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Future Cities

Source: Public Sector Executive Nov/Dec 2013

Kate Ashley reports from The Infrastructure Summit, which discussed how cities will look in the future.

On 29 October, leaders from across the sustainability, planning, infrastructure and emerging technology sectors came together to discuss the future of urbanisation. Held by The Economist Events and sponsored by Hitachi, ‘The Infrastructure Summit: Future Cities’, considered strategy for both new and retrofitted cities in the face of considerable challenges.

Speakers considered the impact of transport, energy and leadership, and how best these could be put into practice. PSE attended the summit and heard from the most influential thinkers on demography and urban design.

Social time bomb

Head of the sociology department and professor of urban studies at London School of Economics (LSE), Ricky Burdett, said: “It’s the pace of change and not the scale of change which is important. In other words, all these cities that are growing are growing faster than ever before.”

This growth is “not at all equal” worldwide; with cities’ populations set to expand most quickly in Africa and parts of Asia. Statistics suggest cities contribute around three-quarters of the world’s CO2 emissions – and while this sounds alarming, Burdett pointed out that if we manage to reduce our cities’ CO2 footprints by just 5-10%, it will have a huge global impact.

Addressing delegates, he said: “The other fundamental issue is that one out of every three of you will, according to the UN, be living in a slum, whether you like it or not, in the next 25 years. That’s a social time bomb.”

He called for cities to plan for a higher quality of life with lower energy usage – which some northern European cities are providing: “In terms of infrastructure and these crucial issues, this is where we need to go.”

To plan or not to plan

Much of the debate on the day highlighted the friction between planners and dreamers; those who think every detail of the smart city can, and should, be drawn out in advance, and those at the other end of the continuum who see planning as a barrier to the individual and creative nature of the world’s most interesting cities.

Burdett said: “You can’t stop people moving to the cities. Build cycleways into the middle of absolutely nowhere, and it’s an excuse to have sewers, lighting and infrastructure. The city is going to come anyway, whether you plan it or not.”

He said we should design in terms of the environmental, the social and the political – but give priority to social. “It’s a win-win that a compact, well-designed and well-managed city actually resolves both the social and environmental pressures.”

Waiting game

Kit Malthouse, deputy mayor for business and enterprise at the Greater London Authority, was squarely on the side of the dreamers.
He warned that over-planning cities could have significant consequences. Discussing the challenges facing the emergence and growth of smart cities, he said: “It’s basically getting ahead of growth. The British approach has always been to put our infrastructure in after the problem has occurred – we’ve always waited until there’s a strain on the system before we fire it up.

“Getting ahead of that now has proved to be a real challenge – you can see that with housing. Alzheimer’s is occurring in greater and greater numbers, largely because people are living longer. There are lots of those ‘soft’ issues that we need to think about.”

He criticised Canberra, held up as an example of a strictly planned city, and said:
“People want to see the urban environment
as servant, not master. People want to go
where they want, not where they’re told to go. You can work with the grain or try to
persuade them.”

In the eye of the beholder

A delegate pointed out that old cities were planned, but since culture and creativity still developed, they are now seen as innovative and natural: “We forget that.”

The issue of resilience is very important in this regard; you simply can’t plan for everything, and unforeseen results should almost be expected. But whether governments should even try to dictate how cities should work was questioned by many speakers.

Is a ‘good’ smart city easy to access – or more ‘quirky’? The answer seemed to be personal preference. As another delegate pointed out: “Smart is in the eye of the beholder.”

Malthouse argued that we don’t have time or resources to ‘plan’ the type of creative chaos so admired in certain cities – so more homogeneity may be inevitable instead.

Panelists agreed on the need to balance maintaining character whilst boosting integration and accessibility, with a call to make our cities more sustainable, both in retrofitting and when building from scratch. “Retrofitting old cities for the future is essential,”
Burdett said.

Tim Pryce, head of public sector at the Carbon Trust, who sits on PSE’s editorial board, called for governments to let companies do more new things ‘off plan’ – but warned that there needs to be a framework that oversees this kind of growth.

One thing to note around smart cities was the trend towards car-friendly cities and “heavily-guarded rich homes” with high walls; these just widen the gap between the rich and the poor, and add further pollution and environmental damage.

The perils of friction-free

Richard Sennett (pictured below), Centennial  professor of sociology at the London School of Economics (LSE), warned that creating a friction-free society might not be as utopian as it seems.

Ahead of a panel debate on achieving urban goals in times of austerity, Sennett spoke to the conference via Skype. He set out a number of concerns around smart technology for future cities and how these might be resolved, pointing out that new technology will not solve inequality, but it is “a tool we can use to transform urban infrastructure and the way
we live”.

The first worry was about developing solutions for the future based on present circumstances. While predictions so far ahead are always going to be shaky to some extent, Sennett said that implementing new infrastructure could mean technology that will soon become outdated.

“If you have too tight a fit between form and function, you’re always at risk of technological obsolescence. This is a big deal for old tech, but particularly in making smart cities.”

He gave the example of laying fibre-optic cable, which made a lot of sense ten years ago, before the rise of alternative ways of accessing the internet, such as via mobiles and wi-fi hotspots.

“We’ve got to give something away in terms of efficiency in order to encompass growth.”

More of the same

Cost also presents a significant challenge: “At present, most smart city technology is beyond the reach of places that could benefit most from it.”

And while increase demand normally drives the price of technology now, the world has “a finite number of cities buying high-tech”, which means there is no market incentive to drive costs down.

Sennett said that generic solutions could be “a big issue” for smart cities; leading to an  increase in homogeneity. “Unless we’re smart about smart technology, unless we make  it more adaptive we are going to increase this sameness and homogeneity.”

Top-down or bottom-up?

Considering the politics of smart city development, Sennett asked: “Who controls this technology?” A top-down approach can lead to overly prescriptive cities, both in terms of planning and for retrofitting existing cities.

The latter is becoming more and more crucial as urban areas continue to expand, whilst attempting to introduce smarter, more efficient and environmentally-friendly technology.

“Do we impose a top-down [approach], or is there some way for people, citizens themselves, to really write the algorithms? Their own desires, their own will configures the way in which we use big data.

“This is something that the tech community has really failed the public on, because it’s much easier to talk about a solution in which the technologist essentially establishes a menu of choice, rather than to create a kind of technology which implicates the user as also the decision maker.”

Technology should be “truly participative”, he said, which is something that there hasn’t been enough consideration of.

“From the point of view of citizenship, this is a big issue. If we want citizen technologists, they’re going to have to get involved in more difficult relationships with technology.”

Street smarts

For Sennett, this was the crux of the matter; technology can disable as easily as it can enable, and that the power to determine this is not held by the people living in smart cities.

He said: “There are ways of creating technological solutions for urban problems which disable people’s inductive powers. In which the technology tells you the best way to walk, or what to avoid: danger spots. Where the best restaurants are. There’s no discovery, no serendipity; the inductive capacities are disabled.

“When we talk about street smarts [it’s] a sense of the urbanised data that they can manage in a complex environment. My worry is that misuse of the computerised tools we have now will mean that the computer is street smart, rather than the urbanite.

“To make urbanites street smart in the future, as they could be, to have the confidence to use the city and feel confident to interpret difficulty or complexity, means that technology has got to be indeterminate – the rough, the unknown. It can’t be pre-empted in a sense of saying this is the best way to get about.

“That’s a big problem.”

This could offer a more bottom-up approach to responsibility for the smart city, assuming more engagement on the part of the ordinary citizen to use the technology most effectively.

“Technology can disable human intelligence rather than supplement it,” he cautioned.

A space of friction

“When I listen to technologists talk, their dream is of a friction-free environment; something which is easy to use, user-friendly.”

But this has a social impact in a world where relationships and people are not friction-free. Cities are full of people with differences, and their connections with each other are complex rather than simple.

Becoming reliant on smart technology throughout everyday life could jeopardise and even “trivialise” these relationships, Sennett said.

“The city is a space of friction; it is an open system in tech terms. The structure is complex and full of friction and incomplete. That’s its glory – new things can happen. Things nobody ever thought could happen.”

He concluded: “We worry now about machines, or about big data, but it’s about us – urbanites –and how we conceive of using this new tool.”

Connecting future cities

Transport links are essential to connect people with jobs and opportunities in cities, but transport infrastructure can also exacerbate existing inequalities.

So how can cities use the latest technology to deliver access to vital services and boost growth in a sustainable way?

The panel assembled to discuss this consisted of Michele Dix, managing director, planning, TfL; Xavier Lety, special advisor of the chairman and chief executive officer, RATP group; Paul Priestman, co-founding director at Priestmangoode; and Tim O’Toole, chief executive of FirstGroup, who discussed the role transport plays in the future smart city.

Many emerging cities are still too focused on the car, which contributes to CO2 emissions as well as making it harder for the poorest people to get around if they don’t have access to a car. More sustainable options must be a key planning consideration, especially when developing from scratch.

Data and demand

RATP and TfL were both reluctant to open up data at first, panelists explained, but are now realising the benefits – Dix said that TfL
is ambitious about creating a smarter city.

Big data and pricing can help to spread demand for transport – lower fares to incentivise travelling at less busy periods – which is something train operators and the government are keen to introduce.

Smart ticketing technology is also taking off, with a number of areas implementing their version of the Oyster card to speed up transactions and streamline journeys.

The future holds more mass transit, but more personalised than ever before, O’Toole said, with the rise of apps and smartcards allowing businesses to save passenger information and ensure offers, information and purchases are all tailored to the individual.

Human touch

Priestman agreed that transport needs the human factor; passengers who feel their needs are catered to are more likely to return to
that mode of transport, creating demand for the service.

A question from the floor raised the common concern of technology subsuming human jobs, and leading to “mass unemployment”, particularly at stations and on trains and metro systems.

O’Toole said that while roles will change, greater use of technology will lead to better safety and productivity.

Dix pointed out that there’s value in people with information in transport for future cities, and that there will always be jobs in transport, even if they’re not behind the wheel.

Transport as an enabler

PSE interviewed FirstGroup chief executive Tim O’Toole (pictured) ahead of the transport debate. He told us that transport is “central” to creating smart cities.

He said: “As the world continues its relentless march into urban areas, there are certain basic challenges. One of them is how people can live ever-closer together and still move around in an efficient way. Transport is central to solving that puzzle and if we don’t solve that, we can’t have a society that prospers.

“For running one of these great urban areas, the three big challenges are energy, transport, and waste. How you deal with those subjects determines how liveable the area is. All of those things interrelate and that’s why transport is one of the great enablers to liveability but also prosperity.”

O’Toole said that whether governments or tech developers are judged to be doing ‘enough’ to equip smart cities “doesn’t matter: people are going there”.

“We used to talk about the fact that more people live in cities than don’t; we don’t even need to make that point anymore. Now it’s all about the fact that 75% of the world is going to be living in cities soon – so everybody better figure out what to do about them.

“History is determined by demographics, not great ideas and that’s the direction people are going; we better do something about it.”

Staying ahead of the curve

There are “tonnes” of great examples of smart cities, O’Toole said. London has done “tremendously well” with its underground system, and there are also great urban areas in the Far East:
“They’ve invested hugely in transportation systems.” 

He described working with the Shanghai metro when LU was the oldest metro system in the world and they were the youngest:
“At the time they were half our size and we knew by the time of the World Expo 2010 they were going to be our size. In a few years they’ll be twice our size!”

Good maintenance and keeping ahead of the curve is essential to “stop the belt coming off the machine,” O’Toole said. “If you maintain these systems they can do great things.”

Supporting society

Transport is a key factor in inequality, and can both help and hinder people’s access to essential services.

O’Toole said: “I think that’s true. An example of that in the negative is the bus system across the United Kingdom. There have been real cut-backs in buses, and yet buses are how two-thirds of people use public transport.

“There’s a cutback in tendered services, in concessionary fares: it means people with the least means struggle to get to the high street, to jobs, to interviews, to education.”

Maintaining support for such a system can be tougher than for a new big capital project, he said. “And yet the negative ramifications of not maintaining that support are things our society risks if they don’t.”


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