Being connected Vs. feeling connected

11th February 2020
Yasser Tufail
Head of Integrated Project Delivery

Why is loneliness becoming a problem?

The rapid growth of cities, a globally transient workforce, changes to the traditional idea of community and the overbearing influence of information technology are some of the factors disrupting society and contributing to a personal sense of isolation and loneliness.

Dubai is combating these worrying trends through initiatives like the Happiness in an effort to create a more engaged, happier and above all, more productive resident.

The loneliness epidemic is exacerbated by an over reliance on information technology. Ironically, tech that was designed to improve communication often leaves people feeling disconnected from society. While convenient, virtual communication lacks the emotional resonance of tangible human connections.

The sense loneliness is often compounded by the built environment people live in, which fails to provide opportunities for interaction and inclusion. As cities continues expand to accommodate the influx of people – another 2.5 billion people are expected to move to cities over the next 30 years – the challenges posed by social and digital isolation will intensify.

The dilemma of ‘being connected vs. feeling connected’ to neighbours and the wider community has broad implications as local governments look to build smart cities to attract business and investment.

Ironically, technology that was designed to improve communication often leaves people feeling disconnected from society.

Can we combat loneliness through the built environment?

Developers, owners, consultants and contractors, all need a greater understanding of what makes residents happy (or at least less lonely), which can then be translated into design principles, not just for individual buildings, but for local communities and city-wide masterplans.

Building and urban space design can bridge the gap by making spaces more inclusive and creating opportunities for social interaction and reflection. But it will require a different, more dynamic design approach.

Much like product design, dynamic design employs a holistic approach that places the user at the centre of the process. Until recently the construction industry as a whole has paid scant regard to the user of a building or urban space. However, that is changing as more dynamic designs connect people and communities.

Connected buildings and spaces of the future must be designed to be multipurpose. In the UK, residential designs commonly incorporate a home office, alongside the usual living and sleeping areas. On a larger scale, tower blocks could contain not just residential units, but also commercial office space or communal spaces.

The objective of dynamic design is creating places where people have more opportunities to interact with tenants, colleagues and visitors – consequently addressing issues of loneliness.

For example, Apple’s US$1 billion-dollar Apple Park headquarters was designed with the idea of creating ‘fortuitous’ meetings through its circular, open plan design and communal eateries and gardens.

Dubai Mall is a good regional example of a multipurpose complex that offers visitors a variety of services, and tenants consistently high footfall. A key reason for its consistently high visitor numbers is that is offers people more ‘purposes’ than just shopping.

A holistic, dynamic design will help developers and owners hit the sweet spot and attract tenants and technology will be great enabler of this trend.

Can design drive the change we need?

Understanding dynamic design principles and the need for connected communities is still in its infancy. For much of the regional construction industry building ‘connected spaces’ that tackle loneliness appears low on the agenda, however, that is changing as developers realise the benefit of ‘busy’ infrastructure assets.

A driver for further change could be government regulation. A simple design ‘checkpoint’ where developers have to illustrate the holistic nature of their design as part of the ‘planning permission’ (building permit) process, could go a long way to ensure more connected buildings and urban spaces.

Another factor likely to drive a shift to dynamic design is technology and data. Developers need to know what makes people happy before they can design ‘connected’ spaces. This can be achieved through end user research when working on certain design briefs, and the collection of data which can inform and influence a developer’s decisions.

Undoubtedly, the industry is on a learning curve as it adapts to not only changing user requirements, but also how technology can be leveraged to impact its bottom line and build more connected spaces. In the future subtle innovations in design could make a huge impact on resolving our growing sense of loneliness.

In the future subtle innovations in design could make a huge impact on resolving our growing sense of loneliness.