Human Zoo at One Another: Empathy and Experience Workshop

The aim of the workshop was to explore the role of empathy through experiments and to invite people to explore this subject and develop new empathic approaches.


Team: Sahra Hersi, Mariana Pedrosa, Jupone Wang

Date: October 2015, 1 week (full – time)

Empathy is essential to people-centred design, but what would it really mean to experience the world as someone else does? The aim of One Another, a five day workshop at the Royal College of Art, was to explore multiple perspectives on empathy through activities which introduced us practically to other ways of thinking and perceiving.

Over five days, we experienced heightened senses through the perceptions of autistic and synaesthetic individuals, expanding the assumptions around the world of experience from one to another, exploring animal behaviour through a visit to London Zoo, and creating a prototype and interviewing people about their perception of empathy.

We experienced heightened senses through different activities and experiments
Empathy exercise - Is it possible to feel empathy toward an inanimate object - e.g paper?

The week culminated in designing an experience for others, with the aim of giving the participants new ways of understanding the world. The brief was to ‘create an experience, game or performance that invites people to try to experience the world through the perspective of another person, animal or thing.’

Following our visit to the zoo, we decided to focus on giving people a perspective of what it is like to be in a zoo, by which we mean:

1. to be enclosed, completely or partially, and in a shared / private enclosure

2. to be watched / observed

We created an experiment called the Human Zoo, where we crafted different types of enclosure and asked students from the college to stay in their ‘cages’ for a couple of minutes whilst undertaking different activities. This was set up in an exhibition gallery at the Royal College of Art, where other people were passing by and observing them. For a complete understanding of the experiment, please see the video below.

Our conclusions from the experiment were:

– Participants’ behaviours change when they know they’re being watched

– People in cages are self-conscious of what others are thinking about them

– People tend to be more comfortable when they’re in a shared enclosure

– Even people in open enclosures  felt trapped

– People were able to empathise with others who were in different types of enclosures to them

– Time moves slower in a cage and people immediately felt bored, lonely and sometimes angry

– People disconnect from and objectify fellow humans in cages

With this experiment we as a group, better understood human behaviour in social spaces. In the future, we would also love to look into how the impact of the human zoo experience could be measured, and we would like to explore further ideas around empathy, exposure and visibility.

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