In praise of chaos

Kings Cross pop-up wild swimming pool




Couple of interesting debates happening right now that are both covering the same broad issue. The Human desire for the unexpected. The need for an emotive random layer in our increasingly automated worlds.

There is significant chat right now about the best way to design interfaces[1] (or UX) between cool tech and bumbling humans.  Finally software is slowly gaining interfaces we don’t need a weeks training to operate. Speakers at a recent UX conference[2] in Zurich were encouraged to ‘Embrace the Chaos’ (of true human behaviour) to make better controls people could actually use.


There is similar debate raging about Privately Owned Spaces or POPS in our cities.  There is a justifiable perception that many city developments are pristine but soulless spaces. Full of signs informing people this is NOT a public space backed by men in high viz jackets to make sure order is kept. It doesn’t have to be this way.


The new Kings Cross development in London, is centred on Europe’s biggest new public space, Granary Square[3]. The developers, Argent[4], referenced ideas first set out in ancient Rome; The belief that a city should provide an inspiration and wonder, with the unexpected around any corner. In other words the plans of the development were reversed. The public areas planned first then the commercial properties fitted around that. To create a real human energy of place.


Geographer Bradley L Garrett[5] writing in The Guardian said ‘The problem with POPS is they lack that kind of energy. They feel too monitored, too controlled..’


What Argent have done in Kings Cross and to a lesser extent in their spaces in Manchester Piccadilly and Birmingham is create some element of the unexpected. Yes it’s still controlled, but not in a complete Truman Show fashion of developments like Canary Wharf.


The geographer David Harvey[6] said ‘..The freedom to make and remake our cities and ourselves is…one of the most precious yet most neglected of our human rights..’


A Wired journalist[7] covering Audi’s driverless car project remarked how being in one was at first terrifying, but within 15 minutes became numbingly boring. We are adapting to our changing cityscapes with remarkable ease. We really don’t want the expected, pre-planned version. Our emotions demand spontaneity for a reassurance of reality. Research[8] by UCL and Otto von Guericke University prove our brains respond to a novelty of situation by seeking greater exploration in search of a reward. It’s well documented how shoppers speed up when walking past blank facades[9] So it’s not just architecture it’s the pulse of people on the street. The environmental psychologist and neuroscientist Colin Ellard[10] has recently been writing about how humans are happier, feel comfortable and are more productive when within cityscapes that offer novelty and impulse options.  


But this is not an invitation to simple reflect a happy smiley world


A smiling image in an ad is now perceived as fake. The upshot of this? The stock photolibaries like Shutterstock[11] are reporting a doubling in demand for images showing ‘sadness’ – with even ‘Fear’ being selected nearly twice as often as ‘surprise’ A non-perfect world is the new perfect world, see also TV chefs[12] championing ugly fruit and veg


But what does this mean for the spaces we inhabit, both digitally and in the real world?


We need the odd bump in the road. We desire the unexpected, the experience of the new. Whether it’s an Instagram feed or a public space with a pop-up food truck. The psychologist Danial Goleman said;  ‘Emotion plays a powerful role in our lives and has gained significant attention as a priority area of study in interaction design’.[13]


Consumers will enthusiastically spend money on a place or event that promises the unexpected.


It has been shown that increased loyalty and productivity come from environments that facilitate the needs of social and physical group dynamics[14]. It’s no wonder that Secret Cinema[15] the immersive film experience of the second Star Wars film ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ has been a sell out[16], that’s £75[17] a ticket for a film released in 1980. The promise being of course is a layer of humanity and a little chaos added to the film going experience. Something so devoid of a traditional Multiplex visit.


We are now seeking this element of spontaneity whether online or in the real world. It’s what is driving many to rethink how we use our spaces.


We are currently working with the Sheffield Business Improvement District (BID) team developing ideas to make the city centre a more vibrant place to be in.  This is a project of both digital and real world challenges, but all linked by a human desire for the unexpected.


The unique layout of Sheffield City Center has the opportunity to beguile its visitors not with an enclosed glass box of identikit retail but with a passion and soul of a living community celebrating its cultural differences[18].


It is through embracing the joy of human chaos we will make both our public spaces more fun to be in and our online tasks more enjoyable.



[1] IBM and Econsultancy, “The Consumer Conversation: The experience void between brands and their customers,” April 2015.







[8] Absolute Coding of Stimulus Novelty in the Human Substantia Nigra/VTA "Pure Novelty Spurs The Brain." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 27 August 2006

[9] Danish urbanist Jan Gehl. Urban Design Consultant and Professor of Urban Design at the School of Architecture in Copenhagen

[10] Places of the Heart. Colin Ellard 2015 Bellevue Literary Press

[11] 2015 Design and Emotion study

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