A tale of two futures

London Essays – Issue 8: Futures

A tale of two futures

In search of a more equal London.

One winter’s evening in 1930, under the pretext of buying a lead pencil, Virginia Woolf set out on a walk through the streets of London. As she passed through Holborn and Soho, stark extremes of wealth and poverty were on display in a city “where commerce offers to a world of old women laid on doorsteps, of blind men… tables inlaid with baskets of many coloured fruit; sideboards paved with green marble”.  10 London has long been a place of contradictions, and it has become something of a cliché to observe that the wealthiest and poorest of Londoners seem to occupy parallel worlds in the same city. But if the narrative of London’s past and present has come to be defined by this phenomenon, we have a choice as to whether the next chapter will be too.

As a playground for the super-rich and home to some of the highest rates of poverty in the country, London can have a magnifying effect on inequality, but it can also serve as a petri dish for new experiments and social activism. The challenge we face is how best to harness the urban innovations of our time so that they do not amplify the advantages of the affluent, but instead foster a more equitable city. As London edges onto an uncertain post-Brexit trajectory, futures-thinking can be one means of exploring alternative paths for the city.

The city itself is, of course, a perennial preoccupation for futurologists. A visual history published by the Government Office for Science recently curated some of the extraordinary ideas that the promise of the “future city” has inspired over past decades – from cities floating on the ocean to vast climate-regulated domes spanning whole metropolises. 11 Seductive though the more outlandish of these fantasies may be, we should resist the siren call of visions that fixate on feats of urban engineering at the expense of the prosaic needs of human beings.

Futurama, designed by Norman Bel Geddes and showcased at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York, famously projected forward 20 years to an urbanised terrain dominated by expressways, with sprawling suburbs. It was no coincidence that the exhibit was commissioned by General Motors; it would prove to be a prescient vision of American cities designed around mass personal car ownership, often to the detriment of the health and wellbeing of less affluent inhabitants.

Technology as a panacea for the ills of the modern city is an idea that continues to have some currency, but techno-utopianism can be myopic when it comes to socioeconomic realities. 12 In the case of London, abstract visions of the future that overlook health, housing and environmental inequalities are doomed to irrelevance, given the centrality of these issues to its citizens’ lived experience.

In common with many other major cities around the world, London is home to greater extremes of wealth and poverty than the rest of the country. According to research commissioned by the Trust for London, the richest tenth of households in the city held £260 billion of financial wealth. This figure contrasts with the negative financial wealth of the poorest tenth of -£1.3 billion (they hold more debt than financial assets). 13 Meanwhile, 27 per cent of Londoners live in poverty after housing costs, compared with 20 per cent in the rest of England. 14 Spatial segregation is increasingly one of the more visible consequences of these wealth and income inequalities.

Analysis for a Centre for London report detailed how economic inequalities have interacted with the housing crisis to turn London’s poverty map inside out, as low-income workers move to the edges of London and only those on the highest incomes can afford to live in the centre of the city. 15 In short, the appeal of the city to very high earners has meant that London has become a victim of its own success.

This pattern is in line with a trend seen across many other major international cities. This so-called “inversion”,  analysed by Alan Ehrenhalt and others, means that service workers are increasingly to be found living at the edges of major cities, while wealthier residents cluster around the centre. As the forces of gentrification boost the desirability of inner-city areas, 16 soaring property prices represent a very real threat to the future of London as an affordable place for families to sustain themselves over the long term.

Reflecting on these issues, the urban guru Richard Florida (who famously tracked the movement of a generation of the highly skilled and affluent back into urban centres) has sounded the alarm about the future of cities such as London. He draws attention to the risks of allowing a “winner-takes-all-urbanism” to widen the economic gap both between cities and within them, arguing that this clustering in leading cities is at once the main engine of economic growth and the biggest driver of inequality. The concentration of talent and economic activity in fewer and fewer places not only divides the world’s cities into winners and losers, but ensures that the winner cities will become unaffordable for all but the wealthy. 17

Overshadowing any debate about London’s economic future is, of course, the question of whether it will retain its status in the wake of Brexit. With such a complex range of variables in play, even the most foolhardy futurologist would steer clear of making sweeping pronouncements. Nonetheless, it is indisputable that the wealth of London (for good or for ill) has always been intertwined with markets. In the years ahead, we can expect to see redirected flows of people, commerce and capital alter the geography of the city and redistribute resources between segments of society once again.

So when it comes to the future, is the city simply at the mercy of market forces? In fact, London’s story is rich with instances where design, planning, public investment and civic movements have had a magnifying or ameliorating effect on the citizen’s experience of inequality. These include the investment in London’s public sewers during the 19th century (giving rise to a transformative impact on the health of the population) and the preservation of open green space for the use of the public, rather than solely for the recreation of the wealthy. Of course, London has also been the birthplace of a plethora of citizen-led movements against inequality, including the campaign for the Living Wage, which was first launched by members of London Citizens in 2001.

Looking to the future of urban innovation, it is becoming possible to make the patterns and flows of resources in the city more visible thanks to a vast expansion in the scale of data gathered by our smartphones, sensors and other Internet of Things systems embedded in the environment. There is the potential to leverage these insights to expose inequalities that have been historically overlooked – just as, in the 1880s, Charles Booth’s pioneering poverty maps of London 18 exposed the scale of poverty in the city, and, in recent decades, data on health inequalities has been marshalled to campaign against disparities in London. 19

Some forecasters see potential for marginalised citizens to use data to better hold those in power to account. A series of scenarios published by the Institute for the Future and the Rockefeller Foundation imagines communities equipped with the “ability to gather and understand data about policing, public safety, and how planning and design lead to exclusion”,  offering scope for greater democratisation as “the monopoly of law enforcement over public safety data will be broken”.  20 The authors outline one scenario in which data about an individual’s health, finances, movements, relationships and interests could even become a “resource for marginalised groups to create social capital.” 21

There are also very real efficiency gains to be made if city managers can simulate the impact of new policies and plan the use of resources more effectively than they do today. The innovation foundation Nesta has been among those exploring the potential of Offices of Data Analytics for local government, and has been working with the GLA to test applications in London. 22

Postcards from the future, ‘Buckingham Palace Shanty’. © Robert Graves and Didier Madoc-Jones. Aerial photography by Jason Hawkes.

The more the services of the “smart city” come to rely on big data analytics, the more we will need to be wary of reinforcing bias towards the needs of the digitised and networked against those who are less prolific users of technology (such as the elderly, the economically disadvantaged, or the less mobile). And what of those Londoners who choose not to share their personal data? A more efficient, tailored experience of the city should not come at the price of the citizenry’s privacy. In the event that such information is used to determine how public funds and services are distributed, we will also need to ensure that new divides do not emerge.

Even if some technologists and futurologists can historically be said to have had a blind spot when it comes to the socioeconomic impact of innovations, we shouldn’t write off the value of foresight for cities. Collective futures exercises are one route for policymakers, planners and citizens to expose contentious trade-offs and explore the perspectives of less powerful groups – which become particularly critical when urban change creates both winners and losers.

We can already see some foreshadowing of the challenges in access and equity that disruptive technologies might generate. Urban transportation is one area in which a range of next-generation solutions are being championed, such as the race to develop flying cars. 23 Left unchecked, such innovations could allow the super-wealthy to leapfrog the inconveniences of navigating a congested city, and leave the poor reliant on creaking public infrastructure. We will need robust, inclusive public deliberation processes to anticipate these developments and ensure that the benefits of investment in any new systems are fairly distributed.

In the US, Bloomberg Philanthropies and the Aspen Institute recently launched an initiative on autonomous vehicles to help mayors and city leaders map the implications for “land use, economic growth, and community development”. 24 Back in the UK, the Government Office for Science has been a powerful champion of the use of urban foresight, with a major project on the future of our cities. 25

Done well, futures exercises are finely attuned to their local context and aim to prompt a deeper public conversation about values and distribution of resources. In 2014, with The Wales We Want, the Welsh government started a wide-ranging public engagement exercise that paved the way for the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act and the appointment of a Commissioner to support public bodies in adopting a more sustainable, long-term perspective. 26 At the local level in London, Islington launched a Fair Futures Commission this year to engage with the community on the challenges faced by children and young people growing up in the area. 27

The issues tabled for discussion in such initiatives may have very little in common with the preoccupations of Silicon Valley’s tech-evangelists, but futures exercises that are rooted in social and economic realities will speak more meaningfully to the problems that are now confronting urban policymakers. And, despite the column inches dedicated to the role of markets in determining London’s post-Brexit future, we would do well to take a broader view of the range of factors that will shape the city’s direction of travel. Deepening inequality need not be accepted as an inevitable by-product of London’s economic growth; and civic movements, new technologies, access to data and urban innovations will play a part in future efforts to bridge the chasm between rich and poor citizens.

The poverty in the streets of Virginia Woolf’s time was more visible to the naked eye than the inequality of modern London. But it was through equipping themselves with data about its prevalence and its impact that social reformers historically sought to expose deprivation and galvanise action from legislators, engineers and policymakers. It remains to be seen whether, by revealing the fault-lines of London in finer detail, data can once again be put at the service of movements and innovators seeking out a fairer future for the city.

Celia Hannon

  • 10 Woolf, V. (1942). Street Haunting. The Death of the Moth and Other Essays. San Diego: Harcourt Brace.
  • 11 Dunn, N., Cureton, P., & Pollastri, S. (2014). A Visual History of the Future. Future of Cities: Working Paper no. WP14. London: Government Office for Science.
  • 12 Rieff, D. (2013, April 29th). The Singularity of Fools. Foreign Policy. Retrieved May 12, 2017 from:
  • 13 Aldridge, H., Born, T. B., Tinson, A., & MacInnes, T. (2015). London’s Poverty Profile 2015, p31. London: New Policy Institute. Retrieved from:
  • 14 Ibid; see p21.
  • 15 Travers, T., Bosetti, N., & Sims, S., (2016). Housing and Inequality in London. London: Centre for London. Retrieved from:
  • 16 The Economist (2013, September 9th). The Great Inversion. The Economist. Retrieved May 22, 2017 from:
  • 17 Florida, R., (2017, April 12th). Why America’s Richest Cities Keep Getting Richer. The Atlantic. Retrieved 14 May 2017 from:
  • 18 Booth, C. (1889). Descriptive Map of London Poverty. Held by the British Library. Accessed 22 May 2017 from:
  • 19 Siddique, H. (2014, January 7th). Top 10 causes of death in London boroughs highlight health inequalities. The Guardian. Retrieved 22 May 2017 from:
  • 20 Townsend, A., Maguire, R., Liebhold, M., & Crawford, M. (2010). A Planet of Civic Laboratories: The Future of Cities, Information and Inclusion. Institute for the Future and Rockefeller Foundation. Retrieved from:
  • 21 Ibid.
  • 22 Copeland, E. (2017). London Office of Data Analytics pilot – now for the hard part. Nesta blog. Retrieved 22 May 2017 from:
  • 23 The Guardian (2017, April 21st). Electric flying car that takes off vertically could be the future of transport. The Guardian. Retrieved from:
  • 24 Bloomberg Philanthropies (2017). Bloomberg Aspen Initiative on Cities and Autonomous Vehicles. Retrieved 22 May 2017 from:
  • 25 Government Office for Science (2013, June 26th). Future of Cities. Retrieved 22 May 2017 from:
  • 26 See
  • 27 Islington Fair Futures Commission. About Us. Retrieved 22 May 2017 from: