Architecture and Neuroscience Collide to Create Conscious Cities
This interview was originally published on Pop-Up City as part of the series on the future of urban professions.
Future cities need to be healthier and respond to human needs, which is calling for a new profession: the Conscious Design Consultant. Itai Palti, founder of Conscious Cities explains how to use behavioural insights to make cities more human-centred, and how neuroscience will change the future of urban development.
How do you think should the architecture and design profession respond to urban challenges?
“Architects and designers have used their intuition to make design decisions, often affected by trends, some of which are now being proven to be counter-intuitive to what creates a good user experience. For example, open-plan offices aren’t always conducive to productivity. Certain aspects this office environment have a negative impact on the productivity of workers as well as to human health. Even a very skilled designer won’t always be able to image the experience of users, let alone have a reliable measure of the effectiveness of their designs. We have a wealth of knowledge from behavioural and cognitive science about what affects our physical and mental health, but almost none of it is being used to improve our built environment.”
You are an architect by profession, how come that you got into the topic of behavioural science?
“I personally became interested in behavioural science during my master’s thesis, in which I proposed using curiosity as a design tool to support empathy between users of an environment. I wasn’t satisfied with how the architecture profession was answering this challenge, mostly by relying on intuition, and was puzzled why only few had looked at the growing evidence base being produced by science.
That’s why I founded the Conscious Cities movement in 2015 as a new field of research and practice for building urban environments that are aware of the needs of inhabitants. Building people-centered means designing with an understanding of the human experience in mind, but also to continually improve the exchange between the environment and its users. The Conscious Cities approach proposes that we reorder priorities by placing our physical and mental health above traditional measures of efficiency.”
Can you give an example of what you are working on as a Concious Design Consultant?
“One example is the Urban Thinkscape initiative, which aims to integrate the benefits of playful learning into the urban fabric. The project was run in Philadelphia, where we turned a vacant lot into a space for the community. Presenting an opportunity as part of every-day routine is much more effective than it being a destination in itself, and so the plot adjacent to a bus stop, where families and kids often spend time waiting, was turned into a playground.
The Urban Thinkscape includes four installations that support child development. For example, puzzles that engage math and spatial skills, or environmental cues that provoke interactions that develop socio-emotional skills and literacy. One installation, an iteration of a hopscotch is designed as a direct translation of exercises in child psychology used to teach self-control. The results show a very significant impact related to indicators of healthy child development. This makes Urban Thinkscape one of the first projects that represents the whole through-line of what Conscious Cities proposes.”
How do you think will this approach change the future of urban development?
“In the past, both the industry and its clients were largely either unaware or unconvinced by the opportunity presented by human-centred design. However, things are starting to change as, for example, landlords are understanding that their property becomes more competitive and valuable if it is better designed for the users and activities taking place. Also local governments are already seeing the benefits of designing for a healthier population.”
What new urban professions will emerge in the future?
“We will see more jobs being created that focus on behavioural insight, both in integrating it into design, but also in producing more valuable knowledge. We may see Conscious Design Consultants work with architects and clients to improve designs and measure impact. In any case, a greater demand for human-centred design encourages the creation of new roles and jobs where architecture and design intersect with the other fields at play: science, technology, policy and governance.”