Future Cities conference – Part 1

On 4 February, The Leeds Social Sciences Institute at the University of Leeds hosted its “Future Cities” conference, bringing together a lot of the research being done on the idea of the Future City from around the University.

The programme covered a lot of ground in terms of projects and approaches, so I will be posting in several parts in order to try and do it justice.

The day began with Prof David Hogg, Pro Vice-Chancellor for Research and Innovation, who made the point that the research theme being showcased, “Cities, Sustainable Societies & Resilient Infrastructure” is cross-cutting and has representation across all the Faculties of the University.

Sir Alan Wilson (Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis, University College London) – Science and the Future of Cities

Alan introduced the UK Government’s Foresight Project “The Future of Cities“, which attempts to put together an evidence base for supporting decisions which will lead to a positive outcome for cities in the long term.

The timescales being investigated for these changes are 25 and 50 years, and there are two spatial scales – UK-wide and City Regions across six themes where work has been ongoing on working papers, workshops, visits to cities (19 so far) and work on city futures:

Living in Cities

A key theme of the changes facing UK cities is demographic change and its distribution, we are facing both an ageing population, and a growing population, predominantly in the South East of England. ow do you provide for a population which is larger and older? The problem is being characterised as one of ‘accessibilities’ to housing, jobs, education, health and retail facilities, for example.

Urban Economies

The economy is seen as being driven by technological change, but this is difficult to predict, so how do you forecast it? In addition, cities being complex, non-linear systems make them nearly impossible to forecast in any case. One key issue is the future of work, and how a future with fewer jobs is going to translate into incomes. There is expected to be a hollowing out of the job market, with many middle-ranking jobs automated, leaving jobs at the bottom and top ends of the job market. Perhaps the solution to this is more upskilling of the workforce.

Urban Metabolism

This theme is characterised in terms of the natural environment and cities’ sustainability with respect to that, and how we deal with Climate Change. The problem being that all the indicators are moving in the wrong direction.

Urban Form

The challenges to Urban Form here are presented as the future of the High Street and City Centres as even more retail is predicted to move online.

There are also a number of pressures to Green Belts, changes in trips, accessibilities and distances travelled, and the challenges of brownfield development.

Urban Infrastructure

Infrastructural systems are linked, and these linkages are at the heart of the ‘smart agenda’. The trouble is that smart infrastructure is being built for now, and we are not necessarily thinking about what will be ‘smart’ in the long term.

Urban Governance

There are strong arguments for increased local autonomy, and the arguments are being driven – the example given was that of the new Greater Manchester Mayor. However, it is not easy to define local in this context – does it mean City Regions?

There is a lot of scope for thinking by using the principles of subsidiarity, but interdependencies between cities can be a challenge here.

Key Messages

Problems which we need to face include

  • the interdependencies of crucial systems
  • being ‘smart’ in the long run, not just in the present
  • technological change, where developing scenarios, not forecasts, is likely to be more instructive
  • wellbeing and livability, and the social disparities that need to be overcome to achieve them
  • the need to develop economic potential
  • development of realistic sustainability policies
  • thinking about urban form and densities
  • infrastructure systems and land
  • developing functional city regions
  • developing enhanced foresight capabilities
  • scenarios, projecting trends into aspirations. 450 scenarios were developed, characterised by Business As Usual (“Market Forces”), more equitability (“Policy Reform”), low energy society (“Sustainability Paradigm”) and partial breakdown of social structures with the rich seizing resources (“Fortress World”)

Utopia could result from the use of Big Data, information systems and modelling


The Future of Cities project has produced 9 Working Papers and 5 Essays, all available on their website. This is rather a lot to have to wade through to make a full critique of the whole programme (although I’m finding the idea of doing a fuller dissection quite tempting).

The hand of Central Government policymakers in the selection of themes here seems quite apparent in the focuses on demographics, the economy, infrastructure and governance, especially in light of Government’s framings of these issues in the media (with ‘immigration’ being the thing that must not be mentioned under demographics)

It was very refreshing to hear it being mentioned with all seriousness that the course of technology is difficult to predict, in a world where ‘technological solutions’ to Climate Change and social problems are often the default, and where we presuppose what the social impacts of new technology are going to be. At the same time, current trends are being extrapolated here, for example with the assumption that the role of ‘bricks and mortar’ retailing in town and city centres will continue to decline. Many retailers are either fighting this trend by finding ways to bring customers back to physical stores, or using their stores and websites to complement each other, and the push to build ever more retail space (over long payback periods) continues apace, so this alone is far from a foregone conclusion.

There seemed to be an implication that ‘smart’ over the short and long term could be somehow incompatible – both require a ‘big data’ approach while they may differ in terms of software and strategies – at the moment I find the idea of ‘smartness’ manifesting in radically different ways in terms of hardware and connections quite difficult to grasp – surely ‘smart’ is in what you do with data, and the more data you can potentially collect, the greater the possibility in whatever direction you want to take it.

In addition, for the talk of a number of possible scenarios which may play out, the issue of governance and the reality of the programme as a UK Government one play out in not tackling the issues of how we might develop strategies and narratives to move towards sustainability (of which more in the next post in this series) – there remains the sense that appears so often in British policy documents of supposing that politicians (and, I assume, by extension, voters) should be shaping policy around a relatively limp set of principles, rather than confronting what are very important issues head on through research. This is particularly an issue here with the 25 and 50 year timescales, which are long enough that issues can be ‘safely ignored’ over an electoral cycle. This may appear differently in the Working Papers and essays, however. How would you begin to develop effective policies without bringing things down to timescales which would spur politicians to act? Also, while forecasting through traditional models (particularly over long timescales) is problematic, at least trends and models of how impacts occur can feed into policy development. How can a scenario yield solid enough policy insights?

Scale and governance are other issues where this approach seems to be out of kilter with where things seem to be going in the real world. The City Region approach remains quite contentious, especially as many of them are yet to crystallise in a way which allows strategies to be made. The Greater Manchester Mayor alluded to in the talk was an imposition by Central Government where a Directly Elected Mayor was soundly rejected by referendum 3 years ago (albeit with a different remit). In a country which remains so centralised, City Regions move strategy away from directly elected councils to indirectly elected boards, and the connection between funding, planning powers and the City Regions remains unclear in most places. This seems very much at odds with the principle of subsidiarity, and the devolution of power downwards from Westminster (and Whitehall) is perhaps too much for a Civil Service project to contemplate – alternatively, it may be important to not suggest one approach over others at this stage. In addition, the local authority scale seems to be the one at which citizen initiatives best connect, although it’s entirely possible that their small scale and relatively small number of people engaged mean they don’t figure as even a blip in data on consumption patterns or social organisation…

Next time…

In Part 2, we’ll be looking at “Living in the city of the future” with John Urry of Lancaster University


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