Wellbing and Quantum Physics

David Thompson, Director of DPT Urban Design, compares Wellbeing to quantum physics in response to BEFS Annual Lecture 2016.

Wellbeing is a little like quantum physics.

According to the latter’s principles, we don’t know the definite position of a particle until it’s measured by an observer.

So it goes with wellbeing. There’s only a particular state at a particular point in time. Wellbeing is dynamic and ever changing and it’s the key truth Sir Harry Burns explained within his presentation.

To get close to designing a wellbeing system that identifies actions, before thinking through the role of Development Planning within it, the system could:

  • Gather data very regularly – a highly engaging set of processes to understand ‘the now’;
  • Identify the ‘initial conditions’ – identify those aspects that lie behind what we see when we engage; and
  • Adapt to emerging needs – have an agility that affords changes in direction and purpose.

A system would need measures or indicators to know if changes or interventions are having an impact. This is where it starts to get very murky. I’ve viewed a recent presentation that identified over 2000 separate indicators in a literature review. 2000!!?? Room for debate then?

Perhaps not. We do know that Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs provides much of the context for wellbeing and we also have a model for appreciating the Determinants of Health. The central tenant within this very complex landscape, one that was covered in the presentations, is that having a network of people you know really matters. Some people may call this a community. It turns out that if this network or community have a shared purpose that helps bring meaning and a degree of control to everyone’s lives then even better. Having an agreement on this approach or assertion seems a useful starting point.

How does the Development Planning system fit with this idea? This system is far more simple, in (very) short, it states where new development is built and what it looks like, how we manage changes in existing built and natural contexts and a process for making decisions. So in theory, this sounds interesting and useful to thinking about wellbeing.

Is it? Thinking about the need to gather data very regularly and respond very quickly, a Local Development Plan is 3 to 4 years in the making and has a shelf life of 5 years. At the extreme end, if an idea is missed at the Main Issues stage (right at the beginning), it may have to sit there for 8 years until it can become an action (reconsidered in the next Main Issues report (5 years later) and enforced in the subsequent Adopted Local Development Plan).

However, based on experience, many of the issues raised within the Development Plan making process by people, relate to aspects of their life in the context of how they live and interact with their place.  It’s highly unlikely that we are going to see protests outside Council offices with a banner saying ‘that street you’re proposing to be built in 7 years’ time isn’t conducive to social interaction and should be realigned to better connect with greenspace!!’.

Scotland’s Community Planning system is shaping up, alongside the integration of social and health services, so perhaps the main focus lies here, instead of ‘Main Issues’ exercises.  The collaborative processes happening across Scotland right now (of which I’m privileged to be part of two), within the Scottish Government’s Charrette mainstreaming programme, offer the chance to get data, asks questions, find out what matters and propose actions, regardless of a particular system.

I’m convinced the rules of how we design new places can be written on a side of A4 (by rules I mean the key aspects that shape new development, not window details!) so every new physical context we build in Scotland is consistent and helpful to those that live in it. Here’s a challenge to someone, what would a wellbeing diagram within a master plan look like? What would it show?

One insightful comment made the point that the focus of the Development Planning system keeps changing. There’s some truth in this. Place-making has replaced sustainability, resilience replaced it to some degree and now there’s a focus on wellbeing and health.

We know that our perception of the world we see is based on the information received through our senses and interpreted in our brain into a model of understanding. Without a consistent approach based around the aspects of wellbeing we do know, we’re stuck in the land of 2000+ measures and a huge range of opinions. This diversity of wellbeing understanding was evident during the evening as almost every subject we can think of was linked in some way to wellbeing. From a young planning lawyers question about “who pays for infrastructure” to an assertion “it’s about more cinemas son” to a debate on Edinburgh’s greenbelt.

The way I try and tackle information is the same way Kip Thorne wrote his book (the physicist behind the film Interstellar) by taking information and placing it into one of three categories 1) information we know is evidenced based 2) educated guesses extrapolated from some evidence 3) speculation. My experience of the built environment sector is that we’re generally in columns 2 and 3. This sector (and I place myself in this) have much to learn from the evidence based approach of the health sector.

David Thompson, Director of DPT Urban Design.