The heart of the city

London Essays – Issue 8: Futures

The heart of the city

Geraldine Bedell interviews Ian Meikle, Director of Infrastructure Systems at Innovate UK, the national innovation agency. Innovate UK is a non-departmental body sponsored by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.

Geraldine Bedell: How is Innovate UK involved in thinking about the future of London?

Ian Meikle: We are, as the name suggests, concerned with the whole country. But cities are the engines of economic and social growth – and what we’re seeing increasingly is that it’s no longer enough for cities to create infrastructure – mass transport, connectivity, housing, a good education system – and sit back, waiting for people to come.

People want other things, too: green spaces, a healthy environment, elderly care, leisure and culture – the heart of the city as much as the head of the city. In order to thrive, post-industrial cities have to link the types of jobs and homes people want to other things they value, such as leisure and healthcare.

At Innovate UK, we think a lot about how the systems of the city fit together. London has a strong hand to play, but its cultural strength is no use without an energy system that underpins it effectively, or efficient transport, or a sustainable food system, or ways of getting the waste back out of the city, or care for our elderly that doesn’t leave people feeling vulnerable and disconnected. So we’re interested in funding innovations that enable the development and integration of all these systems.

We’re trying to understand what the future is going to look like in 10 to 20 years time, although we are setting challenges that will allow businesses to take projects to market in six months to three years.

GB: Of the many factors potentially influencing the future of London, what do you see as being the most significant?

IM: The outstanding challenges include climate change, technology, population changes – age, changes in family groups, migration – and congestion.

At Innovate UK we’re encouraging UK businesses to provide the solutions. In terms of opportunities, we are looking in particular at the moment at 5G, machine-to-machine communications, the next generation of transport systems, decentralised energy systems, vertical and warehouse farming, and the coming together of the physical, digital and biological. We want UK business to represent as great a percentage of the development of those opportunities as possible.

GB: Does it concern you that recent experience of disruptive innovation has been to exacerbate inequality, not least in cities?

IM: Technology is going have to become more citizen-centric, and that will become increasingly possible as we collect more data. This has to be a transparent process: the privacy and security concerns about the use of smart technologies are legitimate. But our research suggests that people mainly object when their data is collected and used without consent, or when data collection can’t be turned off.

I believe London’s future will be determined by a much more citizen-based view of the world than we have been used to. That will turn some things on their head. For example, urban transport in the past has been designed solely to meet the needs of the transport system, getting people from A to B. But that isn’t the sole starting point for thinking about transport in London: there is also a need to encourage more exercise and get polluting vehicles off the road. So starting from the needs of citizens in a broader sense might lead you down different paths: it might not simply lead you to autonomous vehicles, for example.

GB: Why is systems integration so important?

IM: London has reached a level of complexity that requires us to get out of our silos. We’re working with local authorities to understand the biggest challenges they face and procure based on those. That might lead to innovations that bring together social care, transport and technology, for example. Or we know that a small number of families account for a disproportionate amount of local authorities’ budgets: can we integrate services for those families to make them more effective?

Basically, thinking smaller isn’t going to deliver the responses we need to future challenges. For instance, we expect to see many more electric vehicles in the city. That means we need to install the charging points so customers know if they buy an electric vehicle there’s a place to charge it outside their house. We need the energy system to underpin the innovation, which means integrating transport and energy in a way that hasn’t happened before.

GB: Are you able to identify the design principles of a city that will thrive in the future?

IM: It’s important that the systems that underpin daily life in the city aren’t overly vulnerable to the failure of one part. That means we need to build in fault tolerance and the ability to evolve. Resilience comes from diversity: integration doesn’t mean standardisation, but rather the reverse.

London should also aim to be tech-enabled without being tech-centred, meaning that technological solutions should be designed to encourage human social action and skills, rather than running alongside, or even in spite of people. Future Cities Dialogue, our research with Forum for the Future, Ipsos Mori and Sciencewise, found that generally speaking people wanted new infrastructure projects that help to build the social fabric, blend into the existing city and preserve its rich heritage.

And of course sustainability should be at the forefront of our thinking, because we should be encouraging urban natural capital, and because cities are so significant in terms of climate change impacts.

GB: Is there a mismatch between innovations that will benefit the city and the projects in which businesses are prepared to invest? Desirable innovations for the public realm don’t necessarily deliver a straightforward financial return.

IM: That’s true, and that’s partly a question of how we share out profits and send the value back out to the people who have been responsible for generating it. So we need to experiment with new business models. And that’s perfectly possible, because we’ve seen a number of new business models in recent years prompted by digital technology – for example, with the sharing economy.

Many companies are seeing their data becoming more valuable than some of the products they sell – but they aren’t necessarily set up to make use of that. Some transport providers, for instance, don’t even have their own data: it’s being scraped by other organisations and shared with new app providers. So we need to look harder at how and when you should reward the organisations and people who generated the data.

City governments are making big investments: could they start to make some income from their services and so raise revenue for public purpose? Green roofs, to take one example, can deliver a host of benefits, improved air quality, better urban food supply, physical and mental health benefits, biodiversity and wildlife habitats, a reduced albedo effect helping against climate change, lower energy use in buildings, and reduced storm water runoff. So could you form a “value network” of commercial developers, energy companies, environmental agencies, the NHS and food suppliers, all of whom have something to gain from the widespread introduction of green roofs? They could map the gains they would bring, and for whom, in order to design and deliver them.

GB: What can city governments do to encourage innovation?

IM: Devolution is helping to empower cities and giving them stronger leadership, meaning cities can become better procurers for the outcomes they want. In the past, when a big supplier was trying to sell a local authority a traffic management system, the odds would be stacked in favour of the company and its expertise. But, not least because of city-wide governance, the balance of power is changing so that it’s easier for cities to procure for outcomes rather than technical fixes.

We still need new types of thinking to help city leaders decide what those outcomes should be, which means that we need more citizen engagement. We fund an organisation called Citizen World, for example, which is a great online consultative tool. You can put a plan online, and put sticky notes on it, and it’s a more collaborative way of involving people throughout the planning and development process. We need more mechanisms like that to get citizens involved in imagining the future.

We may not know what the future will look like, but there are certain principles that should govern our responses. If we start from the premise that our cities should be resilient, tech-enabled but not tech-centred, well governed, sustainable, human-centred and globally linked, that should take us a long way.