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Designing a Better Future | Scott Wyatt | TEDxBigSky

Translator: Lam Nguyen Reviewer: Ellen Maloney

In Silicon Valley, Google engineers on their lunch hour have gone out,

and bought colorful, ripstop nylon tarps,

and stretched them out over the top of their desks,

effectively lowering the ceiling.

Why have they done that?

Just to personalize space, make their space more like a garage.

A police chief, South of Seattle, paints a room pink,

all four walls, the floor, and the ceiling.

And 500 years ago, a Shah in Iran designs a room,

with the intent of capturing the essence of music.

Well I am an architect — the intrigue of a curve,

the harmony of form, the beauty of color and texture,

and especially to be able to manifest something tangible out of thought.

That’s why I became an architect.

What I didn’t realize when I got into this business,

is that I would be given a plumb line to the human soul.

My first job, out of architecture school,

was in Iran,

working for the mayor of Tehran on projects for the Shah.

It was an amazing time in the mid 1970s in Iran,

a 2,500-year-old culture, coming headlong into the forces of the modern world.

I actually found myself one time drawing with a stick in the sand,

to locate a high-rise in the city of seven millition people

that didn’t have a sewer system.

I learned some life-changing lessons when I was in Iran,

one of which was the power of design.

The kind of impact that design can have on how we think, how we heal,

how we learn,

and how we perceive the world around us.

So, Isfahan, 500 years ago, Safavid dynasty —

boy, these folks knew a thing or two —

about how to deliver powerful, emotional, and spiritual impact.

I can still remember what it felt like to walk into the Shah’s mosque in Isfahan.

40 years ago.

So, the Shah at that time, right across the square,

built his palace, the Ali Qapu Palace,

and on the very top floor, he designed this room.

This is the ceiling of that room, dome upon dome.

But in those domes, he had carved intricate recesses.

The whole ceiling was like a hundred violins.

And what he believed was that if you play music in that room,

the music, the essence of that music would be captured,

and it would affect people, who later were in that room.

And that’s how he used the room.

He would have music played in that room for hours,

before he went in there to be by himself, to think, to contemplate.

Or host guests or have special meetings.

Well that’s a kind of a quaint tourist story, right?

But it wasn’t to me.

It seemed remarkably profound

that here was the most powerful man in Persia,

who believed in the power of design and of architecture

to shape how we think and to shape outcomes.

That affected me and affected the rest of my career.

So I came back to the U.S. and I got my first job in the U.S.,

and one of my first commissions was to design a police station.

And so I did my homework, not having designed a police station —

and so, there I am, meeting with the police chief.

And I think I know what it is all about, but in the middle of the conversation,

he stops me and says, “Scott, where are we putting the pink room?”

I thought, “A pink room? What’s a pink room?”

And he said,

“Well, when we bring in a prisoner in the back of the car in handcuffs,

sometimes they are pretty ornery. and we have to get them inside,

take their handcuffs off, fingerprint them and get them behind bars.

That can be very difficult to do. Dangerous.”

So, police forces across the country had, apparently, for years been experimenting

with this intuitive idea that the architecture of a room

could change a person’s behavior.

And they were experimenting with color.

And they finally arrived on a certain exact color of pink;

all four walls, floor, and ceiling;

and an exact period of time that would have an impact, 17 minutes.

So they can bring a prisoner in, can be completely out of control,

put them in this room for 17 minutes, and they come out calm.

They can take the handcuffs off, fingerprint them,

and put them behind bars.

They might get ornery again, but it worked.

And I thought, “Wow, this is very early in my career,

and here is, in a very matter-of-fact way, a police chief is talking about

the power of architecture, the power of design,

to shape behavior this way.”

So, the belief of a Shah,

the intuition of police departments,

and now today, we have science in ways that we’ve never had before.

You know, we used to spend a lot of time stamping drawings and checking them,

and today, we’re hanging out with neuroscientists.

And we’re learning a lot.

For example, a high ceiling.

If you’re in a room with a high ceiling, your conceptual thinking improves.

Your cognitive performance in that area of your brain will be better.

If that ceiling is low, your mathematical thinking will go up.

So, what were those Google engineers doing?

I think they were trying to write better software.

You know, we used to think that cubicles were horrible.

And now we know they are!


They increase stress, and they reduce perormance —

they reduce our cognitive performance.

And we are beginning to know why.

You know, early humans chose where they lived

and hung out very carefully.

And what it was called was ‘prospect and refuge.’

You would find a place to live with prospect and refuge,

you could see out —

you could see what was out there and you could see what was coming,

and you have a place to retreat to.

That was prospect and refuge.

And cubicles have neither of either of those.

Therefore, your stress goes up and your performance goes down.

This isn’t where humans are happy. And now we know that cubicles suck.


Yesterday, from my hotel room, I had a prospect and refuge

and I just had to add this photograph of a pretty great prospect and refuge.

(Applause) (Cheers)

A lovely hotel room to retreat to and an awfully nice prospect.

So, for 95 percent, actually more than 95 percent —

for 99.5 percent of our history, humans have lived outside.

In nature.

In nature, we’re home.

And now there’s a term for it: biophilia.

It was a phrase, it was a word, that was coined by E.O. Wilson,

and it was the title of a book that he wrote.

What that refers to is this powerful bond between human beings and nature;

plants and animals.

For example, what we know, what science has proven today,

is that if you’re at your desk, working,

and you can see a tree within a hundred feet of your desk,

your cognitive performance is up significantly,

and your stress is down.

So, here is biophilia at work in architecture.

This is at the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston,

the brain surgery pavilion.

And this is the recovery room.

One of many recovery rooms.

And when you get out of brain surgery,

you go to that recovery room and for the first 24 hours,

you face directly at the nurse’s station

so they can see you right in the eye and make sure you’re OK for 24 hours.

At the 24-hour mark, that bed swivels 180 degrees.

Pretty cool bed, pretty cool headboard that swivels with it.

For one reason: so you can look at that garden that MGH invested in.

This wasn’t a decoration for the hospital. In fact, it is up on the eighth floor,

a pretty big investment of a garden.

And the expected return for that investment;

the return is they’re going to make more money in that hospital

because of this expensive garden.

How they’re going to do that?

This patient is going to go home sooner, they’re going to have a faster recovery,

because after 24 hours, they spend every waking minute

looking at that garden.

Biophilia is real and it changes us in profound ways.

So I had the opportunity to work with Samsung,

I worked with the CEO of Samsung in Seoul.

At a time, when they were planning on changing the company dramatically,

and we won the commission to design

their American headquarters in San Jose.

What he explained to me, was he needed to change

the culture of the entire company,

and that was going to start here in Silicon Valley.

And he needed to change the company

from being what they called “a fast follower.”

They could take anybody’s idea and make it better or perfect it for the market.

They’re really good at that.

But they realized that was going to run out of space in the market,

and they needed to change and become an innovative leader,

and he knew that was a completely different culture.

Could we design a building that enabled that?

That enabled cultural change and creative performance?

So we set out to design what we called ‘a generative building.’

The generative building generates relationship

rather than generates silos.

When white collar work was invented at the beginning of the last century,

we worked by ourselves, it was almost all solo work.

We can have floors of an office building and have —

maybe a scattering of one or two conference rooms,

and they were usually empty.

Today, the desk seats are empty and the conference rooms are full.

Why is that? Because work is now collaborative

and the least productive time in an office is when you’re working by yourself.

So how can we go from solo environments

and buildings that encourage and enable solo work,

to buildings that encourage and enable teamwork

and chance meetings of people that you don’t see everyday?

So, we started using design computation

to figure out floor plans and building arrangements,

using many, many avatars,

going through the day in the life of various workers to say,

“How many different distinct people do I see in the course of a day?”

And, by the way, we also tried to calculate —

well, we did calculate —

how many calories does the average person burn in a day?

With the idea that we would maximize both numbers.

You would burn more calories and you’d see more distinct people.

And if we did that,

it would be a more creative, innovative company.

And science has proven that to be true, and that was what this building was about.

We also brought a little of the biophilia into it as well, an outdoors.

Every third floor was actually an outdoor floor.

It was a workplace, but you’re outside.

And, you know when we’re outside —

remember, Biophilia, 99 percent of our existence on this planet —

when we’re outside, we’re home.

And I said, our highest performance is if we’re outside, we’re in motion,

and there’s a little bit of risk.

It is the highest possible human performance.

So, we have these floors every third floor on the building.

Some of these ideas, probably our boldest shot yet

is at Amazon in Seattle.

We designed three one-million square foot towers,

right in the middle of those three towers are these three spheres.

And this is an alternative workplace,

and these three spheres are being filled with thousands of plants.

Some of them are endangered species that will be hopefully survived

through this amazing building.

It will hold 750-800 people at a time,

and it’s really for the workers of Amazon to use.

Basically take your laptop anytime you want,

work there for as long or short a period of time that you like.

It isn’t investment in performance.

It is an investment in reducing stress, and increasing creativity,

increasing cognitive performance.

That’s an amazing investment,

that is a belief, an intuition and science,

that has brought together these biospheres,

that are really just a workplace!

It doesn’t end there.

All through the building,

we’ve run gardens all through the building and out onto the roofs.

And this roof, actually, is dog park,

because they’ve taken biophilia to include animals,

so you can bring your dog to work.

Assuming that’s a good dog, three strikes doesn’t get to come back.


So there’s the dog park at Amazon, and we got another step

to really explore: How we can be our most creative?

And that was to say: Let’s use the city as part of the workplace.

So rather than, as so many tech companies do,

see the front door as a barrier, as a security point,

encourage everybody at lunch time, or anytime,

“Go out for a walk.”

If you’re going to have a meeting, and I would suggest this to all of you,

if you need to have a meeting: Don’t go to a conference room!

Go outside for a walk, it’ll be the best meeting you can possibly have.

Both of you will come back smarter, and your meeting will have been better.

Well that’s the idea at Amazon as well, the city is part of the workplace —

and the workplace is part of the city.

And by that, we don’t have security on the first floor.

The whole public of Seattle is invited in on the first floor,

security’s on the second floor.

So, we’re trying to intermingle city with workplace,

as an extension of it.

So again, beliefs, intuition, and now science.

We’ve never had tools like we have today to really unleash to power of design,

and have an impact in how we live and how we think.

And I think we’re at a time now when the need is greater than ever.

We have tremendous challenges in front of us.

This century, we’re going to hit ten billion people on this planet.

We have tremendous migration into the cities,

we’re facing global warming.

And we are going to live in cities, these cities are going to be dense,

and we need to live in cities.

It is the only way

we’re going to survive on this planet and keep life on this planet

at the highest possible level.

But city density is going to be an interesting thing

for designers, and for all of us.

Take my hometown, Seattle:

it’s the tenth densest city in the country,

it’s got 8,000 people per square mile, so there’s eight dots on the square.

New York, the densest city in this country: 28 dots in that square.

The densest city in the world, Manila:

111,000 people per square mile.

And this is going to grow, the cities are going to get bigger

and they’re going to get denser.

What’s that going to be like?

Can we design these environments to be the next great civilizations?

We have the tools, and now we have the science and we have a choice.

We will choose to build classrooms that bore,

or we’ll choose to build classrooms that delight.

We’ll choose to build workplaces that distract,

or we’ll choose to build workplaces that motivate.

We’ll choose to build cities that stress,

or we’ll choose to build cities that inspire.

And design gives us that choice.

Thank you.


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