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How could UK cities work better in the future?

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Challenges to the sustainable development of our world

We only have 5 years left at current emission levels if we want a 66% chance of keeping global temperature rise within 1.5ºC.

Existing national plans and pledges are nowhere near enough to limit warming to 2°C, let alone 1.5°C.

Ocean ecosystems are under assault from acidification, warming, exploitation and pollution.

If current trends continue there will be more plastic than fish in the sea by 2050.

Air pollution, water scarcity, soil erosion and a host of other factors threaten to seriously undermine economic growth and limit the life chances of people around the world.

But there are plenty of reasons for optimism

The challenges our world faces are great, but there are plenty of reasons for optimism:

  • Carbon-neutral solar power is now the cheapest form of power, cheaper than coal. In the UK, more electricity was generated by solar power than coal power for six full months in 2016.
  • In the food system, we are witnessing a surge in innovative solutions, from low-impact meat alternatives to new sources for livestock feed.
  • And digital technologies such as blockchain, augmented reality and AI are opening up possibilities right across the economy to do more, more effectively, with less.

Sustainable development of our world is a huge innovation challenge

At Forum for the Future, we see this as the biggest innovation challenge the world has ever faced.

We are a sustainability non-profit, working to reimagine and transform the key systems we all use and rely on. We work with leaders and innovators, from big corporates like Unilever and O2, to NGOs and entrepreneurs inventing and experimenting with new models.

In 2012, we worked with Innovate UK to develop the Horizons framework, a practical tool that defines the environmental limits and social conditions necessary for a sustainable economy, and so helps identify future market drivers for innovation.

Cities are where sustainable economy will succeed or fail

The transition to a sustainable economy will succeed or fail in cities.

Cities are where different systems – food, energy, health, waste and so on – operate in closest proximity. Cities are also a crucible for innovation and creativity.

The Future Cities Dialogues brought together experts within Innovate UK and across Britain with citizens in London, York and Glasgow to explore future possibilities - to radically redesign cities so that various systems could work in sync and mutually reinforce each other, thereby delivering critical services to people far more effectively.

Citizen involvement is crucial

The involvement of citizens was crucial – too much technology is planned and delivered simply because it is possible or based on assumptions about what people want.

As our report sets out:

the sustainable future city will be tech-enabled but not tech-centred

This is an expression of the priorities of its citizens.

A toolkit to help cities navigate their own futures

The process has allowed us to propose some principles for sustainable urban system integration, and generate ideas for how to achieve this, but more than that we now have:

a toolkit to help cities and their communities of businesses and people to navigate their own futures.

Future Cities Dialogue Twitter Q&A

After releasing the Future Cities Dialogue report on 21 March 2017, we held a Twitter Q&A to open the conversation to anyone who wasn’t able to come to the launch event. Here are a few of the Q&As we covered.

Q: What are the must haves to make cities work better in the future?

A: We want our cities to be vibrant and resilient places that not only meet the needs of their citizens, but delight them as well. Creativity and innovation flourishes where a diversity of ideas and attitudes have the ability to meet and interact – and so we want our cities to enable citizens to make the most of their opportunities and to be at the forefront of addressing global challenges.

Taking this as our vision, ‘working better’ requires a number of things. At a basic organizational level, it means that we need to integrate our disparate city systems (like energy, transport, health, food, water, and waste) so that they support and reinforce, rather than antagonise, one another.

It also means that we need to put citizens at the heart of decision-making – and take city decisions based on their real needs & wellbeing. Something that also came out strongly from the people we spoke to as part of this work is that they wanted solutions that enhanced community and offline social interactions.

Q: What key factor do you see most dominating the evolution of cities?

A: There are many, but can largely be split into those that increase the demands put on cities, and those that affect the supply of resources that cities need to meet their citizen needs.

On the demand side, the changing demographics of our cities are perhaps the largest factor – these vary from city to city but globally we know that we are becoming increasingly urbanized, with a greater percentage of the population living in cities. This, coupled with global population growth means that more cities are being built to house people, and those already built need to adapt to increasing numbers. In the UK, a specific demographic change we see is the ageing of our population – which brings with it significant changes in the types of infrastructure and services that cities need to provide.

On the resource supply side, addressing climate change and taking serious efforts to stay below two degrees of warming requires a radical overhaul of:

  • what and how we consume
  • where our resources come from
  • the quantity of ‘stuff’ available to everyone
  • how we shift from a product-driven to a service-driven economy

For instance, if what we really want is a constantly cutting-edge domestic visual entertainment service, then we don’t really want to buy a television that is rapidly superceded by a newer and better version – instead we want to buy the entertainment service from a provider who is then tasked with updating and replacing our kit as technology develops.

This model better meets the consumer needs, and encourages producers to produce their goods in a different way – more robust to enable reuse of as much as possible, closed-loop supply chains so that the valuable materials in devices can be recycled into new ones, and with reduced waste.

Cities therefore need to do more with less, and a third major trend helping them do this is the rise of digital technology that allows citizens to understand and control their cities themselves.

The digital revolution is affecting all aspects of our lives, and will continue to do so. By helping citizens make sense of the vast wealth of city data around them (transport timetables, friends locations, shopping deals, energy prices, air quality reports, weather forecasts, fitness goals, etc.) and extract the information they need to make informed decisions, they can collectively understand and modify the city to operate most efficiently for the benefit of all.

Q: What did citizens most want from their cities of the future?

A: Ipsos mori lead the citizen dialogue part of the project and have produced a detailed report on the findings and ten key principles that underpinned peoples’ preferences for their future cities.

By far the most significant principle that people wanted to see was equality.

Many participants were particularly opposed to any delivery of services in which access was determined by what citizens could afford – so a healthcare system dominated by the private sector, for instance, wasn’t popular if it widened the healthcare gap between the rich and poor.

Participants were also concerned about other vulnerable groups being left behind as well as those with less money.  If cities become focused on high-tech solutions, some feared that the elderly or those without the skills to keep up with or take advantage of technology would be excluded from too many parts of city life if low-tech alternatives did not exist.

Similarly, there was a perception that some futures would create and perpetuate regional inequalities in decentralised governance systems.  Participants did not like the idea that some people would be worse off by virtue of living in a community that had fewer resources than others, and called for a system where any such inequalities could be addressed.

Trading of regional or local assets - such as energy, water or skills - was one suggested way of rebalancing equality, if a suitable mechanism could be developed and it could be encouraged through incentivisation.

Follow James Taplin on Twitter: @james_taplin

Follow James Goodman on Twitter: @JamesTGoodman

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