Stratumseind is where Eindhoven's night life happens. At the weekend it is heaving, with thousands of mostly young people who – often after a few drinks – enjoy each other's company. After midnight, in particular, things are likely to get out of hand, and fights, intimidation and acts of vandalism are not uncommon.
Those involved, such as police officers and bar staff, often say they can sense the onset of this kind of aggressive behavior before it happens: in the run-up to things kicking off, there is a negative atmosphere. The thinking behind the project De-escalate by, among others, Eindhoven municipality and TU/e is that it may be possible to influence this atmosphere in a subtle way, for example by adjusting the color of the street lighting – with less aggression as a result.
As a PhD candidate at Human-Technology Interaction, Indre Kalinauskaite was involved in De-escalate. It was her job to carry out the on-site experiments in the ‘Living Lab’ Stratumseind – an assignment she found remarkably appealing due to its real-life nature, she explains. “Most research in our field takes place in the lab, and it is always the question whether the results will also be applicable in the real world. And now I was able to go out into the real world for my doctoral research."
However, that wasn't all fun as it turned out. This is because for two six-month periods during the large field studies Kalinauskaite had to spend several nights a week until the early hours in Stratumseind in order to observe the behavior of the people on a night out who were visiting the street. And – in contrast to almost everyone around her – she was completely sober.
“Even when the temperature was minus 8 and I had to enter my observations on a tablet. That meant wearing special, thin gloves – my fingers were white with cold. And when I would get home at five in the morning, the central heating would still be off. My head would be buzzing and I wouldn't be able to sleep yet, but it was too cold to work on my data. So I would just sit wrapped up in blanket and shiver. At those moments, I admit, I regretted my choice. And whenever I was sworn at by drunk night-time revelers, or hassled in some other way.”
The regular visitors to Stratumseind became familiar faces to the Lithuanian at a certain point; police officers and bar staff, as well as some shady figures. “Once a guy came up to me and said he knew that I was working undercover for the police, but that he had tidied up his act. Then he unzipped his jacket to show me that he wasn't carrying anything illegal.”
But in spite of everything it was worth it, feels Kalinauskaite. “After the initial field studies, we realized that an atmosphere is difficult to capture in concrete observations, such as certain specific behaviors and questionnaires completed by visitors.” Conversely, a fixed list of more subjective questions about the atmosphere, filled in by observers, did work well: the findings turned out to be consistent with each other and correctly predicted the time at which most problems occurred: around one o'clock in the morning.
A follow-up experiment, in which the color of the street lighting in Stratumseind was varied, showed the subtle effects of this lighting on the observed atmosphere: a slightly ‘warmer’ light – a little towards the red end of the spectrum - added positively to the reported mood in the nightlife area. Not rock solid evidence, admits the PhD candidate, but certainly a starting point for future studies.
Personally, she is now looking for her next challenge, in which she would like to research the effect of technology on the experience of atmosphere in the built environment. “This field is still in its infancy and I would like to help develop it while working for a large design agency.”