Design to support physical activity (STYLE webinar blog #2)

Katariina Kiviluoto & Marjukka Parkkinen

The second part of STYLE webinar on 29th April addressed design and business activities. Three panellists were asked to consider how the urban environment and infrastructure, products, services and technology could support the increase of physical activity, and how we could move barriers that hinder this type of development.

Cities and public spaces are not mainly designed to enhance physical activity and healthy mobility. Long distances between home and everyday locations combined with inadequate cycling and walking routes, tend to direct people to choose private cars instead of active transport modes. Following the thoughts of Bas Govers and Jan Gehl, Transport Planner Mette Granberg (Helsinki Regional Transport Authority, Finland) argued that cyclists and walkers do not necessarily feel invited to use urban spaces. They may be tolerated by other road users, but in order to actually increase the modal share of walking and cycling, they should feel equally welcomed to utilise the common urban sphere. Granberg suggested that this is a question of priorities – if we plan our cities for private cars, people will drive their cars. However, if we plan our urban areas for walking and cycling, active modes will be a natural choice for people. Granberg also challenged city planners to provide more food for the senses – it is a well established fact that people enjoy green areas, colours and urban areas filled with life. 

Infrastructure improvement is generally considered to be a key issue in increasing active modes. Granberg shares this view, but invites us to bear in mind that infrastructure can also make us hostages of the past. We are locked-in in planning choices made decades ago and breaking free from the past is not easy. Moreover, Professor Tim Schwanen (Director of Transport Studies Unit University of Oxford, UK) argued that our current fixation on technology solving our problems tends to transpose the responsibility on health and wellbeing to the individual. This may in turn be used as an excuse not to have to invest in infrastructure or undertake in other forms of more structural change. Still, the current corona-crisis has been a showstopper in many ways. We are, for example, seeing new ad hoc uses of roads and other urban spaces. According to Granberg, this clearly shows that where there is a will there’s a way. In addition, although infrastructure investments tend to be very costly, fast changes can also be done with only minor investments. 

From the business perspective, everyday physical activity may easily be seen as difficult to productise. There are plenty of services and products for organised sports, but why is daily physical activity considered to provide less business opportunities? Professor John Thøgersen (Department of Management Aarhus University, Denmark) supports Granberg’s view on the weight of past on the present day design and focuses on demand aspect: “Effort and exercise have historically been abundant and they are biologically something we want to minimise.” According to Thøgersen, comfort and convenience are still in fashion (and perhaps even increasing in the future), and there is no lack of transport modes, products and services that match this need. Thus, creating demand based on opposite behaviour is challenging. However, new business models can promote healthy mobility by  making physical activity more attractive, creating novel forms of moving, and, importantly, removing important barriers. According to Thøgersen, despite some obvious problems, Chinese bike sharing systems are an excellent study case on eliminating obstacles, with easy payment systems and abundance of bikes in several locations as success factors.

Next, the webinar focused on technological and digital devices, which are often blamed for minimising our need to move. “Of course there is a lot of talk about how new digital technologies have turned us into sedentary social aliens almost”, saysProfessor Schwanen. Yet, he continues, the role of technology is much more complex in relation to active mobility. Digital technologies enable coordination of service provision as well as cashless payments across service providers. In addition, digital tools allow the provision of real time information. Technologies also allow the real-time monitoring of population or specific city sites for repair purposes. For individuals, a range of fitness applications for individuals allows them to compare themselves to other people, or alternatively, to themselves in another point and time. Professor Thøgersen adds that instant biofeedback can be rewarding, social and attractive for the user. However, these technologies and self-measuring are not appealing to everyone, and the triggering mechanisms of these tools should be studied more, says Professor Schwanen. Risks related to technological development include privacy issues and self-selection: the balance between voluntary use of apps and constraints that may lead to digital exclusion. 

This is the second of four thematic blog posts about the STYLE webinar. 

Further information, recording and slides from the webinar here.

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