What will cities of the future look like? - an Innovate 2017 panel debate

Smart cities and urban planning experts debate future cities at Innovate 2017

Over the past two days we’ve been at Innovate 2017, an event designed to deliver fresh perspectives on innovations such as artificial intelligence, smart cities, alternative food sources and space exploration.

Members of the CityVerve consortium were out in force at the Birmingham NEC to demonstrate use cases and speak to inquisitive visitors about the project.

Amongst the many speaker events, we attended a panel debate examining what cities of the future world will look like. And – spoiler alert – the conversation was not centred around the tech, but people instead.

The panel was hosted by Ian Meikle, from event organisers Innovate UK, with participants comprising: Sally Uren from Forum for The Future; Scott Cain from the Future Cities Catapult; Alison Mitchell from Liverpool-based innovation hub Sensor City and Tim Stonor from architectural practice Space Syntax.

What do cities of the future look like?

Scott Cain kicked things off by answering the question about what a future city looks like: “A city that adapts to the needs of its people. It’s that simple,” he said, explaining that we need to consider the context of a city. For example, you can’t compare the needs of a small city in an advanced economy, with a large mega-city in the developing world.

Sally Uren argued that energy, food, transport and other systems need to be integrated. “What happens if you put systems-thinking at the heart of the city? You get something that allows cities to thrive, to adapt to the needs of its citizens,” she said.

“The technology is immaterial,” said Alison Mitchell. “It’s about the people, whether they’re happy and proud to live there. I live in Liverpool and if you ask a Liverpudlian where the second city of the UK is, they’ll say ‘London’,” she joked.

The architect on the panel, Tim Stonor, posed the question slightly differently. “The problem is not what should cities should look like, but what will they look like.” He said that when it came to urban planning, we were still living in a very vehicle-centric world.

Striking a more positive tone, he said it doesn’t have to be like that and we can design future cities to be more people-centric, “with high streets, where kids are safe to play, where cars don’t travel faster than 20mph.”

Business models for future cities

Sally Uren argued that part of the problem is that we have very linear business models and that we need to think differently about how this works – for example, by looking at circular business models.

To illustrate how this alternative thinking can work in practice, Sally referred to green roofs, which are not only good for the environment but can be a source of food too. She cited Whole Foods in the US finding a way of enabling people to sell that food, but argued that the value goes beyond this. “How can you put a value on bio-diversity or clean air?” she said.

“What’s the business model to support green roofs? It needs to tie people in for the long term and involve multiple parties,” she went on.

Scott Cain said that when it comes to business models, and especially those involving SMEs, there’s a lack of evidence about what works and what doesn’t. “There’s a little bit of a lack of trust and there are unproven business models.”

Talking from the perspective of an SME, Tim Stonor added: “The real barrier to innovation is the large organisation, because it challenges the status quo. SMEs have to be agile. They see things sooner.”

Harnessing the value of data

“We are relatively blind to giving away the value of our data,” said Scott Cain. He said a model to work towards would be to enable citizens to choose how their data is being used – for example by a corporation versus a public body.

He called on tech firms – like ride sharing apps, for example – to find ways of giving some of the value of their businesses to the city. This way they can work with the cities, not against them.

Tim Stonor argued that we still have a long way to go in our understanding of how cities work.

“There is a paucity of data,” he said. “We don’t know enough about how citizens use our cities, how they move around, where they interact – even the units of measurement are not yet granular enough. We have to get to a completely different level of granularity and sophistication, which requires a massive research effort.”

People-centric cities

“We need to make the city of the future not one that relies on everyone with an app or having access to technology,” explained Tim Stonor. “For me, it’s whether they can cross the road easily; that the lights work properly; that they don’t have to stand around in the rain. That they can walk where they want to be and live close to their work. Where they have space to play and get away from things.”

He finished by saying that we don’t need apps, but good urban planning. “The future cities of the future should take the best from the cities of the past,” he concluded.

The panel could all agree that technology was the enabler for future cities, not the end goal in itself.

Alison Mitchell argued it was the personality of the city which would set the agenda in reality, not just the technology.

But the last word fell to Sally Uren: “The sooner that we accept that we live in a complex, messy, inter-related set of systems, that no amount of planning will ever unpick, the quicker we’ll all become brilliant systems thinkers.”

November 10, 2017 in Events, Opinion

Tune in to CityCast, the smart cities podcast from CityVerve