Good afternoon Governor Patrick, visiting delegates and colleagues from the UK. As a recent resident of Massachusetts myself, it is a special pleasure to speak alongside the Governor on the subject of data and cities: and to share some remarks on the common interest in this room: the science of cities.
A few words about me: I am an architect and an urban planner in private practice. My company, Space Syntax is a consulting company that specialises in predictive analytics - using data science to forecast the impact of urban planning decisions – the “what goes where and how does it all connect together” – on urban impacts such as mobility, interaction, wealth, health and personal safety.
Our motivation is to use science to design great places to live. It’s a combination of data crunching and creative visioning.
I am currently assisting the UK Government Office for Science on a major Foresight project on the Future of Cities. We are looking 25 and 50 years ahead to imagine how people might be living and what kinds of cities will be there for them to live in. The Government Office for Science is headed by Sir Mark Walport, the Government Chief Scientific Advisor. He provides advice directly to the Prime Minister and the Cabinet on the science that can assist in the consideration of national policy. Our aim is to inform policymaking in the short term that can benefit social, economic and environmental outcomes in the long run.
Our work within GO-Science (edged there in red) sits within the UK ecosystem on Smart and Future Cities – a vibrant marketplace for the science of cities.
Let me say a few words about how we are going about this.
First, last and everywhere in between, we are interested in people. Cities manage relations between people – the ways they move and how they interact – to social and economic ends. Everything else about cities – the roads, tunnels, pipes and ducts – provide the life-support. But people provide the life itself – so they are our prime focus.
Living in cities is subject to key drivers including:
- climate change
- resource availability and
- population growth.
On the latter, the Office for National Statistics forecasts a range of possible population changes that include significant increases for the UK overall. Under such circumstances the questions of where people will be living, and how they will be connected, are big ones.
We are also aware of the special circumstances in which these drivers operate, not least the opportunities brought about by:
1. technology: making profound new things possible: sensing, visualising and analysing data, and by
2. a growing recognition that cities are solutions to problems. Ed Glaeser of Harvard University sets out the powerful economic case for cities in his book, “Triumph of the City”, namely that cities are very effective:
- crucibles of innovation – bright ideas come from cities, are nurtured in cities, and find applications in cities, which are also
- economic machines, and
- generators of rich social networks.
And then, perhaps greatest of all,
- cities are inspirers and sustainers of cultural activities: music, theatre and the arts generally.
Describing a city
So how do cities do this? How do you go about describing a city?
The Future of Cities team is developing a definition and you may well be able to help us with it.
When cities work well, they are dynamic, multi-faceted entities working simultaneously across multiple scales.
But – only when they are connected. Physically, spatially and digitally.
It is perhaps so obvious as to have gone unnoticed for too long, that historic cities – the places we like to visit when we go on holiday, the places we choose to work in if we can – are connected cities: Barcelona, Florence, London here…Harvard Square. Connected for walking and cycling at a local scale as well as for driving through on a larger scale. Continuously connected – without great severances.
Too often, almost always, the new, planned city has been divided by the freeway. And too many historic places have been severed by great, new roads. Boston’s Big Dig has restored and transformed the city’s spatial connections. Cities worldwide are looking at Boston as an example of how to fix their discontinuous infrastructure because the interaction of car-dependent transport systems with local needs in these cities is too often out of balance.
Connectivity was the watchword of the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games – finding routes that would connect the new Queen Elizabeth Park to communities either side of it. This was a theme echoed in the Opening Ceremony of the Olympic Games where a great map of London’s street network formed the stage on which the athletes paraded.
Thinking about cities
So, in thinking about cities we need to understand these connections. The interactions between transport, leisure, industry and living; infrastructure planning and societal outcomes; on economics, health, crime and biodiversity.
To do so, the Future of Cities project is taking a systems approach. In two ways:
1. examining the interactions between the various city systems I just mentioned
2. examining the interactions between the system of UK cities.
We are using the best evidence and data modelling available to do so.
Forecasting the future
We are then setting about forecasting the future by taking a Scenarios approach, using three basic techniques:
1. “Trends projection” – in other words, what happens if we get more of the same as we’ve seen in recent years
2. “Aspirational design” – what would we wish the future to be like? Then, by backcasting – what do we need to do to reach those end goals?
3. “Plausible extremes” – given various kinds of infrastructure capacities – how much, of what, could be accommodated where?
And as well as the “What goes where?” and “How does it connect?” we are also looking at the “Who decides?” questions of governance and “Who pays?” aspects of finance.
To close, let me leave you with some of our emerging themes:
1. Place-making – not housebuilding. We need houses of course – but we need neighbourhoods and mixed-use communities too. Places of work and leisure located within places of living. And this is a message that I have heard not only throughout the UK but also in Boston on a recent visit to discuss the future of your great city.
2. the skills of leadership, analysis, financing, planning and design to deliver these complex, multi-faceted entities we call cities. Skills that include an understanding of connectivity and interdependence – skills that integrate the disciplines that our institutions so often divide.
We need to start young. I had the pleasure of seeing my children educated at Kennedy-Longfellow school in Cambridge, where they were a short distance away from MIT – and their educators made use of this walkable connectivity to expose those young learners to that great place.
This is only possible when you have connected, mixed-use cities.
It leads to serendipity. To ideas that hadn’t been thought of before. It’s a safeguard for the future of economies and the cultures they exist within.
The question is: can the serendipity of cities be understood by science in ways that it can be better harnessed by those that plan, finance and govern them?
This is the challenge for those of us in the room today, a massive scientific opportunity that needs a “Big Science” approach.
We call this the “Age of Algorithms” – and it certainly is exciting to be part of the effort. But terms like this can be alien to city dwellers looking for shelter, for employment, for safety and for the comfort of a community. The way forward, I believe, is to direct scientific effort towards that most complex and rewarding of challenges: how we live in cities.