Category Archives: Social engineering

Architecture, urbanism, design and behaviour: a brief review

by Dan Lockton

Hollywood & Highland mall

Continuing the meta-auto-behaviour-change effort started here, I’m publishing a few extracts from my PhD thesis as I write it up (mostly from the literature review, and before any rigorous editing) as blog posts over the next few months. The idea of how architecture can be used to influence behaviour was central to this blog when it started, and so it’s pleasing to revisit it, even if makes me realise how little I still know.

“There is no doubt whatever about the influence of architecture and structure upon human character and action. We make our buildings and afterwards they make us. They regulate the course of our lives.”
Winston Churchill, addressing the English Architectural Association, 1924

In designing and constructing environments in which people live and work, architects and planners are necessarily involved in influencing human behaviour. While Sommer (1969, p.3) asserted that the architect “in his training and practice, learns to look at buildings without people in them,” it is clear that from, for example, Howard’s Garden Cities of To-morrow (1902), through Le Corbusier’s Ville Contemporaine and La Ville radieuse, to the Smithsons’ ‘Streets in the sky’, there has been a long-standing thread of recognition that the way people live their lives is directly linked to the designed environments in which they live. Whether the explicit intention to influence behaviour drives the design process—architectural determinism (Broady, 1966: see future blog post ‘POSIWID and determinism’)—or whether the behaviour consequences of design decisions are only revealed and considered as part of a post-occupancy evaluation (e.g. Zeisel, 2006) or by social scientists or psychologists studying the impact of a development, there are links between the design of the built environment and our behaviour, both individually and socially.
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Anti-teenager “pink lights to show up acne”

Pink lights in Mansfield. Photo from BBC

In a similar vein to the Mosquito, intentionally shallow steps (and, superficially at least–though not really–blue lighting in toilets, which Raph d’Amico dissects well here), we now have residents’ associations installing pink lighting to highlight teenagers’ acne and so drive them away from an area:

Residents of a Nottinghamshire housing estate have installed pink lights which show up teenagers’ spots in a bid to stop them gathering in the area.

Members of Layton Burroughs Residents’ Association, Mansfield say they have bought the lights in a bid to curb anti-social behaviour. The lights are said to have a calming influence, but they also highlight skin blemishes.

The National Youth Agency said it would just move the problem somewhere else. Peta Halls, development officer for the NYA, said: “Anything that aims to embarrass people out of an area is not on. “The pink lights are indiscriminate in that they will impact on all young people and older people who do not, perhaps, have perfect skin.

I had heard about this before (thanks, Ed!) but overlooked posting it on the blog – other places the pink lights have been used include Preston and Scunthorpe, to which this quote refers (note the youths=yobs equation):

Yobs are being shamed out of anti-social behaviour by bright pink lights which show up their acne.

The lights are so strong they highlight skin blemishes and have been successful in moving on youths from troublespots who view pink as being “uncool.”

Manager Dave Hey said: “With the fluorescent pink light we are trying to embarass young people out of the area. “The pink is not seen as particularly macho among young men and apparently it highlights acne and blemishes in the skin.

A North Lincolnshire Council spokesman said: “[...]“On the face of it this sounds barmy. But do young people really want to hang around in an area with a pink glow that makes any spots they have on their face stand out?”

With the Mansfield example making the news, it’s good to see that there is, at least, quite a lot of comment pointing out the idiocy of the hard-of-thinking who believe that this sort of measure will actually ‘solve the problem of young people’, whatever that might mean, as well as the deeply discriminatory nature of the plan. For example, this rather dim (if perhaps tongue-in-cheek) light in the Nottingham Evening Post has been comprehensively rebutted by a commenter:

Trying to use someone’s personal looks against them simply because they meet up with friends and have a social life…

If this is the case then I would personally love to see adults banned from meeting up in pubs, parties and generally getting drunk. I would also love to see something making fun of their elderlyness and wrinkle problems.

I don’t understand why Britain hates its young people so much. But I can see it storing up a great deal of problems for the future.

Photo from this BBC story

Designed environments as learning systems

West London from Richmond Park - Trellick Tower in the centre

How much of designing an environment is consciously about influencing how people use it? And how much of that influence is down to users learning what the environment affords them, and acting accordingly?

The first question’s central what this blog’s been about over the last four years (with ‘products’, ‘systems’, ‘interfaces’ and so on variously standing in for ‘environment’), but many of the examples I’ve used, from anti-sit features to bathrooms and cafés designed to speed up user throughput, only reveal the architect’s (presumed) behaviour-influencing intent in hindsight, i.e. by reviewing them and trying to understand, if it isn’t obvious, what the motivation is behind a particular design feature. While there are examples where the intent is explicitly acknowledged, such as crime prevention through environmental design, and traffic management, it can still cause surprise when a behaviour-influencing agenda is revealed.

Investigating what environmental and ecological psychology have to say about this, a few months ago I came across The Organization of Spatial Stimuli, an article by Raymond G. Studer, published in 1970 [1] – it’s one of the few explicit calls for a theory of designing environments to influence user behaviour, and it raises some interesting issues:

“The nature of the environmental designer’s problem is this: A behavioral system has been specified (within the constraints imposed by the particular human participants and by the goals of the organization of which they are members.) The participants are not presently emitting the specified behaviors, otherwise there would be no problem. It is necessary that they do emit these behaviors if their individual and collective goals are to be realized. The problem then is to bring about the acquisition or modification of behaviors towards the specified states (without in any way jeopardizing their general well-being in the process). Such a change in state we call learning. Designed environments are basically learning systems, arranged to bring about and maintain specified behavioral topologies. Viewed as such, stimulus organization becomes a more clearly directed task. The question then becomes not how can stimuli be arranged to stimulate, but how can stimuli be arranged to bring about a requisite state of behavioral affairs.

[E]vents which have traditionally been regarded as the ends in the design process, e.g. pleasant, exciting, stimulating, comfortable, the participant’s likes and dislikes, should be reclassified. They are not ends at all, but valuable means which should be skilfully ordered to direct a more appropriate over-all behavioral texture. They are members of a class of (designed environmental) reinforcers. These aspects must be identified before behavioral effects of the designed environment can be fully understood.”

Now, I think it’s probably rare nowadays for architects or designers to talk of design features as ‘stimuli’, even if they are intended to influence behaviour. Operant conditioning and B.F. Skinner’s behaviourism are less fashionable than they once were. But the “designed environments are learning systems” point Studer makes can well be applied beyond simply ‘reinforcing’ particular behaviours.

Think how powerful social norms and even framing can be at influencing our behaviour in environments – the sober environment of a law court gives (most of) us a different range of perceived affordances to our own living room (social norms, mediated by architecture) – and that’s surely something we learn. Frank Lloyd Wright intentionally designed dark, narrow corridors leading to large, bright open rooms (e.g. in the Yamamura House) so that the contrast – and people’s experience – was heightened (framing, of a sort) – but this effect would probably be lessened by repeated exposure. It still influenced user behaviour though, even if only the first few times, but the memory of the effect that such a room had those first few times probably lasted a lifetime. Clearly, the process of forming a mental model about how to use a product, or how to behave in an environment, or how to behave socially, is about learning, and the design of the systems around us does educate us, in one way or another.

Stewart Brand’s classic How Buildings Learn (watch the series too) perhaps suggests (among other insights) an extension of the concept: if, when we learn what our environment affords us, this no longer suits our needs, the best architecture may be that which we can adapt, rather than being constrained by the behavioural assumptions designed into our environments by history.

I’m not an architect, though, or a planner, and – as I’ve mentioned a few times on the blog – it would be very interesting to know, from people who are: to what extent are notions of influencing behaviour taught as part of architectural training? This series of discussion board posts suggests that the issue is definitely there for architecture students, but is it framed as a conscious, positive process (e.g. “funnel pedestrians past the shops”), a reactionary one (e.g. “use pebbled paving to make it painful for hippies to congregate“), one of educating users through architectural features (as in Studer’s suggestion), or as something else entirely?

[1] Studer, R.G. ‘The Organization of Spatial Stimuli.’ In Pastalan, L.A. and Carson, D.H. (eds.), Spatial Behavior of Older People. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 1970.

Dan Lockton

Anti-homeless ‘stools’

Bus stop stools, Honolulu. Image from

Stuart Candy of the brilliant Sceptical Futuryst let me know about authorities in Honolulu replacing benches with round ‘stools’ to prevent homeless people sleeping at bus stops (above image from Honolulu Advertiser story):

So far, the city has spent about $11,000 on the seating initiative, removing benches and installing 55 stools at 12 bus stops in urban Honolulu and Kane’ohe. Wayne Yoshioka, city Department of Transportation Services director, said the city will continue the program on a “case-by-case” basis in response to rider complaints.

“The benches were being used as makeshift beds by many people that were out there,” Yoshioka said. “In an effort to provide areas for people to sit, but still discouraging people from sleeping, we started replacing benches with stools.”

He added the issue is a “delicate one” that requires sensitivity toward the homeless who are being displaced from stops.

The City Council is also considering a ban on sleeping or lying down at city bus stops, though that measure has been stalled for several months.

For its part, the city says its effort to reclaim everything from parks to beaches to bus stops is about making sure everyone has equal access to public spaces. City officials acknowledge that the homeless population in the Islands, which advocates say could increase in the worsening economy, is one of the most hard-to-solve social problems facing the state. But they also contend that the city has a duty to make sure public spaces can be used by all.

Doran Porter, executive director of the Affordable Housing and Homeless Alliance, disagrees with the city’s approach, saying it’s dealing with symptoms — not the problem.

Michael Stoops, acting executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based National Coalition for the Homeless, said cities should concentrate more on providing shelter and services for the homeless and less on moving them from bus stops.

“It’s a misguided effort,” he said, of the Honolulu initiative.

Roger Morton, president and general manager of Oahu Transit Services, which operates TheBus for the city, said bus riders have a right to expect seating at stops. He added that seating is at a premium these days with buses so full … He said transit authorities across the country are increasingly buying “lie-down-unfriendly furniture” to keep seats open for bus riders.

The round stools look interesting; I’m not sure that (if you didn’t know otherwise) they would immediately suggest that that’s where you’re supposed to sit, though I suppose it wouldn’t take long to figure out. But apart from preventing people lying down, they also prevent people sitting next to each other. Friends, lovers, parents with young children all now have to sit separately (or on each other’s laps). That’s OK when there are stools in line close together, but what if they’re occupied? You can’t ask people to ‘budge up’ when the stools aren’t big enough for more than one person at a time.

As people have suggested a number of times when we’ve discussed unfriendly benches before on the blog, some kind of lightweight guerilla seating apparatus might be useful, either cardboard or foam like Sarah Ross’s wonderful Archisuits.

Board placed across<br />
stools to afford lying down etc

Archisuit by Sarah Ross

{In|Ex}clusive Design

Spikes and rail, Bradford-on-Avon

Giving with one hand, and taking away with the other.

The juxtaposition of hand rails and anti-sit spikes outside this church in Bradford-on-Avon, Wiltshire suggests a particular configuration of design priorities: helping people climb the steps, but forbidding anyone sitting on the wall.

Are the targets different groups of people? We might think so: older people may have more difficulty climbing the steps, and so be more likely to need hand rails, and younger people might be more likely to be ‘hanging around’ outside, and thus ‘need’ to be ‘discouraged’. This might be a simple case of discriminatory architecture, aimed at excluding one group while welcoming another.

But then older people like sitting down too. People in general like sitting down. Is this a case of cutting off your nose to spite own face? Whatever the ‘backstory’ is, the intent behind the different features, and the decision-making process (the spikes look older than the rails) would be interesting to know.

Spikes and rail, Bradford-on-Avon

Spikes and rail, Bradford-on-Avon

Spikes and rail, Bradford-on-Avon

On ‘Design and Behaviour’ this week: Do you own your stuff? And a strange council-run ‘Virtual World for young people’

GPS-aided repo and product-service systems

GPS tracking - image by cmpalmer

Ryan Calo of Stanford’s Center for Internet and Society brought up the new phenomenon of GPS-aided car repossession and the implications for the concepts of property and privacy:

A group of car dealers in Oregon apparently attached GPS devices to cars sold to customers with poor credit so as to be able to track them down more easily in the event of repossession.

…this practice also relates to an emerging phenomenon wherein sold property remains oddly connected to the seller as though it were merely leased. Whereas once we purchased an album and did with it as we please, today we need to register (up to five) devices in order to play our songs.

…and Kingston University’s Rosie Hornbuckle linked this to the concept of product-service systems:

This puts a whole new slant on product-service-systems, a current (and popular) sustainability methodology whereby people are weaned off the concept of owning products, instead they lease them off the manufacturer who is then responsible for take-back, repair, recycling or disposal. So in that scenario it’s quite likely that a manufacturer will want to keep tabs on their equipment/material, will this bring up privacy issues or is it simply the case that if it’s done overtly (and not in the negative frame of potential repossession), the customer knows about it and agrees, it’s ok? Or will it be a long time before people can overcome the perceived encroachment on their liberty that not owning might bring?

It reminds me of something Bill Thompson suggested to me once, that (paraphrasing) the idea that we ‘own’ the technology we use might well turn out to be a short phase in overall human history. That could perhaps be ‘good’ in contexts where sharing/renting/pooling things allows much greater efficiency and brings benefits for users. Nevertheless, as the repossession example (and DRM, etc, in general) show, the tendency in practice is often to use these methods to exert increasing dominance over users, erode assumed rights, and extract more value from people who no longer have control of the things they use.

See the whole thread so far (and join in!)

Above image of GPS trails (unrelated to the story, but a cool picture) from cmpalmer’s Flickr

The Mosquito, and plans for an odd ‘walk-in virtual world’

McDonald's Restaurant, Windsor, Berkshire

Rosie discussed the Mosquito (above image: an example outside a McDonald’s opposite Windsor Castle*) and asked “could we use our design skills and knowledge to influence these sorts of behaviours with a less aggressive and longer-term approach?” while Adrian Short summed up the issue pretty well:

There are a lot of problems in principle and in practice with these devices, but the core problem for me is that they tend to be directed at users rather than uses (i.e. people by identity, not behaviour) and are entirely arbitrary. The street outside a shop is public space and the shop owners have no more right than anyone else to dictate who goes there.

In as much as these things work (which is highly disputed), they are never going to encourage a meaningful debate about norms of behaviour among users of a space. This approach is not so much negotiation as warfare.

Sutton’s Rosehill steps (which Adrian let me know about originally) were also discussed and Adrian brought us the story of something very odd: a ‘virtual world to teach good behaviour to young people’:

Half a mile away, the same council is proposing to spend at least £4 million on a facility that will include a high-tech virtual street environment, a “street simulator” if you like, to teach safety and good behaviour to some of the same young people.

“Part movie-set, part theme park, the learning complex will be the first of its kind in the UK and will also house an indoor street with shop fronts, pavements and a road. The idea is to give young people the confidence to make the best of their lives and have a positive impact on their peers and their local community.”

I don’t really know what to make of that. I actually woke up this morning thinking about it assuming that it was a dream I’d been having, then realised where I’d read about it. It sounds like a mish-mash of Scaramanga’s Fun House from The Man With The Golden Gun and the Ludovico Centre** from A Clockwork Orange.

Scaramanga's FunhouseLudovico Centre

See the whole thread here.

*This particular McDonald’s, with the Mosquito going every evening and clearly audible to me and my girlfriend (both mid-20s) also features a vicious array of anti-sit spikes (below) which rather negate the ‘welcoming’ efforts made with the flowerbed.

**I actually gave a talk about my research to Environmentally Sensitive Design students in this building a couple of weeks ago: it’s Brunel’s main Lecture Centre.

McDonalds Restaurant, Windsor, Berkshire
McDonalds Restaurant, Windsor, Berkshire