Conscious Design: What Guides Our Thinking at Conscious Cities Festival

conscious design

In recent years, smart cities have dominated the talk about the built environment with terms like IoT, big data, and digital twins. But there is a much greater need when it comes to improving our cities – the one of people and communities in place. And we call the approach which addresses this need – Conscious Cities.

Conscious Cities are not separated from smart cities though. They improve smart cities by emphasizing inclusion and wellbeing, supported by a scientific understanding of the psychological and social aspects of the person-place interactions.

To build Conscious Cities for the human benefit, we need to reassess not just how we talk about the issue, but also the way we design the system that addresses them. The current spatial design processes and even methods such as Design Thinking are not effective anymore. They are linear and resistant to social sustainability. New methods must be developed with science-informed, experience enriching as well as a community-led approach.

The industry now suffers from siloed stagnancy mostly due to the insistence on stylistic and artistic conceptions in educating architects – the methods and processes that trained the 20th-century starchitects.

Critiquing Design Thinking as a process and Smart Cities, their spatio-urban outcomes.

Unfortunately, many architects from the previous generation still operate with an artistic, top-down mindset, mistrusting science, slanting at community aspirations, and with a deep-seated disregard for hyperlocal economy and ecologies. Furthermore, the pandemic has highlighted the obsolescence of the traditional spatial decision-making rubrics like “building typologies” while echoing the need for dynamic, data-driven, and scalable architectural design.

However, in the 21st century, there’s an increasing thirst for social entrepreneurship and innovation in the upcoming generations of designers and architects. And it’s critical to use their progressive spirit for meaningful and viable collaborative action – collaborations that lead to socially conscious economic prosperity.

There’s a need for making the invisible visible. Conscious Design is driven to dissolve the boundaries between subject, object, and phenomena.

In that pursuit, I have realized that blindly ascribing values of democracy or equity to a profession that is a cross between science, art, and an entrepreneurial craft is not the answer to achieving consensus. True equity starts with proactively examining the innate potential of people as citizens or individuals within a community.

As a principle, it intends to correct the operational shortcomings of “equality” by metaphorically creating doors and windows at the right place instead of forcing the disadvantaged communities to climb over them. In the best case, our commonalities will frame the shared values and the differences would enrich intersectional perspectives and promote constructive, complementary, and creative engagement within the society.

What is The Person-Space Continuum?

The Person-Space Continuum is the creative side of Spatial Phenomena, and is a crucial part of putting Conscious Design into practice. Spatial Phenomena are observable and articulable interconnections between people and places. Based on the premise of situated cognition and enactivism (coming from cognitive science), Spatial Phenomena are an embodied, enactive, multisensory, and interconnected dynamic between human consciousness (and other living beings), cultural constructivism, and our built spaces and environment.

They arise from the objective of making design, designers, and decision-makers ‘conscious’. Spatial Phenomena can be explored through scientific methods of investigating occupant’s experience in space as well as the impact of places on people (over time and with engagement) using multimodal tools and cross-disciplinary approaches.

Spatial Phenomena is the cornerstone of Conscious Design – the co-creative and dynamic process of evolving person-place dialogues. It facilitates the translation of enactive, multisensory, embodied, and situated awareness into design. It strengthens civic participation through equitable representation and articulation of shared intent and a collective purpose. Finally, it emphasizes a science-informed, empathic problem-solving to create a socially sustainable, and scalable impact through design.

To put Conscious Design into practice, it’s critical to evolve a shared language for enabling an inclusive and transparent exchange of knowledge, insights, and skills across academia, industry, and communities. Not only is it instrumental to build trust within city-building ecosystems, but also to develop a shared understanding of what is well-being, community resilience, and social cohesion.

The Conscious Design of Cities is the Design of Conscious Cities.

We also need to develop values that aren’t simply in dissent of the status-quo but united by a collective purpose. A collective purpose emergent from shared intent is essential to shape the future of cities consciously – promising a long-term and systemic cultural transformation of spatial theory, research, and practice to evolve Conscious Cities.

Organizing the Conscious Cities Festival

Each year, the Center for Conscious Design organizes a global event series called Conscious Cities Festival, aimed at spreading the Conscious Design approach in cities all over the world. This year, it was our city chapter – Conscious Bengaluru which took on the role of the global event organizer.

To guide our thinking while creating this year’s festival theme, we first reflected upon the Bhartiya Samskriti – the wisdom from Indic civilization. And so the Four Mahavakyas from Upanishads frame our thinking.

  1. Prajñānam Brahma (Knowledge is Consciousness. Consciousness is the Absolute),
  2. Ayam Ātmā Brahma (The Self is the Absolute),
  3. Tat Tvam Asi (You are the essence. Essence as the innate potential, the relative power within oneself and communities), and
  4. Aham Brahmāsmi (I’m a part of the absolute).

Through grounded research, we further contemplated over the rich shared historical and cultural roots of these ideas that once sustained ecological and social harmony beyond political and national boundaries.These perspectives on the philosophy, psychology and science of ‘Situated Consciousness’ unravelled three dimensions within the Person-Space Continuum – enactivism, equity, and empathy.

Over two years of leading the movement, Conscious Bengaluru evolved into Conscious Design Kalpa. It’s a postdisciplinary think-and-do tank that has been working closely with The CCD to envision a grassroots-up system for scaling Conscious Design in a meaningful way across cultures.

It was co-founded by Aishwarya Narayana, Maria Monica Selvaraj and Padmashree S. While Aishwarya bridges psychology, neuroaesthetics, and systems design, Monica brings her unique background in creative production, community design, and urban anthropology. Padmashree S. passionately pushes the boundaries of visual design along with young interdisciplinary designers, Shashwath Ravisundar, Surayyn Selvan, and Harshitha K. S. to communicate the discourse on Conscious Design in the public domain.

The lack of a shared language and values, prevents shared action.

Since 2019, we have undertaken a variety of research, design, and community-building projects while bringing together multiple ‘agents of change’ across academia, local governance, industry, and citizens. Our first inaugural event ‘56 Urban Unraveling and Utopia’ (2019) tapped into a multidisciplinary exploration of plurality in urban identity, human mobility, connectivity, infrastructure, or facilities as well as sensibilities and philosophical perspectives on a city becoming conscious.

Last year (2020) during the onset of the pandemic, we curated a series of thought-provoking panel discussions, ‘Conscious Cave: Cities and Pandemics’. This particular event series further shows our commitment to creating holistic awareness by engaging not just scholars, design professionals, and policymakers with urban epidemiology and human geography, but also with on-ground citizen welfare, healthcare, and disaster relief activists.

Our approach to dissolving disciplinary boundaries (post-disciplinary) and bridging awareness, intentional design, and creative action culminated into our ongoing research collaboration with the National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro Science (NIMHANS, Bengaluru, India). Here we merged translation research and experimental cartography for investigating the impact of rural and urban environments on social cognition in patients recovering from Schizophrenia.

56 urban unraveling and utopia
A presentation at 56 Urban Unraveling and Utopia event series (2019).

Furthermore, we have been actively cultivating awareness about science-informed design and developing learning tools for Conscious Design. These workshops and guest lectures have been conducted at some of the most prestigious schools of architecture in India – the Indian Institute of Technology Kharagpur (IIT-KGP), S.P.A Bhopal, RV College of Architecture as well as on an e-learning platform, Designopolis. We are also gearing up to disseminate more of such cross-disciplinary and action-oriented learning programs in collaboration with other Conscious Cities Chapters around the world.

As the host chapter for the Conscious Cities Festival 2021, we are looking forward to building a community towards socially sustainable Urbanism. As emerging Conscious Designers, we look forward to cultural activism through professional collaborations with other fellows and cities in the network. In the coming years, we hope to explore unique regional, methodological, and cultural beauty at the intersection of local urban challenges and Conscious Design principles as we collectively reinterpret the Person-Space Continuum.

This festival is the platform for emerging collective aspirations. With principles as solution frameworks, this year’s theme intends to facilitate and encourage cross-chapter problem-solving, co-creation, collaboration, and communication.

The unique grassroots nature of organizing the festival empowers networks of communities, decision-makers, designers, researchers, technologists, funders, and artists to collectively, actively, and effectively envision the future of decentralised spatial and urban decision-making.

With the global community, we at Conscious Design Kalpa aspire to develop the movement into a sustainable ecosystem to activate, engage, and evolve the potential of every fellow, every city, and perhaps every citizen.

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Aishwarya is an Architect, cross-disciplinary researcher, and an Entrepreneur at the delta of Spatial Design, Psychology, and Neuroaesthetics. She co-founded Conscious Design Kalpa, a postdisciplinary think-and-do tank committed to social sustainability, for catalysing meaningful cultural activism towards the evolution of Conscious Cities. Currently with Maria Monica S., she is building learning programs and social impact-driven ecosystems that effectively bridge science, spatial data, and placemaking.

Aishwarya collaborated with Natalia Olszewska and Itai Palti at the Human Metrics Lab/Hume and co-developed a unique methodology for Science-informed Architecture and Urban Design. As an Architect, she turns to Psychology and Neuroscience to inform decision-making in design. As a research scholar, she scientifically investigates the interaction between people, places, and urban systems to create tools for observing and articulating Spatial Phenomena. In life, she hopes to collate and spark advancements in the paradigm of people-places interactions to evolve phenomena-based empathic design geared towards holistic wellbeing.