Insight: Rethinking infrastructure for our health and wellbeing

At PEARL (Personal Environment Activity Research Laboratory) we ask fundamental research questions to help ensure that infrastructure is fit for purpose for future generations who are going to be using it.
Insight: Rethinking infrastructure for our health and wellbeing
Director of UCL Centre for Transport Studies and Chadwick Chair of Civil Engineering (UCL)

At PEARL (Personal Environment Activity Research Laboratory) we ask fundamental research questions to help ensure that infrastructure is fit for purpose for future generations who are going to be using it.

Why do we have infrastructure? What's the purpose of infrastructure and how do we then make sure that the research supports this purpose? Infrastructure is defined as something that stands underneath a structure. What we're actually talking about is infrastructure that supports and enables society. How do people live? How does society progress? What is the infrastructure that we need in order to be able to support society?

PEARL aims to tease out some of these things and in particular, the piece that relates to people. Society isn't a fixed thing, it evolves. It's an organism, it's a process, it's a moving piece and therefore the infrastructure that is going to support it has to be able to move with that process. There's a whole host of processes that are going on that formulate and enable societies to work across the world. A lot of these are culture-driven and so vary, but the main one – society – remains, and infrastructure needs to support this in order to support the people who make up the population.

A really important part of the society idea is that process is about people interacting with each other. Infrastructure is about how we make a process that enables the coming together of people. Individual people, smaller groups, crowds, and publics all coming together cohesively to produce a coherent society. Infrastructure is the connecting tissue between these things. Perhaps then if we want to look at infrastructure as an enabler, we need to rethink infrastructure for society. This is one of the drivers of the research that is happening at PEARL.

Mobility is an example of one kind of expression of how people interact with the environment. The extent to which mobility is actually available to everybody is a question of accessibility. This is fundamental to the equity of living in a modern society. Public transport as an example of mobility is more than about getting people from A to B, it’s about improving the quality of life. In the context of mobility we need to make sure that the society of the future, that infrastructure is going to support, is actually accessible to everybody.

For example, we design a mass transport system like a metro network on the basis of aggregating a whole load of different people's trip purposes. However, there are not two people on the train who have the same trip purpose. If we can understand why they're making their journeys, maybe we can make this journey process a lot better and a lot more sympathetic to their lives.

A few years ago, as part of a research project, we surveyed people in a number of cities in the UK and asked them what was a characteristic of a city that would make them feel that their well-being was higher. One of the very high responses was described as being able to walk down the street, seeing a stranger walking toward them, saying hello to each other and then walking on. The process of those two people walking together, and coming together, takes about 4 seconds.

If you have two people who don't know each other and they interact in this very informal way in a street – so that there's no imposition of a conversation or anything other than simply greeting – what happens is there's a release of endorphins in each person. This release of endorphins makes each of them feel good – hence the feeling of improved wellbeing.

The four seconds are actually very critical and we need to ask how long does that wellbeing last for. The important question for infrastructure practitioners is how do we make infrastructure that enables and encourages this sociality to happen. We need the sense of time not as a measure, but time as a duration, and we need the infrastructure to enable duration. This is very different from the kind of drivers we have for infrastructure at present, because the way that we currently see infrastructure is very much more about how it can help us to use space to reduce time, reduce delay and increase speed.

The key concept for infrastructure and time is not, however, speed. It is all about cycles: infrastructure needs to accommodate things that happen repeatedly, even if no repetition is exactly the same. Cycles have different periods, which we can see in the world around us: Fashion is viewed as roughly a three-month cycle. For commerce, most businesses operate on an annual basis. Infrastructure is talked about as decadal, changing a governance system might take centuries, and changing a culture could be millennia. Nature moves in aeons. The key is how these cycles interact. For example, for a business to profit from a fashion, it needs to align its annual cycle with the much shorter cycle time of fashion – or it will miss the opportunity.

Dramatic occurrences can change things much quicker. COVID for example (an evolved natural phenomenon), almost overnight changed people's concept of culture and about how we think about other people. It changed governance, what governments did and how they did it. It changed commerce, brought new businesses and killed others. All the cycles coincided – a very rare, and hence dramatic, occurrence. It also changed infrastructure massively.

Some things in the environment happen very quickly and others change very slowly. This is also true of people. When a person gets into a fossil fuel car they are tapping into the aeonic nature in the fuel, even though their brain is actually working in milliseconds. Therefore, the idea of how we think about journey patterns and the time duration around thinking about and predicting planning for journey patterns or journeys, or how we actually think about the responses and the interactions to all this is happening all the time. We have this totality of multiple time scales that we're dealing with and that means that our sense of infrastructure needs to embrace these different durations. As society morphs we need to make sure that infrastructure morphs sympathetically with it.


Building infrastructure for the brain

There is the famous story of Captain Chesley (“Sully”) Sullenberger who had to make an emergency landing of US Airways flight 1549 in the Hudson River saving the lives of 150 passengers. Following a bird strike to both the aircrafts engines, the aircraft lost all power and no instruments were responding to help Sully land the plane. He was doing everything by sensory perception. He was doing everything through the feel of the stick, the feeling in his stomach and his heart rate, what he could see, what he could hear, all of these things in order to be able to land the plane. If he had followed the official emergency checklist in the severely limited time he had, the plane would have crashed.

This illustrates the difference between how the human brain looks at a problem and how an algorithm looks at the problem. They are fundamentally different. What this means is that if we want to create an infrastructure that is going to support people in the environment and all the activities that they want and need to do, we have to think about how the human brain works to survive. This really means shifting from seeing the world as a bunch of discrete locations and you simply somehow shift from one to the other, into something which is actually much more fluid and flowing.

How do we actually manage flowing? Sully, the pilot was flowing. He was following how his brain deals with flowing information. The algorithm would only be able to work piece by piece by piece. This difference becomes really important. We need to be thinking about infrastructure as a flow.

The brain responds to the sensory data about the environment by doing something. Its job is to predict what to do next in order for you to survive. On the basis of that prediction it takes an action: it might release some hormones, it might decide to do something else, it might decide to do nothing. It then creates a kind of updated perception of what you think the world is about. You react to that perception and then you've changed the environment and so you go around the cycle again.

The question is should we build infrastructure for the brain? The brain is the driver in each of us of the sociality that enables society to thrive. It has one job to do - to enable the body to survive in the physical/social environment and enable the body to achieve this better quality of life. The brain is asymmetric: the two sides of the brain are not the same size. Our brains conceive things differently in the two halves and how we actually perceive the world is the combination of the two. This is really important.

The right hemisphere for example deals with wider contexts and meanings, and the peripheral vision and sound systems. The left hemisphere works on the basis of past experience, logic, calculation and so on and uses the concepts it creates to try to understand the world. Neither hemisphere works in exclusion of the other: in order to get both the outward-looking context of the right hemisphere and the more inwardly focused conceptual picture of the world of the left hemisphere, you need both.

In PEARL we can create a world in which we can control the periphery and the details. We create environments so we can we can make something susceptible to the right hemisphere or the left hemisphere, or both, and we can start to manipulate that world in such a way that we can then see how people actually interact with it.

We can change the lighting so we can simulate anywhere on the planet and at any time of day or night. We can enable the way the environment feels to the touch, the way it sounds, its physical appearance and so on to create life-size environments. We can change the smell, so we can make the smell whatever we wish.

The infrastructural question is how do we build infrastructure in order to help the brain make better decisions for everybody, to improve their wellbeing and their sense of quality of life, because that is the intrinsic process for a person.

As a challenge for my UKCRIC colleagues, this means that we need to rethink infrastructure as a temporal thing rather than as a spatial thing. How do we actually relate to this (and are space and time separate?) when we design and create infrastructure? When you start to think of things as flow, then you’re actually combining them into a single concept, and this is what infrastructure has to deal with.

This requires synthesis – understanding the world by bringing things together – and the sense of being comfortable with asymmetry. How do we understand things synthetically, as opposed to analytically – trying to understand the world by taking it all apart? How do we deal with asymmetry rather than symmetry? Asymmetry is what creates new concepts, new ideas and understands new things. Synthesis brings all these together. We're not looking for the model to make the world symmetrical. We're looking at how we can understand synthetically an asymmetric world so that we can create the infrastructure for people as they are, as biological, physiological, sentient organisms, rather than as unthinking physical objects. This is what we do at PEARL.

Professor Nick Tyler will also be speaking about the theme of infrastructure, health and wellbeing at the Futurebuild Conference, March 2023.