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How often do we pause to reflect about the benefits and disadvantages of a roundabout, other than when honking, hollering or haughtily giving the finger to an indiscreet driver? Well, Lily Bernheimer does and doing so is what distinguishes this environmental psychologist from a lot of us. The Founding Director of Space Works Consulting – an organisation that mulls about how workspaces, dwellings, and urban environments can work for their inhabitants – helpfully informs her readers that roundabouts in America when compared to their counterparts in UK, are circular magnets of collisions. Statistically there are 32 possible vehicle crash points in the standard American intersection, compared to only 8 in a roundabout!
“The Shaping Of Us” is a unique work that probes the relationship between specimen and structure, an aspect to which we rarely pay any heed to in the normal course of things. Unknowingly, each one of us is influenced, if not overtly then implicitly by the environ in which we find ourselves discharging our personal and professional responsibilities. However things seem to be changing in the modern era. Various communities are pre-emptively taking charge of urban development. Projects such as WikiHouse, being a splendid testament to such proactive initiatives. The primary aim of WikiHouse is to invest people with an ability and resources to construct their own housing. Such an empowerment has a positive ‘trickle down’ effect in the form of lower crime rates and higher levels of well-being, agency, and “collective efficacy”: the level of trust, cohesion, and informal social control.
The most interesting and riveting part of the book relates to the concept of the “Ninja-Proof Seat”. Software engineers are glued into the concept of “ninja-proof seats”. A ninja-proof seat always has its back to the wall so that no inquisitive Ninja can sneak up from behind. However with changing mindsets and architectures, Ninja-Proof seats are fast becoming relics of the past. The current trend is representative of large open-plan office with long rows of desks down the centre. Bye bye ninja-proof seats!
As Ms. Bernheimer recounts from personal experience, the only private office she ever occupied was courtesy her first job at the Gotham Center for New York City History. Housed in a building encompassing the entire block at the corner of Thirty-Fourth Street and Fifth Avenue in Manhattan Gotham Centre’s cafeteria had a glass ceiling, through which one could peer up at the Empire State Building .
The Hawthorne Works was a dull, drab and grey manufacturing plant outside Chicago that liberally emitted smoke courtesy squat twin chimneys. Twelve thousand employees toiled away on assembly lines, winding coils to manufacture telephones. The employers, Western Electric, were intrigues to find out if shining more light in this otherwise insipid setting could make the workers work a little faster.
An Australian born psychologist, industrial researcher, and organizational theorist named Elton Mayo was engaged by Western Electric to perform some experiments. Mayo shone more and less light at certain times on different assembly lines. Employees who were beneficiaries of more light did work faster. However, the control group workers were equally productive. Mayo then lowered the lights. Lo and behold, the workers were able to maintain production levels even when lighting was reduced by seventy per cent. Mayo finally merely pretended raising the lighting, while actually keeping it constant. Not only did productivity increase but the workers also told them how happy they were with the improved lighting!
The field of environmental psychology lays emphasis on a term called ‘sociopetal’ space. Sociopetal refers to environments that are primed for enabling interaction and communication, as against ‘sociofugal’ space which stifles interaction and communication (classic examples being stereotypical airport and movie theatre seating).
Lily Bernheimer also informs her readers about the proliferation of, a formidable international network of over eighty co-working spaces. The Impact HUB organisation was established to accord professional workspace facilities, business incubation support, and a community network. A social enterprise itself, Impact HUB operates on a ‘federated’ model and has grown to serve over thirteen thousand members in cities ranging from Milan to Kuala Lumpur and Harare.
Ms. Bernheimer has also developed a checklist called the BALANCED Space checklist. This checklist provides a framework to balance the needs of people and purpose with the constraints of space and budget. As readers would have judged by now, BALANCED is an acronym standing for:
B Biophilia (natural elements, materials, views, and patterns); A Atmosphere (light quality, air quality, temperature, and smell); L Layout (space utilisation and allocation, wayfinding, and circulation); A Amenities (supporting good nutrition, fitness, ergonomics, and rest); N Noise (avoiding disturbing noise levels, friction points, and design flaws); C Cohesion (community, communication, and control); E Energy (reducing use of energy, resources, and waste); and D Design (colour, shape, material, proportions, detail, and style).
“The Shaping of Us” is a timely reminder not to neglect a tremendously influential aspect which might have a remarkable bearing on our lives.