Thought Leadership

How Neuroscience Can Help Build Smart Cities of the Future

Remarkable discoveries in neuroscience continue to reveal the true role of the brain-body system in allowing human beings to adapt, survive and thrive.

‘Cities are living organisms; they are born and … develop, disintegrate and die… In its academic and traditional sense, city planning has become obsolete. In its place must be substituted urban biology, or the study of the life of cities and of the living conditions within them.’ – Spanish architect Jose Luis Sert, 1942

The conceptualization of a city as a living organism may not be new but the idea of a city being ‘sick’ or ‘thriving’ has become even more compelling as we wrangle with the challenges of a post-Covid, climate-stressed world.

Remarkable discoveries in neuroscience continue to reveal the true role of the brain-body system in allowing human beings to continuously adapt, survive and thrive – even when having to experience or confront chronic stresses and complex change. This is, of course, the essence of resilience – an innate neurobiological capacity of all living entities, including urban systems.

Resilience determines how much we can take. It is what drives our adaptiveness. But the complexity and scope of change in our rapidly accelerating world mean individual resilience is not enough. Life after environmental catastrophes (the world was affected by at least 29 multibillion-dollar weather disasters in 2022 alone) and realities such as rising numbers of climate migrants (the Institute for Economics and Peace estimates 1.2 billion people could be displaced by 2050) mean our individual adaptive capacities have already been exceeded. We need collective resilience. We need organizational resilience. And we need urban resilience. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDG 11) directly call for ‘inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable’ cities. But in building smart cities for the future, I don’t believe it is necessary to ‘revolutionize urban environments’, as a session at the World Climate Summit in November proclaimed. Rather, we can use what we are learning about the science and nature of resilience to build and create cities that can similarly survive, adapt and thrive in a world that is volatile and ambiguous. There are tools and interventions that our research shows are successful in building and optimizing resilience in individuals and teams. These are skills and internal behaviors that allow us, as humans, to not only react appropriately, but to be highly responsive and in synchrony with society and nature.

And this, surely, is the desired state for smart, sustainable and resilient cities? We have gone beyond reactivity. The planet now needs cities that are resilient and responsive, ones that have the ability to absorb, recover and adapt to the changing environment and guaranteed uncertainties.

In this article on smart ways to create smart cities, we share insights from neuroscience and systems thinking that help us at Neurozone to conceptually shape optimization platforms that enhance a system’s capacity for elevated problem solving, overcoming challenges, and high performance. We have identified internal neurobehaviors that are scientifically proven to drive the resilience and high-performance readiness of living organisms, whether individuals or larger aggregates such as cities. Our documented case studies demonstrate how the Neurozone Resilience System already supports many of the industries and social segments that make up a 21st century city.

‘The fundamentals’

What does a smart, resilient city look like? Smart cities are not only reactive, but also highly responsive and in synchrony with society and nature. The leaders who are responsible for creating and synthesizing the kinds of cities we need in the future – mayors, city planners, policy makers and urban development strategists – can take advantage of neuroscientific insights to help synthesize healthy ‘organs’ into the ‘systems’ that will form the resilient, sustainable and living cities of the future. These fundamental understandings include:

1. Everything is connected

In living systems, everything is connected: everything affects everything. Siloed thinking or decision-making have demonstrably not served the world well and reductionism belongs in the past. Instead, a systems-thinking approach that recognizes all the pieces and processes of life connect, interact, interrelate and play a part in outcomes that will see our cities and our world thrive. The managers of urban systems require the capacity to shift from, as Pete Senge outlines in The Fifth Discipline, ‘seeing parts to seeing wholes, from seeing people as helpless reactors to seeing them as active participants in shaping their reality, from reacting to the present to creating the future.’

While Neurozone may describe itself as a neuroanalytic company, what we really try to do is ‘synthesize’. We go beyond breaking down a system into its smaller parts to try to make sense of it, aiming instead to understand how the small units of life give us a whole that is different to the sum of its parts.

‘Much of what we have learned about managing real systems began in agriculture,’ American environmental studies professor David Orr writes. ‘One of the most important lessons being that land is an evolving organism of interrelated parts: soils, hydrology, biota, wildlife, plants, animals and people.’

We can similarly identify the elements that make up a city – including those that are human-made and others that are natural or environmental. It is, however, undeniably the sum of the parts that truly determines livability and thrivability.

2. The finite nature of energy in an infinite system

How we get and use our energy serves not only as a great determinant of the way social systems are constructed, it also provides an analogy for understanding cities as living organisms.

Food is both our fuel and structure. What we eat is broken down into small ‘packages’ – glucose, lipids, amino acids, micronutrients – which are sent to different cells and organs of the body. Healthy and well-functioning bodies are able to fairly allocate energy and resources to organs according to their needs. It does this through transport systems, such as the vascular system, and signaling processes (by the nervous system, the immune system and the endocrine system) that make up a living system. This is what happens in our cities: transportation systems send resources to different ‘organs’, ensuring they receive what they need in the right amounts.

When things go wrong in our bodies, when we have cancer, for example, things are put out of balance. Tumors suck up more energy and introduce toxic effects, destabilizing the whole system. In a visceral and sober way, fear and greed can be seen as a city’s cancer. They cause imbalances and, eventually, lead to disintegration, illness and death.

All living systems are parts of larger systems, which in turn are parts of ever-larger systems. This infinite living network needs synchrony and harmony to realize the ability to synthesize energy for much higher yield and greater outcomes. In the same way individuals are able to maximize energy (through optimism and gratitude, for example), so too can cities. And the same way energy ‘leakers’ or ‘blockers’, such as chronic stress and anxiety, can lead to burn-out for individuals, the same can happen to cities. Just as the simple intervention of taking a break has been shown to predict higher levels of proactive behavior and increase creativity for individuals in a workplace, so has the creation of multisensory urban green spaces been shown to reduce physiological stress among cities’ residents. There is a measurable importance to the maintenance of green spaces in cities as a place for social cohesion to support people’s happiness.

3. The true desire of living systems is safety

Energy is as alive in an urban system as it is in our brain-body system, and its finite nature is a key reason why we must aggregate to optimize the yield and ensure survival. That energy is finite is how cities came to be: the limited amount of available energy is a major driving force of urbanization, which is ultimately the aggregation of people and resources into cities.

We aggregate into these incredible living systems for very high yield. The more we can do with our finite energy, the higher our performance capacity and ability to be collectively creative and thriving.

We also aggregate into different-sized groups to meet very fundamental needs: to stay alive and to survive. By their very design, living systems desire safety, which comes in many forms: physical safety, resource safety (financial) and social safety (we are safe together, a synchronous aggregation of living entities that keep us safe and well).

The brain builds a sense of social safety throughout our lives, ensuring we build commonalities among each other. Entrustment – a sign of high-quality relationships – and how strongly you feel you ‘belong’ are key to our brain-body’s system, enabling us to evaluate how biologically and physically safe we are.

What does feeling safe actually mean? It results in the baseline relaxed physiological state. This is a measurable state of well-being; it ensures our bodies, our organs and our cells are well, functioning without disease. This state of calm is also how we most efficiently use our finite energy, giving us the capacity for elevated problem solving, overcoming challenges and high performance. It is how a system thrives.

But the world is an unequal place, with the deepening gap between high- and low-income countries leading to a failure to provide the much-needed social protection that all human beings crave and deserve. A study released in September 2021 by the International Labor Organization (ILO) shows that more than four billion people remain entirely unprotected. Countries, cities and societies are at a crossroads.

And there it is: to function optimally, to ensure humans thrive in harmony with their environments, a city also needs to be in a baseline relaxed physiological state. This enables it to look after all its components, to be well structured and functioning, ensuring that good decisions are collectively made and challenges can be met and overcome.

The desired outcome of a sense of safety is the baseline relaxed physiological state. At Neurozone, we have developed the Resilience Index, which enables us to measure resilience, which is deeply linked to the capacity for high performance. Resilience underpins the achievement of a baseline relaxed physiological state and allows us to stay in this state of well-being. As Neurozone’s research continues to show, our behaviors, emotional states and cognitive states continuously and dynamically reprioritize themselves to optimize resilience as the equifinal endpoint.

4. Social safety: a continuum from bonding to belonging

Fortunately, we naturally group together in smaller and larger groups in innovative collectives to work together. We connect, we bond, we stick together. We group together to work together. We bond in small groups, and we belong in larger groups. In establishing commonalities, we develop a sense of social safety, which then allows the blossoming of collective creativity and collective resilience.

Everything builds upon the next, giving us a much greater outcome and effect. The most effective teams, for example, demonstrate the highest yield for the finite energy collectively assigned to the task. City and political leaders who know how to harness this collective capacity of urban systems will see the benefits of higher yield as well as the enhancement of the thrivability of smart cities.

It is social safety that sets this up and drives the process. Without it, things become fragmented and fractured – many cities around the world are evidence of this. With it, the collective capacities of a city can be realized to promote sustainable development, well-being and inclusive growth.

5. Resilience is dynamic

Smart cities are dynamic in nature – they are able to constantly adapt to changes. And the Neurozone Resilience System has shown us that it is this ability to make the appropriate internal adaptations to changes in the external environment – and not grit or tenacity – that is the nature of ‘true resilience’ for all systems.

Because life is dynamic, our adaptations must be dynamic: we constantly make internal adaptations – within our own brain-body systems, within groups, our workplaces and within cities – in response to predictions about what the external environment is going to throw at us. It is our ability to predict and respond rather than react that creates the opportunity for us to move towards a baseline relaxed physiological state. All our neurobehaviors prioritize themselves around this point of equifinality to counter the effects of external changes. It is how all systems, including cities, thrive.

Our quest at Neurozone is to measure all of this. Knowing and understanding what the internal effects of external changes will be on a system leads to an increased ability to be responsive and to overcome challenges. If we couple the drivers that underpin the resilient adaptation of a city with the ability to measure and understand how external factors affect a city’s resilience, we can devise intelligent predictive behaviors and systems to support the way the city lives and breathes.

This may sound like science fiction, but we already have enough knowledge and technology available to build optimization platforms that can support our cities through the ebbs and flows of a chaotic future.

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