“Conscious Design of Cities versus Design of Conscious Cities” is a review of Michael A. Arbib on the Manifesto for Conscious cities, which was curated by Itai Palti (Architect) and Moshe Bar (Neuroscientist). Arbib (Computational Neuroscientist) extends his thoughts on the concept of Conscious cities and debates between the conscious design of cities, where the cities are designed consciously, and the design of conscious cities where cities themselves are aware of the needs and motives and respond to them. This article breaks down the perspective of Michael Arbib on the manifesto and his criticisms of conscious cities.

Manifesto for conscious cities

“Manifesto for Conscious cities: should streets be sensitive of our mental needs?” (August 2015), published in Guardian, talks about the rapid development of neuroscience and data technology that could support the prospect of urban streets in reducing stress, anxiety, boredom, and other ailments. The manifesto points out that streets are always seen as means of transit, and this perception leads to many undesirable effects on the psychology and behavior of the users. Palti and Bar denote that the people in busy urban streets experience a cognitive load due to the distractions such as traffic, advertisement lights, etc. The cognitive load is a product of heightened stimuli, and it diminishes our attention capability. The authors further address that “while the emerging Smart cities are attending to technologically dumb streets, we should also rethink the numb (emotionless) streets that benefit their users psychologically.”

 Article in Focus: Conscious Design of Cities versus Design of Conscious Cities  by Michael A. Arbib - Sheet1
Times Square, New York the heightened stimuli of busy city streets can cause ‘cognitive load’ in users_©Bernd ObermannCorbis

As a result, they propose the concept of Conscious cities, that “could combine cutting-edge data, technology, and planning techniques to address stable patterns of behavior such as the flow of people to workplaces, while also reacting on a short-­term basis to contexts such as a street concert or sports event, by temporarily adapting the streetscape.” The manifesto emphasizes framing new parameters for a successful design of streets and cities that not only serve movement but also are sensitive to the mood and context of the users. 

Person – Environment hypothesis

The manifesto presents the person-environment hypothesis, namely that “the match between people’s personality and characteristics of the neighborhood is important for people’s life satisfaction.” The hypothesis shall be proved by the study of Geographical psychology, which says that people with similar personality traits are likely to be found in the same region as others. While Arbib accepts the hypothesis, he has objections to defining the parameters for successful person-environment interactions. 

This article, written by Arbib, lists down the examples of the ‘conscious’ streets as mentioned in the manifesto but opposes the example of nature as a useful concept. According to the study cited by Palti and Bar, nature is filled with intriguing stimuli and grabs attention in a bottom-up fashion, which allows the top-down directed attention-abilities to refresh. By definition, bottom-up directed attention is the attentional guidance based on externally driven stimuli, and top-down is the internal guidance of attention based on prior memory/knowledge. Arbib argues that the integration of top-down and bottom-up attention results in the multi-sensory perception and not that bottom-up replenishes the top-down. He gives examples of restoration of well-being and says that Parisian boulevards prove more restorative through the way that cafes, broad thoroughfares, and well-proportioned buildings frame the human parade than through the presence of trees. Finally, he concludes that distractions affect the attention of the users leaving them in depression even though nature is a part of the urbanscape and also, the design of buildings and streets can be more restorative than nature.

 Article in Focus: Conscious Design of Cities versus Design of Conscious Cities  by Michael A. Arbib - Sheet2
Parisian Boulevards_©Jordan

Conscious design of cities vs Design of conscious cities

Itai Palti and Moshe Bar, in their manifesto, say that a “conscious” street might prevent discomfort by sensing an overload of stimuli such as flashing ads or annoying sounds and damping the stimuli accordingly. Michael Arbib approaches the scenario from a political perspective. He questions: In a street full of shops, whether a shopkeeper would accept to put down the flashing ads, which act as attractions to the customers in a busy street. Or a street which is the main artery in a city would be without traffic noises. He also provides solutions to his questions that are either personal- wearing noise-reducing headsets or political- encouraging public transport. But, he argues that in both cases, the results directly affect the design of the streets and become the responsibility of the designer.

Thus it ends up in the conscious design of cities by the architects and urban planners, and not the consciousness of the cities, in which cities themselves are being aware of the motives or moods of the users, as defined by Palti and Moshe Bar. 

Cybernetic urban system

Abstract of Cybernetics_©Neurobanter

The author questions whether the city is a physical structure of buildings and streets or the symbiosis of humans, buildings, and infrastructure. Further, he questions the definition of “consciousness” in the manifesto. He says that the definition of consciousness, according to Palti and Bar means nothing and explains consciousness through an interesting example. He quotes:

“I admire the consciousness of the tiger – but would fear it were we in the jungle with no fence between us.”

The consciousness of the tiger is defined by the attentiveness with which it stalks its prey. Simply put, it is conscious of the tiger in relation to other animals. On the other hand, if humans are in the jungle, we respond with fear of us being in the jungle with the tiger. Arbib says that consciousness does not imply the responsiveness of the needs. Here, he compares the animals (in the jungle) to the cities and says that cities shall not be aware of other cities, and humans are responding to the needs of the cities. And he presents us that we do not want a city that is aware of other cities but a city that is aware of human well-being. 

Further, Arbib redefines and analyzes conscious cities as “built environments that are aware and responsive to our needs through data analysis, artificial intelligence, and the application of cognitive sciences in design.” It divides the responsiveness between the city and humans. It suggests that cities can be aware and responsive to human needs (not theirs) through data analysis, while humans could be aware of designing the cities to be aware and responsive through artificial intelligence and cognitive sciences. This division leaves cities as non-human systems, where AI controls a city and humans become the external factors [and] are no longer a part of it. And so, Arbib wants us to view the city as a symbiotic cybernetic urban system, where 1. Humans are an integral part of the information infrastructure, used in data analysis for the design of cities. (as inhabitants)

Also, a part of the political system, and defines the needs of the urban systems. (as designers)

What could be a conscious city?

Michael Arbib proposes that a “conscious city” may not be aware of other cities, but it could share data with other cities (without any bandwidth limit) which supports the design. He also suggests that “awareness” is the notion that, not only could the data be shared, but also the analysis of the data which helps in decision making of the generation of data according to the cities. It supports the best practices in the form of flexible algorithms rather than one size fits all solutions.

The author refers that traffic lights may make us wait even if there are no vehicles on the road. He suggests that a “conscious city” could be the one that advocates better sensors and algorithms more intelligently and respond to the traffic flow on a minute-by-minute scale.

According to Arbib, a city is an agglomeration of diverse subsystems for which humans are an integral component. He argues that cities are not conscious of themselves as humans are, but are purposive systems atop diverse purposive subsystems. And humans are aware of these systems and respond to them, as designers and inhabitants. 

Finally, the author cites “How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They’re Built”, written by Stewart Brand to speculate a conscious city. Arbib points out that the book focuses on how people adapt to the changes in purposes over time and the buildings he discusses did not learn from their own experiences. And, when people renovate a building, they seek to meet their current needs, and neither the building nor the people learn from its past. But, with conscious cities, Arbib imagines a building that would learn and blend the human experience as a history and as well as meet their current needs with the brain-like adaption in the information infrastructure. He also says that this could only be possible in a humanly pleasing initial design that is conscious of the dynamic re-configurability of the structures in short term as well as in long term.


  1. Arbib, M.A., 2017. CCD | Conscious Design of Cities versus Design of Conscious Cities. [online] Theccd.org. Available at: <https://theccd.org/article/62/conscious-design-of-cities-versus-design-of-conscious-cities/>
  2. Palti, I. and M. Bar, A manifesto for conscious cities: should streets be sensitive to our mental needs? The Guardian, 2015: p. https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2015/aug/28/manifesto-conscious-cities-streets-senstive-mental-needs

Guruprasath believes in a conscious approach towards architecture, which fulfills the intentions of the people towards the built spaces and vice-versa. He is more interested in understanding architecture, which made him incline towards writing on architecture. He also enjoys reading and writing other stuff.

Write A Comment