Neuroscience is the study of the brain and nervous system, though the broader definition encompasses human thoughts, emotions and behaviour. Using novel technologies such as virtual reality and portable brain mapping, it promises to show how aspects of cities or buildings contribute to health and wellbeing, and quantify and refine concepts such as productivity and quality of life. To that end, researchers have devised ingenious experiments to monitor stress levels as people walk through urban environments, for example, or measure how smartphones have damaged our ability to navigate street layouts.
The places that Palti wants to create are conscious in two ways. They would be designed with a social conscience, and they would be sentient — aware of and responsive to their inhabitants. The link, he explains, is the dialogue between people and their environment: “How do we initiate that through the design process, and how do we keep it going?”
Palti is based in Tel Aviv but he travels a lot, spreading the word at events and through collaborations such as Urban Thinkscape with Temple University, a playground designed to stimulate interaction and learning in west Philadelphia. As well as a think tank — The Centre for Conscious Design — he has set up a design practice, Hume, which applies insights from its in-house Human Metrics Lab on projects as a proof of concept. He is a graduate of the Bartlett School of Architecture at UCL and works with institutions including Harvard, Brookings, ANFA and the Centre for Urban Design and Mental Health. “I don’t really split my time — the boundaries between my professional and personal interests and the different activities I do are very fluid and blurry. I’m interested in what I can offer to make a positive impact in the world and I guess that materializes in my work.”
Palti’s ambition is sweeping social change, but it’s very much a movement rather than a one-man crusade: “I would like to change the way that we build, or I would like to at least contribute to the cultural change that needs to happen in order for us to have the right set of priorities. The more I succeed the better, but I can’t do it alone, for sure.”
He has, he admits, a love-hate relationship with architecture as a profession. He knew he wanted to be an architect when he was as young as 12 — “I was curious about it, I probably felt that it would keep me interested” — and has never seriously considered doing anything else. But he quickly became disillusioned with a profession that slavishly perpetuates the work of starchitects and proposes answers rather than asking questions. “I think there’s a humility that perhaps it has forgotten, partly because of the amount of power it has been given in the past.” As that power diminishes in a world that values evidence above intuition, the architectural conscience has become a casualty of an industry that prioritizes profit over people. “Architects come into the world with a sense of social agency, but it dissipates. They become an agent of their client, often unwillingly, rather than an authority that questions whether a project will have a positive impact.”
Asking questions is perhaps one of Palti’s defining traits. He first sought out Professor Moshe Bar, head of the Gonda Multidisciplinary Brain Research Center at Bar-Ilan University, when he was writing his Masters thesis on curiosity.
Why curiosity? “As an Israeli, you are born into an identity intertwined with conflict, often trying to understand your role in the situation: what is it that you can do? So my thesis project aimed to bring together the Jewish and Arab communities in Tel Aviv and Jaffa. When I started looking into empathy, there seemed to be a very strong link to curiosity, as a tool for encouraging people to understand the experience of the other.” Dissatisfied with architectural answers, he went looking elsewhere and became intrigued. “The deeper I went, the more I was drawn into understanding how we can even objectively talk about seemingly elusive topics like curiosity and empathy.”
Palti believes behavioural science offers architecture a way to rediscover its lost agency. “It gives us really valuable tools to augment or correct our intuition. It offers evidence to inform our decisions but also to back them up in conversations with stakeholders. The fact that architecture didn’t seem to be acting on that was the real source for the manifesto, and all of the work I’ve done since then.”
A conscious design process would be influenced by scientific evidence and by new knowledge about how we interact with each other and our environment. “Design is a decision-making process with many different choice points. By informing those decisions with science, you get a very different outcome because you’re referring to a body of knowledge that you wouldn’t otherwise have.”
For example, our understanding of lighting is maturing from a broad-stroke “daylight is good” to exactly how much and what it’s good for. But how we use that knowledge will depend on the brief: “At the core of a strategic brief lies the value system that informs it. Let’s call it an agreement of intention between the client and architect. So do we design shopping malls without any daylight because that’s what encourages consumption, or do we prioritize the wellbeing of the people and put windows in?”
The next step is to embed smart technologies in the urban environment to collect information about how well a place is performing against human metrics and, more ambitiously, enable it to reconfigure itself to perform better. That might mean dialling down visual stimuli such as advertising or street clutter if the inhabitants are exhibiting signs of stress, adding opportunities for play when children are likely to be present, or stimulating social interactions among older people.