Science-led surroundings will enhance tomorrow’s productivity

16 : 04 : 2019 Workplace : Architecture : Design

When it comes to the future workplace, architects shouldn’t be thinking about stationary design but dynamic surroundings that drive divergent thinking.

The 'Essential' room at A Space for Being by Google at Milan Salone Internazionale del Mobile 2019 The 'Essential' room at A Space for Being by Google at Milan Salone Internazionale del Mobile 2019

It’s about the experience of moving from different kinds of spaces, being drawn to external stimuli but also having the time to let our minds wander

Itai Palti, director, The Centre for Conscious Design

As automation and artificial intelligence (AI) shift the future of productivity in favour of human creativity, how will workplaces support something so seemingly elusive? The new field of science-informed design is gathering insights from psychology and neuroscience in order to enhance the performance of the built environment.

We often associate inspiration with environments that create a sense of awe and wonderment, yet it seems that moments of outstanding insight and creativity can also be attributed to more modest everyday events. Some people claim their best ideas emerge in the shower or when performing other routine acts. Archimedes had his eureka moment in an overflowing bath, Darwin walked his ‘thinking path’ to the pub, and Newton watched an apple fall in his garden, even by his own accounts.

There’s little consensus on how to turn these serendipitous moments into a reliable source of innovation. Architects usually enlist a visual statement, whether it be grand or serene, as the go-to approach for engineering inspiration, but science is telling us that the brain has far more nuanced and dynamic needs. Although some spatial characteristics such as tall ceilings, for example have been shown to prime our state of mind for subject-specific creative thinking, this doesn’t answer to the complex curation needed to more consistently inspire broader innovation.

What seems to be emerging from current research is that the conditions that supports creative thinking are those that create an interplay between externally and internally directed attention. In cognitive science, divergent thinking (coming up with many different solutions to a problem) is one of the measures of creativity. Some studies suggest that what supports this thought process is the interaction between cognitive control – task-oriented activity – and the default network, which is linked to mind-wandering. This cooperation between different brain networks results in spontaneous thought that can lead to insight.

A Space for Being by Google at Milan Salone Internazionale del Mobile 2019 A Space for Being by Google at Milan Salone Internazionale del Mobile 2019
Architecture is yet to form an evidence-based approach to creating workplaces that will stay relevant well into the fourth industrial revolution.

Therefore, when we think about places that inspire creativity, we shouldn’t be thinking about stationary design, but rather dynamic. It’s about the temporal experience of moving from different kinds of spaces, being drawn to external stimuli, but also having the time to let our minds wander. The cognitive journey that we require is built of a number of different types of spatial experiences. It’s possible to think of it as a curated experience in the same way that film weaves a narrative to elicit an emotional state.

Organisations will increasingly need to support their workforce with their efforts to innovate. Leaders such as Google and Apple are building brands that incorporate within them the type of working conditions their employees receive, partly because of the growing understanding that our surroundings have a huge role to play in our productivity.

A science-informed approach to architecture, however, is pointing at a stark difference between current architectural solutions – for example, Apple’s Spaceship campus – and the complex play of conditions that are more likely to support human creativity.

The architecture profession is yet to form an evidence-based approach to creating future-proofed workplaces that will stay relevant well into the fourth industrial revolution. Yet, if we pay attention to knowledge coming in from psychology and neuroscience and use it to inform how we design, we’d be on the right path.

Itai Palti is a director at Hume and The Centre for Conscious Design.