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Smart buildings and cities give great emphasis to being “human-centric” by placing occupant and resident health and safety at the top of their list of priorities. They talk about how their design goes beyond efficiency to increasing health using lighting, air quality monitoring, and a variety of other techniques but are they actually neglecting one of the most important elements of health? That is the claim of a growing number of experts.

“While a new wave of sustainable architecture and design within office spaces prioritizes health, comfort, and safety, an aspect commercial real estate often fails to recognize on a multifunctional level is the role of human psychology,” says Sonny Kalsi, founder and partner at Oak Green Real Estate, and independant, partner owned real estate firm. “Currently, high-end technologies used within smart cities provide an efficient – rather than effective – way of operating, but they don’t always offer optimal environments for citizens,” he added.

One fascinating 1970’s urban design theory born in Denmark may shed some light on this claim. Conceived by Ingrid Gehl, the Bo-miljø philosophy identifies eight basic psychological needs that people have in relation to their living environments. Research, done in collaboration with her husband, Jan Gehl, discovered that towns and cities with thriving and lively activity were often those established before “post-WWII rational” took hold in urban design. Gehl proposed that post-WWII rational modelled buildings and streets like systems of machines leading to poor psychological health, and that by applying her eight principles that result could be avoided.

“Psychological needs and human wellbeing are aspects of sustainability that urgently need to be reconsidered in architecture,” warns Terri Peters of Ryerson University and author of Social Sustainability in Context, a 2016 paper that rediscovers the Bo-miljø philosophy and offers an architectural perspective on design for social sustainability and wellbeing. “Too often, the concept of sustainability is connected to quantitative building performance, without enough consideration of how people use and enjoy spaces and how their welling is influenced by their environment,” she continues.

The eight guiding principles of “Bo-miljø,” which translates to “living environment,” include; human contact, privacy, varied experiences, purposefulness, play, structure and orientation within environment, ownership and identification with the community and space, and aesthetics and beauty. As we move into a new era of urban design, fueled by the internet of things and smart technologies, these principles of Bo-miljø could be applied by finding space for walking, exercising, playing and socializing space, even in the most built up areas.

“New construction should emphasize physical and mental stimulation through Bo-miljø principles by incorporating more interactive games and art, open space, and areas for recreational activities, with interconnected technologies for the spread of communication and information,” suggests Kalsi of Oak Green Real Estate. It may seem like common sense to many but these kinds of spaces have been neglected in favor of land-use or floor-space activities with more tangible value. Recent years, however, has seen some innovative projects and initiatives such as High Line Park, built along a raised train track in Manhattan, NYC, or the conversion of rooftops into green spaces in the dense metropolitan areas of Tokyo, Jpan.

Bo-miljø is not the only theory being utilized to explore the psychology of urban design. Another theory, borrowed directly from the study of psychology itself, has been increasingly applied to urban design in this data driven era. Until now, the trans-theoretical model of behavior change has primarily been applied within the field of healthcare, in the study of addiction, for example. Now, as we attempt to influence the way people consume energy, how they use transport systems and how they move around the office, the trans-theoretical model of behavior change has proved popular for smart city planners.

“Two things drive the building and operation of smart cities: gathering data from the environment and allowing people to use that data in a meaningful way – sometimes to change behavior,” explains Lori M Cameron, senior writer for the IEEE Computer Society and visiting professor at DeVry University in Long Beach. “While making strange bedfellows of computer scientists and psychologists, the ‘trans-theoretical model of behavior change’ is proving to be key in building smart environments,” she added.

This suggests, however, that rather than just health and wellbeing, psychological theories are being used to help urban planners change the behavior of city citizens and building occupants. This behavior change could be for the benefit of the citizen/occupant or the city/building, potentially both, which may raise alarm bells for those concerned with smart technology’s ability to control. A third psychological element exists in our smart urban environments. In contrast to the other two, smart technology gives citizens/occupants the ability to influence urban planning through feedback systems designed to democratize technology.

“Focusing on these principles will allow developers to construct and design with the well-being of people in mind, but it also shows how citizen feedback and the democratization of technology are essential during the planning and design process,” says Kalsi, who believes all three psychological approaches are for real estate, and applying them will encourage investment. “While trends often change, incorporating these psychological insights will make for sustainable, long-lasting commercial real estate investments,” he concludes.