Letter |3 May, 2017 


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It’s brilliant that the conscious cities movement is growing. The emerging field of research between the cognitive sciences and architecture represents a paradigm shift in the world of design; perhaps the most significant since the material innovations of the last century. And when Eric Kandel suggests that we have only touched on about 10% of what we might discover…? This is a clear call for experimentation and for a longer view on how we evaluate and commission our built environment. The needed shift will replace our locked-in behaviours of evaluating space through metrics not relevant to the human experience – towards ones measuring how we flourish in our environments.

After attending the ANFA conference last year, I left the Californian sunshine with my intuition and curiosities scientifically reassured that at the heart of all of this is neuroplasticity. Evidence that what we build has profound and long-lasting effects on ourselves reinforces the urgency of improving the way we design.

I also left with a new label for architects: described by a neuroscientist as ‘highly environmentally sensitive beings’. This resonated with a feeling shared amongst peers, and also a frustration that so much of what we intuit in our designs is seen and valued (quite understandably) as subjective. The architect’s authority is chipped away by the perception that the reasoning behind design isn’t sufficiently grounded. By aiming for increased objectivity, architects regain some of that lost authority, whilst clients gain a new understanding of why design matters and should be invested in.

We can work to integrate cognitive science into the design process, and create more evidence measuring the impact of good design. A large body of positive outcomes might shift government policy where it matters. The U.S. Government’s engagement of Martin Seligman in applying positive psychology theory to PTSD treatment is as an example of a proactive approach to neuroplasticity. The parallels that could be drawn in the built environment are endless.

As much as this area of research is about the new connections between cognitive science and environmental design, it is also about the act of taking research out of academia and bringing it into practice. This bridging is paramount for tipping the design and construction industry towards that paradigm shift – placing people first.

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