Tag Archives: biophilic design

Biophilic Design – the future of work/life balance

Earlier this week I attended Beyond Balance, a conference about work/life balance organised by the Balance Network at Anglia Ruskin University. We had some great talks and I came away with a notebook full of insights about the way work is changing. Inevitably, there was a lot of talk about the negative impacts of digital life on work/life balance, so I felt it my duty to evangelise a little about technobiophilia and technature balance. It all starts with biophilic design, and this post offers just a brief introduction to some of the ways we could use it to help work/life balance and move towards technature balance.

What is biophilic design?

Professor Stephen Kellert, one of the founding pioneers in this area, writes:

Biophilic Design is an innovative way of designing the places where we live, work, and learn. We need nature in a deep and fundamental fashion, but we have often designed our cities and suburbs in ways that both degrade the environment and alienate us from nature. (biophilicdesign.net)

Watch this video trailer to learn more.

Biophilic Design: The Architecture of Life from Tamarack Media on Vimeo.

Biophilic design in the workplace

You’ve probably seen examples of biophilic design all over the place without realising they’re part of a larger movement. Big corporations are investing huge amounts of money in biophilic workplaces featuring natural materials like plants, stones, wood, and water. Look out for walls festooned with hanging planters, indoor waterfalls, and zen gardens like the one featured in the hit TV series Silicon Valley.

A recent research report by Human Nature says that of the offices they surveyed, 47% had no natural light and 58% had no plants.  How does your workplace compare?

The top five elements that workers most wanted to see in their offices were:

  1. Natural light (44%)
  2. Indoor plants (20%)
  3. Quiet working space (19%)
  4. View of the sea (17%)
  5. Bright colours (15%)

The good news is that you don’t have to be a wealthy company to bring biophilic design into your workplace. Designers like Oliver Heath advise businesses of all size on how to bring nature into offices, homes, public places – anywhere where people spend time.

Technobiophilic Design

The next step beyond getting the relationship between nature and your offline workplace right, is integrating nature with your online life. That’s where technobiophilic design comes in; it connects our digital lives to the natural world so we can feel and perform better. This provides an intriguing challenge for developers, one which I outlined here in some detail. More about that in future posts, but meanwhile check out the growing collection of examples at my Pinterest site.

Runcible – sensual, mysterious, skeuomorphic

Runcible

I’ve been completely captivated by this gorgeous video announcing the imminent release of Runcible. But what is it?

The developers call it “a smart pocket watch for the post-smartphone era” but I’d say it’s more than that. This mysterious device calls to our deepest connections with the physical world, a universe of plants, animals, wood, metal, and even our own discarded debris.

From the website:

Runcible is a new category of personal electronic which occupies a space between a traditional mobile phone and a wearable device. Featuring a first-of-its-kind fully round screen and a palm-sized form factor, Runcible is modeled on devices humans have carried around with them and loved for hundreds or thousands of years: the pocket watch, the compact, the compass, the magical stone in your hand.

Runcible is designed to help you create a more civilized relationship with your Digital Life. Runcible will never beep, alert, or otherwise interrupt you. The world-class connectivity we all came to expect in the smartphone era (LTE, WiFi, Bluetooth) is there on Runcible when you need it. For the rest of the time, you can keep your head up, your attention on the real world and real people around you, and maintain your sense of wonder about life. Just as the truth about time is available on a legacy timepiece, Runcible distills your Digital Life for you in clean, quiet, glanceable ways. Beautifully designed and built to last, Runcible is the premier device for the post-smartphone era.

Two models are being released later this year:

Runcible Lovelace
Lovelace

Runcible Babbage $399 USD The Babbage model is designed for the stylish experimenter and for the early adopter alike. This is a full-spec Runcible brain with a durable, organic feeling back made from reclaimed ocean plastic fished out of the Great Pacific Plastic Island.

Runcible Lovelace $499 USD The limited edition Lovelace model is designed for the Aficionado. This is a full-spec Runcible brain with an iconic, unique, solid wood back made from local, sustainably harvested madrone wood in Mendocino County, California.

Both, of course, named after William Babbage and Ada Lovelace, early computer pioneers. You really can’t get more cool. The devices are beautiful and seductive, but it’s not entirely clear yet what they actually do beyond create a vibe that you just want to wallow in. Let’s hope that whatever it is will be as luscious as the video.

Skeuomorphic?

Runcible PocketwatchThe term comes from the Greek words ‘skeuos’, meaning a vessel or a tool, and ‘morphe’, meaning shape. Skeuomorphism is less about the function of a tool, than about its appearance, and it has fired hot debate in the world of user interface design. Skeuomorphic design contains elements which simulate the features of earlier iterations of an object but which have become irrelevant to the way it is now used. Steve Jobs played with the idea in some early iPad and iPhone designs – remember the weird Compass and Calendar? They were superseded, but people do like skeuomorphism – does your iPad case feature distressed faux leather, fake vellum or ageing parchment? And what could be more resonant of the past than Runcible’s deeply skeuomorphic pocketwatch, reassuringly pre-loved and stained with history?

More like a lucky stone than a smartphone

It’s not just reminiscent of the technologies of the past, but also of the materiality of the planet itself. “More like a lucky stone than a smartphone”, says the video, reminding me of the Hebridean pebble that writer Roger Deakin used to keep on his home-made desk. It rested in a shaped depression he had hollowed out especially. In ‘Wildwood: a journey through trees’  he describes how he made it:

Building the new desk under the window in the study, looking south across the garden to the moat. Perfectionism kicks in and all the same self-critical criteria that go into a piece of writing. I make a yew bracket to peg to the oak wall post and support the top, a slab of fine-grained Oregon pine, and a careful wooden sub-frame or chassis. I fill some open cracks in the grain with plaster, smooth it down and carefully stain it pale blue using a delicate watercolour brush. I hollow out one of the old bolt-holes in the top to accommodate a smooth, round flattened pebble from the Hebrides, like a tiny curling stone. It is a sort of worry-bead. (p17)

Deakin lived for many years at Walnut Tree Farm, a moated farmhouse that he bought in 1969. He slowly renovated it piece by piece and slept in every part of the property, including its fields. He loved to swim in its weed-filled moat. Deakin was a nature geek and a craftsman. I suspect that the creator of Runcible, Aubrey Anderson, is a kindred spirit of similar sensibility.

Maybe the Runcible will fulfill no further purpose than a decorative pebble on a desk. That remains to be seen. But perhaps it will signal the way to a revolution in technology design. I rather hope so. In the words of the video “The future will be like the past, but cooler”.

When Is A Window Not A Window? When It’s A Virtual Balcony.

If you’re planning a holiday on a cruise ship but can only afford an inside cabin with no windows, you might want to look out for a different kind of view – the virtual balcony.

This year, Royal Caribbean has added virtual balconies to several of its ships.  Imagine an 80-inch high-definition screen providing a live feed of views and sounds of the ocean in real-time. High-speed cameras placed strategically around the ship ensure that the feeds match the placing of the cabins, showing the view passengers would have if only their cabin wall was on the outside of the ship.

“Even when you are right up next to it, it looks like you could reach straight through it” says Bill Martin, Chief Information Officer at Royal Caribbean. Watch the video to find out more.

Large picture windows may provoke a damaging level of cognitive dissonance

When I was researching  ‘Technobiophilia: nature and cyberspace’ (Bloomsbury, 2013) I came across an interesting essay about the role of windows in relation to our desire to connect with nature. Writing in Biophilic Design, architectural designer Kent Bloomer, explains that the large picture windows we so enjoy actually provoke a damaging level of cognitive dissonance. This is because, he explains, ‘we possess a psychological boundary around our bodies (and by extension around our houses) that divides, or separates, our sense of a personal, possessed interior space from an exterior extra-personal space.’

This boundary is vitally important to our experience of the world because it conditions our perceptions of the environment; it appears at places of entry and exit, providing visual information about ‘social rank, safety, cultural belief and the occupants’ relationship to nature’. Passing through the boundary indicates the near-possibility of touching and that haptic experience is, says Bloomer, ‘fundamentally critical in establishing a firm connection, a “contact” with the natural environment. Yet’, he goes on, ‘touching is precisely what is negated by the pure picture window!’His solution is to make the boundary more obvious, not less, by investing in the liminal transitional space of the window and using different tactile ornamentations to emphasize the threshold. By touching them, or being able to imagine touching them, you may heighten your sensual association with the world outside.

His solution is to make the boundary more obvious, not less, by investing in the liminal transitional space of the window and using different tactile ornamentations to emphasize the threshold. By touching them, or being able to imagine touching them, you may heighten your sensual association with the world outside.

A visible and touchable moment of mediation between inside and outside

Royal Caribbean’s virtual balconies seem to follow Bloomer’s prescription by superimposing the structure of a railed balcony to create a liminal transitional space. They also emphasise the threshold surrounding the image with real tactile curtains.

Both establish what Bloomer calls a ‘visible and touchable moment of mediation between inside and outside’. Furthermore, the system provides accompanying live sound which matches what you would hear if you were sitting on a real balcony.

Virtual Balcony. Photo: Penny Wong

Virtual nature is a powerful tool.

There is plenty of research showing the benefits of proximity to ‘unreal’ nature such as photographs, videos, paintings, and virtual reality environments.  Virtual balconies are one more example of how this can be put into practice, and they seem to be receiving positive reviews from passengers.  In 2011, the Disney Cruise Line tried circular ‘virtual portholes’ but have not installed them in their newer ships, purportedly because of the cost, but perhaps a simulated porthole is less satisfying to our biophilic needs than a simulated balcony.

So far, virtual balconies appear to be restricted to cruise ships, but there could be many uses for them on dry land. A live view of the area outside your home or office building might not be very desirable, but the virtual window or balcony does not have to show that. Instead, it could feature scenes from selected areas of beauty such as those shown in a recent series on Norwegian TV station NRK, which streams live feeds of the Saltstraumen maelstrom. Or failing that, it could even consist of a simple recorded video similar, perhaps, to the much-missed TV Landscape Channel.

One can imagine virtual balconies and windows becoming popular with urban homeowners who enjoy beautiful views, or in hospitals where patients may be soothed by their biophilic presence, but there could also be more disturbing applications. Keeping people calm in prisons and detention centres comes to mind. Virtual nature is a powerful tool.