Thinking about the future of cities is not a new challenge. From Christopher Wren’s plan for the post-fire rebuilding of London in 1666 to Ebenezer Howards’s Garden City concept, to Le Corbusier, to Bladerunner, human ingenuity has been tasked with anticipating the future.
A problem, if we care to admit it, is that these plans tend to fail. Look at what replaced Wren’s ideas: more of the same. Or, consider the legacy of post-war housing and the New Towns movement: social and spatial isolation. Car dependency. Traffic congestion.
Why should this be?
In the first instance because the markets resisted the proposed change. That is what happened to Wren.
In the second, and this is the problem we are tackling today, because of silos: professional silos that have led to poor decisions being taken on the basis of poor information.
As our professional institutions grew in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, as the scale of our interventions increased, as we built our cities increasingly around the car, creating divisive urban motorways, with sheds and car parks replacing high streets and public spaces, we lost a focus on the essential purpose of human aggregation: not movement but transaction.
It is now more important than ever to regain this focus. World population is growing and this population is increasingly urbanising.
Look more closely at these figures and two other facts emerge. First, an increasing middle class, which will create an increasing demand for energy. Second, an increasing population living in unplanned, informal settlements and slums.
What are the implications of this kind of growth? Social fragmentation and carboniferous consumption – if things stay as they have been. If we choose to let things continue as they have been.
And of course we shouldn’t. Because business as usual is not sustainable.
A shift in thinking is needed.
So, this is not an argument against planning. Just against the wrong kind of planning. Cities are growing and they are currently growing the wrong way: towards slums and traffic congestion. They need to be planned differently. I believe this is what the Future Cities Catapult should do.
And this is not only a UK challenge. It is a global as well as a local challenge. For the UK service sector in future cities we should look as much, indeed more, towards our international export markets as our domestic markets. There are major business opportunities wherever economies are growing because, if economies are growing then they are urbanising.
Let’s look more closely at silos. Why have they come about? They have their origins in 19th century thinking in the natural sciences. Compartmentalisation of the different species and subspecies was the way of organising the proliferation of data emerging from the development of science. From better imaging creating more and mre data. It’s not a new problem.
Rapid industrial growth in the 19th gave rise to professional specialisms: the architect and the engineer. Then specialisms within specialisms: traffic engineering from structural engineering from electrical engineering. Town planning from architecture, then the emergence of landscape design and urban design.
As we have specialised so have we siloed our learning.
Now there are new silos: the physical silos (engineering and architecture) have been joined by the digital. This means that there is an even greater need to integrate.
For an architect who struggles to speak with a traffic engineer, just imagine the difficulty in holding a conversation with a technology provider.
So, how should we organise this interaction if history suggests we have been pretty inept at doing it before.
My idea is that we should change our focus from the delivery of services to the receipt of them by customers. Think about the customer as the client. Think the way Steve Jobs thought – about how the customer receives the product. How they open the box and interact with its contents. We need to translate this approach to thinking about the way people behave in buildings in cities.
In other words, focus on day-to-day urbanism.
Focus on people.
Observe, survey, analyse.
Look before we leap.
Why haven’t we, the civic leaders, done it before? Either because we thought it too mundane (bridges were a more appealing prospect – bigger, bolder, involving the pouring of more concrete) or because we didn’t know how to do it.
I suspect it was a bit of both with a weighting towards the former. If we were really interested we would have developed the human observatory technologies well before now.
But we didn’t. Yet these technologies have developed anyway, in parallel. Without us asking them to they have now pervaded everyday urbanism. How? Well, everyone carries a mobile phone.
We use Facebook.
This evolution-revolution is the subject of fervid analysis and speculation among academics.
My own work at my company Space Syntax, focuses on human behaviour in cities and, in particular, on the physical connections – the streets and spaces – that connect people together.
Through our partnership with University College London, we have discovered that the network of connections in cities is a scientifically measurable object and, when you measure it in the right way, you can predict how people are going to use it. To move, to interact and, crucially, to transact – to trade.
You can predict land value, crime patterns: the economic and social performance of cities. Space, it seems, is the integrating framework.
I’d like to suggest that digital has not altered this. It has reinforced it. We need great human gathering places more than ever because human interaction is the analytic filter for all of the data that new technologies are producing – we need human interaction to transform the data into intelligence.
If the last digital revolution was in data capture and representation then the next is in auto-analysis and sense-making. Crowd sourcing is an example of this – when the service provider is also the receiver. But of course this is not an exclusively technology-driven transformation. It is a human-technological interaction.
And even this will not be enough. By all means, we should use technology to improve sensing, awareness-raising, even collective decision-taking. But the challenge is even greater. It is a creative challenge.
Why? Because technology is not only telling us more about ourselves. It is changing our behaviour. And in ways that we don’t understand. Reading emails during meetings. A good thing or a bad thing? Living in “transpace” – forming weak global networks at the expense of strong local ones. How does this change us? Does this mean economic prosperity at the cost of social wealth? Or not?
Transformational technologies are creating a phase change right now. The challenge of future cities is a creative one. To think thoughts and take decisions that haven’t been taken before.
And this challenge is a different one to the 19th challenges of the physical sciences. For example: using the laws of thermodynamics to create more and more powerful and efficient engines to enable industrial growth; challenges that can be resolved through single sciences. Today’s challenges are the global challenges of terrorism and climate change. They are multi-disciplinary challenges. No single engine will provide the solution.
History suggests that human beings are particularly good at handling phase change. We are able to act not only as data filters and sense-makers but also to make the creative leaps that phase changes necessitate. When the terrain shifts, when the rules change.
Catal Huyuk – the first city – emerged by both accommodating and enabling a transition from a hunter gatherer to a settled agrarian society.
The Nile Valley saw the establishment of sophisticated, permanent trade and governance systems by harnessing the beneficial power of irrigation technology to produce more food than was needed. This enabled the creation of food storage in warehouses, which meant that societies could survive poor harvests by calling on food reserves, assisted by new food processing techniques. Ultimately, this allowed societal permanency, which created the first forms of urbanism.
In other words, new technologies have led to massive shifts in our ways of living. It is at times of technological transformation that humanity innovates, switching to new rule sets, creatively finding new ways of being. Ways that didn’t exist before. Or perhaps ways that once did exist haven’t existed recently.
Whichever uncertain form it takes, there is one thing that I think we can be sure about: innovation requires first, face to face contact; second, random, unplanned encounter; third, the interaction of groups. These are the building blocks for the human transactions that lead to innovation.
Each of these come in abundance in well planned cities. Both are lost with spatial segregation and congestion.
Future cities therefore need, first and foremost, to provide the conditions for face-to-face human transaction: to provide the majority of first contact. Technology will then facilitate a majority of second contact.
In order to achieve this, localism will become more important than globalism. Hollywood/Bollywood may have a short shelf life. They have, or will soon have, achieved globalism. Thereafter, we will value differentiated, local place.
So what will we need? Exactly what we have lost: cities, with numerous co-located, locally differentiated clusters, allowing innovation across silos. Cities of villages.
In urban planning terms, this means great streets and spaces. It means getting rid of divisive inner-urban motorways. These badges of honour are the last century’s badges of honour, not this century’s and certainly not the next. Yet we continue to build them. Perhaps not so much in the UK but certainly overseas, as UK exports. We need to reflect on this practice. Is it an ethical foreign policy?
Here’s a prediction: if we get it right, future cities will look more like pre-20th century’s cities than 20th century cities.
In this regard, many UK cities are already Future Cities.
London is largely a future city. Birmingham is largely a Future City. Newcastle is largely a future city.
But vast tracts of housebuilding are certainly not Future Cities – yet this is what many in our industry are elivering. “Eco” in name. Perhaps “Eco” in wall insulation. But not “Eco” in tems of urban footprint.
And so there is significant further work to do to go the final mile, to make the essential case for complete urban transformation.
My recommendation is to start by understanding how cities are – how they work. How people behave in them. Start here. This is why Urban Observatories are such a good idea.
Then think about changing cities around the principle of face-face human transaction.
Integration between professional silos is essential. Otherwise I see a divide forming, with one half of us obsessing over having more and more data. Like putting up more and more CCTV cameras, generating more and more imagery, which is barely useful if we are not analysing and acting on the data. And the other half painting fantastic pictures of futuristic cities.
We can avoid this error by integrating, yes. But, I believe what’s most important is that we integrate around the receivers of our services, not simply the providers. Around people and their transactions.
If the 20th century city was the “city of movement” then the 21st should be the “city of transaction”.
This is the challenge.