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The search for serendipity: the key to liveable cities

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JG Ballard, expats and cities

JG Ballard’s novel ‘Cocaine Nights’ centres on an apparently utopian British expat resort in Spain, Estrella Del Mar, in which life flows happily and seamlessly, and there is nothing to worry about. Then an arson attack on a nightclub kills 5 people and, as the story unfolds, it emerges that the fire was part of a crime wave carried out by the occupants of Estrella de Mar for their own entertainment.

So what has this got to do with cities? At cities-related events I’ve been to, speakers have claimed things like “happiness is the lift waiting for you when you arrive at work”, or that “people just want things to work”.

At first blush, both those statements seem uncontroversial; nobody wants to be hanging around waiting for things when the demands on our time continue to rise inexorably. But those who live in London will recognise that the only time strangers speak on the Underground is when things don’t work, and there is meaning and value in that.

Human beings need connections

Human beings are social animals and the need for connection defines us. In a ‘smart’ world where everything is efficiently regimented and exquisitely calibrated, where a Bluetooth/NFC/IoT enabled ID stored on my phone means there’s no longer a need to sign in at reception desks anywhere and apps such as CityMapper get me flawlessly to my next meeting, the chances to make those connections could be substantially reduced.

Apps and romance

Around 15 years ago, a friend of mine had to catch a bus in London on a rainy day. While he was waiting at the stop, he saw a young lady without an umbrella and offered to share his. A few years later, they were married.

Liveable city bus stop

Today, there are apps which show with increasing accuracy when the next bus is going to come thus enabling people to delay their departure from home until exactly the right time. And hyperlocal weather apps will be able to tell us whether the rain is just a passing shower or a longer downpour, potentially offering the option to delay a journey until it has passed.

With today’s tech, my friend would be a little more productive, but he wouldn’t have met his future wife. What sort of a trade-off is that?

Creating moments of joy and celebrating the chaos

The development of smart technologies is an essential part of addressing the urgent imperative to eliminate waste and reduce CO2 emissions. This means that we will need to come up with other ways to create unexpected moments of joy in cities and I can see significant business opportunities in that.

Bristol’s Playable City has already recognised this and their imaginative approaches to re-purposing street furniture and city spaces to create connections is going global.

Liveable city piano steps

And more are coming: the finalists of our recent Innovation in Urban Spaces contest, particularly those responding to the challenges set by ClearChannel and by Atkins, give further insights into how serendipity can remain part of city life.

At the first of our #citieslearning events, in Bristol, Stephen Hilton said “you don’t organise cities, you just celebrate the chaos”.

There’s something in that.

Follow me on Twitter: @alchemic

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