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Blog – Using neuroscience to design cities that promote greater wellbeing, productivity and social serendipity

It is well understood that the environment in which we live, work or learn affects our wellbeing and productivity. Indeed, there is a long history of using scientific methods to understand the ill effects of our environments and seek to mitigate them – from industrial ergonomics, to occupational health, and psychology. Neuroscience builds on this tradition and allows us to go further still.

In a globalised economy, highly mobile talent demands attractive places to live and work that enable high quality of life, maximum productivity and innovative problem-solving. City managers and corporations seeking to attract and retain such talent must pay close consideration to the quality of the public and private spaces they provide. Neuroscience can provide new ways to understand how people experience the built environment, revealing new opportunities for innovation and improved experiences, leading in turn to greater productivity, wellbeing and attraction. It can also be used to improve the outcomes for the less advantaged in our cities, providing compelling evidence on the negative health impacts of various aspects of city living, and reducing barriers to access opportunities.

In analysing the actual physiological impacts of different stimuli, neuroscience unlocks more granular insights, free from the (unconscious) bias of self-reporting approaches. So for example, neuroscience research has shown that an increase of 10db in noise (from the noise level of a dishwasher to a vacuum cleaner) decreases worker productivity by approximately 5%1, while light can optimise brain function during specific cognitive tasks, especially those requiring sustained attention (what is commonly known as focus). Meanwhile, workers in high-performing, green certified buildings score 26.4% higher in cognitive tests (since managing the effects of excess heat competes for additional resources, contributing to lower cognitive performance). These insights have obvious immediate applications for those developing and managing public or private real estate – at present, just 57% of employees globally report that their workplaces enable them to work productively.

Some of the most exciting research in this field relates to wayfinding and how our brains process visual information to navigate unfamiliar environments. A wayfinding study found that hospital staff lost 4,500 hours per year giving directions to disorientated patients and hospital visitors, representing $220,000 in lost revenue. Neuroscientists are discovering how our brains process visual information to generate an internal map of the world, easing navigation. Again, there are immediate and obvious applications of these insights to spatial planning, signage and other aspects of ‘street scene’ services. In an era when high streets are struggling to complete with online retailers, more navigable, welcoming town centres encourage shopper engagement and repeat visits.

In addition to offering rich insights for the built environment industry to apply, neuroscience research can also support planners and public authorities making decisions about the development and design of their cities. For example, poor air quality has been shown to have serious detrimental effects on the natural development of children’s brains, and social isolation can accelerate cognitive decline in older people, reducing their independence. By showing how certain design choices and associated environmental factors affect people’s health and wellbeing, neuroscientists are arming public authorities with more robust evidence from which to make different choices and stronger demands on developers in support of better public health outcomes and improving social inclusion.

Developments in the fidelity and portability of imaging technology means that this is already a rich moment for those interested in the applications of neuroscience to the design, development and administration of cities. Emerging research hints at even greater future applications, including:

  • Richer data from which to more accurately model human behavior – a key element in the creation of reliable city ‘digital twins’ (see our work on #PlanTech for more on digital twins);
  • Even better understanding of the economic, social and public health value of green space and green infrastructure – boosting the investment case for the same and supporting innovative policy ideas like greenbelt swaps;
  • Designing environments that are more inclusive for older people and vulnerable groups, in line with the needs of an ageing society.

At Future Cities Catapult, we work to accelerate the transfer of innovative research and insight from Britain’s world-leading academic sector into application by businesses and industry. Our Neuroscience for Cities Playbook, developed in close collaboration with leading neuroscientists and built environment specialists at UCL and the Centric Lab, is intended as a resource to do just that. We see neuroscience as a rich seam for urban innovation and improvement.

We look forward to working together with the research community, industry and city managers to explore this emerging field further and to accelerating its applications to products and services that enhance the productivity and wellbeing of our cities, delivering commercial success for those innovative firms and more prosperous communities for all.

Sam Markey is Head of Executive Office at Future Cities Catapult.

Follow Sam on Twitter @SamMarkey

1 Interpreting sound requires obligatory subconscious processing without conscious attention, and this in turn can impair the performance of concurrent cognitive tasks.

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