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Prescribing digital capability for better health

How data and digitalisation can improve wellness and sustainability in design

This month, we were delighted to welcome Nathan Baker, CEO of the Institute of Occupational Medicine (IOM) to speak about digital for wellbeing as well as data’s role in helping society meet wider sustainability goals.

Our Chief Digital Officer, Willem Kok, caught up with Nathan during the event to get a snapshot insight into how data and digitalisation can improve wellness and sustainability in design.

Willem: Based on your recent experiences at the Institute of Occupational Medicine, what have you been seeing as the main challenges for organisations and what they face in relation to people’s wellness?

Nathan: Over recent times, we’ve seen increased workplace stress. But we’re also seeing an increase in awareness, not just of mental well-being, but also physical well-being. That has really been driven by an awareness of exposure to things. Because of Covid people are now much more aware that there are things out there and in their workplace that they can manage either to avoid or at least manage more effectively so that they can reduce their exposure to certain things. We’re also seeing an increased drive across the Health and Safety Executive and also employers ensuring that exposure to toxins and hazards is reduced.

There are a whole raft of other exposures, such as silica resulting in silicosis, that have been around for thousands of years. The Romans may not have called it that, but they were certainly aware of the inhalation of dangerous, hazardous dust on a construction site. Equally, we’re now seeing the rise of exposure to types of metal, heavy metals – Chromium-6 is becoming a real issue in the manufacturing sector, and also around diesel engines.

So, yes there’s a plethora of things around exposures to hazards, both physical and mental, that means that there’s a real opportunity to understand how to create better spaces so that people can live and work in a healthier way.

Willem: And how have you been seeing data and digitalisation facilitate organisations who really want to get better at focusing on wellness, not just for their clients, but also internally for their people?

Nathan: There are a lot of lessons that have been learnt over the last 20-30 years from the safety side of health and safety. We’re all very aware, particularly on construction sites, that ’Safe by Design’ is a very powerful way of ensuring that your workforce is protected from typically, physical illness or physical injury.

What we’re now seeing is that the data that is out there can help to drive better design from a health perspective. If you were to look at how a roundabout or a road junction is now designed, there’s a real opportunity to use, whether it’s BIM processes and various modelling tools to really understand whether that specific junction needs to be a roundabout, traffic lights, a bypass, or an overpass, whatever it might be, to enable the traffic to flow.

What we’ve seen is that there’s almost too much data, but the lens of health by which you look at the data is very powerful. When you look at the health of those constructing buildings or wider infrastructure and those who use the asset, whether that be employees or general public we have the opportunity to change how we design and build which could help to drive wider changes across construction. We are seeing a real opportunity to ‘Mobilise and Model’ the way that we build things through a lens of health and for overall wellness.

There is so much data out there about the impact of exposures on people, whether that be to pollution, exposure to dust, or stress and strain that occurs within life, that can be exploited now to really model how to create a better environment in which we all live and work. That’s where digital problem-solving needs to be focused.

Willem: The last time we spoke, we talked about the trends that data can reveal and how that could influence decision-making and provide better insight. What’s been the biggest challenge for organisations that try to leverage their data for that purpose?

Nathan: Having the right focus, and really understanding how you are going to use that data to enable you to design better when looking at it through the lens of health, because there are many factors which impact an exposure. If you were to consider exposure to diesel particulate as an example; if we take the example of the road junction that I used before – many roundabouts were designed in the 1950s when vehicles were smaller and lighter, and most were petrol. You’re now looking at an environment where vehicles are bigger, heavier, and not only is their engine different but also, they’re in a position of increased traffic volume. So, roundabouts which were designed to enable traffic to flow are now often seen as choke points in a traffic system. The ‘so what?’ of that is, what you see is the impact of driver behaviour – they brake late, producing more hazardous dust, and they accelerate hard to get on and off the roundabout, creating more diesel particulate and other emissions. As a result, roundabout areas are now unhealthy if you’re a pedestrian or a cyclist, just from exposure to airborne material.

Using digital tools and data analysis, you then look at the trend of when those peaks and troughs are, and you can observe traffic flow, identifying a rush hour or that’s when a particular vehicle type was there, or that’s when there’s been a road accident. There’s a whole raft of things that then impact how the exposure to emissions manifests itself on a daily basis, an hourly basis, or even less than that. The trend, when overlaid with a health perspective forces us to look at the issue in a different way and design solutions differently.

Willem: How can we adjust corporate thinking, and train our minds to unlock opportunities for wellness-first digital design?

Nathan: It’s about being able to identify a trend and say; “do you know what, there’s a real opportunity here to design this piece of infrastructure or design this ventilation system in a building differently to ensure that we can manage more sustainably”. I use sustainably not just in a climate change sense or an environmental sense, but in the wider context of enabling people to lead better lives. We can look at a trend and apply our knowledge earlier in the design process to ensure our design will make this a safer, healthier place to be’, rather than just building things. We can use our data and the health impact to educate clients so they consider more than just CAPEX cost when commissioning work.

To discuss how data and digitalisation could help your organisation, please contact Willem Kok below.