UCL Department of Civil, Environmental and Geomatic Engineering



UCL-squared - or the Universal Composition Laboratory at UCL - investigates and improves the multi-sensorial design of our environment in space and time, through collaborative and applied research.


Please note, some links below lead to external sites.

In order for infrastructure to support improvement in societal wellbeing, it is necessary to consider our interactions with it from the perspective of the sensing individual. In order to be used, infrastructure should be considered as a provider of pleasurable experience, rather than something that is imposed. At UCL-squared, we believe that positive change starts from positive experiences, and that dynamic, multi-sensorial design of our people-environment interactions is the key. 

Infrastructure doesn’t just mean large systems. As it can refer to what lies underneath or supports a structure, in the context of interactions between infrastructure and people, this includes the support for the structure of society, as well as support for buildings, transport or communications systems. 

The fusion of two viewpoints: societal and individual

Wellbeing is not only the result of a society’s health care system, but is also the product of the interactions between social, environmental, cultural, economic and political systems. Thus in order to achieve wellbeing, a holistic and dynamic approach must be taken in which these systems are connected. However, wellbeing is a state of mind, and is thus perceived and measured differently by different individuals. This means that any model for the achievement of wellbeing must address both societal needs and individual aspirations.

This relationship between a holistic view of wellbeing and an individualistic viewpoint can be paralleled to a musical composition and the relationship between a composer and a listener. A composer may try to write a piece appealing to the general public, but its success will depend on each individual’s perception. This requires both an empathetic composer and an active listener. Thus, in the search for wellbeing, we propose a model which is the fusion of both holistic and individualistic viewpoints.

Universal Composition aims to harmonise these two often discordant viewpoints by proposing a model in which the urban environment is designed in terms of a multitude of senses in space and time. This concept also aims to unite social, political, bureaucratic and economic systems in order to allow the achievement of a multitude of individual aspirations while supporting society as a whole. Through this approach, we hope to compose an environment which is accessible, understandable and fruitful to as many people as possible. Thus we consider wellbeing as a composition and Universal Composition as a means to help produce a synergistic and dynamic model towards its achievement. 

UCL-squared emphasises the importance of detailed design decisions in the long term sustainability of any infrastructure system, and we rethink how the design of one element in a big network can help change the perception of a whole infrastructure system, assisting in large-scale behavioural change. By applying the principles of universal composition to these seemingly small but numerous infrastructure elements, UCL-squared aims to improve the perception of our next generation infrastructure systems, promoting sustainable and positive change.

Five main principles of Universal Composition 

Universal composition 

Universal composition aims to promote inclusivity and accessibility. The term ‘universal design’ has been used by architects and designers to refer to the design of products and environments that are usable to the greatest extent possible by people of all ages and abilities. However, rather than viewing the urban environment as a static built object, we view it as a dynamic one of urban systems connected in time and space.

Through the term ‘universal composition’, we hope to emphasise the fact that, even when implemented, a design continues to evolve with time. Composition, used most commonly in relation to music, highlights this temporal dependency, which is critical to composing our urban movements and interactions. Thus rather than designing, we propose the ‘composition’ of urban interactions – from detailed urban design experiences to transport flows - in space and time. Like a piece of music, we anticipate that such a compositional approach will lead to an urban environment greater than the sum of its design parts.


In the composition of dynamic interactions and evolving environments, we aim to shift the perspective of the urban environment, not as an object, but rather as a process. Each urban intervention, whether a piece of street furniture or a new tramway, is both a product and a process. For example, a bus stop is traditionally conceived as a static design element, i.e. product, while functionally it is a part of a dynamic process i.e. the bus system itself. Thus we hope to shift the focus of urban design elements as an end in themselves, to elements within a dynamic and evolving process, i.e. they are simultaneously a product and process.


Integral to our compositional approach is the realization that our reality, current or future, is defined by our perception of it. We can only understand the world that we are able to perceive, and each of us has our own version of ‘reality’ according to the power of our individual senses. Many of us are disabled in one or more of our main senses of sight, hearing, taste, touch and smell. Thus addressing more of these senses would help contribute towards creating more accessible environments. In composing multisensorial environments, synesthesia – the simultaneous linking of multiple senses - can also assist us in composing a multisensorial world.

However, there are many other senses that inform our perception, such as the sense of right and wrong. At the Universal Composition Laboratory, we question what is a sense and ask how we can design environments which ‘feel’ good rather than simply ‘look’ good. In order to do so, we propose a multisensorial approach informed by neuro and cognitive science while utilising creative Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) technologies. The goal of universal composition is to create a future city which is perceivable and understandable to everyone.


The composition of such multisensorial interactions must be informed by a wide range of expertise – from architecture, urban design and engineering, to music, art, neuroscience and HCI design. UCL Squared hopes to compose future urban interactions by transcending disciplines.


Finally, we are convinced that we cannot compose equitable and meaningful environments without community involvement. In order to make a positive contribution rather than unwanted imposition, we aim to work collaboratively with society. With communication being the key to understanding, we employ a diverse range of representation techniques, including music, drawing, dance and film, in order to effectively engage with as many people as possible. By doing so, we hope to better understand society’s aspirations and thus design for them.

One of the outcomes from the universal composition approach is that it needs to concentrate on the actual sense interactions between a person and their immediate environment – how they hear it, see it, feel it and so on – in space and time. This means that it is crucial to consider the small details of the environment, not only in the sense of the small elements of the system (e.g. a bus stop) but also the sensorial details of those elements (e.g. colour, sound and feel). However, our holistic concept also embraces other types of sense, such as the sense of equity or fairness (e.g. is the bus stop equally available to all?). By paying greater attention to these small but numerous elements of the environmental infrastructure, great change can be achieved through their sheer number and far-reaching distribution. At UCL-squared we focus on such people-environment interactions in the achievement of wellbeing.


Research themes in UCL-squared

All our research projects grow from transdisciplinary questions, and thus involve a number of specialisations, including: 

  • architecture
  • urban design and planning
  • mechanical, civil and transport engineering
  • music and sound design
  • social sciences
  • material science
  • neurology
  • ophthalmology
  • whatever may be necessary...

Below are brief descriptions of our main research themes:

Universal composition 

Having created the concept of universal composition, we are developing this concept through both theoretical and action research, including the development of audio-visual representation techniques and multisensorial design. We are convinced that in the creation of places for people, our approach to urban design must adapt to our changing environments.

Future cities

We are developing models for how people could live in the future and what cities will need to be like to meet the needs of future generations. How do we sense time and what are our aspirations for our future urban rhythms? How can we design city systems to help achieve an improvement in our quality of life and compose wellbeing? 

Transdiciplinary education

We are creating new models for transdisciplinary education both at the academic and professional level. These are aimed at building the capacity of both students, researchers, practitioners and authorities towards the composition of a better world together.    


UCL-squared works on projects for everyone, everywhere, encompassing everything. These range from the design of small-scale sensorial interactions to large-scale transport infrastructure systems. Below is a list of current and past projects. Please contact us for more information. 

Universal composition 

Audio-visual representation 

We explore how audio-visual representation techniques can assist the spatio-temporal composition of our urban environment. We are developing tools for audio-visual design/composition, allowing designers to design in time, and composers to compose in space.

Multisensorial design

We are experimenting with different sensoaesthetic materials and how their unique properties can contribute to the multisensorial design of the urban environment. What if our urban environment responded to different environmental conditions and appealed differently to our senses over time?


3D Multisensorial logos

We are developing multisensorial UCL-squared logos which will look, feel, smell, sound and perhaps even taste differently according to our interaction with them and their environments.

Environmentally-responsive public art

Another multisensorial design project, we question why a piece of public art must look the same during the day and night - especially as the environmental conditions surrounding it change. Instead, we propose the use of thermochromic and glow-in-the-dark paints. Why should a sculpture not evolve with its environment?

The Time Travel bus sculpture is an example of this. Part of Transport for London's "Year of the Bus" sculpture trail, which extended through the streets of London throughout November 2014 - January 2015, Time Travel was exhibited in the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park and sponsored by Clear Channel.  

UCL Squared and TfL's Time Travel bus interactive artwork.
Image credit: Transport for London. 

Project Description

'Time Travel' refers to the dynamic nature of the London bus network - as a moving object in space and time, you can never catch the same bus twice! To represent this dynamism, this bus sculpture changes its appearance over time by responding to its environment. During the day it poses as a typical red London bus covered with a stylized design of the urban fabric. However during the night, when the temperature cools down, the bus becomes black. Furthermore, the intricate connections between the urban fabric begin to glow in the dark, revealing the bus infrastructure system connecting them. Thus over time, it becomes evident that the very infrastructure that can be seen to separate a city is in fact that which is holding it together...


If the bus is cold and black, warm it up to make it red … If the bus is hot and red, cool it down to make it black.
To make the bus network glow during the night, shine some light over it... then wait and see what happens.

YouTube Widget Placeholderhttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ImeQstTIuAE



Future cities 

Sensing time

What is 'waiting'?

We question our perception of time, as well as the role of technology in changing this perception, and explore how this can inform the design of more enjoyable urban environments which encourage 'doing' rather than 'waiting'.

Encouraging people to walk

We are studying how people could be encouraged to change their behaviour and walk more so that they can interact more completely with the environment.

Redefining the bus stop

In June 2014 UCL-squared participated in Transport for London's 'Day of the Bus', testing out interactive ideas on two bus stops in central London, as part of a public participation exercise obtaining feedback on what might be possible in the detailed design of the public realm.

Regent Street was closed off for the day to traffic, with the street instead becoming a cavalcade of London buses. With two bus stops to 'play' with, we created a 'musical' bus stop with musical chairs and signage, and a bus stop under constant physical transformation. These two interactive bus stops were connected with each other and the rest of Regent Street via an urban game designed to stimulate thought about the role of buses in our urban lives. 

YouTube Widget Placeholderhttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=elWCyjQgqsY&feature=youtu.be

Video credits
  • Design and management: Nick Tyler, Sara Adhitya, Liliana Ortega Garza (UCL)
  • Sound design and production: Alexander Brigden, Matthias Moos (Goldsmiths College)
  • "BusFuss" urban game: Cecilie Sachs Olsen, Sabeth Tödtli, Nina Lund Westerdahl (zURBS)
Transforming the engineering of cities 

Transforming the engineering of cities was an EPSRC-funded programme grant worth £6.2m. Running from 2012-2017, it involved UCL, the University of Birmingham, and Lancaster University. UCL-squared was involved with envisioning the cities of the future and working out how to compose cities so that they enable people to achieve a higher quality of life.


Transdisciplinary education 

Technological diplomacy

Recreando Movilidad

With the support of the British Embassy, and funded by the UK Foreign Office, in 2014 UCL-squared ran a series of capacity-building workshops – ‘Recreando Movilidad’ - in Colombia and Panama, to help city governments rethink their urban design for the twenty first century. These were attended by urban professionals and transport authorities, with the Colombian ventures taking place in the cities of Santa Marta and Barranquilla. 


Prof Tyler and Dr Adhitya's published work

RPS Widget Placeholderhttps://research-reports.ucl.ac.uk/RPSDATA.SVC/pubs/NATYL84,SAADH95