Can Buildings Be Persuasive?

A simple but sometimes overlooked force in shaping human behavior comes from human-made environment — built space in which humans make decisions and take actions. Houses, classrooms, offices, train stations, and even caves for our ancients, human-made environment influences what humans do, even though most of the time we are not aware. In other words, built environment does exactly what “persuasive technology” has been designed to do.

Technology as Persuasion

The term “persuasive technology” was coined and is used in the field of computer science, referring to applications or programs that designed purposely to change users’ attitudes toward better behavior. Today, this term has been broadly applied to various technological design, but not to architecture. That is what I’d like to suggest here: Buildings can be, and should be, regarded as a (basic) form of persuasive technology.

In influencing users’ behavior, a built environment often functions like a user interface (UI) for human interactions with and within not only society but also nature. One feature of such an interface, which is different from most persuasive technologies, is that it influences human behavior not by providing information for deliberation but by giving a physical structure to human action. Although most buildings are made with simpler technologies than computer applications are, their effectiveness and efficiency are not lower, sometimes even better, than typical persuasive technologies.

Two examples below illustrate how sophisticatedly designed environments can promote people’s behavior toward a better direction.

The Chamber for Democracy

During the World War Two, the chamber of the British Parliament was seriously damaged. When preparing reconstruction, the Prime Minister Winston Churchill said to his fellows, “First we shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us.” He then gave two suggestions for architectural design. First, the smaller the new chamber, the better. A small space would induce the feelings of urgency and pressure, and then could make legislators deal with bills more carefully and proactively. Second, the face-to-face seats dividing the two parties would let legislators see each other’s faces and gestures. Therefore, it would boost and provoke debates on proposals. Churchill’s idea made what the chamber looks like today. And the UK has been praised for her long history as a democratic country.

As a persuasive technology, the building of the chamber functions like a user interface for legislators to interact with one another. If actively joining discussions and carefully debating with people who have different opinions are important qualities for a democratic society, then such a chamber indeed helps its users to behave democratically, to become more qualified. This example shows how built environment, albeit in a low-tech form, can play the role of persuasive technology in benefiting society.

The Office for Nature

Built environment can also benefit nature through improving people’s environment-friendly behavior. In order to save energy, a four-floor office building in Taiwan was intentionally constructed to prioritize the use of the stairs instead of the elevator. The architect located the stairs at the center of the entrance hall. He also painted it with bright colors. In addition, the elevator was moved to a corner that cannot be seen directly from the entrance. As a result, this design affects almost everyone who enters the building. Not only employees but also visitors take the stairs rather than the elevator for going up and down. And after it was constructed, the energy consumption of the building decreased significantly.

What is interesting is that, whether employees and visitors have environmental awareness or not, in the building they behave like they are equipped with environmental morality. In such a way, this building plays the role of user interface for human interaction with nature; it constructs a specific relation between its users and nature. Besides, while typical persuasive technologies (smart meter, for example) change users’ behavior by feeding them information to produce better attitude, such a persuasive building is aimed directly at human behavior itself.

Persuasive Buildings and Ethical Concerns

As we have already seen, human-made environment, even though in low-tech forms, can be persuasive. To broaden the scope of persuasive technology, it might be helpful to take buildings into account. However, unlike the original and most adopted form of persuasive technology, such a low-tech form changes human behavior mainly through its physical materiality. Buildings don’t need to be “smart” with AI technologies to become persuasive. Shapes are sufficient to meet the goal.

Due to the different features, ethical concerns for persuasive buildings are also different from those for typical persuasive technologies. Generally, transparency and privacy are two major issues concerning persuasive design. But they are not primary concerns for persuasive buildings. On the one hand, users who are persuaded by a building can always see the shape, the structure, and the presence of what is persuading them. There is nothing invisible or hidden. On the other hand, because such a low-tech design persuades users mainly through its physical materiality, there is no need to collect personal and private information from users. This may make the personalization of persuasion impossible, but it reduces the problem of privacy.

However, there are still two issues we need to be careful when considering and designing persuasive buildings. First, how strong the influence exerted by the buildings in design. Because of their materiality and targeting human bodies, the structural power of persuasive buildings is easily made too strong. Second, how hard for users to avoid the influence. The cost to find alternatives is better to be low, otherwise a persuasive building may become a coercive one. These two points are crucial for persuasive buildings to get more ethically acceptable.

Take Buildings Seriously

Buildings can be persuasive, but they are rarely considered and counted as persuasive technology. But as I argued above, they should be. Once we understand them as a user interface for human interactions with and within society (populated by humans) and nature (populated by non-humans), the questions of how and why they can influence human behavior would enter the research field of persuasive technology. If we are concerned with ethical issues implied by typical persuasive technology, we should also take buildings seriously.

* English is not my native language, so please let me know if you find anything weird. Thanks!