in turn, discretionary effort, are all associated with business benefits such as reduced leaving intentions, fewer absences, less tardiness and improvements to performance and productivity.” (p.viii)

In addition to the results sourced from our own database, we also highlighted research from the University of Warwick, retrieved online, which also demonstrates the link between happiness and productivity.

Hopefully this article has provided some useful insights into the links between happiness and productivity, and demonstrated how our Ask A Researcher service can help our members to source and synthesise research in a short space of time and be more productive at work.

If you’d like to find out more about our Ask A Researcher service, or any other aspect of the Idox Information Service, you can contact us.

A story with a happy ending? The UK labour market and the future of skills

Skills, Knowledge, Abilities

by Laura Dobie

Last week the UK Commission for Employment and Skills published The Labour Market Story, a series of reports exploring how the UK labour market is working following recession. In this article, we take a closer look at the results and key findings.

The reports reviewed research from the UKCES, other UK organisations and international sources to investigate:

The research revealed that while the UK economy is returning to sustained recovery, this has taken longer than before. There has been sustained growth in self-employment, and a rise in precarious forms of work, such as casual and short term work, and zero hours contracts. Youth unemployment is four times the rate for those aged 24 to 64.

There has been a long term reduction in administrative and secretarial work in many industries, typical middle level jobs, which has led to increasing polarisation in the labour market. Those with higher skills and qualifications are more likely to remain in employment and have considerably greater earnings prospects, highlighting the importance of skills in individuals’ labour market outcomes.

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