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Posts from the ‘Research’ Category

Eliciting judgements of value with visual judgement cues

19 August 2013

Derek Thomson

WIRED has an interesting review of an MIT project attempting to elicit judgements of safety from visual cues of the urban environment.  It looks (from the paired comparisons).  As below, they’re talking randomly-paired images from Google Maps Streetview and asking random participants to judge which is more desirable.  From this, they’re calculating heatmaps of ‘safety’ but crunching the extensive dataset they’ve gathering.  Problem is; they’re not acknowledging the weaknesses of the elicitation prompt itself.


The elicitation prompt of this work is remarkably similar to “VALiD: Value in Design” – a past study of ours at Loughborough work that sought to provide a practical (rather than necessarily perfectly reliable) way of helping construction project stakeholders evaluate architectural options for addressing architectural criterion that they considered aspects of “value” for their project.  These judgements were structured as evaluations of “benefits” or “sacrifices” – getting to the core of the nature of value: the trade-off between desired and undesired outcomes.  This operationalised expression of such an obtuse concept was one of our main contributions from this work.  You can read the development of this understanding of value here.

When attempting to make this work in workshop settings (rather than an en masse online tool as MIT have constructed) we problem we found was one of calibration.  A picture contains a vast amount of rich information, all of which is interpreted by each individual with reference to their unique, tacit construct frames.  We found the data generated useful in the sense that it stimulated the debate among stakeholders from which sensemaking could  be structured, but not very reliable due to these biases in stakeholder judgements.  The resulting quantifications were workable, but they were meaningful only to those stakeholders who had participated in the debate around which an agreed interpretation and meaning was assigned to each judged image.

This whole calibration problem seems to be overlooked by the MIT work, which is somewhat odd given its prominence in the literature.  The MIT work does, however, appear to have successfully gained a large number of evaluations.  Perhaps they have been able to account for irrationality through shear dint of having so much data.  They don’t mention it in the supporting paper, though: just controlling for demographics.

The Kinematic Building: Broaching Animacy

30 November 2012

Derek Thomson

Last week I was fortunate to have the opportunity to present to and participate in the “Building as Object and as Project” workshop hosted in Torup, Denmark by Copenhagen Business School’s Centre for Management Studies of the Building Process.  What a tremendous opportunity to engage with the latest thinking and works in progress of pivotal academics with a sociological perspective on construction project complexity!

It seems that, in this particular community, Actor Network Theory is flavour of the day and it does seem to be yielding insights.  As the theme of the workshop was design orientations towards a ‘building as project’ view and, never one to hoist my methodological flag on any particular pole, I attempted to argue for a conceptual linking of Ingold’s taskscape (which underpinned his ‘as project’ view), Brand et al.’s Long Now, Brand’s prior ‘shearing layers of change’ work, and kinematics (but with movement conceived temporally rather than spatially).  All of this allows, I think, a new conceptualisation of buildings as constantly shifting entities that need to be nurtured, rather than conserved (or even preserved) over time.  They can be thought of as animated; of having the animacy and constant ‘becoming’ (rather than simply ‘being’) that (the few) Architects seeing modality emphasise.

I’m not sure if I hit home, but I did notice a few delegates picking up on the animacy concept the day after and several were already using Brand’s shearing layers model in their work.

Anyway, a copy of my working paper is here (please get in touch if you would like to cite it, as my thinking continues to develop around these topics and hopefully the paper will soon become out of date).  The slides from my talk are below. Some of these slides are taken from colleagues’ work at Loughborough, looking at new models of adaptable building provision (i.e. ways of practically responding to this conceptualisation, and others).

Read more

ARCOM Best Paper 2012

17 September 2012

Derek Thomson

One of the PhD students I brought with me to Loughborough won the RICS Best Paper Award at this year’s ARCOM conference: a real accolade and rewarding of his hard work.  It’s nice to see the academic community recognise the originality and depth of thinking.  It’s largely the student’s efforts, but the supervisors had a role to play, too.

Here’s the abstract:


D. J. O’Keeffe, D. S. Thomson and A. R. J. Dainty

School of Civil and Building Engineering, Loughborough University, LE11 3TU, UK

Abstract: The engagement of project stakeholders in the design evaluation of National Health Service (NHS) buildings is critiqued to evaluate the current effectiveness of NHS policy which prescribes the use of quantitative, positivist survey instruments to capture stakeholder views. An alternative conceptual framework for design evaluation is presented that privileges the practice of design evaluation as the social interaction of project stakeholders. Empirical evidence from two longitudinal case studies of newly-constructed mental health facilities illustrate the success of this innovative approach in improving patient healthcare outcomes and reducing operating costs. It elucidates and enhances both the praxis and practices stimulated by current approaches to design evaluation. It raises important implications for the future development of UK Government policy to substantively improve the design quality of NHS healthcare buildings and, in turn, improve patient healthcare outcomes.

Keywords: Design evaluation, design quality, NHS policy, practice, praxis, social interaction.

Click here to read this exciting paper in full at
Loughborough University’s institutional repository.

The cost of ‘gold’ open access publishing

16 July 2012

Derek Thomson

Disclaimer:  I’m Deputy Editor for Engineering, Construction and Architectural Management, an Emerald journal.

Well, we all know that the ‘academic spring’ is bringing open access to western academia in the very near future.  It looks like it will be in the UK within two years, if things pan out as expected.  In principle, this is a good idea.  But, as always, there’s a rub.  And here it is (from the above):

Though many academics will welcome the announcement, some scientists contacted by the Guardian were dismayed that the cost of the transition, which could reach £50m a year, must be covered by the existing science budget and that no new money would be found to fund the process. That could lead to less research and fewer valuable papers being published.

To get your paper into a recognised journal that’s indexed and has a good impact factor, you’re looking at £3,250 per paper (at least, that was the open access fee for my last paper accepted by an established international journal).  You’ve always got the option of publishing for c. £1,000 in one of the newer open journals, but these come without reputation or impact factor.  As the behavioural economists will note, no one ever buys a cheap theatre ticket.  Not when personal h-indices are at stake, anyway.

As every academic is under pressure not just to publish but to publish well, publication and citation in journals of good standing is the only option.  A typical institution will expect at least three high-quality journal papers from an academic per year.  So, each academic will have to find somewhere around £9,000 per year to keep their career alive.

The publishers are justified in charging these fees as their subscription model is suddenly untenable, but just where will be money come from?  The only thing I can hope for is that library subscription budgets will be divided through an institution and made available directly to academics to support these front-end publication costs.  But what are these budgets, and how much will each academic receive?  I can certainly foresee a situation in which the funding required by publication is rationed.  How would those decisions be made?

As a final thought, now that the funding mechanism is highly visible, I would expect journal editors to become under commercial pressure from their authors to see work in print quickly.  I would also not be surprised if reviewers start requesting a slice of the paper fee.  How will journal quality be maintained when a market for reviews emerges? How will those journals who cannot afford to pay their reviewers a competitive rate survive?  How will they retain their editors when editor fees are currently far below the income generated by a single open access paper?  How will editors resist possible pressure from publishers to increase the quantity of papers flowing through the system?

What’s happening here is the pricing of esteem.  As someone who studies the pricing of intangibles, it’s massively interesting.  But scary at the same time.

Academe as artistry?

7 May 2012

Derek Thomson

With the Avengers doing so well at the box office, there’s a good few Joss Whedon quotes floating around at the moment.  This one:

I’ve had so much success. I had something to say, I got to say it, people heard it, and they agreed. That’s every artist’s dream. That’s the brass ring.

makes me wonder if there’s really anything different between academic works and those traditionally thought of as ‘creative.’  All an academic wants is for their work to make a contribution that other people consider worthwhile and useable.  That’s why we exist: to create and advance knowledge; rather than to advance (usually political) agendas through entertainment.

An opportunity for a funded PhD

29 February 2012

Derek Thomson

An opportunity exists for UK or EU nationals to compete for a funded PhD Scholarship in the School of Civil and Building Engineering at Loughborough University. 

If you are at all interested in studying issues of stakeholder engagement, value, and/or the quantification of intangibles in a construction or built environment context, then please get in touch as soon as possible:

This is a growing field and opportunities to make fundamental contributions abound!

A new paper, forthcoming in CM&E

17 January 2012

Derek Thomson

This is one of the papers to come from the HaCIRIC-funded Benefits Quantification work I was doing just before coming to Loughborough. Really pleased to see it accepted by a good journal.  Some of the reviewer comments were the best I’ve ever had!

The Use of Freelisting to Elicit Stakeholder Understanding of the Benefits Sought from Healthcare Buildings

Thomson, Kaka, Pronk and Alalouch

Elicitation and synthesis of the collective understanding of a cultural domain held by a group of stakeholders is challenging. This problem typifies the pre-project activity from which a coherent understanding of the benefits sought from infrastructure investment must emerge to inform the business case rationale. The anthropological freelisting method is evaluated as a solution by determining its ability to be operationalised in a practical form for project application. Using data from the stakeholders of a large NHSScotland building project, the use of multidimensional scaling for data analysis is compared with participatory pilesorting to determine which freelisting protocol balances insight with practicality. Neither approach is found to offer an ideal method of characterising sought benefits. The social construction of pilesorting promotes reliability while the analytical rigour of multidimensional scaling remains attractive to auditors. Their distinct insight suggests that both approaches should be combined in future and used alongside further post-elicitation devices from anthropology such as cultural consensus modelling or structured conceptualisation.

Searching for a benefit function profile

17 October 2011

Derek Thomson

Finally got there.  Shame the curves aren’t the shape I predicted.  Now to finish writing it up…

Saturday night

15 October 2011

Derek Thomson

The graph may have a wry smile, but I don’t.  Another Saturday night slaving away at a paper…

Communication complexity!

14 September 2011

Derek Thomson

So, just how complicated is a construction project?

Answer – About this much:

This is a social network elicited from email communications between the client’s project manager on an average, moderately-sized project (c. £20m; no particular design or process issues).  It was produced by a student with an EPSRC summer bursary who’s been working for myself and colleagues for the last ten weeks.  

We’re now working on interpreting this complexity.  Already, we’re characterised an interesting and hitherto unacknowledged change in the nature of the client project manager’s interactions with the rest of the construction project over time.  These are associated with leadership qualities.  I can’t say much more, as we’re yet to publish but suffice to say: “watch this space!”

We’re also working on identifying emergent, normative communities within all this complexity and inferring the rationale for that project structure from the nature of the low path-distance subnetworks within it. 

By the way, there are over 12,000 email messages in the figure above…