The architecture and development of built environments in its present conventional state of practice in India are dominantly reliant on the advancements in engineering and material science, with skilled marketing. The design process followed to achieve an architectural marvel at the convergence of these disciplines often involves considerations at a site level — of topography, locality, amenities, access, weather, ventilation, proposed building function, etc. In practice, all such considerations are implicitly oriented towards the building users’ needs and behaviours — needs and behaviours as interpreted by the architect-developer and not as stated by the users themselves.
This subjectively interpreted, top-down approach to architecture and development is prejudicial to the users’ experience of the built environment. This traditional approach thwarts socially influencing innovation in the field.
To elaborate, let us take the simple case of Shopping Malls:
These consumption driven buildings are often used as recreational outlets by many urbanites. One can see many nuclear families loitering in opens spaces, shopping and window shopping between shops, while their (uncontrollable) children whizz from one corner to another. Sometimes they are accompanied by their elderly parents who seem fascinated by the shiny interiors and installations, and for whom it is an entirely new world in the repository of their experiences. Then there are a few new city dwellers or city-visitors for whom stepping on to the escalators gives them a nervous breakdown. In contrast are many seasoned urbanites visiting the mall for a specific purpose — the one that is often limited to watching a movie. They can be seen entering the multiplex just around the start time of the show and rushing towards the cinema hall.
As can be visualized, these instances map a cloud of emotions from pleasantness to joy, nervousness and hastiness.
They showcase a design opportunity for augmenting and/or comforting users’ emotional experiences. Yet it is commonly noticeable that these design opportunities are less utilised by architect-developers. The floor finishes are always smooth and shiny — exposing playful children and curious elderly to slip and fall hazard. Wayfinding and layout are often not simple and rather confusing, making hasty go-getters more anxious and physically tiring all users.
A more drastic case for an example is that of the design of Suhaib Hospital Medical Sciences (SMHS) in Srinagar, J&K, India. In 2010, SMHS, one of the largest government hospitals, got authorisation to expand the scope of their services to mental health and drug abuse. This led to the construction of a separate hospital wing aimed to aid with the expansion. As the construction was taking place, the city acclaimed psychiatrist for mental health and drug abuse, Dr. Arshid Hussain, during his visit found that the new wing, alas!, had NO TOILET PROVISION FOR WOMEN!
When he asked the architect why there wasn’t a facility for women, the architect asked with a confused look, “But you said this will be a de-addiction centre. Female bhi aayengi yahan? (Will women come too?)”
Unfortunately, unbeknownst to the architect was the fact that this design disaster took place in a social context where 70% of the women and 50% of the men surveyed confessed to taking drugs, as found by a study in 2012 titled ‘Drug addiction and youth of Kashmir’.
This design adversity not only highlights the skewed normative perceptions and prejudices, but more so the deficient architectural design and development process.
Akin to the requirements in many professions, architects and developers need to shoulder the responsibility of being objective in design and development. This means you need to deliberate efforts to debias self as you make design decisions. For you hold the power to build environments that influence societies at large, change behaviours and establish cultures. At the intersection of space, present social practice and future impact, lies the light of innovation in architectural development.
Maysons Architecture realised this early-on as they set up shop.
They wanted to use cutting-edge behavioural and design process evidence to make environmental-friendly and culture inclusive design decisions. Using such primary and secondary evidence, they wanted to build spaces that foster emotional and physical wellbeing and stimulate creative, productive and inclusive communities. So they sought Insomanywords to advise the Maysons team in setting up a behavioural science evidence based practice.
Any evidence-based process starts with primary and secondary research. To the architects at Maysons, a socio-behavioural ethnographic context research process seemed very similar to their existing architectural design research process. And so, naturally, the common question asked was, what new BehScFST bringing in?
What was new was:
The depth of insight digging
The breadth of quant and qual data sought and sieved
The variety of research tools that could be used or developed, to ensure that the stakeholders say/act as what they would do in hot-state context
Indulging is best practices to debias self and holding on to the one’s researcher’s mindset
And finally, objectively empathising with the many stakeholders who could be involved, in good sample size: users, local artisans, neighbourhood inhabitants, et al.
But this explanation with proofs from case studies was not sufficient to encourage them to adopt the process:
Usually any architectural design gets to see the light of the day only years after it was first conceptualised. So the architect (the designer) has lesser opportunities to feel proud, satisfied and close the mental loop about their design completion. And so often they turn to art for its quick output turnover time. This new evidence-based process was only adding to the already extended architectural design to output timeline.
Therefore, to spice things up, we took up self-initiated micro-scale projects for the qualitative behavioural research process to reveal its potential. It worked!
As Mayson’s founder, Rohit, put it:
"Srilakshmi’s advisory role at Maysons as a behavioural specialist brought in a new perspective on how we conceive the design and development."
Once all team members were on board, it was a matter of capacitating them through our Better Workshop tailored to their business needs and ending with their new Business Model Canvas for an evidence-based architectural practice.
This engagement delivery took two years. In this 2 years we addressed their immediate need of using BehScFST as evidence to build inclusive, environmentally conscious and traditionally modern buildings.
But this is not the end. There is so much more scope in setting up an evidence based practice via BehScFST for business: from forging industry partnerships to ground the practice in the values of circular economy to nurturing systems thinking & futures foresight based problem solving mindset for innovative and conscious design decisions. Both Maysons and Insomanywords hope that we engage again with an expanded project scope. But for now, this was one of our cherished projects in our portfolio. We are just glad to have had the opportunity to participate in a good business venture — a necessity for the sustenance of our present and our future.
Listen to more on this topic - the use of behavioural science in spatial design - in my talk at Conscious Bengalurus' - 56 Urban Unraveling and Utopia Symposium 2019.