I was lucky enough to attend TEDx London last week on the subject of Future cities. 13 speakers from a wide variety of professions and interests talked about what is wrong with our cities today and how we could make them better tomorrow.
Michael Batty from CASA talked about connected networks and demonstrated that there are about ten large-scale well-connected areas in the UK that can reasonably be called cities. He discussed population growth and posited that we are likely to stabilise population around the 10 billion mark as developed economies halt population growth and stabilise or reduce. We are going to hit the point of being 75% urban around 2050, which will add a further 2.5 billion people to urban environments, almost as much as we currently have.
Katherine Harborne, a Conservative Councillor for Richmond, talked about how cycling can contribute to the future of healthy happy cities by allowing citizens to commute quickly, safely and cheaply. I don’t think there was any dissent there, she was preaching to the converted. She pointed out that the more cyclists there are the lower the death statistics are on average. This is a nicety that only a scientist would think was positive. To the rest of us a death is a death is a death.
Tom Wright from the Regional Plan Association in NYC had a lot of interesting experience in the US to talk about. The US is moving back towards an urban model and away from the suburban one. The rate of car use peaked in 2005 and is continuing to drop annually. NYC has just brought in a cycle hire scheme and it has already surpassed the number of daily trips taken in London. (But we don’t care about that because we are not competitive, Yank) He discussed the way that cities lever taxation to build infrastructure, something that we don’t seem to have a grip on in this country. It is commonplace in the US to use local taxation to pay for infrastructure such as roads, bridges, tunnels etc., by using the cheap finance that a city can buy. He discussed the uplift in local values that can come from improved infrastructure and wheter that increase in value should be used in part to pay for infrastructure, a type of local Value Added Tax, or Stamp duty land Tax.
Jonathan Keeling from Pavegen showed us his company’s clever paving system that generates electricity. The memorable fact from him was that if 100m of Oxford Street was paved with his technology, the power generated in a day would keep the Oxford Street lights on for a week. Now if he had said that shoppers would also be less tired, happier and less stressed as a result, then he would have had our attention.
Michael Pawlyn, formerly of Grimshaw’s and a major influence on the Eden Project talked about biomimicry, and how learning from nature can help us to make the best uses of scarce resources. I love his presentation technique where he films himself drawing diagrams and talks over it. He showed a beautiful office building which encapsulated many of his ideas on how to design well-lit, enjoyable spaces. I’d like to see him take his ideas direct to manufacturers and get them to design some new products based on them, rather than trying to encapsulate all of them into a single building.
Vanessa Harden talked with passion and humour on the subject of engaging with communities through guerilla gardening. Her apparently casual performance belied a serious purpose to help people to engage with their communities through nature using faux spy technology.Her gardening tools for busy professionals are particularly good.
Mischa Dohler won the prize for entertainment, if there had been such a prize. His conflation of sexual mores and data gathering was very polished and wouldn’t have been out of place in a comedy club. His debunking of the myths around ‘Big Data’ possibly made more sense to him than to most of the audience who haven’t been exposed to those myths yet. I daresay that is what happens when you are close to the leading edge, no-one gets your jokes. His most memorable section was showing how difficult it is to ask Londoners about their city and how they engage with it. No-one would stop to answer the question!
Suzanne Holt Ballard talked about a near future city where we are going to be able to control systems and link to them through brain-to-brain (B2B) interfaces. She wondered what a city would be if we could connect to it without actually being there. We nodded and applauded as though we had understood anything she had said.
Roma Agrawal, spoke convincingly about the need to encourage young people to become engineers. Like scientists there is a lack of role models for a younger generation to make them want to join the engineering and design professions.
Leo Hollis spoke convincingly about the nature of cities as places for people to come together and interact. He cited a study into urban manners or ‘civiity’ which compared a rural village to a suburb to part of LB Newham which found that people were more civil in Newham than in the other places, mainly because they had opportunities to do so. Little England and the suburbs are places for people to get away from each other, cities are places for us to get together.
Alexander Grunsteidl spoke convincingly about how cities evolves as places for defense initially and then for retail. He wondered what would happen to cities if we moved more of our purchasing to online shops and if this resulted in the closure of large sections of our high streets how would we react? He wondered if we all became traders again as we were in the early stages of cities, and traded and shared with each other more through technology, and bought less from distant shops, whether the city would reform itself around this?
Finally we had Roger Hartley from the Bureau of Silly Ideas. This crew bring a range of engaging interventions to streets, markets, festivals, building sites and other opportunities at the drop of a silly hat. I particularly like Roger’s plea to stop surrounding sites with enormous hoardings that turn a place into a sort of black hole while the hoardings are there. Be more creative with sites, they are often there for along time.