This is an extract from a positioning paper I recently co-authored for Space Syntax around the future of the city. This post is an extract of the longer-term risks and opportunities.
The paper set out short- and long-term issues facing society, and suggested opportunities for technology to help address them.
Existing and emerging technologies provide potential solutions, but these need to be developed carefully to deliver a vision that everyone supports. Without going through this process and agreeing a social contract to operate them within, the risks have been widely publicised: a surveillance state, loss of privacy, loss of control and lives being ruled by multi-national tech giants.
This post sketches out a positive future supported by technology, where, in an older, post-work society, the city as an organisation plays a different role. In this future, tech provides a platform to stimulate local economic activity, provide access to services, develop new models of housing, protect privacy, and by integrating all of these, to attempt to address inequality.
The future context for the city is emerging:
Large scale automation presents both the economic risk of mass unemployment but at the same time the potential of a post-work society. In this context the things that people continue to do for work need to be the things that people are good at, and which cannot easily be replaced or automated – making new conceptual connections and generating ideas (the arts and creative industries), and building on the fundamental physical and emotional qualities of people (caring).
An ageing population will create pressure on health services. There may be a greater proportion of people who are less mobile, who are socially isolated, or who suffer from long-term health conditions. Smaller pensions mean people may not be able to retire at all, and there may be fewer jobs. This means people living on lower incomes. Providing public services for more people with less money to access them will be challenging.
The cost and shortage of housing mean there may be fewer people with the security of owning an expensive home. New approaches to shared housing, alternative models of ownership or renting are required. Off-site and prefabrication mean that housing could be physically delivered quicker than ever, to a higher standard.
Automated and electric vehicles offer the potential for there to be fewer cars on the road, for cleaner air in cities, and for elderly people to maintain mobility for longer. Models offering mobility as a service may work for wealthier residents who have the ability to pay, but will lower-income residents, who often live in the parts of a city that are the most difficult to get to be able to access these?
Electric vehicles and increasing use of digital technology will create further pressures on energy generation and supply systems. Already there are stories of charging points not working because the supply isn’t to the right standard. Better quality construction can reduce the need for energy. The decentralised, renewable production of energy provides opportunities for individuals to support themselves and contribute to the wider demand, but storage of energy is still required.
Platform, Time banking and Token technologies offer the potential to link customers and suppliers directly to each other, to verify suppliers and customers, and to enable transactions. Platform models currently work on the basis that both supplier and customer pay the platform provider for the service (e.g. Uber). These technologies could alternatively be run as open platforms or cooperatives where goods or services may be directly exchanged without paying a private platform company.
Integrated Urban Models analyse how the physical systems in a city combine to show how it functions. This includes understanding where higher levels of movement and activity are likely to be, but also where the city creates restrictions for its residents – this could include dependence on owning a private car, or where access to essential facilities is limited. The important development of IUMs is not just that they can combine physical systems, but that the way they are made allows them to be linked to demographic and socio-economic datasets. This means that populations at higher risk of particular outcomes can be identified and a response generated based on the physical conditions of where they live.
Existing technologies allow us to glimpse a tantalising future where the role of the city is re-shaped. As well as fulfilling the traditional role of making policy, controlling growth, and providing services, in a centralised, top down way, it could also engage at the level of the individual to stimulate the smaller scale, bottom up growth.
This future, and role, needs to be developed with the city, its stakeholders and residents. To deliver this new role will need an accompanying urban platform which could include the following:
The city could provide an open platform as a piece of socio-economic, digital infrastructure. This urban platform would need to be open and adaptable so that the local suppliers could adapt it and develop it around local demand.
In being developed by the city itself, it could allow policy, regulation and pricing structures to be connected. A further step would be to exchange goods or services without a financial transaction. For example, a solution to the issues of mobility, healthy ageing and housing could be possible: if residents were able to offer a service to an agreed standard (such as caring), the city could connect and record the time spent providing these services.
Crucial to this system is verification that a service will be carried out to a standard, and that the customer can make an exchange to an agreed equivalent value. The supplier would need to be registered, and the city could use blockchain technologies to verify identities and qualifications without exchanging personal data. The supplier could then be paid, and this could be financial, taking the form of private funding if the customer is able and willing, public if the customer fulfils certain requirements, or non-financial if the supplier chooses (or the city has limited funding).
This could also provide a potential mechanism to compensate what have traditionally been unpaid activities, such as caring for a family member.
In the case where the city has limited finances available there are further potentials. On the assumption that the city is a major land owner, it will be able to provide sites for new housing. Rather than selling housing at market rate, which creates a short-term benefit, the city may be able to generate larger benefits in the long-term in a more holistic way, and this could include solutions such as using the provision of housing on city land in lieu of financial payment for delivery of specific services. Companies in the private sector are already taking a longer-term view on their built assets and generating long-term income through rental compared to shorter-term, sales driven profits. If a development is designed and built the right way, it can reduce the likelihood of certain health outcomes, which would both increase its rental value to the asset owner, and reduce the costs to the health services associated with caring for these conditions.
The urban platform could also provide pricing strategies for the provision of services in a targeted and dynamic way, and in so doing seek to address inequality. The city would need to identify its priority services for delivery along with its provision. This could then be used to develop a list of priority services, and suppliers providing higher priority services to be rewarded at a higher rate. This rate could be dynamic, to ensure that if more suppliers offer one service that the rate for other priorities increases so that it can still be delivered.
By using the physical and demographic intelligence of integrated urban models, these rates could also be cross subsidised so that residents living in parts of the city where there is specific infrastructure risk (such as poor access to services), and within a specific demographic or socio-economic grouping (such as elderly people at risk of social isolation, or a single mother with low-income), are provided their service at a reduced rate. This reduced rate could be provided by subsidising these services against other parts of the city (which are more accessible, or more affluent).
The same principles could be adapted so that the urban platform could be used to regulate companies offering mobility services. The spatial and demographic intelligence could be used to set in place a pricing strategy to subsidize journies based on start and end points, routes (considering zero emissions zones, or exposure of vulnerable communities to pollution), and this could be part of the process of awarding a license to provide the service in the city.
There are many more potential applications of these principles affecting other sectors; allow de-centralised renewable energy to be put back in to the energy distribution grids is one of countless examples.
In this future, the city could become the platform to deliver economic growth and provide services. It would act as a broker, validating service offers, and setting a price for what services are provided where. It allows policy to be tailored very specifically to place, and for this to be delivered through regulation and pricing.
To do this, it needs to invest in both integrating existing technologies to an urban platform and engaging with its citizens on the vision and outcomes. It then needs to continue engaging to identify priority issues, agree standards and eventually to set pricing strategies. This needs to be an open and transparent process, with the potential for it to change rapidly if required.
In this way the urban platform provides the basis for local economic growth, sets out alternatives to financial transaction and identifies a way to deliver public services from a limited budget. It suggests a positive future which contrasts with the dystopian image often painted of full automation, and an older, poorer population in less secure housing, living in smart cities that are essentially surveillance states.
To fulfill the social contract between city and citizen, this future needs to be discussed in an open and transparent way, allowing input from everyone. It requires significant changes to organisation, finance, legal and governance structures, and these, rather than technology are likely to be the parts that are difficult to change.