Space Syntax: the push of intent, the pull of need and the resistance of the “pre-digital”

I was asked an interesting question yesterday about the barriers to growth and acceptance of Space Syntax and Integrated Urban Models.

I believe there are three important components to the answer.

First, the growth of Space Syntax Limited‘s business was robust for 19 years, following its startup as a UCL spinoff company in 1989 – until 2008, when the bottom dropped out of the global real estate market. In that initial period, the company’s turnover grew at an annual rate of over 20%. This allowed continuous staff growth and market penetration. During this time the company devoted profits to the production of new software and new research findings as well as a modest return to shareholders and staff bonuses. It invested this way because it was determined that its growth should be about long term success and sustainability, not short-term reward.

2008 saw the global financial crisis hit the urban planning and design industry at home and abroad. This disrupted the growth curve at Space Syntax for two years. The company is today back on an accelerated growth track having seen consistent turnover growth at over 40% in each of the past two years, the steepest rate in its history.

As the company has reviewed the situation in recent years, it has concluded that continuous investment in the development of software and research remains essential. Yet seeking to rely on a) consultancy-generated profit or b) the UK government’s helpful R&D tax credit system as the principal sources of investment was not judged to be sustainable. A balance needed to be found.

And so, as part of the rebuilding and restructuring of the company post 2008, the Board of Directors took the decision to seek external funding to add to its own funds for the creation of new software, the production of new research as well as the establishment of an academy to teach Space Syntax – an academy that would be both classroom-based and online, taking advantage of web-based technologies. This approach is working well, with funds secured from the EPSRC and UCL helping to advance Space Syntax’s technology and methodology.

The second part of the answer to the question concerns the professions that create future cities: especially architects and urban planners. Here, one barrier to the further growth and acceptance of Space Syntax’s approach is, in my experience, one of institutional inertia. What we have sometimes found is that the leaders in architectural practices – less so in engineering and public sector planning departments – have been resistant to the use of computing when it comes to architecture and urban planning, where traditionally these are disciplines that have been based on skill, experience and generally a nondigital approach to production.

Why should this be? One pragmatic reason is that the majority of directors and partners in architecture practices today are over the age of 45 and will most likely not have used a computer during their education, not even to write a word never mind to design a building. They will have learned their trade in the old, pre-digital way: the pencil, the Rotring ink pen and the paintbrush. Getting these leopards to change their spots is not easy. Architecture, for them, is largely an art because that is how it was taught.

Yet, for Space Syntax, architecture is both an art and a science: “Total art and total science” in the words of Bill Hillier. We have seen notable exceptions of course: the better architects in my experience are the ones who have been more prepared to embrace new approaches and new technologies. Norman Foster, Terry Farrell, John McAslan and Fred Pilbrow stand out among others.

What have they seen that others have not? Well, architects who have embraced the Space Syntax approach have found that it allows them to be more creative: more artistic, not less. What they have been able to see is that Space Syntax does not reduce intuition, but increases it by making visible to the eye structures in the city that are otherwise hard to see. The fact that Space Syntax shows empirically how these structures appear to be involved in the multiple complex layers of how the city appears to work makes this all the more important.

Space Syntax’s role in projects tends to be to rebalance the debate about matters that are often considered intangible (for example, pedestrian movement and human interaction) and which are confronted with numeric modelling  by engineers (for example, vehicular traffic). In these instances having a positive evidence base and quantification can be helpful to achieve what the designer knows intuitively to be important, but where they often find themselves facing a determined argument for a mechanistic design. Space Syntax has created a science around the “soft” issue of human behaviour that architects have found more intuitively meets their design needs.

Space Syntax is a disruptive technology and those prepared to be disrupted have discovered what every research scientist knows: that science is an intuition-based process and art can be highly analytic.

Nevertheless, in the world of town planning and architecture, where projects by necessity must move quickly through the design planning and construction processes, introducing new tools – introducing a whole new way of creative working – has often been difficult. But not impossible. As Space Syntax Limited’s growth shows, the take-up of the approach has been robust when the industry has been robust. And, since the restructuring and recovery of the company, it is back on that growth curve again.

My expectation is that, as time passes and the leaders and influencers in urban planning come from a younger generation, more familiar with the use of computer-based design tools, then the acceptance of Space Syntax technology will be easier. Younger architects and planners are using such tools throughout their education as well as during their practice – and not just as ways of evaluating their designs but also, as was Hillier’s original intention, as “tools to think with”: creative tools. [Generative design is a subject for a future blogpost – it was interesting to hear Bill speak recently about his role in pioneering the art and science of generative design – today’s users of Rhino and Grasshopper should be aware of this deeper and longer history.]

For the third part of the answer, it is worth taking a look at the world of academia, where the take up of Space Syntax has been highly successful. Space Syntax is taught and researched in hundreds of universities worldwide where thousands of students and researchers are using the theory and technology as part of their academic work. Over 5,000 licences of the core Axman and Depthmap software had been issued prior to that software going open source two years ago. The academic landscape of technology production is also fervid. At the recent International Space Syntax Symposium in Seoul, Korea many new software products and methodologies were shown, many of these not originating in the UK. In other words Space Syntax has been internationalised.

I believe the take-up has been even greater in academia than in industry first, because of the generally slower and more reflective pace of academic work, where students and researchers have had time to work through the theoretical and technical aspects of Space Syntax and second, because of the direct access they have had to software that was, for many years, restricted against commercial use, thus making it harder for practitioners to engage with since they had to do so via a licensed Space Syntax consulting company. Open sourcing removes the licensing barrier but doesn’t address the theoretical and technical complexities. This requires further development to simplify the user interface and to make methodological knowledge available, hence Space Syntax Limited’s interest in doing both, including the creation of the Space Syntax Academy and Space Syntax SoftwareWorks.

A final thought: the increasing and increasingly international popularity of Space Syntax and Integrated Urban Modelling raises the risk that the thought leadership and technology development in Space Syntax and Integrated Urban Modelling will move away from the UK as further advances are made in other countries. It is very much for this reason that Space Syntax Limited is seeking external funding from a UK source first, to make sure that the UK retains its leadership in the field that it has created.

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