In 2016, Kyle Chayka coined the term Airspace to describe a growing global aesthetic. Perfectly Instagrammable spaces with raw wood tables, exposed brick, and Edison lights have become increasingly ubiquitous and it’s part of a landscape created by technology. Chayka argues that the values embodied by Silicon Valley and its technologies have been influential in the creation of a new wave of physical spaces. Ideas around interchangeability, placelessness, feeling connected to the larger world are appearing in the design and function of cafes and other businesses around the world. These ‘frictionless’ spaces allow people to partake in a variety of activities (tasks, social engagements, personal time, etc.) and create a sense of familiarity no matter where a person is; the spaces are identifiable and of course, very picturesque. What Airspace illustrates is that technology has begun to have physical influences beyond screens and has changed the way people conceptualize and use spaces. The only issue is that it has also created a sense of homogeneity in the world and if spaces look, feel, and function in essentially the same way in one corner of the world as another, there’s no sense of individuality or uniqueness. This raises the question of what if the script was flipped: rather than use technology to create a global aesthetic, what if data was used to create spaces that are designed and optimized for the way people uniquely use it?
Data has become a ubiquitous part of everyday life. The increasing advancements and adoption of new technologies means that data no longer simply lives in an excel sheet, but rather it’s all around us in discrete ways. But, using data to understand human behavior and inform decision-making comes down to looking at UX techniques. Coined in the 1990’s by Don Norman, the term UX captures the very human side of technology. It seeks to establish a deep understanding of the user, their needs, wants, behaviors, and context so that decision makers can empathize and understand. While these are now commonplace practices in the technology industry, the use of data, especially when it comes to data about human behavior, has often been cast in a negative and intrusive light. The notion that Big Brother is watching makes many understandably uncomfortable but data also has the ability to empower and to drive informed decision-making processes beyond digital spaces. It can create impactful change in the way physical spaces are conceptualized, designed, and maintained that fit the unique ways people navigate them.
Earlier this year, HGTV piloted a new show called “Wasted Spaces”. At first glance, this show is a lot like many on the network; a designer helps homeowners reimagine their home by redefining spaces. But there is one key difference: after walking through the house with prospective clients, designer Laya Jaworski places sensors throughout the house to gain a more comprehensive understanding of how the family is truly utilizing the spaces. She looks at what doors are being used and how often, where there are bottlenecks, and the overall occupation distribution throughout the house. Blending technology with interior design initially feels off-putting. Using sensors and analyzing data feels like it shouldn’t be compatible with the very human-centric industry of interior design but in reality, this method unlocks a whole new level of understanding for the designer of the homeowners and their home. Leveraging data to design a space means creating something that is specifically catered to a family and to their house; it creates a unique lens through which the designer can step into the everyday flow of the house and find where improvements can be made. While there may remain a sense of hesitation to introduce data and technology into interior design, a wide variety of industries are beginning to understand the power of putting data into the right hands and the good it can bring to a company, an industry, and maybe even society.
Jaworski isn’t the first to engage technology in the design of spaces. For example, Digital Lumens takes a similar approach for commercial properties, such as warehouses and industrial facilities. Workspaces of all different sizes and utilities have any number of systems in place to keep things running smoothly. For those in charge of overseeing the systems, simply walking through the space or talking with colleagues may not be enough to get a full understanding of how things are operating. Digital Lumens provides lighting control systems and smart applications that place data at the center of how people are understanding their workspaces. Having a way to monitor and meter the way equipment and spaces are being utilized helps inform decisions made at the facility level that can save money and increase safety. Being able to track the amount of water being used by a certain machine or even the temperature and humidity of an area can greatly impact the functionality of a given space. In this way, Digital Lumens does something similar to Jaworski; their products and applications provide a unique perspective of commercial properties that would be otherwise inaccessible without data.
New York City has taken a variety of these approaches to improve experiences in public spaces, such as parks. Managers of these public spaces have turned to technology to collect key pieces of data about how the spaces are being used so that the parks can be better designed, operated, and maintained. Sensors are able to recognize pedestrians, cyclists, and joggers and new efforts are going towards developing technology that can identify if people are standing, sitting, or passing through to gain a better sense of how people interact. The city has even piloted a new program where data is being collected on how different types of lights are impacting public safety in housing developments. Using data to understand how people use and don’t use public spaces can create efficiency in planning and maintenance but also vastly improve the experience of people in those spaces.
This isn’t to say that data can’t be used in harmful ways. Some companies such as Amazon, have come under fire for their use of data as a means of policing their workforce. But data has the potential to provide a new way of understanding the physical world and the spaces people occupy. Leveraging tools that can offer real-time information about how spaces are used can help unlock a whole set of possibilities that may not have been seen before. People may be interacting with a space in unexpected ways and data creates a new lens through which to view the world as it is truly being used. Taking UX principles into physical spaces and using technology to explore different perspectives means creating more human-centric environments.