Article by Sir Mark Walport on the findings of the Foresight future of cities project.
This article first appeared in Prospect’s future of cities supplement.
Cities matter to the UK’s future. The majority of us live, work and play in cities. They will be home to much of the country’s future population and economic growth. Cities are central to the shaping and delivery of national policy objectives and in return, they are the places where social, environmental and economic policies play out in practice.
An important task for government is to think about the future, as well as to learn from the past, and the Foresight programme, run by the Government Office for Science, helps in the development of this thinking. Previous Foresight projects have explored diverse topics such as flooding, manufacturing, identity and wellbeing. The role of Foresight is not to make policy—that is a job for elected politicians. Its role is to provide evidence that can help policy-makers in their work. In the case of the future of cities project, evidence can reveal how cities have developed and identify plausible future trajectories. This does not mean attempting to predict the future—it is hard enough to understand the past and the present. But it is possible to develop different possible scenarios for the future, some of which may be distinctly less appealing to policy-makers than others.
As part of the Foresight future of cities project, we held seminars in different cities around the UK, bringing together people from business, local government and academia. There were some common denominators at the discussions. ‘Liveability’ emerged repeatedly as an essential attribute for cities of the future. Good transport was always high on the list and was always thought of in terms of local, regional and national networks. The importance of city identities cropped up repeatedly and the close relationships between individuals and their home city. In Newcastle, the answer to the question as to who would live there in 2065 was “Geordies!” But who will a Geordie be in 2065? What will be the relationship between Newcastle, Gateshead and Sunderland—will they fuse into Newgatesland? And what will be the skills needed to populate city workforces in 2065?
The concept of a sticky city emerged—a city that retains its young people. It was widely agreed that Bristol was one such city and one explanation for its attraction was that “Bristol is edgy”. The importance of local universities and other higher education institutes was repeatedly emphasised. The civic university is alive and well in 2016, but this begs the important questions about what higher education will look like in 2065. Another topic that came up repeatedly was the imbalance between London and the south-east, and the rest of the UK. The evidence shows that the south-east is by far the stickiest part of the UK, though this is increasingly strained by housing costs. There was almost uniform recognition that the imbalance between the south-east and the rest of the UK needs to be rectified by measures to increase the attractiveness of living, working and playing in cities outside the south east, and not by policies that might harm the vitality of the extended London region. And this underpins a clear message to policy makers: that policies and planning that consider living, working and playing as isolated entities may miss the point that citizens need all 3 for their cities to be liveable.
The importance of wider city-regions was broadly agreed, and 2 defining requirements for a city-region emerged. The first is the need for a transport system within the region that enables people to move around it freely, so that different members of a family or social unit can work in any part of the region. The second is a system of governance with a strong vision for the whole city-region, rather than a plethora of competing mechanisms of governance.
The opportunity for increasing the population density of cities was another recurring topic. Waves of city inhabitants have moved from the centre to outlying suburbs, towns and villages. In some cases this has left cities with sparsely inhabited centres, creating important opportunities for growth without encroaching on valuable green space. Living in areas with a high population density does not need to be synonymous with overcrowding. Manhattan has an extremely dense population and is considered by many to be a highly desirable place to live. Policy-makers must think about demographic change. We are an ageing society and the population of those aged 75 and over is projected by the Office for National Statistics to double from 5 million to 10 million by 2040. Many people move away from cities as they age, leaving them to younger people. Will this trend continue as the retirement age rises and people work for longer? How can cities remain liveable places for an ageing population?
Environmental change is another important driver for the evolution of cities. By 2050, we are committed by UK legislation to reduce our carbon emissions by 80% of 1990 levels. The outcome of the Paris conference on climate change at the end of 2015 was a global commitment to keeping global warming “well below” 2°C. Cities will be key places where the energy policies that will be needed to achieve this ambition will succeed or fail.
So how might science, engineering and technology contribute to the development of cities in the next 50 years? It is fashionable to talk about ‘smart cities’ but a city cannot be smart. A smart city is one that makes it easier for its citizens to be smart. Much of that will come from helping people to live more efficiently and effectively. There is an absolute requirement for resource efficiency if people in cities are to live sustainably in 2065, and this is a driver for innovation that can reduce our demand for energy, materials, food and clean water and minimise our waste and its adverse consequences. Transport within the city is evolving in ways that encourage walking and cycling and improve health; the increasing use of bike schemes in London in particular is an example of this. Technology will help improve public transportation, for example through the introduction of driverless vehicles as well as the many apps which are simplifying our movements in cities. They tell us how to get from A to B and importantly, what we might find when we get there.
Cities have enormously complicated infrastructures and, like living organisms, they have a metabolism. So the brain of a city is its citizens, who interact with each other, like networks of individual nerves. Cities nourish their citizens by providing power, housing, transport, heating and cooling systems, water and food. A late 20th century addition to this nourishment was the internet and wireless technologies that provide an infrastructure for the transmission of data on which we have become increasingly dependent. And from all this human consumption cities generate waste on a vast scale. This has to be removed to preserve the health and welfare of the dense populations of cities. Indeed probably the most important contribution of public health has been to separate the water we drink from the water we excrete.
The different kinds of infrastructure that underpin modern cities are highly interconnected and failure of any individual piece has the potential to threaten the viability of the whole. The hypothesis of the scientist, engineer and technologist is that city systems can be measured, monitored and modelled using the power of ubiquitous sensors connected to the internet. Will it be possible to tame and corral massive flows of data to deliver cities that are places where people want to live, work and play?
But it is a technocratic fallacy that the simple application of science, engineering and technology to cities will make people happier and improve their lives. This will only happen if the arts, humanities and social sciences are fully integrated with technocratic approaches. Social scientists have long contributed to the science of cities; the work of influential figures such as Patrick Geddes, Ebenezer Howard and Lewis Mumford has left an important legacy. The acute social observations of Jane Jacobs are as relevant today as when she wrote her book ‘The Death and Life of Great American Cities’ in 1961.
Around the world today, cities are growing and new cities are sprouting. While predicting the future is impossible, the current phase of urbanisation means that it is likely the future will be substantially different from today. The future will see changes in the physical appearance of cities, but these changes may be small compared with how we live, work, behave and interact in cities. We are extraordinarily lucky in the UK to have inherited a diverse range of cities that bear the imprints of many centuries of human habitation. Each of our cities is unique and there is no single future of cities or model pathway to follow. This means that those policy-makers concerned with the future of a given city, or system of cities, will have to forge their own paths and do their own future thinking. Not all their visions of future cities come to pass of course, but in some cases, thinking about the future, can actually help to shape it.
Find out more on the future of cities project page.