We are entering an era of unprecedented change and it's exciting. Technology is allowing us to set up businesses faster and leaner and it is spearheading innovations that were mere dreams ten years ago. However, we are only at the start, the next ten years will be even more exciting. IBM has already coined it as the Cognitive Era, which is in reference to technologies becoming more cognisant through the use of the Watson Computer. Even though their reference is focused on technology, it is a well appointed name in general terms as it will be an era of deeper cognitive understanding of how our world works. Especially in the fields of science and computing, for example, quantum computing will lead us to a better understanding of biological systems, which in turn will inspire more advanced technologies. Equally, these advancements will allow us to solve problems that at this moment may seem impossible to solve or unknown.
All of this innovation will need to be catalysed, honed, and hosted somewhere, i.e. spaces, buildings, cities. The actual infrastructure of innovation is something that rarely is mentioned, we know that innovation needs ideas, visionaries, tools, money etc, however it also has takes a physical embodiment. Developers, city planners, place makers, architects, designers, and all involved in the built environment have a fundamental role to play in how societies generate innovation.
This piece will be a thought experiment into an embodied city, as cognition, which is the fundamental building block for ideas and innovation is not founded only in the brain. We often give all our cognitive accolade to the brain, however, it is only part of the story. The full picture is that we take in the world around us with our brain and central nervous system. Furthermore we enter consciousness with our mind and our body. Embodiment is how our internal conscious experience is made tangible through its relation to our body. There are two main kinds of embodiment, cognitive and emotional, and they both affect the way we translate our internal experience into external action. What this means is that our mind always needs a physical metaphor or manifestation of a mental element. For example, we smile when we are happy, the smile is the physical manifestation and facial symbol that correlates to the emotion of happiness. Cognitively, we would say that a challenging problem is a hard problem or that it carries heavy consequences. There is always an embodied element to our emotions and cognition, it is partly what makes our experience of the world feel real.
If we extend this theory and thought process to the built environment, we can hypothesis the concept of an embodied city. The built environment is both a physical manifestation of a society's emotions and thoughts. In turn the built environment loops back emotions and thoughts that mould who we are. Therefore we must ask deeper questions of the built environment; Such as how does the lack of horizon in Manhattan impact cognitive perception? What impact do materials like concrete or steel have on socialisation? How do flat building facades impact our sense of self? How do the height and shape of buildings affect emotions like anger, exclusion, and loneliness? If, we understand that when we hold a warm cup of tea in our hands we are more likely to feel warm and thus more open to interaction, how do we use this to understand how buildings have analogous embodied effect on us?
The research into the relationship between embodiment and cognition is still young and our questions into an embodied city are very much in a hypothetical state. However, they are worth asking as people are asking for more than just bricks and mortar from the spaces they inhabit.These questions in conjunction with existing neuroscience studies highlighting the effects of the built environment on our behaviours and cognition points to a strong correlation between a society's innovation capacity and the physicality of a city. Therefore, the big question we should be asking is, are we designing and creating spaces that will shape future innovation?
Understanding how the physical elements of a city affect how we function as humans is the essence of the neuroscience and architecture intersection. Part of creating the infrastructure for innovation is being more conscious of the design decisions we make to ensure we are creating the most effective space for a desired outcome. For example, if a space is for a highly collaborative company of diverse backgrounds and cultures, how would the physical elements of the space differ from a space intended for intense bouts of individualistic thinking? We have entered an era where we have the knowledge and technology to be able to create spaces and cities that are more aware their human impact. The starting point is a dialogue between neuroscience, architecture, development, and technology. If you are interested in the conversation, sign up to the following events happening in London this year. Conscious Cities with Museum of Architecture, THECUBE London and Arup, Smart Spaces at the Royal College of Art, and Meet The Makers x Smart Spaces.