5by5: Design, Data and Behavior in the Built Environment with Meghan Webster

A 5by5 Conversation with Meghan Webster, Senior Associate and Firmwide Education Practice Leader at Gensler about the intersections of data and behavior in the built environment 

Interview with Twisha Shah-Brandenburg and Thomas Brandenburg


“As designers, we look to create environments that aren’t precious, that allow for these failures to occur and thrive.” —Meghen Webster


Question 1:
What is the role of design in fostering innovation in the built environment?

When we started work with the University of Kansas on their new building for their School of Business, we talked together quite a bit about how to design an environment that would build a culture of innovation. The vision for the building was not necessarily to prescribe how innovation would happen but rather to put into place those ‘ingredients’ that would lead to increased interaction across diverse groups, serendipitous moments, and – in essence – manufacturing innovation. Our research and work on Academic Incubators define several elements of innovative spaces that make them successful: spaces that draw people in and compel them to stay; those that serve as aggregators of energy; and environments in which risk-taking and failure are seen as productive activities. (That idea of failing your way to success is a truism.) Thus, as designers, we look to create environments that aren’t precious, that allow for these failures to occur and thrive.


Question 2:
What are new engagement strategies that organizations can incorporate into the built environment?

We have found that engagement is a critical factor in measuring the effectiveness of learning spaces. A few years ago, we published a white paper called Reimagining Learning: Strategies for Engagement, which posits 6 Learning Behaviors that center around engagement: Experience, Master, Acquire, Convey, Reflect, and Collaborate. We also tied these behaviors to those qualities of space that are needed in order to support them: Adaptable, Multimodal, Diverse, and Connected. We’re now conducting a multiyear research project that uses these behaviors as a basis for measuring engagement in pre and post-occupancy studies across a variety of learning environments.


Question 3:
With the increase in digitization, how should an organization start to think about user privacy in the built environments?

To offer a specific example to this question, over the past several years, we’ve explored with our clients (from retail to education to workplace and beyond) how we can use traffic data from wireless access points to better understand actual (as opposed to perceived) space utilization. This entails working with our client organizations’ IT teams and Gensler’s Analytics team to extract existing IT data over the course of a specified time period. This data is then anonymized so that we can see the ‘hit rate’ of these wireless access points across a building, campus, etc., but we don’t have any of the data about the specific individuals.

To add another layer, we’ve started to look at some of the meta-data – still anonymized – which allows us to understand which groups are using a space over the course of a certain time period. This is especially useful, say if a client wanted to prioritize which spaces to upgrade or renovate based on which groups (i.e. faculty, undergraduates, staff, etc.) use them most. This question of privacy is a critical one for our clients, and I think this ability to anonymize data in any situation where data about people is being extracted will become a pre-requisite for its use.


Question 4:
With the increase in digitization, how should an organization start to incorporate a foundation to a sustainable way forward?

Technology will continue to change at an increasingly rapid pace, but I think we’ve seen in many contexts that technology is a tool, not a driver. We talk about this quite a bit with our clients in education. Ten years ago, education was bracing itself for upheaval due to the onset of online learning platforms. Although online learning has presented a tremendous tool,  we firmly believe that it has not replaced the value of face-to-face interaction. Rather, it has expanded the way we approach learning spaces and has challenged us in a positive way to redefine those skills and learning behaviors that are paramount to success in the world. To that end, we’re looking for ways that spaces can be increasingly flexible in order to adapt as technology continues to change and our world becomes more digitized.


Question 5:
What are new ways of measuring the quality of life in a built environment?

The number one thing we have found in our research is that methods of quantitative and qualitative measurement must be used collectively in order to capture the full human experience in space. We’ve found that it’s helpful to center our methodology around three key questions: (1) What do people think is happening in a space? (2) What is actually happening? (3) Why is it happening? Answers to the first question typically can be captured by a survey, yielding self-reported answers. Answers to the second can be found using observational analysis, employing tools that span from on-site observation to sensors to exhaust data (data already produced by an organization, like IT data, that can be leveraged to understand human behavior). Ethnographic research (focus groups, interviews) addresses the third question.


Interested in this topic? Register to be part of a larger community at the Design Intersections conference in Chicago May 24-25, 2018.