posted 5 Apr 2004 in Volume 7 Issue 7
Knowledge, know-how and knowing
By linking current neuroscience knowledge to the know-how used by architects, John Eberhard describes the philosophy behind the recently founded Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture that aims to understand how buildings and spaces can be constructed with the specific needs of the user in mind.
In the November 2003 issue of Knowledge Management, Victor Newman says, “KM is the deliberate management of knowledge to deliver specific outcomes.” Although as he says, a major problem with many companies is that they do not know what they want these outcomes to be.
I am presently managing a process that aims to provide intellectual bridges between the rapidly expanding body of knowledge being created by neuroscientists and the know-how used by architects. Architects use their know-how to develop and design solutions for spaces and places used by a wide range of clients – from classrooms in elementary schools to sophisticated research laboratories. They make decisions based on acquired intuition, as, for example, they currently have no way of knowing what the spaces they create might do to the cognitive processes of a six-year-old child or what impact the colour of an office might do to worker productivity.
If you have no way of knowing what impact your design decisions will have on the brains and minds of the humans who occupy your buildings, how can you be expected to use knowledge management to deliver a desired outcome? If you lack the vocabulary and intellectual constructs to comprehend neuroscience you are like a cat trying to learn calculus. Your brain is just not prepared to accomplish the task. On the other hand, if you are a neuroscientist with a brilliant mind, but no ability to imagine what a three-dimensional space will look like once it has been created, you probably cannot understand how an architect designs complicated buildings. Neither world has the ability to know, in any significant way, what the knowledge base is in the other world. In the meantime, both are using their acquired know-how to carry on with their professional commitments.
Scientist and novelist C.P. Snow said that being a professional meant having a can tied to your tail that you could not shake loose. That can is the obligation you have to assure you give responsible advice to those for whom you provide a service. In 1959 he also said that most intellectuals in humanities do not understand even the basics of science, which is particularly dangerous in a post-industrial society. And conversely, he said that the scientific community does not appreciate the insights of literature, philosophy and the like. This is still more or less true today. However, we could rephrase it to say those in the humanities field (including most architects I know) have little or no knowledge of science, and scientists have little or no knowledge of the humanities (although most scientists I know today seem more broadly educated than they were in 1959).
The Reflective Practitioner
In 1983, my friend Donald A. Schön wrote The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action. He argues that in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the engineering and medicine professions achieved dramatic successes in reliably adjusting means to ends and became models of instrumental practice. The engineers’ design and analysis of materials and artefacts, and the physicians’ diagnosis and treatment of disease became prototypes of science-based, technical practice that were destined to supplant craft and artistry. For according to the Positivists epistemology of practice, craft and artistry had no lasting place in rigorous practical knowledge.1 Schön later points out that Herbert Simon, winner of the 1978 Nobel Prize in Economics and recognised for his work in psychology and computer science, identified the ‘predicament of professional knowledge’ to be this Positivist view. Simon believed that all professional practice is centrally concerned with what he called ‘design’ that is, with the process of changing existing situations into preferred ones.
Schön argues that the process he calls knowing-in-action is what a skilled design
professional is about. He suggests that in many situations know-how is in the action. For example, a tight-rope walker’s know-how is revealed in the way he takes his trip across the wire. This knowledge cannot be recorded in a written document, read by a novice or reproduced without hours of practice that incorporate this knowledge. This kind of knowledge has the following properties:
• There are actions that we know how to carry out spontaneously and do not have to think about prior to or during their performance;
• We are often unaware of having learnt to do these things, we simply find ourselves doing them;
• We are usually unable to describe the knowledge that our actions reveal.
The Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture
In May 2003, the annual convention of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) was held in San Diego, California. The 20,000 architects attending the event were exposed, for the first time, to a new body of knowledge called neuroscience. While most had a general understanding of how the mind is responsible for providing people with a sense of awe when they visit a cathedral or for a hospital patient’s positive response to windows with a view of nature, they did not know that a scientific effort existed to explore how and why this happens. During one of the sessions, Fred Gage, a senior scientist at the Salk Institute in San Diego, gave a keynote talk on ‘Architecture and Neuroscience’. This was followed by an announcement for the San Diego chapter of the AIA that the Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture was being established in San Diego. To top things off, the AIA’s College of Fellows announced that they were awarding the Latrobe Fellowship of $100,000 to the academy to support a two-year study on how to build intellectual bridges between the knowledge base of the neuroscience community and the practice know-how of the architectural profession.
Amazing progress has been made, but there is a clear realisation that it will take a further five to ten years of intensive work by both communities before there is useable material for any kind of KM programme. When there is sufficient intellectual capital to be managed it will require the following changes:
• Schools of architecture will have to introduce courses into an overcrowded curriculum;
• Programmes of continuing education for architects in practice will need to be mounted: we do not want to produce architects who are also neuroscientists, but simply provide sufficient understanding of the vocabulary and concepts to enable architects to access the field;
• Continuing education programmes for neuroscientists that do not turn them into architects but enable them to comprehend the questions that the profession needs to explore with neuroscience methods;
• Advanced degree programmes for a new generation of doctoral students who work at the interface between the two disciplines. Universities will have to recognise this newly emerging field with degrees that are not presently accredited.
The AIA currently has 28 knowledge communities – subsets of its 70,000 members – with titles such as Construction Management, Historic Preservation, Liveable Communities and Risk Management. While the intention is to manage the knowledge base used by practitioners, there is not a clear paradigm that can be used across such a wide range of communities. The academy hopes to assist the profession to find such a paradigm that will be firmly based on evidence provided by neuroscience research.
The beneficiaries of an advanced architectural profession that uses this ‘knowing in action’ will be children whose schools provide them with spaces that enhance their cognitive capabilities; patients whose rooms assist with their recovery processes; worshipers whose sacred places respond to their metaphysical quests; office workers whose productivity results from an enhanced environment for mental activities; and courts of law where justice is apparent not just intended.
1. Schön, D. A., The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action (Basic Books, 1984)
2. Postivism – a philosophical system that holds that every rationally justifiable assertion can be scientifically verified or is capable of logical or mathematical proof, and that therefore rejects metaphysics and theism. New Oxford Dictionary of English
John P Eberhard, FAIA is founding president of the Academy of Neuroscience
for Architecture. He can be contacted at email@example.com