Spring Research Update: from Morphogenesis to Consciousness

derekcard-copyThis is an adapted version of University of Reading Emeritus Professor and Feeling Good Foundation’s Derek J Clements-Croome’s Editorial in Intelligent Buildings International (INBI) Journal Spring 2015.

 Gillian Tett in the Financial Times Magazine of 16/17 August 2014 refers to the heart surgeon Delos Cosgrove, CEO of the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio, who believes that innovation happens at the margins where one discipline rubs up against another. His thoughts on some aspects of dealing with operative procedures in heart surgery were sparked off when he was watching some embroidery makers using flexible hoops which he adopted in his work.

Working across disciplines is echoed in Deloitte’s Center for the Edge where different departments mix with each other. Its Director John Seely Brown believes that creativity activity involves taking the familiar and making it strange whereas imaginative actions are the opposite in that they make the strange familiar. The MIT Media Lab with its interdisciplinary body of academics is well known for the sourcing of many imaginative developments.

Again in the Financial Times, 6 June 2014, Richard Rogers makes the point that good buildings are the result of much painstaking collaboration between designers, contactors and clients among others. Good architecture can lift the spirits by creating expressive spaces for people to work in. Inspiring architecture Rogers opines emerges from creative thought that sparks that impulse which brings together beauty, innovation and function. These things in turn can set off a chain reaction of ideas.

In my Foreword to the recent book Biotechnologies and Biomimetics for Civil Engineering edited by Fernando Pacheco Torgal and his team in Portugal   I make the point that one of the advantages of studying behaviour in Nature is that it makes us think laterally across several domains of knowledge. A recent paper by McGinley in Intelligent Buildings International (INBI) is an example of this.

Morphogenesis is the biological process which causes an organism to develop its shape. This concept is the inspiration behind the paper by McGinley in which he draws our attention to the transdisciplinary nature of the morphogenetic growth processes and applies this to the building design process which he argues will let integration be more natural and easier to handle.

The lack of integration is at the heart of why there are apparently too many poorly designed Dutch primary schools in terms of such things as their indoor environment; inflexible spatial layouts; inexperienced management of the systems in use by the staff. A paradigm shift is called for in a paper by De Vrieze and Moll—see INBI Journal in January 2015– which puts people centred design as the first priority. Their plan aims to deliver an integrated framework for setting needs centred guidelines for primary schools.

The interaction between occupants and the building systems is complex. We know that there is often a lack of usability in the design of control interfaces. For example the occupant often becomes frustrated and may even give up using the controls. Work by Pelenur and Cruickshank reported in the journal Building and Environment ( 2013 Volume 65 pages 26-34) concludes that technology alone may not be enough to reduce household energy. Energy management systems should be designed to minimise annoyance and ensure the occupants feel they have control which is simple to use and effective and not only is energy then wasted but also well-being is not improved.

Agha-Hossein et al., show in their research paper for INBI Journal in January 2015 that ‘prompts’ such as interactive posters may nudge people into modifying their behaviour patterns if they are combined with a clear and understandable message. It remains to be seen if smart metering will be as effective as intended although water metering does seem to have reduced consumption by about 15%. The nub of the problem is that we need to increase people’s awareness of how our behaviour impacts on energy, water and waste especially as it is households which are the biggest consumers and disposers of these resources. The added value as shown by much research as well as case study evidence is that leaner less wasteful buildings usually means the environments are healthier too.

Wellbeing continues to feature in the media. At Government level a Report by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Wellbeing Economics was issued in September( ISBN 978-1-908506-67-2). Its recommendations cover how well-being should be featured in labour market policy; planning and transport policy; arts and culture; mindfulness in health and education.

The Leesman Review issue continues to provide large data sets from extensive surveys of occupants in public buildings which indicate the priorities people have in their workplaces (info@leesmanindex.com). The type of work being undertaken, the culture and the ethos of the organisations have a great influence on attitudes but all the surveys do suggest among all the attributes that matter the built environment has an important role to play.

I have just completed a Report for the EU on Sustainable Intelligent Buildings for Better Health, Comfort and Well-Being (d.j.clements-croome@reading.ac.uk). In this I review the evidence for designing beyond comfort to provide stimulating uplifting environments for creativity and productivity. This means we need to not just think about functional aspects but also expressive ones so that work places are enjoyable as well as being healthy.

There is a campaign on at the moment for getting people to stand more because sitting several hours a day can lead to many musculoskeletal illnesses such as backache. Another area in our daily routine is e-mailing, and here Michael Hipkins writing in the November issue of The Physics World discusses how this form of fast communication so convenient in many ways but can also stifle creative thought as we get locked into receiving and sending simultaneously and continually for hours. In the same issue there is mention of the latest backpack which converts the 5-7cm hip rise and fall motion as we walk into electricity which drives a small generator on the frame of the backpack. This work by the University of Pennsylvania is another indication that so many things we have ignored as the quantities seem small can be significant as the work on footfall energy has shown.

Finally another link with the biological world is described by Al-Khalili and McFadden in their new book Life on the Edge: The Coming of Age of Quantum Biology. Quantum physics is about particle and wavelike behaviour of matter and takes us into the nano world of atomic structures which constitute everything within us and around us. Perhaps the real stretch of imagination is their idea that quantum effects modulate the fluctuating electromagnetic fields in the brain which some scientists associate with consciousness. However this is left as an open question and so consciousness and the way we think is still not absolutely understood in fact still remains a mystery on which to speculate. Let the late Zoltan Torey have the last word:

“Awareness and its self-reflective variant consciousness are not static entities but ongoing processes” (The Conscious Mind 2014 MIT Press)

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