Taking Human Insights into the Field of Architecture and Urban Planning

Human beings always experience the world through physical space. We might not be very aware of the space around us, but it’s an essential component affecting our lives. Everyday environments define what kind of opportunities people have and the design of space reflects and produces power and status differences between people depending on age, gender and other attributes. In other words, physical spaces are theatres of power structures. I’ve recently had some exciting opportunities to try and bridge this conceptual understanding and practice by working on urban planning projects together with architects.

Competing with Ideas for Nordic Design Solutions in the Urban Space

Nordic Innovation organized a challenge competition for designing urban spaces in 6 different Nordic locations. Together with a few architects and a landscape architect I took part in the Icelandic leg of the competition that concerned an old industrial port freed up for urban re-development into a compact multi-use area. We were successful enough to get through to the final stage and refined our proposal by traveling to the site and empirically studying the local life in order to form insights that would support us in finding the most fruitful solutions for our plan.

The competition was based on a charter that emphasizes the built environment as a field of innovations that have the potential to improve quality of life, make our living environment more sustainable and be economically viable, providing opportunities for Nordic companies in scaling their solutions globally.

Viewing Space as a Vehicle for Social Change

Urban planning and architecture are the basis of choice architecture in everyday life of the users of the space. In our plan we considered the small everyday default choices when planning for an ecologically and socially sustainable community. The Idea was to use spatial solutions as a vehicle to build a lifestyle that would already appeal to many, and at the same time nudge people towards more sustainable choices in transportation, food and sharing resources.

Besides the ecological challenge we wanted the plan to have a role in the large-scale social issues such as the population aging in Western countries and the rising living costs making urban lifestyles unaffordable to common people. We paid attention to affordability further than just the affordability of an apartment, which is an obvious path if you view housing as a service instead of just buildings with apartments. All the choices in the plan are guided by human values and aim to create a certain kind of social reality. Being aware of and transparent with these makes the comparison between different suggestions fruitful.

Our proposal for the competition, called Solborg, consists of a short video and pdf report, which can be seen here among other interesting proposals.

As digital architecture has already begun to make a full use of user experience research, human insights and service design, one would expect more traditional physical architecture to follow. In the future it will increasingly be about what the design of space prohibits or enables for whom, and not just about creating something cool and functional on a general level.