Shaping the Future ... In Theory

As history progresses, so does the evolution of design thinking. And with it evolves the application of game theory to our work in the profession.

by Julio Braga, IIDA, LEED AP

Sometimes in life, decisions you make lead to results you never expected. When, so many years ago, I made a trip to New York to see the Rolling Stones at Shea Stadium, I couldn’t have foreseen, as I packed my bags, how this simple pleasure trip would impact both my personal and professional life. Before the trip was over, I would fall in love twice—with the woman who eventually would become my wife, and with New York City. I also received a job offer from a design firm that would cause me to leave my homeland of Argentina and take up an entirely different life in a new hemisphere.

That, as the saying goes, is life. Or, at least, my life.

Thankfully, we as designers know that while life itself can’t always be predictable, probabilities exist in the behaviors of the people who live it. Through combinations of techniques and best practices like evidence-based design and sustainability, we design with those probabilities in mind to create the best, most utilitarian, and safest possible environments for living and working. Game theory is another practice that has come into play in recent years for that very purpose of helping us to analyze human behavior and to strategize our design spaces accordingly.

The roots of game theory as we understand it come from the sphere of economics some 70 years ago, which, to me, is significant in that it shows that a good idea can influence design from anywhere—from economics to psychology; from physics to athletics; and from any period in time. What’s exciting about game theory is the way that it deals with probabilities and virtual certainties in outcomes, enabling designers to predict the behavior of people who will find themselves in the environments they’re designing, and to use that data to deliver a more effective end result. This is a defining evolutionary development in design thinking that is shaping the future of the profession in the here and now.

The aim of devising strategies affecting the outcome of the design process is, of course, to have a positive impact on as many people in a given population set as possible. Looking at healthcare is perhaps one of the most obvious ways in which we can illustrate the impact that we can expect game theory to have. Starting with an enormous set of data about a region’s demographics, its economy, and trends in illness as well as in well-being, computer simulation models can be constructed that assign specific statistics to hypothetical individuals, and scenarios can be run in which the health of whole populations can be charted into the future along different trajectories, depending on where and how healthcare facilities are designed. Based on the outcomes of these scenarios, designers can take advantage of what game theorists refer to as the Nash equilibrium—the point at which the greatest number of beneficiaries of the given scenario is maximized.

Let’s assume that a healthcare facility is being built in an area where cardiovascular disease is a particular concern. Based on the data results of a population’s healthcare trajectory over a generation, we may find that in time, not only may the space allocated for a cardiovascular unit and its required amenities be insufficient for the increase in population, but also we might choose to redesign the entire inpatient unit with a greater emphasis on the needs of the recovering patient. More indoor-outdoor recovery areas for physical therapy, with natural light and appropriate fixtures for plants, for example, might need to be integrated than previously considered—and the results of the scenario will give us a good estimation of how significant those changes should be.

The strength in employing game theory strategies like this lies in designers being able to anticipate human needs and behavior as it relates to space. As designers, we continue to develop and refine best practices to ensure that the spaces we design answer to the needs of our clients and to those of the people who will utilize them. Game theory strategies are some of the most compelling tools we can use to ensure the greatest utility of the spaces we design not just when the project is initially built, but as the community grows through and around it.

Application of game theory to design is one of the more interesting ideas to enter mainstream design discussion in years, and it’s just as important for those of us in the profession to consider any available data or theory that might best inform us about the needs of the end user and the client.

The ongoing process of discovery is integral to why designing built environments for the present and the future is so satisfying and enriching for those of us in the design community. As we learn better ways to analyze the components of society for which we design and respond in turn, we ensure that our work lives and functions as it’s supposed to for the current generations and those to follow in the future, impacting the lives of those who may yet have a life-changing experience at a Rolling Stones concert or another event, whatever it may be.


IIDA President Julio Braga, IIDA, LEED AP, is a Design Principal at IA Interior Architects. You can reach IIDA at (312) 467-1950 or at