London Essays – Issue 8: Futures


All that is solid melts into air. New technologies, demographic and economic shifts, scarce resources and global warming are transforming our world.

By Ben Rogers and Geraldine Bedell

London is likely to be at the forefront of the changes: it is an early adopter of new technologies and, as our graphics in Climate change, it is vulnerable to climate change. This issue of London Essays looks at the capital’s future. What should we expect from it? How can we prepare for it? Most importantly, how can we shape it?

Many of these essays warn against the danger of succumbing to a “smart city” vision of London. Charles Leadbeater is concerned that we might cede control of the city to technologies that will govern most aspects of our lives. He advocates an alternative vision in which Londoners are given the tools to invent solutions for themselves. Ian Meikle from Innovate UK says we need to shape new technology to create more prosperous, sustainable cities.

Observing that a huge amount of money and hope is being invested in self-drive vehicles, Ben Rogers argues that the future of the city envisaged by technologists is eerily similar to those of Le Corbusier or General Motors. We need technologies that put pedestrians, cyclists, and public transport first, and we also need to understand streets not just as highways but as places.

Cities produce most of the world’s greenhouse gases, notes Mark Watts of the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group. But cities – including London – have led the way in the fight against climate change and must continue to do so.

As the graph in Population projections reminds us, official population forecasts have often been risible. Corinne Swain argues that we need a more imaginative approach to envisaging what lies around the corner, relying less on the extrapolation of trends, and more on scenarios and visions.

Jamie Bartlett cautions that while emerging technologies will bring many benefits, they are also likely to cause trouble unless we make an effort to understand their underlying values. London government needs teams with the skills and resources to respond to disruptions as they arise.

Many of our essayists fear that new technology will intensify social divisions. In contrast, Celia Hannon looks at how we might harness new technologies to address inequality and poverty. She suggests that big data could make it easier to design systems that work for the most vulnerable. Larry Ryan explores some of the futuristic plans that have been proposed for capital over the centuries – from Nash’s schemes for the West End, through Paxton’s Great Victorian Way (a ten-mile circular glass arcade containing parks and shops) to the City of London’s 1960s plans for urban walkways. London is full of yesterday’s partly realised visions of tomorrow.

As our graphic in Demography shows, London is ageing. Sarah Wigglesworth argues that we need to improve housing and the built environment for older people, to improve quality of life, relieve pressure on the NHS and social care, and free up homes for families. Max Farrell puts the case for rethinking the Green Belt, replacing it with a model better suited to accommodating London’s growth while improving biodiversity and access to green space.

Richard Brown observes that our ancestors were very good at designing flexibility into their buildings: London town houses in particular have proved amazingly adaptable. He suggests we need to design buildings that are as flexible today. Planners might focus less on how buildings are to be used, and more on density and design.

We look to museums and libraries to preserve the past and, for the sake of future generations, the present. Susie Mesure explores how institutions like the Museum of London go about preserving today’s London for tomorrow. How do they respond to the explosion in information and creativity that the digital revolution has brought, and strike a balance between preserving “official” and popular history?

We also hear from a number of young academics whose research engages directly with the future of cities. A group of PhD students at Cambridge University, sponsored by Capco, offer ideas based on their diverse specialisms – which include reducing obesity, growing food on walls and roofs, and creating more responsive utilities and buildings. Finally, Daniel Tapper asks a range of experts how they would approach London’s challenges.

London has proven itself again and again a remarkably resilient city – it has been at the centre of world affairs for half a millennium. But, as these essays remind us, sustaining and improving the city is a constant effort.