Conscious Cities: Bridging Neuroscience, Architecture and Technology

Can neuroscience teach us about the built environment? If so, how can these insights be used to create urban spaces and technologies that improve human health and well-being?  And to what extent can industry and governance help in achieving these goals?

These were just some of the many questions that were debated at the Conscious Cities Conference that I attended in London in 2017. “Conscious Cities” is a relatively new concept that proposes we replace the focus on efficiency in the built environment with a focus on health and well-being. Furthermore, it explores how advances in data analysis, artificial intelligence, and the cognitive sciences can help create built environments that are more dynamic, aware of, and adaptable to peoples’ needs. In the words of one of the co-founders of the Conscious Cities movement, “neuroscience can inform design and shift it from efficient to effective”.

As was evident in the theme of this year’s conference – “Bridging Neuroscience, Architecture and Technology” – the event brought together leaders in the fields of cognitive neuroscience, architecture, planning, computer science and engineering. The topics discussed offered many lessons for building professionals to consider.

Cities as an extension of your mind

Consider this: the city exists as an extension of your nervous system, as a sort of “extended mind”. Technology influences not only the design and operation of a city, but also how we perceive, experience and interact with the urban environment itself. Several familiar examples abound: Google Maps has influenced not only how we navigate a city, but quite literally changed our brains’ memory processes and navigational ability; WiFi has changed how people interact in (and with) public space and retail property – for example, by changing the nature of cafes and restaurants, wherein people linger often for extended periods of time. Other emerging, more advanced “enhanced reality” technologies will further influence how buildings and infrastructure are designed, built, operated – and experienced – in ways that we are only just now beginning to understand.

Psychology on the street

Several real-world experiments have explored how people’s perception is influenced in different urban environments. These “psychology on the street” experiments measure how people experience and interact with the urban environment. They have demonstrated the conflict between how spaces are intended to be used or perceived and how spaces are actually used or perceived. For example, crowd-sourced data collected about people’s perception of (and subsequent behaviour in reaction to) various types of façades and streetscapes can be used to create spaces that encourage people to walk more. This type of human-based design input will only become more important as smart city technologies propagate health and we focus more on health and wellbeing.

From concept to practice

With the smart cities (or “advanced urban services”) sector estimated to be worth $1-3 trillion, how can the gap between research and commercialization be closed? How can the Conscious Cities concept be converted into practice? One of the more pragmatic proposals put forward was the development of a “conscious design standard”. A preliminary and rudimentary model for how such a standard could be developed and employed was proposed:

  1. Identifying spatial and cognitive profiles to achieve some desired output or goal (e.g. wellbeing, productivity, physical health).
  2. Selecting metrics for “cognitive affordances” (e.g. calm, autonomy, motivation, engagement, inclusion, empathy) and comfort levels (e.g. visual, thermal, mobility, ergonomics, air quality) that relate to these goals.
  3. Continuous improvement through data collection, analysis and design intervention.

What’s next?

While more work is still needed in order to turn these concepts into practice, it is clear that advances in neuroscience and technology will have profound implications for various aspects of urban design. These changes will likely occur at a scale and velocity which we are only just beginning to comprehend. Issues related to risk, such as security and personal privacy, will also play important roles how the Conscious Cities concept will evolve.