Crowd of protesters

Syllabus: Spring 2018: Intelligence(s) in Environments


Environments Studio IV is about design, behavior, and people’s understanding, in physical, digital, and hybrid environments, with a specific focus on intelligence of different kinds, from social interaction to artificial intelligence. The course comprises practical projects and workshops focused on investigating, understanding, and materializing intelligence and other invisible and intangible qualitative phenomena and relationships, through new forms of probe, display, and interface. We are re-interpreting the formal course title, ‘Designing Environments for Social Systems’, as being about engaging with intelligence in its many forms.

This syllabus will be updated over the course of the semester. But the basic plan is that we will cover three units, each of which will result in a project:

Weeks 1–3: Jan 16–Jan 30 Unit 1: Design, behavior and social interaction How the design of environments, and features within them, affects people’s thinking, behavior and interaction. Other minds as part of context. Project: Probing how design, intelligence and behavior interact in a particular situation (20% of grade).
Weeks 3–7: Feb 1–Mar 1 Unit 2: Speculative Design and intelligence
Using speculative design and design fiction to investigate directions that new approaches to intelligence(s) in environments might lead, and some of the consequences. Project: Creating a piece of speculative design (object, website, movie, etc) which tells a story (30% of grade).
Weeks 8–16: March 6–May 3 Unit 3: Intelligence, autonomy and the human infrastructures of AI
[Details to follow]. Project: [details to follow] (40% of grade).

Note that there will be no class on March 13th, March 15th or April 19th, due to Spring Break and Spring Carnival. As the projects progress, the class is intended to be studio time for you to work on your projects, which may sometimes mean that you don’t actually have to be present (e.g. if you’re doing field research, using workshops, etc). Please let me know though. There are a few sessions where I will be away at conferences, but I will arrange either for a guest or for a pre-planned activity for these sessions. 10% of your grade is for engagement in class.

Unit 1: Design, behavior and social interaction (Weeks 1–3: January 16th to 30th)

In this short introductory unit, we will look at the ways in which the design of environments, and features within them, affects people’s thinking, behavior and interaction with each other. Design influences what people do, but often the ‘links’ are invisible or only apparent by their effects. Or, we notice them in passing, but do not take time to reflect on them or draw parallels across situations. As designers pioneering new approaches to creating environments for human experience, cultivating a kind of ‘hypersensitivity’ to noticing—and learning from—the ways in which design, intelligence and behavior interact can be part of developing the attention to detail which will serve you well professionally. Parts of this unit draw on Engaged Urban Research Methods, a course that Flora Bowden and I developed and have taught for two years with Don Ostdiek for Rice University’s summer program in Copenhagen.

We start with quick observation exercises aimed at developing (or refreshing) a capacity for noticing, for paying attention to the ways in which people and environments affect each other. First, we will look around campus for instances of points of confusion, unintended uses, constraints, and disobedience in physical environment settings, and discuss how these effects manifest in different ways—what can you find?

We will watch part of William H. Whyte’s classic documentary The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces (1979) to explore some of the approaches to thinking about, and studying practically, how the design of environments influences people’s actions, and read a bit about thigmotaxis in architecture and how psychological phenomena such as this can be investigated. We will do some observation in more detail around campus, eliciting and characterizing the patterns that emerge from different people’s interaction with environments over time, using principles from John Zeisel’s Inquiry by Design, adapting them for digital contexts where appropriate. This could be, for example, looking at how people navigate a space or how people use a piece of technology within a physical environment, and the diversity of interactions that happen.

The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces by William H. Whyte (on the Internet Archive)

Assignment 1: Design, behavior and social interaction

Your project brief for Unit 1 is around observation (and a way to record your observations)—designing and using a ‘probe’ rather than creating a solution to a problem:

—Choose a situation where ‘design’ seems to be affecting how people think and act in an environment (physical or digital)
—Find a way of observing and studying what’s going on—what patterns exist? In what different ways are people’s thinking and behavior affected?
—Visualize (or otherwise communicate) what you find. It might be written, video, drawing, animation, a model…
—(optional: suggest ways things could be different, or better, if you feel they could be improved)
—Keep a blog of your process (photos, sketches, notes)
—Be ready to present your project in class on Tuesday January 30th

This is an individual project: you can collaborate where you need to, but make sure you each do your own investigation. You might look at ‘mass’ behaviors quantified or visualized (e.g. people’s paths around an obstacle) or something more qualitative (e.g. people’s sentiments in a particular environment, or using a particular piece of technology). You might want to study what’s happening using your own observation in-person, record it over time, or develop a way for (traces of) the phenomenon to be somehow tracked or logged directly. Maybe people’s thinking or behavior is revealed through annotations that others have made—signs or notes explaining what to do. How do ‘real-world’ observation methods translate to a digital context, and vice versa?


  • presentation, Jan 30th (please try to keep to 5 minutes)
  • a blog post of your process (please email to
  • please also send the presentation or other materials you have produced (or put them on Google Drive)


Alongside the project, we’ll be looking at other aspects of design and behavior in environments. We’ll delve a bit into explicit design for behavior change techniques, particular those involving the design of features in indoor and outdoor built environments, those which have parallels across physical and digital contexts, and those where bringing contextual information into places it wouldn’t otherwise be, can change the experience people have and the decisions they make. We will also explore some ideas from my own forthcoming Design with Intent book. Some concepts here include the ideas of enabling, motivating or constraining behavior, Herbert Simon’s ‘scissors’ metaphor for the interplay of context and cognition, the idea of stigmergy being considered within design, and questions around the extent to which people’s behavior can ever be ‘planned’.

We will watch/read parts of Stewart Brand’s How Buildings Learn, particularly to think about the longer time dimension of people’s interaction with environments, Frank Duffy’s concept of shearing layers, Brand’s later concept of pace layers, and subsequent adaptations of the idea in relation to hybrid physical/digital environments. We will also think a bit about the practice of observation, noticing and deconstruction of people’s actions in different ways, such as exhaustive detail (Georges Perec, Nicholson Baker) and considering rhythms (Henri Lefebvre), and the diversity of ways in which a place such as a city can be experienced and interpreted by different people (Jane Jacobs, Geoff Manaugh). We will briefly consider how intentions are often read into observed behavior, watching Fritz Heider and Marianne Simmel’s classic video from “An Experimental Study of Apparent Behavior” and discussing the fundamental attribution error.

Unit 1 Readings

Extracts from:

  • Ann Sussman and Justin B Hollander, 2015, Cognitive Architecture
  • Jane Jacobs, 1961, The Death and Life of Great American Cities
  • John Zeisel, 1984, Inquiry by Design: Tools for Environment-Behavior Research
  • Henri Lefebvre, 2004 (1992), Rhythmanalysis
  • Nicholson Baker, 1988, The Mezzanine
  • Georges Perec, 2010 (1975), An Attempt At Exhausting A Place in Paris
  • Geoff Manaugh, 2016, A Burglar’s Guide to the City
  • Stewart Brand, 1994, How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They’re Built
  • Stewart Brand, 1999, The Clock of the Long Now: Time and Responsibility
  • William H. Whyte, 1980, The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces
  • Fritz Heider and Marianne Simmel, 1944, ‘An Experimental Study of Apparent Behavior’
  • Deborah Du Nann Winter and Susan M Koger, 2004. The Psychology of Environmental Problems, 2nd edition
  • Dan Lockton, 2012, ‘Simon’s Scissors and Ecological Psychology in Design for Behaviour Change’ (link)
  • Dan Lockton, 2011, ‘Architecture, urbanism, design and behaviour: a brief review’ (link)

Files will be on Google Drive.


The crowd image used for the link to this page on the homepage is a strike or protest, by LoggaWiggler, CC0-licensed.