In late 2015 the charismatic football coach of Borussia Dortmund in Germany dubbed his style of play as heavy metal football. It was his analogy for how his frenetic ‘pressing the opposition’ style of play could be thought about. It was constant, it was in your face, it didn’t give you a moment to think and it hits you hard when it gets going in its own rhythm.
At a recent lecture UCL Professor Nick Tyler talked about how transport and civil engineering should be planned and created through the language, theory and structure of music. Music is created through rhythm, oscillating waves form harmonies that capture our attention and incite a neural response. Walking home that evening heading north from Bloomsbury and feeling the vibrations of the city it dawned on me that we are living in Heavy Metal Cities.
Across the skylines of London, Manchester, New York little red dots sparkle in the night sky. These are capitalisms fireflies, twinkling just out of clear vision, always moving and never yours to own, telling their own stories and running in their own circles. Little do we know where next they’ll appear. They are the cranes and construction materials emitting their presence to the world.
Our cities are causing wear and tear on our body and brain
The market is good, but why is work productivity low? Is it that like Jurgen Klopp’s heavy metal football, our Heavy Metal Cities are tiring us in the latter stages of play when it’s most important?
Cities do their best to market their places as ideal homes for large companies. London First and I AMsterdam are two such initiatives celebrating each city’s qualities. Their successes have led to demand for space. Demand for homes, offices, and leisure space to suit new needs. Tired, outdated and obsolete buildings are torn down and replaced. London is Open is a phrase used by the Mayor to advocate its global position in an uncertain Brexit world. However, it speaks more about how London is positioned to be a place where anything goes, ‘come here and do….do….keep doing’. But is the human cost now being seen?
The result of layering all the needed forms of production and activity in modern cities is that we have too many guitar solos playing at once, and it’s the third day of the Reading festival, we’re getting a bit fatigued.
Impacts on human capital
It’s our job to understand the links between human and built environment
The race to build, create, and service the production capital needed in the 21st Century is impacting our human capital.
As a company it’s our job to understand the links between human and built environment. We use systems informed by the field of neuroscience as a way of seeing the previously unseen mismatches and unintended human consequences of built environments. Amongst many incredible insights it’s quite clear that there is a relationship between the rise of mental and physical health issues with environmental stressors in urban environments. Is the culture of “always on”, “always open”, “always connected” urban lives increasing our cognitive load and is this what’s fatiguing us? What’s breaking our ability to restore and be able to cope well with modern life?
Neuroscience will not solve our lives, but it will lead us to make them healthier, especially for those who need it most
It’s very plausible that our cities are causing wear and tear on our body and brain and that in turn is making it harder for us to handle the frenetic nature of urban life. To use a well used quote “urban living was found to raise the risk of anxiety disorders and mood disorders by 21% and 39% respectively” (J. Peen et al, 2017). It is very possible that the attention draining nature of modern cities caused by environmental stressors of noise, air and light pollution are contributing to these statistics.
Navigating cities has become more complex but not from a lack of information or instruction. Afterall, CityMapper, Uber and TfL have gone some way to solving that problem in London. In cities like London, the complexity comes in the ability to handle the drain on attention systems as we aim to navigate roads with 55,000 more private hire vehicles, 20,000 more delivery bikes, construction vehicles servicing home builders, office builders and infrastructure projects. London is not alone in this overload of activity, San Francisco now has over 20 times more ride-share vehicles than official cabs and in New York, registered “transportation network company” cars outnumber yellow cabs six to one. With them comes the sounds of engines revving, car horns blaring and advantageous driving behaviour that suit an individual over the collective. All requiring attention for navigating with coherence public space.
If you’re not paying attention to the risks, you face running into them
It’s now the job of the developers, planners, architects and managers to acknowledge these link-throughs and the impact they have on the tasks we try to do as humans. In the AI driven world of work our human characteristics will define us. McKinsey & Co’s recent report on ‘Automation and the Future of the Workplace’ expressed that the demand for social, creative and empathic based skills will rise by 22% in the UK and 25% in the US. These high level functions within their mind are susceptible to being impacted by elements such as fatigue and stress. Is the collective haphazard nature in how we are orchestrating our lives in modern cities actually a process of shooting ourselves in the foot as we begin the race to avoid obsolescence in the AI world?
Pay attention to the risks
For the sake of business productivity, societal health and family wellbeing it is imperative that developers, planners, architects and organisations start to have a better understanding of how the dynamics of urban activity impact our cognitive functions and biological systems. Without these insights it becomes misguided to build, plan, move, play. For if you’re not paying attention to the risks, you face running into them. If we lobbied to change the ingredients of the food our children eat, why don’t we do so with the ingredients that make our cities?
The first steps are very simple. In our publication with the Future Cities Catapult and UCL we demonstrate the simple opportunities in how reducing the environmental stressors of light, air and noise pollution will make a difference to health, wellbeing and productivity.
The greatest risk we face right now is collectively creating environments and systems of obsolescence
For us, the crucial element in all of this is materiality and orchestration. This means a greater emphasis on the lived long term benefits of materials that absorb CO2, that do not reflect sound to create noise, and do not affect our circadian rhythms or pollute our skies at night. We do not have to stop doing what we do, we just have to do it smarter. It is necessary as quite frankly we are not creating smart cities, we’re creating dumb cities. The modern cities developing around us are not intuitive to our needs, they are not learning from our experiences and they are not adapting to help us achieve our functions – these are the basic elements in all our technology devices. Technology has been ahead of the game in user testing, research, and delivering experience. It has been so successful it’s hard to go one-day without watching at least one person walk out into the street staring at their phone. It is a happier place to be, a safer more controlled place. Neuroscience offers us the lens to adopt these principles of user experience into the built environment through the ability to orchestrate environments that are more biologically in-tune with us.
The greatest risk we face right now is collectively creating environments and systems of obsolescence. Buildings and campuses that will not meet the demands of modern work. Homes and neighbourhoods that make us ill. Cities that do not provide quality of life.
Neuroscience will not solve our lives, but it will lead us to make them healthier, especially for those who need it most. We need to be less Metallica more John Cage and listen into the subtleties of us.
Josh is co-Founder of Centric Lab, a neuroscience lab for the built environment on a mission to make habitats healthier and scientifically informed. Centric helps companies make decisions based on human data. Working with developers, land owners, public authorities and technology companies the team at Centric use the lens of neuroscience to reveal unintended consequences of built environments and improve the conditions of all people.
Work in Mind is a content platform designed to give a voice to thinkers, businesses, journalists and regulatory bodies in the field of healthy buildings.