Contribution at workshop on UK-China Future Cities Collaboration Programme, Beijing, China
Organised by the British Embassy, Beijing
20th March 2018
I would like to address the first objective of this workshop, namely a framework for UK-China collaboration on smart, green and sustainable future cities.
Let me begin by saying that our task is helped by the fact that many valuable frameworks already exist:
First, we have many long-established academic networks. Second, we have project-based networks that bring professionals together around planning and construction projects. Third we have professional networks formed around the many conferences that have brought together UK and China experts for many years, and continue to do so.
Lastly, we have friendship networks – we should not underestimate the importance of the many bonds of friendship that have been created over the years between the UK and China. Academic networks, project-based networks and professional networks are like bricks. You can build a wall without just bricks but you can build a stronger wall with mortar as well. Our many friendships are the mortar.
Can there be one network to serve all the needs of the UK-China relationship? No, I don’t think so. Can there be another network – yes, I believe there can. My suggestion is that this is primarily a coordinating national-level network dedicated to the needs of cities.
When it comes to the remit of this coordinating network, my first suggestion is that it covers not only the physical and spatial form of the city but also the financing of the city and the governance of the city. Although our two nations have different approaches to spatial form, finance and governance, we are both seeing change and we can both therefore teach each other many lessons.
I also think the network should promote reflective learning through discussions at meetings and conferences. We need to find ways to deeply study each other’s practices. Language makes this difficult and so we need translators. And we need patience, which is sometimes difficult when time appears to be so short.
I believe therefore that we need to create mechanisms for allowing exchange between our two countries so that practitioners as well as academics can spend time in each other’s countries. It is one thing to hear a 15-minute Conference presentation. It is another to engage directly in someone else’s work and culture.
There is, I think, another dimension to the UK-China relationship that I would like to describe. And this concerns urban planning practice. The UK and China have two different urban planning systems. There are therefore inherent difficulties in sharing knowledge directly between our countries. What works in the UK may not work in China for cultural reasons and for regulatory reasons.
I believe though that there is an opportunity when it comes to digital technology to find some common ground. My friends in this room will know that this is a particular passion of mine. And, as well as technology, there is an opportunity to share a common technique. Technique is the act of applying technology in practice. To create green and sustainable future cities we need to be smart and digital technology can help us be smart.
Colleagues may be familiar with my definition of SMART:
Urban Planning is rapidly becoming more evidence-based. We can collect much better data now on how people use the city – not just their driving patterns but where they walk, where they shop, where they choose to sit in public space. Being able to better sense how cities work means we can better respond to serve their social, economic and environmental needs. In other words to make cities more sustainable.
By mapping the data onto the plan of the city we can use visualisation techniques to see patterns. Visualisation brings data to life.
But we also risk being overwhelmed by data. This is where analysis matters. Organisations like my own, Space Syntax, have been developing ways of understanding data. In our own case we are able to show how the flows of the city are directly related to planning and design inputs such as the location of facilities and the inter connectivity of the street network.
So we can then react better. With better policies, better plans, better designs, better consultation processes and better leadership decisions.
Finally, before we put these policies and plans into practice; before we commit physical and financial resources, we can use technology to test how proposals are going to perform.
My idea therefore, is that although there may be important cultural and procedural reasons why the UK and China cannot directly adopt each other’s styles of urban planning, there is an enormous opportunity for our two countries to share a common approach. Such an approach is one that embraces digital technology and applies a scientific basis to the creation of green and sustainable future cities.