I was recently at an event on data and technology in real estate when asked a parting question, ‘what’s your favourite building?’

I was stumped.

I thought of the great buildings I’ve been in, Westminster Abbey, Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, the Palace of Versailles yet none were racing to the top of my head as a ‘favourite’. Racing through my head I was remembering and recounting the outlines of buildings and their grandeur….as the question was about a “building”, yet nothing was sticking.

It was only once I’d left that I thought of my favourite building, but it wasn’t a building, it was a space, the Portuguese Cistern in El Jadida, Morocco. Orsen Welles was so enamoured with the space that in 1950 he shot scenes for Othello. Today, it just about survives as a tourist location. I then went on a journey through the spaces that have had an impact on my senses and left me in awe; the tunnels, modern and ancient, the underground abattoirs in central London, the buddhist monasteries in India and the ancient temples in Cambodia and Mexico. Would I say these were great buildings, no, but I would say that as isolated spaces I remember the impact they had on my senses.

100 years ago, we as the proletariat were very different. We have become more educated, cultured and complex individuals. Perhaps had we not witnessed space travel, the splitting of the atom, the birth of the internet and previously unimaginable technologies we would still be in awe of the large exterior well designed building, and indebted to its prowess over us, that its mere monolithic presence is something to behold, a 21st Century Pyramid only conceivable by a great entity. Today, its nice and appreciated but doesn’t carry the same weight as it once did. It’s what happens to the people inside leaves the lasting memory and leaves one with the sense that something great has been created by great people.

Younger people’s lack of buying power led to the growth of the experience economy, and the sharing economy. In our more complex world we are as time poor as we are fiscally. Our commitment of both or either comes from the holistic value we can draw from it. This mode of thought to all things around us I believe is falling into real estate - is this space truly working for me, is it what I/we need?

Rule #1 of retail, follow the demand. Demand (people) has changed. Individuals are seeking more from space and we need to ensure we are designing such spaces that meet the needs of the consumer.

In the Cognitive Era, led by IBM, we are about to develop it will be the spaces that enhance cognition that become valuable and in demand. The ‘sick-day’ phenomenon and loathing of the office contributes to a £29bn (UK) & $180bn (US) impact on private business. Not only this but a firms ability to accelerate and remain competitive is based on talent, for whom setting office design and culture as a key signifier to sign for a company (other than money).

With increased evidence that our built environment has an affect on cognition it’s now time to start being leaders and implementing new standards. Advancements in Neuroscience mean that we can use machinery to read and understand how design and space has an affect on cognition. Neuroscience is a great new tool that, it will give greater certainty to what has generally been intuition. With evidence we can set new standards and design and architecture can fulfil its true obligations - to create spaces that have great impacts on people.

Therefore, the questions we should be asking in design are;

  • For hospitals, where the problems lie in re-admittance and slow rehabilitation, “what are design principles that can enhance neurogenesis?”
  • For schools, where nigh numbers of young active minds with complex social situations need to learn even more complex subject and relativity, “what are the design principles that can enhance attention?”
  • For offices, where our complex business world means we are required to balance numerous thought processes and ‘create the new’ and ‘innovate’, “what are the design principles that can enhance increased neuronal activity in the mind rather than dampen it?”

The brain is too complex to be able to predict or via science guarantee an exact figure for success, but we can substantially increase the probability that user experience will be enhanced. When we focus on core human attributes, such as curiosity, we look at something more societally sustainable, if we focus on the zeitgeist in design we end up with all the 1960’s modernist buildings being torn down as no longer ‘fit for purpose’. Post-war modernist architecture saw a de-humanising of space in order to remove personal hierarchy in the aim that people will naturally flourish when class and hierarchy were removed. However, it was sadly combined with concrete and apathy and resulted in prison like environments, and if all the studies in embodied cognition have taught us that such spaces perversely encourage anti-social behaviour.

We must look at re-humanising spaces, re-thinking our efforts in how to bring the best possible mental outcomes for the users and build backwards from that. Neuroscience is about to give us a lens to delve deeper into what differing physical aspects do to cognition and thus behaviour and emotion. We have a new tool to set new standards and foundations from which we can work and be more effective with our outputs. It’s not about changing what we do, it’s about using new tools to do it better.