Human Consciousness, Architecture, and the Power of the Future.

Itai Palti, an architect, designer and artist based in Israel, straddles between genres to explore ideas of belonging, the urban future and his belief in dialogue with place.

Born in Tel Aviv and raised in Israel and the U.K., Itai Palti studied at the Bartlett School of Architecture in London and went on to practice in the UK and his home country. He founded the Conscious Cities movement in 2015, a new field of research and practice for building environments that are aware and responsive using data analysis, AI, technology, and science-informed design. For his work in advancing changes in the design profession, he was named by Metropolis Magazine as one of 2020’s “Game Changers” in transformative ideas in health, social justice, technology, and urbanism. Based out of Tel Aviv, Palti believes in the importance of understanding the interplay between consciousness and our surroundings with the goal of creating healthier built environments. He shares the belief that human creativity is what will set us apart from technological advancements in the future. Learn more from our conversation on all things design, living, and the world of the future.

Can you tell us about your school and how that influenced your way of thinking?

My final project aspired to bring the Hebrew and Arab communities in Tel Aviv closer by creating opportunities for healthier interactions. I believed (and still do) that architecture can be used as a tool to encourage curiosity and empathy towards one another. As the project developed, I understood that the kind of cognitive or emotional experience I was designing for could be seen as a building block for architecture. That understanding really opened up my thinking. Are we really designing spaces, or are we designing experiences? Therefore, what are the tools that we need to be using?

How did you come about establishing this think tank and what is it that you do? What is the impact will this research-based organisation make?

Founding the Centre for Conscious Design was a logical step for creating a body that convenes the global Conscious Cities movement, to spur dialogue and find synthesis in developing methodologies and impacting the industry. I led the movement and think tank through their foundational years – including expanding the annual festival from one city in 2016 to over 40 cities worldwide in 2020. Last year I passed the baton to other leaders in the Conscious Cities movement and I hope that will lead to its organic development. The Centre and the movement have multiple objectives, but their core is about creating practical approaches to improving the quality of built environments, with a focus on the uptake of scientific knowledge. Science-Informed Design is an approach developed at my practice, Hume, in which research and its translation become integral to the design process. Conscious Design takes the tools of Science-Informed Design and places them in the context of creating a living dialogue between people and place.

Consciousness is awareness, and the Conscious Cities movement and my work in general aims to create awareness through research and dialogue. Meta-Awareness is awareness of one’s own internal processes, so I like to say that I deal with Spatial Meta-Awareness – the knowing of oneself in space. What does this all add up to? The notion is that we can make a positive social and ecological impact by shifting the production of space to a more conscious and science-informed approach.

You have said that the source to the fourth industrial revolution will be creativity.

I have been thinking about that a lot because I wrote a piece arguing that a few years ago, and now with chat GPT and AI, I still vouch for the idea that its creativity that will drive the industrial revolution we are entering. Why? Because AI can be a tool for production, it can even aid in creativity. However, what you do with these tools that matters. It’s the questions and prompts that you pose to technology which dictate the value of an output. Thinking up those questions and articulating them in a specific way as of today is still a function of human creativity.

This reminds me of Louis Kahn asking the brick what it wants to be. It’s all about the questions and creativity coming from there.

I love your reference to Kahn’s brick. When I began to combine behavioural neuroscience with architecture, some people thought of it as a leap. But to me, they are very similar. A design is a hypothesis, it’s just that architecture isn’t in the habit of testing hypotheses as science does. Both fields are about asking good questions about ourselves and our surroundings. What does the brick want to be? What does this space want to be? What does this person want to feel?

What is your take on the idea of urbanism and architecture being able or not able to impact climate change?

The building industry has a really big role to play in it, not just in the obvious aspect of carbon footprints and sustainability, but also in the state of mind that we build ourselves into. Our urban environments detach us from knowing where resources come from. We go to the supermarket and we don’t know where most of the products come from and what it took to bring them there. Our way of life creates an illusion that consumption occurs without extraction, and the systems we’ve built in place, especially in urban environments play a significant part.

There are so many questions around the idea of non-building because we create material waste, we create construction waste.

There are two words that really come to mind in this discussion: extraction and abstraction. We extract in unsustainable ways because our psychological environment allows us to do so, it does so by abstracting our actions into numbers and currency. We should stop building buildings that are designed to last 40 years, because not only is it not sustainable, but it also sends the wrong message. It signals to others that everything, even buildings are disposable. So, perhaps, when we imagine cities of the future, we could inhabit places that connect us to our surroundings as a core function.

The only way architecture probably can do that is when our buildings are standing for longer?

It’s not just the buildings that need to stay longer; we need to stay longer. I don’t think we can continue to keep on migrating in the way that we do because we need to reconnect with where we live. Being positively connected to a place creates place attachment that leads to civic engagement, pro-environmental and pro-social behaviours, and on an individual basis improves mental health.

Would you want to talk about why you came back to Israel and, how it is practising back there and being connected to your culture?

People are affected differently by various aspects of their lives. I would say that, unsurprisingly, my surroundings have a huge effect on me. I feel very fortunate, even with the complications of local conflict to come from a city that overall offers an engaging and inspiring environment. Tel Aviv is a friendly, informal place and feels more like a neighbourhood. You often bump into friends on the street, and you’re often sitting outside somewhere watching the world go by its business. A large part of life is set outside the home, and that is a component of how communities are built. Also, theres a matter of the language that you grow up with and that you are surrounded by as a young child. It will always somehow have a different effect on you and can contribute to a sense of belonging.

You are a designer, an architect and also an artist. What excites you the most though?

All creativity excites me, but especially art forms that aim to pass on an experience, a narrative, or a feeling. Architects build creative skills that are useful and relevant to other forms of art and design, so I apply them to my other interests. Whether it’s music, film, or performance, it’s a narrative that people see and connect with, and that makes them think. When we design spaces, we are really thinking up a narrative for people to experience. When you make music, you are still curating an experience in the same way that you do with architecture, but the tools are different. It’s exciting that we’re entering an age in which many people are multi-disciplinary. Crossovers can bring about some really interesting results.

What will define the future?

I believe that to project into the future we must look at how society views human consciousness. What we think of our existence, our spirit, will shape how we apply technology, what values we champion, and the goals we pursue. When we understand that consciousness is something that is interconnected, to others, and to our environment that will change the course of society. It will move us away from individualism and into a living-centred or ecology-
centred paradigm.

Itai Palti was a speaker at the ID Symposium 2023, organised by India Design ID in New Delhi.