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Finding our way in the world: new research, insights and collaborations

Posted on 21/06/2017

Urban wayfinding and human navigation is being informed by new research.

How urban wayfinding and human navigation is being informed by new research and development in neuroscience.

By Bernadette Fallon

Cities are becoming smarter. Systems are becoming more sophisticated. Advances in GPS, satellite communication and digital data gathering means that we have more information on our surroundings than ever before. But where is the human brain in the equation, and how are the practical problems of human navigation that still exist being addressed?

Insightful research and innovative developments are taking place in the field of neuroscience, transport, industry, architecture and urban planning, but projects are often carried out in isolation. A recent event hosted by the Knowledge Transfer Network (KTN), the Royal Institute of Navigation (RIN) and University College London (UCL) set out to change all that.

‘Urban Wayfinding and the Brain: Neuroscience Meets Industry’ was designed to bridge the gap between sectors by bringing together leading thinkers from the worlds of academia, neuroscience and industry to swap ideas and share project learnings in order to benefit future planning and stimulate business opportunities.

There is a substantial amount of neuroscience research that could usefully benefit future developments in making our environments more easily navigated, particularly as those environments become more complex.

Making our spaces smarter

Dr Kate Jeffery, Professor of Behavioural Neuroscience at University College London, explained that a lot of recent academic insight into how the brain navigates is not making its way out into working practice in the outside world. She pointed to the ‘difficult building’ syndrome: aesthetically beautiful architectural creations that are frustrating and complicated to use because they don’t take into account how the human brain navigates. And it’s not all about clear signposting, she revealed – the navigation part of our brains evolved a million years before language, and works on a different system.

Why the obvious is not always ‘obvious’

Big data can also make it easier to understand congestion and route-mapping, giving designers key insights into how humans navigate cities. While we may assume people will always take the shortest path to their destination, research carried out by Dr Ed Manley at the Centre of Advanced Spatial Analysis at UCL shows this is not the case. He used minicab routing data to explore behaviour and spatial decision-making when navigating the city, with learnings that can be used to improve predictions of urban phenomena.

Creating a healthier society

Helping people to ‘find their way’ in complex urban environments has plenty of wider benefits for society and the environment. Supporting city users to find their way on foot, rather than relying on public transport, creates a healthier, fitter society that is less polluted, more sustainable and potentially more commercial. If people enjoy their time in the city, they will be encouraged to spend more time there and support the local economy.

It may also encourage more efficient behaviour. Orla McCarthy from the walking strategy team at Transport for London (TfL) revealed that there are 109 Tube stations in the capital where it is quicker to walk between stations than to make the same journey by train. But people who are unfamiliar with the city need to be supported to make that choice, which means clearly identifying walking routes to follow. Orla is also the programme manager for Legible London, TfL’s pedestrian wayfinding system, consisting of maps that include place names, local attractions, accessibility points and walking times between destinations

Dr Hugo Spiers, a Reader in Neuroscience at UCL, said research shows that when people use a sat nav, their brain activity decreases. Medical evidence shows that the hippocampus, the area of the brain we use for navigation, is bigger in experienced London black-cab taxi drivers. A mobile video game developed to test spatial orientation on an international level found that residents who have the highest navigational skills live in the most developed countries with the highest levels of GDP.

Creating an environment that is more intuitive and guides the user ensures less reliance on technology. For example, using a map on a smart phone to navigate a route has potentially isolating effects as the user is less likely to interact with others to ask for directions. It may diminish memory building and does not build knowledge of an area, as people look at their phones instead of their environment. And there’s always the possibility the battery will run out and leave the user stranded.

Where do we go from here?

The Urban Wayfinding event arose from activity identified by and led by KTN in collaboration with the RIN to connect neuroscientists, navigators and designers and users of public spaces. Recent breakthroughs in understanding how the human brain processes navigation information is now being exploited to improve the layout and signage of public spaces such as tube stations to help smooth and speed the flow of people.

There is real commercial value in applying these research results, and neuroscientists are now working with architects and transport operators providing commercial opportunities and societal benefits. There is plenty more to be done to strength these links, and to update users with the latest outputs from this flourishing and exciting research area.

There is also the potential to improve navigation apps and devices, both in mass-market and professional applications. There are potential health benefits, as navigation impairment is often an early consequence of dementia – and public space design, which takes account of relevant neuroscience research, can aid independent mobility.

Future activity by KTN and our partners in this space will look to explore the fundamental shift in how different generations approach navigation, from using paper maps to relying on electronic devices, and whether this has led to changes in the way navigational ability develops.

For more information, please contact Bob Cockshott, Knowledge Transfer Manager for Position, Navigation and Timing and Quantum Technology. To stay up to date on all of our events and activities, make sure you have registered for our newsletter.