Colin Ellard: I’ve had people shout at my face to get lost

Colin Ellard
Colin Ellard, cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Waterloo and director of its Urban Realities Laboratory. Image: Colin Ellard

Colin Ellard is a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Waterloo and director of its Urban Realities Laboratory. Colin works at the intersection of urban design and experimental psychology. He is a practicing scientist but he also works in collaboration and partnership with architects, museums and other NGOs on projects meant to enrich public debate about the built environment. He is a member of the advisory committee for the Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture, an Urban Design and Mental Health Fellow, and a Salzburg Global Fellow. Ellard’s most recent book is Places of the Heart.

A Sudden Twist

Natalia Olszewska: In your TEDxWaterloo talk, you mentioned a sudden twist in your scientific career. You said you weren’t interested in human-environment relationships from the beginning. Something happened around 2005 and you isolated yourself on an island. Could you tell us the rest of the story? 

Colin Ellard: Oh man, that was a tumultuous period in my life. You know, some like to call it a ‘midlife crisis’. But then one of my colleagues said: ‘You don’t honestly think you’re only halfway through your life. How long do you think that you’re going to live?

Beforehand, I was a hardcore wet lab neuroscientist studying animal behavior. I was looking at space but from the perspective of creatures, like gerbils, rats, mice, and birds. It was going reasonably well in the sense that I was getting successful grants, enough to keep it going.

I had a lot of things that converged together at the same time: there was a particular moment when I had no graduate students because they had all finished and I took a sabbatical. So I sold my house, put everything into storage, and moved. Not to another university, but this little lobster fishing village on the east coast of Canada.

I remember encountering somebody at the post office and telling him my story. And he said: “Well, lots of people come here to spend some time, but nobody’s ever come through the winter before”. The idea was to take a pause, get off the treadmill and figure out what to do with the rest of my life. And everything came together for me in almost a magical way. 

Endless Canadian beaches lead to a turn in Colin’s career. Photo by Rohit D’Silva on Unsplash

I had this daily routine where I’d walk for half of the day. There were endless empty beaches that I’d walk along. At some point, I had an epiphany that I’d spent my whole life trying to figure out how animals dealt with space and I’d reached a point in my plan where I decided that when I came back to Waterloo, I would let my animals build their own spaces.

The idea was that I could understand the spatial mind of an animal by looking at the architecture that it produced. And then it was on one of these walks that I just thought: ‘Holy crap. There’s an animal that I’m missing here, the obvious one, which is us’

I came back to Waterloo, found a person in our school of architecture (Thomas Seebohm) and when I went to see him he said: ‘I’ve been waiting for someone like you to come to visit me for 20 years because I think this is not being done. And there’s huge scope for the marriage of psychology and architecture’. He wasn’t quite right that it was not being done at all, but he was right that very little of it was.

I was emboldened by the fact that there was one architect who didn’t think I was nuts. We applied for money together, we built a lab, and that was the start. It was a big change for me. My colleagues in psychology thought that I’d lost my mind and they said: ‘You know, you’re going to lose your funding’. I said: ‘I know, people and funders both will think that I’ve gone a bit strange. So I’ll lose my measly $20,000 a year that I was getting for durable research. Well, I think I could probably stand that’.

There are certain underlying principles of human biology and neuroscience that suggest how we ought to build.

It was a big break for me. It’s funny to look back at that time now because there were just so many things for me that were in play. I think the pivotal point for me was that one day I decided that I wasn’t going back to Waterloo. I decided that’s it. I’ve had it. And that was a breaking point because it made me realize how free I really was. If it really was an option to not return, then it was also an option to return and do something entirely different. So that’s what I decided to do.

Not All Roses

Michal Matlon: What was the reaction when you presented this to some other people working in the field?

Colin: I’ve had such a huge range of responses. At the Waterloo school of architecture, there was an effort to teach students philosophy, to teach them psychology, to teach them some biological sciences even, and to do it in-house. It didn’t connect with the kinds of things that I do but you know, they were generous and interested. I even found some collaborators.

I’ve had really strong reactions, maybe not for a while now, but I’ve had architects telling me that I have no business meddling with their practice, that it’s an artistic practice, and that my kind of research has no bearing. I’ve had people shout at my face and tell me to get lost. And I’ve had people who were just really puzzled by the whole thing. I’ve had lots of skepticism, but I think that there’s kind of a growing sense that there’s something going on here.

Michal: What was your response to this resistance?

Colin: Well, I think one kind of response is to say: ‘Okay, there’s a lot of science in ensuring that a building doesn’t fall down. There are certain basic principles of physics that you have to follow. I would say that it is the same thing with human science. There are certain underlying principles of human biology and neuroscience that suggest how we ought to build. Pretending that these things don’t exist is just as bad as pretending that gravity doesn’t exist.’’

Another kind of response is to suggest that though a building may be a piece of art, it’s nevertheless something that is used by humans and I think that along with that comes social responsibility.

One of the things that I talk about is the human effects of bad design. If you can show the possibility that bad design might do psychological harm, then design becomes a matter of public health. Then arguments about creativity only go so far. If you’re hurting people, then that’s where things need to be reined in.

If you can show the possibility that bad design might do psychological harm, then design becomes a matter of public health. Photo by Samuel Ryde on Unsplash

Natalia: Why this resistance? Do you think it’s a matter of education, culture, or the ethos of the architectural profession? Architects are educated in a certain way. The knowledge about biology and humans, or environmental psychology is rarely incorporated.

Colin: I think it’s about the things that you have identified. And yes, it is certainly in part a matter of education. Some years ago there was a meeting I attended where there were mostly architects and a few scientists.

Things were discussed in the context of the architecture curriculum and the professors of architecture thought environmental psychology and neuroscience could be important to students. But the curriculum is already so stacked that they wouldn’t ever find the time to include this content.

I guess what is implicit in such a statement is an argument about priorities. If you can’t find the time for this, then you’re thinking of it as a kind of elective topic that a good architect doesn’t need to know about. 

I also think that there is a bit of anxiety. At least one architecture friend said to me that the problem is that there’s already anxiety among architects about the fact that they see their profession being cannibalized by subspecialty after subspecialty. And so for them, I would represent yet another subspecialty that’s going to be limiting the freedom to do their job. 

Really Help the Design Process

Natalia: Could you, in a few sentences, explain to our readers, what kind of research you do? 

Colin: I am interested in human emotional responses towards the built environment. I use a wide variety of different methods, including VR simulations to try to understand how different kinds of built forms and patterns in the built environment influence people’s emotional state. 

I’m interested in how we get ‘psychological sustainability’ in a built environment setting. I try to understand what people do in those kinds of settings or I invent them to see how they respond to them.  

VR simulations could help us better understand human reactions to different spaces. Photo by Maxim Hopman on Unsplash

Michal: How could this kind of knowledge be used by environment creators or by policymakers?

Colin: I think that the difference between policymakers, architects, or developers has to do with the timescale of things. As Itai Palti has said, policymakers respond to emergencies. Policy changes when things get really bad, and even then policy tends to change very slowly. It’s hard to work out a set of codes that might help to build a more psychologically sustainable environment, other than big generalities, but sometimes generalities are useful. 

In the 1960s, the American urbanist William Whyte, was challenged to figure out how to activate public spaces in New York. On the basis of careful observational studies of how people behaved in such spaces – both good and bad ones – he came up with a set of simple rules that the city of New York could implement as policy and developers would follow. This had a positive long-term impact.

I think that over the short term, when developers or architects approach problems, they want answers to specific questions about a specific design or development. And that’s an entirely different thing, which we’re still learning how to do. One of the problems is that the real world moves very quickly compared to the world of science. 

Many years ago, probably around the same time as my crazy year in the east of Canada, I was asked to go speak to a major design company, a huge international company that specialized in entertainment spaces and theme parks, which I thought would be perfect for me because they were designing spaces explicitly affecting people’s emotional state. 

I went to talk to them to pitch the idea of incorporating more of my kind of research into their practice and nothing ever happened because it became clear very quickly that when a company like that  gets an invitation to bid on something, they have only days, or in lucky cases weeks to come up with a proposal. They never have the luxury that we scientists sometimes have to spend a year or two (or even more) developing an idea from first principles and then subjecting it to careful test.

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So I think it is the real trick to really help the design process. To genuinely help the design process, scientists may need to figure out ways of getting fast answers without completely sacrificing experimental validity and reliability. And VR does have some potential for being able to do that.

Especially nowadays when everybody has as part of the design process, beautifully rendered models of proposed settings. If these models can be turned into experimental testbeds using methods that scientists like me use, then there are good prospects for making better buildings and places.

So the policy process depends on the incremental development of a knowledge base about things that usually work and things that usually don’t, and the other processes have to be asked to be much more nimble.

I think that we are now at a delicate stage where more people are beginning to see the possibilities and some are jumping into the game prematurely, without really knowing what they’re up to. In your own consultancy, I know that you’ve undergone substantial training and so you’ve got quite a bit of expertise, but this is not always the case.

But I am also approached from time to time by other people trying to start consultancies. This is not gracious but I will say it anyway because I think it’s a legitimate concern: they get hold of a couple of Emotiv headbands, they have someone on their team who can write Python code and they think that’s it, that they can offer themselves as consultants for the process that some call “neuro-architecture,” which already sounds a little faddish to me. 

I was at the meeting. It’s called ‘ACE’ (Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture Education Committee), it is one of these meetings where all kinds of things are discussed. Somebody said that they’ve been brought into a project not because of what they can genuinely contribute to it, but for marketing, just to affirm that we’ve got a brain specialist on our team and then the client will say: ‘Oh, a brain specialist. That’ll be fantastic’. 

There is a huge gap between the understanding of scientists and that of public health officials and designers

Natalia: Speaking about the quality of research in the field. We have had this discussion with Upali Nanda, too (VL: this part of the interview with Upali Nanda will be published later this year). She said that we risk having the wrong translators in this process. 

Many people when talking about ‘neuroscience applied to architecture’ think about basic research, that is creating experiments with protocols and putting on wristbands, but there are many insights that can be moved from existing bodies of knowledge and applied to design, with caution. These insights can support some of the designers’ decisions. What do you think about the importance of translational research in the field?

Colin: Knowledge translation is massively important. I think that people in science don’t appreciate the value that you can have in interpreting what happens in the science realm to particular applications. I’ve had this conversation with my students.

Some of my students, from time to time, ended up getting consulting gigs for some of the weirdest companies. And they sometimes say: ‘I have no idea why they need me to do this because honestly they could just look up the papers themselves. It’s all online. They could just look up the research and figure this stuff out for themselves’.

But, you know, it’s not a simple thing to be able to do that and they don’t understand what they have to offer. When one is immersed in one’s own field, it always seems as though it should be simple for others to understand. But without considerable effort (and this is where good translation comes in), it is definitely not simple.

Some time ago I had a tangible experience of that kind. It was a kind of think-tank composed of scientists, practitioners, policy experts and others. What became very clear to me at that meeting was that there is a huge gap between the understanding of scientists and that of public health officials, designers and other kinds of practitioners.

Part of it is knowing where to find information but it’s also important to be able to understand and evaluate research findings. This is incredibly important and I think that sometimes scientists are the ones who most undervalue this.

We can do harm with design and in some cases, lives and wellbeing are at stake.

So I think that translation is huge for people outside of science, it always seems to me they see it as a little bit of black magic. It isn’t magic but it does take training and experience to do well. 

Another thing is that the conversations about research partnerships  often falter over money. Good research can be intensive and complicated and therefore expensive. Knowledge translation, because it deals with existing research, can often be  something more reachable for a client.

Michal: Probably for some larger projects, it might pay off to do something as you mentioned in VR as opposed to post-occupancy, but maybe we should be also putting our energy into actually collecting insights backed up by enough evidence and creating some basic principles. Like with the biophilic principles.

Colin: I think there is value in doing that. As you mentioned, there’s already quite a large enterprise devoted to honoring those kinds of general principles. The fact is that there’s always uncertainty. Sometimes that’s where there’s some friction between scientists and people who want to use our sciences. There’s always going to be some uncertainty associated with it.

So if somebody says: ‘No, I want you to tell me definitively, what’s going to happen if I do this well’, I respond: ‘Well, I can’t, because science doesn’t work that way’. So though basic principles are valuable, they can only ever constitute rough guides rather than absolutes. I think it most likely that applying whatever principles emerge will always benefit from the eye of a scientist.

I’m optimistic that we will get more refined principles than the ones we have right now, but it’s a complicated business. Maybe part of that working out is a generally increasing understanding of the importance of doing this research. I mean, nobody has a problem understanding why we research to develop the vaccine or to develop a cancer treatment. We need to understand that we can do things wrong. We can do harm with design and in some cases, lives and wellbeing are at stake.

New Culture of Building

Michal: We are coming back to the topic of influencing policymakers. We are already seeing a shift in Europe, at least, with the New European Bauhaus initiative. Do you see anything like that in other parts of the world?

Colin: I was a part of the Baukultur initiative in Davos. Sounds like it is the same kind of sentiment. It was encouraging to see a broadly supported consensus about the importance of these topics. Although moving from a declaration to policy is not simple. Several lifetimes of work probably will pass before acceptable gains have been made. 

Streets of Kitchener, Canada. Picture by Kevin Hansen at Flickr.

In America, I see things happening at the important local level. I have a lovely relationship with the urban design people in the little city where I live. I mean, it’s tiny but it’s encouraging that at that level, there are people who work for the city who make zoning decisions and that developers who understand what I’m talking about come and ask me for help. I know that’s true of other cities in Canada as well.

Michal: Maybe the change has to be approached from both sides, right? Bottom-up, and also from the top-down. In the end, it meets somewhere in the middle. Right? 

Colin: Yeah. We need success stories and the success stories don’t have to be grand scale. They can be small scale, but they need to be stories that describe how the integration of human sciences into design has eventuated in better designs. 

And then those success stories begin to be promoted. The scale doesn’t matter so much, it’s a matter of bringing that to the attention of the big fish.

Authentic Streets

Michal: Could you give us an example of such a success story? What, for you, is a good example of a space, place, or building development, which did incorporate these ideas and the scientific knowledge about people?

Colin: Where I see the nicest settings is in places where we’ve started to get the Complete Streets initiative. A Complete Street is equally accessible to everyone. It is where you can still get through with a car, but you can’t fly through like it’s an expressway. There are dedicated bike lanes, and there are places for people to walk. There’s a lot of good landscape architecture. There are lots of interesting facades. 

I’ve seen that happen in parts of Toronto or Berlin, for example. I’m not an extreme car-basher but there’s no question that the automobile has done a great deal of damage to cities worldwide. Streetscapes that work well may not have to eliminate cars completely but their role has to be diminished considerably. 

The automobile has done a great deal of damage to cities worldwide

One of the other things that I’m interested in, is the idea of vitality and what it means in a streetscape. Vitality involves landscape architecture, but there’s something else to it as well. You can be in a streetscape where you have the feeling that it belongs to everyone and everyone is a participant. 

In part, it has to do with complexity, for example physical complexity. I think that’s why in some of the work that I’ve done on facades, I’ve gotten those positive responses to visually rich facades. It may be a kind of a low-level physical thing, but it’s also that facade complexity sends a signal about what kinds of things are happening in that neighborhood.

To give you a local example – I live in a city called Kitchener. My university is in Waterloo, my home is in Kitchener and there’s a palpable difference between the two cities. There’s one long main street that runs through both of them, but Waterloo in the north looks much more finished and gentrified than Kitchener in the south end.

Where I live people sometimes use the word ‘seedy’ to describe the feeling on the street and they’re putting that in a negative sense, but the positive spin on that is that it’s unfinished, it’s open, to some extent democratic. You can see that people are exercising autonomy in that neighborhood. Things are happening and not just standing still.

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