Most of us think of memory as a chamber of the mind, and assume that our capacity to remember is only as good as our brain. But according to some architectural theorists, our memories are products of our body’s experience of physical space. Or, to consolidate the theorem: Our memories are only as good as our buildings.
Close your eyes and picture you're in your kitchen at home. How do you get from there to the washroom? What colour are the walls? Where are the cupboards? Could you draw a map from point A to B? How many of the details along the way could you replicate with accuracy? It's not as easy a process as you think; even the distances between rooms isn't as consistent in your memory as you think it is.
That, essentially, is the process that police walk witnesses through in describing suspects or recalling details from memory. It's one we do very poorly. If you're asked, however, how those spaces, faces or experiences make you feel, you're on much safer ground. People who have touched your life deeply leave lasting impressions; you might look kindly at a cactus if, say, a favourite grandparent always had a cactus in their space. You might mistrust all dogs, because you were terrified by one in your youth. Emotional impacts are much more deeply ingrained in our memories.
Marketing understands this, as does politics - the best messaging doesn't present information; it conveys emotional content. Neuro-linguistic programming, or NLP relies on the manipulation of emotion to direct thought and is employed to some degree in the design of any tribal event, be it a religious service or a partisan rally. Even Scientology incorporates some understanding of emotion's role in memory. Ever heard the expression "number tell, but stories sell?" How about this one - "a picture is worth a thousand words?"
"Syrian forces had killed 500 children." It's pretty sickening. Think you'll remember the number in an hour? Click this link and tell me how soon you think that image will clear from your mind.
Now, think of government services; press 1 for this, press one for that. Lists of hospitals, lists of doctors, forms and rote information. Click on this link to 211 Toronto and tell me where your eyes gravitate.
I'm going to guess it wasn't the text on the left, but the pictures on the right. Yet, our services aren't picture-based, they aren't designed for intuitive use; they're lists of terms that link to other lists of terms, or they're people on phones reading out "if A, then 1; if B, then 2" scripts. The emotional resonance is missing; the map-like feature cues are entirely absent. It's the dimensional equivalent to black-and-white, silent films; there is so much more detail that can be realized, if we have the right technology to map out that third dimension.
Of course, we're only now developing the digital tools that will allow for government services to be presented in a way that fosters maximum efficiency in public uptake. The US has put together a roadmap for digital government that is doing just that - building a digital map that provides mental cue landmarks and will facilitate access. This is where Wiki meets Googlemaps; the realization of what Don Tapscott calls Networked Intelligence or what I like to call The Conscious Society.
The future of government services, much as the future of work, is going to capitalize on this deeper understanding of what resonates with constituents/employees and how to design services, work spaces and work itself to promote maximum efficiency of use and maximum productivity. The Henry Fords of the Cognitive Labour Revolution are busily designing the assembly mind lines that will propel the information economy forward. The process will start in work and be picked up by labour, but where the most amazing transformations will occur when this trend hits our education system - where good teachers are already employing some degree of cognitive space design.
It's an exciting time to be alive; there's a whole new world of opportunity being opened up before us. The challenge we face now is putting together the map.