London Essays – Issue 2: Technology


This issue, the second edition of London Essays, focuses on technology. Again and again over its long history London has been transformed by technological innovation. The capital has generated countless advances in science and technology.

By Ben Rogers

But the influence that London-made technologies have had on the world have been dwarfed by the impact that technologies invented elsewhere have had on London. These have reshaped the city’s economic fundamentals – production, trade, employment and wealth – housing, health, transport, leisure, public services and government.

There is every reason to think that technologies will continue to transform London in the decades ahead, presenting new challenges and opportunities. Indeed, as Richard Dobbs and Vivian Hunt suggest, the pace of invention seems to be accelerating. At the same time, technological innovation seems to be becoming ever more central to London’s economy – witness the expansion of London’s leading universities across the capital and the growth of new digital and life science clusters.

The essays in this issue all look to the future. Some focus on how new technologies could affect life in the city. Some explore the role that innovation plays or could play in boosting London’s economy and helping the city meet its many challenges.

While none of us can predict the future, Dobbs and Hunt identify a range of technologies that are likely to have a particularly transformative effect on London, including advances in material science, energy generation and storage, robotics and digital technology. As Angus Knowles-Cutler sets out in his essay, these technologies will inevitably destroy many of London’s jobs. If London is going to turn the coming transformation in the labour market from a threat to an opportunity, it will have to invest ever more in education and skills.

In my interview with him, Steven Johnson draws some fascinating parallels between the city and the web. He suggests that the free city, characterised by democratic government, civic association, public spaces and thriving markets, is a good model for the development of the internet, but that the internet can also strengthen cities. He hopes in particular that digital technology will facilitate the development of more participatory neighbourhood and city government.

James Cheshire’s essay looks back at the way that cartographers have used innovative techniques to improve the city and explores what new technologies – above all the rise of ‘big data’ – could mean for urban map-making.

London’s growing population is putting increasing pressure on our roads and streets, housing, utilities and public services – indeed on almost every aspect of London life. Will new technologies offer ways of relieving these pressures, or will they simply intensify them?

Three of the essays in this volume cover transport. Steven Norris looks forward to the not-very-distant day when the blunt instrument of Fuel Duty is supplanted by much more sophisticated, road-pricing technologies. Nowhere will benefit from these more than London. In her contribution, Tessa Jowell speaks up for the oldest transport technology of all – our legs – but suggests that new technology could help encourage walking in the city. Professor John Adams of UCL explains why, despite all the hype, self-drive vehicles will never work in London.

Debbie Wosskow, a digital entrepreneur and author of a recent government report on the sharing economy, argues that the digitally-enabled sharing economy is going to become an increasingly powerful force in our lives and can help London manage the pressures of growth. But London government needs to embrace and support the sharing economy – it is well positioned to become an exemplary ‘sharing city’.

As land values go up in London, so do towers. The first skyscrapers were wonders of technology and, as James Pallister sets out, technology continues to open up new possibilities when it comes to building and living at height. But he sounds a cautionary note: tall building only work where they get the basics right. Entrances need to be manned, lifts need to work, public spaces around them need to be lively and welcoming.

Stephen Greenhalgh, Deputy Mayor for Policing, sets out some of the ways that technology could improve our police service, while Peter Marsh explores the changing face of manufacturing in the capital, arguing that technological advances mean that London could once again become a world-beating centre for making things.

Our two final essays cover rather different subjects. Max Nathan surveys the growth of London’s digital economy and the factors holding it back. Scott Cain focuses on the ‘future cities’ economy – architecture, urban design, engineering, and other services that help cities grow and prosper. But they end at the same point, arguing that London has got to get better at turning its extraordinary inventiveness on itself, and that London government in particular, has to take a more deliberate approach to encouraging technologies that can help it solve its problems, and in the process, help other cities solve theirs.