Is Hamilton a vibrant city? Why the answer is in your brainwaves

The team at Cobalt Connects is setting out to define the word "vibrancy" at a biometric level, so that city officials can better plan cultural spaces. They're even going so far as hooking electrodes up to study participants to take the word vibrant out of the realm of buzzword and into reality.

Vibrancy project created to define what makes a vibrant neighbourhood at a biometric level

James Street North was one of the eight Hamilton neighbourhoods that a group from Cobalt Connects analyzed to define what makes up a vibrant cultural space. (Sheryl Nadler)

“Vibrancy” is one of those words that is almost meaningless.

It’s a lot like “synergy,” and “engagement.” These words are used constantly — especially in political and corporate spheres — but what do they really mean?

Yet the word “vibrant” shows up on four different pages in the city’s cultural plan, so it must be important, right? That’s why the team at Cobalt Connects is setting out to define it — using hundreds of volunteers and lots of electrodes.

“Rarely can you attach the word to something specific,” said Jeremy Freiburger, chief connector and cultural strategist. “Cultural plans all say they want ‘vibrant’ neighbourhoods but no one can accurately define it.”

But that’s set to change, thanks to Cobalt’s Expressing Vibrancy project, which was created to define the attributes that make up a “vibrant” civic space. The arts organization started the project by studying eight Hamilton neighbourhoods — in Waterdown, Downtown Dundas and Westdale, as well as on Concession Street, Barton Street, James Street, Locke Street and Ottawa Street. A team walked through each neighbourhood and counted “cultural assets” like graffiti, trees, neighbourhood-specific architecture and signs in languages other than English.

Then 250 volunteers from varying age ranges and backgrounds strolled through those neighbourhoods while filling out a survey, reporting on what they saw and felt, and how it relates to vibrancy. “That way we can get a real sense of what they’re connecting with,” Freiburger said.

Fun with electrodes

That data — coupled with demographic data gleaned from Statistics Canada reports — would no doubt be enough for a normal report to city council. Freiburger and his crew, however, are taking it step further to almost Clockwork Orange-like levels at McMaster University’s Live Lab to test physiological responses.

Jeremy Freiburger is the chief connector and cultural strategist at Cobalt Connects. (Supplied)

The Live Lab is a one of a kind facility that can be used to test how people react to visual and auditory information. Volunteers in the study will be hooked up to devices that measure brainwaves, heart rate, sweat levels and breathing patterns while viewing video, pictures and listening to sounds from the eight Hamilton neighbourhoods in the study. Their biological responses then get catalogued to truly define how people react to something that is supposedly “vibrant.”

“It’s a little spooky when we look at how closely we’re looking at the answers here, but that’s what culture does every day,” Freiburger said.

The participants will be the first people to use the Live Lab, he added. “It’s a really cool opportunity.”

Once all the data has been analyzed, factor[e] design studio will turn it into an interactive website, where users can watch video from each neighbourhood with biometric data from the participants layered over it. Yup, viewers will be able to take a video tour down Locke Street and see the study group’s heartbeat and sweat fluctuations. Or monitor their brainwaves as they wander down Barton Street.

'Go forth and plan'

All this data will be hugely beneficial when it comes to city officials making informed decisions about culture in municipalities, Freiburger says — and understanding that vibrant means different things to different people.

“Our hope is that when we’re done, we can say [to the city] ‘these are the factors you can use to measure vibrancy, we've now verified how specific demographics respond to them, so go forth an plan,’” he said.

“If you want to build a wicked retirement village, here's what people over 65 think is vibrant. If you want to retain students in the downtown core, here are the top 10 things students hated, so don't do these.”

In the end, it all comes down to using tax dollars wisely to invest in culture. Municipalities use cultural and urban plans to make decisions about where to invest tax dollars in everything from arts funding to park amenities, so they should be doing it with a real set of guidelines to plan wisely, Freiburger says.

“And if these new plans have 'vibrancy' as the new goal, then we need to define it.”


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