Engaging citizens in design with virtual reality and neurofeedback

Text: Mark Bos

People at the center

“It is ironic that we know more about mountain gorilla habitats than we do about human habitats,” Gudule Martens, the consortium’s architect and urban planner, quotes Jan Gehl. “Smart cities often lack people. While the city is there for the people, and the technology must be at their service.”

The citizens are involved in large design projects, but there is still much to gain from the way it is done, Martens believes. “Traditional citizen participation is usually top-down, with the same people ideally allowed to stick yellow papers with proposals and then be told it will be ‘taken,'” she explains. “Residents are often more dissatisfied afterwards than before. It can be done differently.”

The meeting place of the future

This is one of the reasons why the consortium was created: the resident is actually the owner of the public space, and the members of Olifantenpad would like to know what happens if we also designate and address the resident as owner.

The consortium will be created in 2021, when the engineering consultancy Sweco together with Dutch Design Week invites designers to design the meeting room of the future in a What If challenge. Search for the limits of the technical possibilities and color outside the lines, is the motto.

Elephant Path takes up the challenge: An urban psychologist, a spatial designer, a lighting designer, a VR expert and an expert in neurofeedback join forces in a search for other ways to engage people and explore how technology can serve this purpose. can stand. (During the People’s Information Symposium in November, they gave an insight into their working method.)


As an example, lighting designer Ellen de Vries cites a study in Eindhoven, where different lighting scenarios were used in a specific environment. The municipality wanted a scientific infrastructure, and it had to fit into the city’s digital twin, a virtual environment where innovative ideas can be tested.

“We let people go through scenarios with a headband: young and old, male and female, resident and professional. We measure the neurofeedback via brain waves, how they react to what they experience. Not literally from “I like this or not”, but you can detect patterns.” In conversations with the city psychologist, a qualitative component was added to the collected data. In addition, extreme situations were tested, for example using color, to record what it causes in the brain.

Neurofeedback and VR

recognizable surroundings

Olifantenpad continues in the same way in another experiment involving a large, stony (school) square in Rotterdam, which needs to be redesigned. In the virtual environment, three variants have been designed with input from the residents.

These basic environments are set up with data available in the Netherlands, so that a recognizable environment is created for the resident. He chooses a variant and specifies adjustments: the elements come from Rotterdam’s style book and can therefore actually be used in the space in question, such as tiles, votives, furniture, greenery, playground equipment and light poles. There’s also a night mode so you can move lights around or turn them on and off. The resident is an expert by experience and knows what is needed, where, also in terms of lighting, the tank is.

Surprising results

It provides a lot of surprising information. “That residents find other things important than professionals, that men and women can experience stress due to different reasons, that people feel good when their brain understands the perspective in a split second,” De Vries summarizes a few findings.

“We use that to create a basis for choosing different solutions. With VR, everyone has the same starting point, you don’t get distracted,” says De Vries. “You make it concrete: People usually can’t translate 2D drawings into what it means to them,” adds Martens. “That problem is no longer there, you are in the area. The neurofeedback then provides insight into the subconscious, things that you can hardly question.”

Wow factor

The technology is well received by the user during trials and test setups. “Young and old can handle it, you can make a design with several people. Urban planners are also surprised by the possibilities this set-up provides,” says Martens. “In a nine-day test setup during Dutch Design Week, ‘wow’ was the most heard response.”

The consortium is looking for citizen participation projects and partners to take the next steps. “We are asking large and small municipalities to participate, in addition to universities and industry, so that we can take the next steps.”

Using neurofeedback and VR to design public space

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