Journal: Of brains and cities; neuroscience and cultures of decision-making

A report from CITY OF SOUND on the applications of an old analogy now often discredited that cities are an “organism”  here discussed in a forum with representatives from both neuroscience and from the engineering side of the urban sustainability disciplines. A useful classification of the idea of the city as a metabolic organism  is UCL’s Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Urban Metabolism: A review on the literature A few extracts from Dan Hills report

Brain juxtaposed with Hamburg, from Emergence by Steven Johnson
From Emergence, by Steven Johnson

A couple of weeks ago I was invited to take part in an event called the “North House Salon” (see previous entry: Passport Control to Pimlico). These salons are organised by Dr Sarah Caddick, neuroscience advisor to Lord David Sainsbury (ex-Minister for Science and Innovation in the UK government) and theGatsby Foundation, and bring together various “expert groups” with select groups of neuroscientists. It was an absolute privilege to share a conversation with some of the UK’s leading scientists—for a start, it’s always fascinating to see another discipline at work, and we were also fortunate that they were all great communicators as well as great researchers

As Chris put it in his intro, we do have an increasingly shared vocabulary and way of thinking emerging about the systems of the brain and the systems of cities. This may partly be due to biomimicry shaping design discourse, partly the vogue for “smart cities” strategies, and partly because of recent advances in “brain science” (note: neuroscience is to some extent now seen as part of a continuum including behavioural psychology, behavioural economics, neurology, developmental biology and others. I’ll be using the term “brain science” as short-hand for all that. At one point, we tried to discuss the limits of neuroscience. We didn’t get very far.)

I briefly mentioned our own smart services work on Low2No, but my core point was that we need to step back and think about the question we’re trying to ask here—why were we gathered here today? I suggested that ideas themselves are not particularly relevant; that the idea of optimising urban infrastructure as a no-brainer (an odd phrase to use in this setting, I admitted.) (I also nodded to Zeki’s paper, which I’d learnt a lot from.)

But then I made the claim that the city is not psychological or biological, but cultural, and that if anything is holding us back from “better cities” (if that’s our goal), it’s not ideas or technology, but our cultures of decision-making (which is the focus of our work in the Strategic Design Unit at Sitra.)

The emerging discussion I personally found most interesting—and tested on Geoffrey West and others, who were receptive—was this idea of how we make public decisions. Given our cultures of decision-making, from the individual to the institutional, were designed in another time, is it any wonder these systems are struggling to deliver the kind of complex, longer-term, interdependent decisions we need to make today? Equally, we now know rather more about the way the individual and society works, and so have some idea that fundamental systems within the brain, such as the limbic system, seem to preference short-term decisions, for example, amongst a series of other unhelpful characteristics.

So the thought occurred: how can we better design our approach to public decision-making, in such a way that the structures and cultures mitigates against our inherent “limitations”? (Please note the inverted commas there, indicating the obvious value judgement.)

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One thought on “Journal: Of brains and cities; neuroscience and cultures of decision-making

  1. Sara Vatanpour says:

    Great! I am also working on the relation between Neuro Science and Urban Design in my MA thesis in Tehran University. I would be glad to hear more from you.
    good luck!

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