Words by Mark Bessoudo
Smartphones are all-consuming vampires, sucking our mental energy and leaving city dwellers disoriented and alienated. But they’re here to stay — so how can urban designers use their immense power for good?
We are living in a time of unprecedented visual distraction. In the modern urban environment, our attention has to battle with myriad layers of signage and communication — some useful, some not — from billboard advertisements to traffic lights. At the same time, an even more pervasive source of visual pollution can be found in our own hands. The constant drip, drip, drip of digital diversions originating from our smartphones and other devices is reshaping how our minds behave and function, and how we perceive the world around us.
Does this matter? And if it does, how do we regain control of our sensory experience in urban environments? The effect that the built environment has on our brains is the subject of a growing field of study, combining insights from disciplines such as neuroscience, psychology, architecture and philosophy. By understanding how places influence our thoughts, feelings and behaviours, the theory goes, we’ll be able to better design cities that can make people healthier and happier. And while our screens may be part of the problem, those ubiquitous digital devices also offer solutions. For example, the Conscious Cities movement, founded by architect Itai Palti and neuroscientist Moshe Bar, seeks to shift the focus of urban design from efficiency to effectiveness. By drawing on advances in data analysis, artificial intelligence and behavioural science, a “conscious city” would be more user-centric, responding dynamically to occupants’ needs. Bridging city-building with neuroscience and technology, Palti contends, “presents an opportunity to raise the intelligence of our surroundings and improve our wellbeing”.
“The architecture that we create isn’t just an extension of one mind — it’s what allows multiple minds to come together”Alan Penn, University College London
A cognitive machine
The relationship between humans and buildings is far more complex and deep-rooted than simply one of shelter, or even of home. In fact, some cognitive scientists have come to believe that the distinction between mind, body and environment is an arbitrary one. The philosophical concept of the “extended mind” holds that we recruit aspects of our environment to support cognitive function. Rather than our minds being limited to the boundaries of the individual person, they extend outwards to include manmade tools, technology, buildings, even entire cities — an idea that suggests that visual distractions could have wider implications than mere annoyance.
“The architecture that we create isn’t just an extension of one mind — it’s what allows multiple minds to come together,” says Alan Penn, dean of the Bartlett Faculty of the Built Environment at University College London. “It’s the way that we become more than just the individual to become a social group, and there’s a sort of social intelligence that emerges out of that.”
This may sound like a way-out idea but it’s backed by a growing body of literature. Penn’s research focuses on how spatial characteristics of the built environment — the degree to which it brings people together or keeps them apart — influences patterns of social behaviour. By his account, the history of human civilization offers many clues as to how our social and urban systems have co-evolved. The earliest known built settlements were constructed around 10,000 years ago in the Anatolian plateau in Turkey, and Penn believes that they were the catalyst for a series of very rapid advances in society, such as writing and currency. His argument is that the invention of buildings and cities created a new layer of “cognitive machinery” beyond the individual brain and body, which allowed a collective intelligence to develop. This, in turn, informed how buildings and cities were constructed. It’s a positive feedback loop. Brain and building, building and brain. Or as Penn puts it, “The DNA of the social world is encoded within architecture.”
Moreover, he suggests that the degree to which we can see one another, and whether we’re constrained by whom we can see, has played a role in the evolution of empathy and imagination. “At its most fundamental level, empathy depends upon perception,” Penn argues in a 2018 paper. “We have to see, or possibly to hear, others in order to view things from their point of view. Building a wall constrains who can see whom, and so can constrain the potential for empathic relationships.”