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Future Cities: Accelerating the accelerators

Source: PSE Dec/Jan 2019

Rob Whitehead, director of knowledge and communications at Future Cities Catapult, looks ahead to the exciting future of urban innovation.

In the 1986 film ‘Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,’ the titular hero proclaims: “Life moves pretty fast. If you donʼt stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”

That was 30 years ago. Since then, we as a species have developed and adopted many extraordinary technologies, including mobile phones, the internet, and the mobile internet, to name just a few. These technologies are now so tightly woven into the very fabric of daily life that it’s hard to imagine being able to function without them.

Reaching further back, but not much more, we see the dawn of the motorway age. In 1956, a proponent of the then-new technology, Lord Derwent, citing a report of the era, made the following case: “Many people will say that [this report] is ahead of its time, that the idea of building motorways in British cities is too much of a strain on the imagination of many members of the public and many of our political leaders. I take the opposite view.”

The report has to define a motorway (“a highway limited to motor vehicles… drivers can get on and off it only at specially designed junctions...” and so on) – because, one has to presume, readers at the time might perhaps have not even heard of such a thing. Motorway, indeed! Imagine...

So, from motorways being a niche concept in the domain of wide-eyed futurists, to Ferris taking his shower and telling us all to slow down and take a look around – just 30 years. And from Ferris to now, the same jump again – another speedy 30 years.

But the bigger point here is this: not only is life moving fast, it is accelerating.

The future is accelerating

Moore’s Law (a computing term, the simplified version of which states that processor speeds, or overall processing power for computers, will double every two years) actually originated around 1970, and is still broadly held to be accurate.

In an essay entitled ‘The Law of Accelerating Returns,’ renowned futurist (and now director of engineering at Google) Ray Kurzweil argued, in 2001, for extending Mooreʼs Law to describe exponential growth across a wide variety of evolutionary systems including, but not limited to, the growth of technologies.

This acceleration isn’t limited to technology. It’s also applicable to and observable across any number of complex, evolutionary systems. Like cities, for example. And transport systems. Which brings us to...

A network of Catapults

The Catapult centres were established across the UK in 2011 by Innovate UK, a government agency. A group of physical centres, the Catapults bring together the very best businesses, scientists, and engineers to work side-by-side on late-stage research and development – transforming high-potential ideas into new products and services to generate economic growth.

So Catapults are a deliberate idea to make Kurzweil’s dictum a reality. They are built specifically to “deliver a step change in the UK’s ability to commercialise its research” and to harness the potential of these technological accelerations.

So much so that simply reading the names of each Catapult almost feels like putting Ferris’s advice into practice and taking a look around at what now actually looks like: Cell and Gene Therapy, Compound Semiconductor Applications, Digital, Energy Systems, High Value Manufacturing, Medicines Discovery, Offshore Renewable Energy, Satellite Applications, Transport Systems, and last but not least, Future Cities.

Welcome to the future. Buckle up – it’s gaining pace.

The Future Cities Catapult

Future Cities Catapult is the UK’s urban innovation agency. It collaborates with and matches up industry, government and academia to define, create, test, and sell products and services for cities. Future Cities Catapult calls this the advanced urban services sector, and works to position the UK as a leader in this emerging global market.

And within this sector, Future Cities has defined a burgeoning list of specific areas of work: digital planning and standards; housing and construction; health and social care; breathability and sustainability; and of course, mobility and transport.

It was as part of its mobility remit that Future Cities Catapult developed a prototype in 2015 with RTA Dubai, in collaboration with Nesta and University College London, from which sprang the Urban Mobility Innovation Index (UMii).

Urban Mobility Innovation Index

This comprehensive framework was developed to assess the maturity of a cityʼs innovation ecosystem in urban mobility. It provided insight into cities across the world by uncovering city data and unlocking the value in mobility to enable more informed decision‐making. It helps city leaders to implement urban mobility policies and measures relevant to their ecosystem to enable innovation, while promoting knowledge-sharing and dialogue.

UMii was tested in 30 cities worldwide, with a well-balanced representation of innovation ecosystems across a wide spectrum of transport systems, city governance models, and economic development stages.

And if Lord Derwent thought the concept of motorways would prove a challenge to the imagination, then what might he have made of some of these:

  • Casablancaʼs aims to develop 10 multimodal transport interchanges in the city by 2022;
  • India plans to ensure every car sold in the country will be powered by electricity by 2030;
  • RTA’s November 2016 agreement with Hyperloop One to explore how to reduce journey times between Abu Dhabi and Dubai to just 12 minutes;
  • The world’s first-ever Mobility as a Service solution, Whim, launched in Helsinki Region in 2016;
  • Singapore’s vision of being a car-lite society by 2030, where 75% of all journeys would be undertaken by public transport.

Accelerating the accelerators

So, looking ahead? The UK’s urban areas are home to 83% of the population and, by 2050, more than two-thirds of the global population will live in cities. The world of transport will transform dramatically over the coming decade as new technology, such as decarbonised power sources, mobile communications, AI, and big data radically transform the way that transport outcomes can be delivered.

All of which helps contextualise the recently announced joining-together of the Future Cities and Transport Systems Catapults, a unification that will accelerate the skills and expertise they apply to tackle the problems of modern city living and address the future of mobility, in a world where the rate of change is accelerating ever faster.


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