Turning cities into living labs to improve our health and wellbeing

In a time of urban growth, cities must become places to experiment with creative ideas to improve our health and wellbeing

One of the major triumphs of psychology and design over the last 40 years has been to demonstrate how human behaviour is heavily influenced by context. Our beliefs, actions and experiences are entwined with the surrounding environment and our decisions are rarely made in isolation.

For instance, we’re more likely to judge other people’s relationships as unstable if we’re sitting on a wobbly chair rather than a normal one. Exposure to a clean smell can encourage people to wash their hands and challenges appear less difficult if we’re standing with friends.

Findings like these from across psychology, economics and neuroscience – broadly behavioural science – are continuing to challenge long-held assumptions about the forces that shape our behaviour. The result is a large base of evidence that can be used to guide and support people in making better decisions.

The problem is that many policy or planning decisions are still blind to these insights. Walk for five minutes in any city and you will experience huge variation in the effects of messages, services and infrastructure designed to improve our health and wellbeing. Where there is variation, there is a need to experiment to find what works and improve what doesn’t.

Cities must become living labs, places where designers, scientists, companies and customers collaborate to investigate, make and test ideas with the communities that live in them. Local people should be at the heart of development, from providing inspiration to being participants for new ideas. Too often they’re forgotten.

Good designers are brilliant at managing the uncertainty of real world problems, observing people’s lives to empathise with the reality they face and the support they need. Only by enabling people to realise their good intentions will we be able to tackle the biggest problems in society and alleviate pressure on the state.

As much as it’s important for cities to listen to their citizens, behavioural scientists have taught us that we’re often unaware of the real drivers of our decisions. While involvement with communities can uncover what beliefs, experiences and behaviours are important, scientific findings can explain why they occur.

By combining creative thinking with scientific rigour, living labs can reveal unforeseen opportunities to improve people’s lives through the design of products, services and places. They are open platforms, sourcing and prototyping ideas with people of all backgrounds, combining the expertise within the lab with real world knowledge.

The risk of innovation is managed by demonstrating proof of concept before scaling up. Randomised controlled trials (field trials) are the best way of examining the general effect of an idea on individuals or groups in their natural environment. Smart technologies are making data collection easier and less obtrusive, providing the structure for continued feedback and improvement.

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