Conscious Cities Conference: SUMMARY

29th March 2016

On the 1st of March 2016 the Museum of Architecture and THECUBE with the support of Arup gathered over 100 delegates and speakers to discuss neuroscience and architecture. The conference attracted a diverse group of people from technologist, scientists, property developers, architects, designers, neuroscientists, and academics.

The conference had three aims, the first was to bring forward neuroscientific research pertaining to the built environment to a new audience. The second was to assemble leading professionals already working in creating more conscious environments to share their experiences and ideas. The third was to open up a discussion on how neuroscience research can inform the design and construction of spaces and cities.

The conference opened with two great keynotes. The first was architect, Sarah Robinson, who reminded us that we are sensorial beings. We take in the world through our senses. Her talk was open and philosophical referencing how we are the embodiment of our environments and that architecture is an external manifestation of our mind. The second keynote was Emma Greer from Carlo Ratti Associati. The core of her talk centered on Ratti’s work for MIT’s Senseable City Lab. Some audience members still had doubts on both the use and gathering of big data. However Senseable City Lab has taken a practical and effective use of big data. In their project Underworld they are studying in real-time data from city sewage systems to gather information levels of toxins, disease, bacteria, and viruses in a particular city. This data can then be used by city planners and policy makers to make more informed decisions about the health of a city.

In the rest of the document you can find bulleted thoughts from each panel, followed by a summary of social media feed.

Panel 1: How does the built environment affect behaviour and cognition?

  • We no longer need a building to execute, so we need to repurpose office spaces
  • There is a new sharing generation, how do we create spaces for their new needs and behaviours?
  • According to Philip Tidd from Gensler, we have reached “peak office”. So what will workspaces look like in the future?
  • Offices are now for social cohesion
  • Empathy originated in 29th century German philosophy in relation to architecture
  • Cities are embodied
  • Cities are an extension of mind
  • Cities are ecological systems, they are networks or fields of relationships in which things participate
  • Consciousness rises from all of the senses

Panel 2: How can the latest findings in neuroscience inform the design of spaces and cities?

  • CASA lab uses electroencephalogram (EEG) to measure cognitive function to study how people experience a city
  • Neuroscience should not be reductionist and there are plenty of examples of ‘bad’ interpretation of neuroscience in popular culture
  • There are still some difficulties in finding a process that allows for neuroscience to be directly applied to the built environment
  • Architect and researcher Itai Palti is producing a stream of experiences which can be used by the neurosciences to inform us the effects of a city
  • Studies conducted by Itai Palti and Moshe Bar of the Bar Lab on curiosity will be used to help inform better learning environments.
  • A new technical language to help the communication between the neurosciences and architecture is needed. Currently we are only at the beginning of developing a common language
  • Neuroscientists are not trained in the application of the research, thus there is still a challenge to go from lab to city
  • Dr. Hugo Spier’s doctoral studies were conducted in the research groups of Neil Burgess and John O’Keefe, where it was discovered that place cells are for learning and creating memory for an experience of a place
  • Place cells were discovered in the hippocampus for which John O’Keefe won a Nobel Prize in 2014
  • Current research is examining if the brain ‘knows’ information about structure we are not conscious of

Panel 3: What is the role of technology in creating conscious spaces?

  • Ruairi Glynn created Balls, a project commissioned for Arup’s headquarters, where 42 robotically engineered light spheres rise and fall in the atrium in response to the human activity in the building
  • ‘Smart’ needs to go beyond technology; it is usability and empathy.
  • Psychology experiments from the 1944 by Fritz Heider and Marianne Simmel show that humans personify and perceive emotion in inanimate objects
  • Sometimes we trust technology too blindly, we need to question its use and implementation
  • Neil Davidson spoke about Urban Mind, a projected launched in collaboration with neuroscientist Dr Andrea Mechelli from King’s College London, Nomad and supported by Van Alen Institute in NYC
  • The Urban Mind app aims to collect data from people about how they feel in a particular environment. It tracks where they are, sounds they hear, textures they see, and who they are with
  • Technology is a great tool to keep us informed on a building’s or city’s inhabitants
  • Ruairi Glynn says he’d rather technology become more human than for humans to become more like technology

Panel 4: What is the role of conscious cities in fostering innovation?

  • Juliette Morgan, the Head of Property at Tech City UK and Partner at Cushman & Wakefield, spoke about the importance of allowing artists, poets and philosophers to comment on advances in areas such as urban policy
  • We need better valuation models that reflect new metrics tracking the social impact and value of buildings
  • It will be brave developers and investors who tear down buildings for contemplative spaces that increase productivity
  • How do you help create serendipity in cities and in buildings?
  • Buildings are more like physical social networks
  • Buildings are not yet sentient, they don’t know what goes on inside them, this is where the work of neuroscience and technology can begin to create an impact


Dr Harriet Harris, Senior Tutor in Interior Design & Architecture at the Royal College of Art and Josef Hargrave from Arup, summarised the conference and produced a workshop. The workshop was an opportunity for all of the participants and speakers to interact and ideate ways for creating more conscious cities.