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Meet The Bleeding Edge Consultancy Bringing Neuroscience To Real Estate

One of the most innovative advisory firms in real estate has a mission: to help provide the science behind how people interact with spaces.

“There’s a structural shift in what it is to be a real estate developer or a placemaker today," Centric Lab Director of Consultancy Josh Artus said. "It’s a cultural and a human shift, and it needs new skills. We are looking to provide the scientific basis to help people make decisions, and make it more informed.”

He and Director of Lab Araceli Camargo set up Centric Lab in 2016 with a mission to help those working in the built environment — developers, investors, architects, planners — better understand how people really experience buildings and places. And the tool they are using is neuroscience.

Centric Lab's Hugo Spiers, Araceli Camargo and Josh Artus (in the black chairs) at the launch of the Neuroscience for Cities playbook

The work that Centric Lab is doing and the questions it is asking get to the heart of the role real estate and the built environment play in society, how the sector wants to be perceived and how it will shape the future, for better and for worse.

Camargo is a cognitive neuroscientist who also set up a pair of coworking facilities in London and New York. Artus is an art-school graduate who was one of the earliest members of staff at Appear Here, the pop-up retail startup. They began discussing how to bring together neuroscience and the built environment in 2013, and subsequently teamed up with the head of the spatial cognition laboratory at University College London, professor Hugo Spiers, now Centric Lab’s director of neuroscience.

Real estate clients have included Lendlease, for which it undertook a cognitive overview of the firm’s International Quarter London mixed-use campus and study of how people used the scheme; and AXA Investment Managers - Real Assets, for which it has produced thought leadership work feeding into the design of the 1.3M SF 22 Bishopsgate skyscraper in the City of London.

Following on this success, Future Cities Catapult, the U.K Government-backed urban innovation agency, commissioned Centric to produce a Neuroscience for Cities “playbook”  — a 126-page guide which positions itself as a way of bringing together the worlds of science and those creating and shaping buildings and cities.

“Our job is to be looking for the next big things in urban innovation and helping U.K. firms be among the first to take advantage of those,”Future Cities Catapult Head of Executive Office Sam Markey said. “We’re really excited about the role neuroscience can play in shaping places and new ‘advanced urban services’. It’s been great working with Centric to develop this playbook for placemakers — we hope that it will unlock a whole wave of creative, insight-driven schemes and solutions.”

“There is 30 years of neuroscience data about how people are affected by the built environment, and how we have co-evolved with it,” Camargo said. “But it’s been in silos. The playbook is looking to go between the lab and the built environment.”

Centric Lab's Araceli Camargo

In terms of the Centric Lab and its function, Artus said the advice it provides is about risk assessment for real estate owners and developers.

“It’s about helping them to avoid the risks that arise from the human perspective,” Artus said. “We are not experts in real estate or the built environment, but we can help decision makers understand that human element of how we interact with buildings, so they can deploy capital most effectively and avoid their buildings becoming obsolete because people just don’t want to use them.

“It is not about adding things, it is about cutting out those potential points of friction.”

What are some of the lessons that neuroscience can provide for the real estate industry, and how is neuroscience best used in the built environment? First it is necessary to understand what neuroscience can and can’t do.

“It can be controversial. We know so little about how the brain works, so people could ask, 'how can you say that we can apply neuroscience to cities and buildings?',” Spiers said at the launch of Neuroscience for Cities. “But there are tools coming through which show us what drives the neurological system when someone experiences social isolation or steps into a magnificent building, and we can start to understand these things in a more mechanistic way, like an engineer.”

“Neuroscience can allow us to delve deeper and understand how we undertake tasks and functions,” Camargo said. “Our physical environment often impedes, so how do we hack back and allow us to be more productive, because a well-functioning human is a productive one. It is about finding where we can make the most important interventions.”

Centric Lab's Josh Artus

On the level of individual buildings this can mean making sure there is enough fresh air in a building, that the levels of light closely mirror levels of natural daylight, or that in a world in which work, as a result of automation, will become more about creative thought and problem solving, there is space to get away and think privately.

“It can be about giving people somewhere to go and breathe,” Artus said.

On the level of large-scale developments and campuses, placemaking can be aided by virtual or augmented reality, where people virtually walk through a new site or scheme and their neurological responses are monitored, and the scheme adjusted if there are elements that they particularly like or dislike. UCL is working on a new facility to undertake this kind of research on a much larger scale.

“If you want to understand how 100 people will experience a building that is not yet built, there is now quite sophisticated technology that allows you to do that,” Spiers said. “You can understand people and start to predict how they might use a space.”

This might help to avoid some of the more famous examples of things not going right in the world of architecture and infrastructure. Camargo said the Millennium Bridge in London wobbled because when it was built it was predicted that, as with most bridges, people would just walk across it to get to the other side. Instead, they stopped to take photos, changing the pressures upon the structure. 

On the level of cities, Camargo points to research highlighting the influence that high levels of air pollution have in reducing mental as well as physical well-being, including increasing stress and even dementia. She said before we start thinking about smart cities, “we need to start getting things like toxicity and air pollution right”. It is a matter for city leaders, but Artus said real estate can play a huge part as well.

In London, the number of private car journeys is falling, but overall road journeys are rising, with the difference essentially being accounted for by parcel deliveries. He said landlords and developers like the Crown Estate and AXA at 22 Bishopsgate are coordinating deliveries for all of their tenants so that the number of van deliveries is reduced, and more could be done by developers to ensure materials are delivered to sites outside of the busiest hours. Increased use of materials passporting would enable developers to show the environmental impact of the materials used to construct a building, he said.

Centric Lab's Hugo Spiers

Artus said these environmental and human factors are part of the way the public will start to demand more of buildings, cities and the people who make them, and that neuroscience can help adapt to changes in perception.

“Every industry has been through this, consumers are becoming more aware and more conscious,” he said. “Developers need to be aware of the network effect and the impact of what they are doing, and how this affects their commercial proposition.”

In terms of where the intersection of neuroscience, buildings and cities heads next, the discipline is looking to address some future issues, particularly automation and its impact on human interaction. As more tasks are automated, human interaction will decrease, and so our capacity for empathy could reduce, the playbook suggests. City planners need to include as many places for people to interact as possible to avoid this loss of empathy and the depression caused by social isolation. On an individual company level, offices will be the place workers come together to share ideas.

There is also something of a warning to smart city developers, and their quest to automate as much of a city’s functions as possible.

“Creating cities only for efficiency should not be the aim of automation, it should be to humanise the city,” the report said. The benefit of smart cities is that they should be able to measure what people really want and value and help us to provide that.

Spiers points to potential collaborations between neuroscientists and artificial intelligence companies like Google’s Deep Mind, which can create predictions of how people will use urban spaces and plan them accordingly.

“Neuroscience will be combined with Big Data to create advanced models of human behaviour — Deep Mind is already working on that — and this will filter down into the built environment,” he said.

That might be some way off. But the real estate industry can begin to grasp the implications of neuroscience right now.