Building a Conscious City: Bridging Architecture, Technology and Neuroscience

How we experience the built environment is increasingly being understood with the scientific rigor that brain sciences have to offer.

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The intersection of architecture and neuroscience has become a burgeoning new field within both academia and industry. The reason for the crossover is simple and direct — how we experience the built environment is increasingly being understood with the scientific rigor that brain sciences have to offer.

It can be argued that the best architects throughout history possessed the skills needed to determine how others would experience space, empathy and intuition. Neuroscience is now offering to augment those skills by supporting design with new insights.

The interdisciplinary discussion has been taking place formally since ANFA (Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture) was founded in 2003. Pioneers such as Jan Gehl and Juhani Pallasmaa have pushed for new ways to observe people in their surroundings, arguing that we must understand ourselves better if we are to improve design.

In 2015, architect Itai Palti and renowned neuroscientist professor Moshe Bar wrote “A Manifesto for Conscious Cities,later described by Palti as a reaction to “the widening gap between our potential to design with the human experience in mind, and its lack of application in practice.”

On the 3rd of May in London this year, the second Conscious Cities Conference will be taking place. The one-day event will focus on bridging neuroscience, architecture and technology, three vital components for creating spaces that are aware and reactive to their users. Leaders in neuroscience and all fields affecting the built environment will gather to present and discuss four key themes:

1. What Does Neuroscience Teach Us About the Built Environment?

2. How Can We Use High Technology in the Built Environment?

3. Creating Conscious Design: How Does Behavioral Insight Affect Architecture and Planning?

4. Building a Conscious City: The Role of Governance and Industry.

The keynote speakers are neuroscientist and author professor Colin Ellard, and architect Matthias Hollwich of Hollwich Kushner. Panelists include neuroscientists professor Moshe Bar, professor Kate Jeffrey and Dr. Hugo Spiers, architect Alison Brooks, president elect of RIBA Ben Derbyshire, artificial intelligence experts Dr. Joanna Bryson and Elite Sher and others from innovation, policy and industry.

The movement organizing this event and others like it give a platform to those working in conscious cities as an emerging field of research and practice. In addition to events, the Conscious Cities Journal was launched in November 2016 and is published as an open-source quarterly.

There might seem to be a striking resemblance to the smart cities movement, but conscious cities is rather part of its growing critique. Similarly to architects like Rem Koolhaas, it argues that knowledge and technology cannot improve the built environment alone without being guided by clear principles.

Neuroscience is already changing the way we understand cognition and experience, and this will in turn affect all aspects of design. The opportunity that conscious cities presents is best expressed by David Harvey writing on Lefebrve’s Right to the City: “The right to the city is far more than the individual liberty to access urban resources: It is a right to change ourselves by changing the city.”

Tickets for Conscious Cities Conference No. 2 are available here.