Graphics showing paths through the campus and potential crossing points

An MIT Study Shows Design Can Increase Engagement

A group of researchers at MIT found that the right level of crowdedness led to more chance encounters and more frequent communication across disciplinary boundaries.

It has become axiomatic among architects and interior designers that spaces in all categories of buildings should enable and facilitate human interaction. This is especially true in academia, where spontaneous and unplanned “collisions” are thought to increase engagement, especially among people within different educational disciplines.

A new study by The Massachusetts Institute of Technology adds some empirical evidence to support this previously anecdotal design paradigm. The study, entitled “Spatial structure of workplace and communication between colleagues: A study of E-mail exchange and spatial relatedness on the MIT campus,” looked at email traffic among faculty, researchers and staff and found, among other things, the following:

  • Physical proximity does matter for workplace collaboration
  • People are more likely to communicate via email after running into each other at a campus eatery than in a crowded corridor
  • Email exchanges occur more often among researchers whose workplaces are connected through indoor halls rather than outdoor paths

“Proximity matters,” says Andres Sevtsuk, associate professor in MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning, and co-author of the new paper, wherein data was gathered just before the COVID-19 lockdowns. “Proximity will increase the chances of encounter and social exchange,” he continues. “Studying how spatial relationships may influence social ties has been of interest to scholars of the built environment for a long time. We’re interested in taking this idea of spatial relatedness further and examining its more nuanced aspects that have not been well-covered in prior research.”

Interior view of corridor
MIT’s “Infinite Corridor” connects several buildings on the main part of campus and was a key location for the study. COURTESY WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

A database of anonymized email exchanges between pairs of different “research groups” (a sub-departmental academic affiliation) was collected in February 2020 and compared with the spatial locations of these research groups’ offices. The study documented the precise three-dimensional locations of 1023 offices in 28 buildings in the central part of the campus, where MIT’s famed “infinite corridor” system provides indoor walkways between all buildings. The study also took into account the routes between offices including corridors, staircases and elevators, as well as outdoor walkways that go through courtyards and streets between the buildings

The campus eatery, described by Sevtsuk as equivalent to the ancient concept of the agora, or marketplace, loomed large in the study. “What if eateries are more crowded than less crowded?” he continues. “We have an estimate of how crowded each eatery is and we found that actually in the case of eateries, crowdedness can further increase the probability of email communications.”

Rounaq Basu, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning and another co-author of the study, introduced the concept of “encounter probability.” That is an instance when the spaces under study are neither too sparse nor too crowded. “You want a sweet spot between an empty, scary alley and a concert venue,” he says. “What we found is that the right level of crowdedness matters. There is a medium level of crowding that is more beneficial, as opposed to extremes—too many or too few.”

The study’s abstract delved further into this subject:

“The key innovations presented in the paper include a novel approach to analyzing encounter probabilities during a participant’s journey to work; estimation of potential crowdedness in building corridors; and a similarity estimation in amenity access for different workers. Our analysis suggests that these types of spatial relationships go beyond simple distance between workers’ offices and affect email communications among workers. The results provide limited evidence that spatial planning may be used strategically to encourage social, cultural and economic exchange or knowledge-spillovers within buildings and campuses.”

Mapping the spatial terrain of the campus allowed researchers to calculate how probable certain interactions between faculty were. This was crucial to linking physical proximity to volume of email communication. COURTESY MIT

Given that the study falls under MIT’s School of Architecture + Planning, what is the advice of the studies’ authors to architects and interior designers wanting to design vibrant, interactive spaces?  “It would be interesting if planners and architects paid more attention to putting together departments that are on the surface unrelated,” says Basu, “but that form the opportunity for cross-disciplinary collaboration. For example, we in architecture don’t get the opportunity to talk to people in chemistry even though there may be similar ways of thinking that could be mutually beneficial.”

The study concludes that “planning environments to encourage greater interaction across different groups may offer a pathway to bridge siloed social networks and encourage information exchange between otherwise unlikely parties. Variable spatial designs can also generate different serendipitous encounter probabilities along their circulation routes. Manipulating or allocating such spatial qualities strategically could potentially help organizations promote visibility, interaction and knowledge spillovers between key stakeholders.”

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