World Architecture Day 2014
 
 
 
 
Big Society, Big Brother and natural surveillance
David Watts

In the UK, we are getting used to the idea of being watched – after all there is the much quoted statistic that Britain is home to more CCTVs than any other country in the world and some statistics show that there are more CCTVs than people. It seems that Big Brother arrived not in 1984, but in the last few years of the twentieth century. All these cameras require monitoring - a task that is achieved by some degree of automation, but largely by human beings in specially designed control rooms. The questions people ask are: All these cameras are being watched by whom? Where are they being watched from? The net result is people build up pictures of malevolent watchers in some secret bunker watching our every move. It’s secret, it’s covert. It’s Big Brother.

Monitoring is a fact of twenty-first century life – whether that is because of anti-social behaviour, or the threat of terrorists. But the way this monitoring is accomplished varies from country to country, and in many respects that is about cultural issues. Continental Europe has gone in one direction and the UK another. In Britain, a covert CCTV culture has developed in tandem with the loss of the art of integrated town planning. Town planning has created division, separating commerce, retail and residential areas with the result that city centres have no sense of natural protection from the presence of a wider cross section of the public looking out for one another in a sociable manner; young drinkers can behave with impunity safe in the knowledge that the rest of society cannot see what they are getting up to and their natural inhibitions are let slip by the lack of any need for social responsibility. This has resulted in the loss of the natural surveillance which comes from the presence and interaction of people, members of the public going about their daily and nightly business.

What we have learnt is that it is possible to design in security. In European cities there are rarely the same empty streets at night as there is a more integrated approach, meaning that every building is constantly being overlooked and thus protected. The result of the different approach is that whereas in Britain

 

city centres have become no-go areas for families with police and ambulances lining up at the end of the night to deal with the casualties of too much cheer, in Europe they are places where families can come and enjoy a relaxed and friendly evening. Because town centres become this ghost town at night in the UK rather than the mix of residential and commercial, so remote monitoring becomes an efficient way of ‘patrolling’ these areas given the lack of any natural protection

As the culture of monitoring in the UK is unlikely to go away in the short term, planners should consider a dual strategy.

CCTV as the route the UK has chosen is actually producing negative effects in the built environment as the apparatus is intimidating. One way of tackling this issue – that the very apparatus of protecting people actually intimidates them – is to integrate them into the design of the society they protect. If you like, this was the function performed by British Police Boxes in days gone by (anyone who watches Dr Who will understand this). So can we break down these barriers? In some places this is already happening – CCD proposed a security control room for a London Museum which was actually positioned in the museum itself as an exhibit for visitors to see, giving them a chance to understand how this works. Careful design ensured that no confidential information or activity would be seen.

In certain stations on London’s Underground, the control rooms are sited on by the busy concourses with glazed walls so passengers can see the control room staff at work. This maximises the opportunity for travellers to see that there are real people looking after the network and keeping passengers safe. Windows are key to this but so too is suitable screening to ensure that only the information the operator wants the general public to see can be. For some environments this is never going to be achievable – for example where the control room has to be secret as it is, in itself, a potential target for terrorists.

Here the design trait is to create a balance between giving a view in and managing the behaviour of staff that customers might see. The same approach is equally applicable to the urban environment – create reassurance by designing control rooms which provide reassurance for the people they are aiming to protect. This also requires a different type of architecture – buildings that are not watchtowers, but are part of a friendlier landscape. What else does this new approach to designing control rooms do? The main other benefit is that it can give a more pleasant working environment to the staff – more natural daylight. This is significant because historically a lack of understanding of the value of human factors has encouraged control rooms which do not consider the needs of the operators. They are often built down to a cost rather than up to a

 

level of optimum efficiency human factors can ensure that both objectives can be achieved.

What about this issue of being seen to be in control? The visible control room also is reassuring in that you can see people are watching the images rather this it just being recorded. Of course this is an issue of trust: look at the recent events with BP doctoring images of their control room – they wanted to publicise the images to show they were in control and were doing something using high-tech equipment. They got found out but much of the design need for control rooms is about presenting the right image of the activity and the organisation that runs it; branding in a sense. If the watchers are being watched that also imposes a new discipline on designers – using human factors to ensure they are able to do their job efficiently and effectively – and in a way that encourages confidence amongst the public.

At the same time, planners should be looking at ways of improving the natural security of our buildings and the public at large by encouraging a greater mix of uses and thinking about how the design of our built environment affects social behaviour. If a vulnerable building was surrounded by a pleasant open public space, used at all times of the day by a wide cross-section of society, it might be easier to spot potential threats because of the natural vigilance of the public rather than relying on cameras constantly monitoring the same scene.

Together, planners and control room designers can create a better protected society which increases confidence and well-being, rather than one where being watched undermines basic societal values.

David joined CCD in 1996 with a degree in Ergonomics and Human Computer Interaction and became Director in 2002, working on projects within the rail, oil & gas, public sector, utilities and the emergency services. He recently took over the position of Managing Director with responsibility for growing CCD to the next stage of its development.

Over the years at CCD, David has amassed extensive experience in project management, human factors integration, control centre design, health & safety, design integration and HCI and has worked with clients such as Network Rail, Siemens, PA consulting, easyJet, CTRL, Carillon, Schlumberger, Metropolitan Police, National Express and ITER (France).

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