IBM Smart Cities, Helsinki
19th October 2011
“What will the future city look like?”
Themes to be addressed
1. How to plan a socially, economically and environmentally sustainable city.
2. Effects of the digital revolution on human behaviour patterns.
In addressing the question, “What will the future city look like?” I am less concerned about the visual appearance of individual buildings and more concerned about how the city is planned as a layout of streets, spaces and land uses.
Why? Because the spatial layout of a town or city organises the movement and interaction of people. Movement and interaction lead to social and economic transaction. These are the building blocks of society, of culture and therefore of being human.
Digital technologies offer new forms of online human connectivity. Does this mean we no longer need traditional city layouts? This is a key question for urban planners. There is a body of professionals that think we don’t need cities, at least in the form we have known for centuries. Instead, they suggest that people can now live in small-scale towns and villages, which are supposedly more humane. They suggest we can disconnect physically and reconnect online. This idea has huge appeal and it is shared by many environmental campaigners because it is thought to reduce carbon footprints. It is also a popular idea within the technology community.
I will argue in my talk that it is a flawed idea.
Digital technology is a new urban utility, of immense value to the social, economic & environmental performance of cities. However, in adopting new technologies we should not abandon the historically successful form of dense, compact & continuously connected cities. Yes, cities have been damaged by divisive and polluting highway engineering but these failings are recent mistakes in the long history of urbanism. They can, and are, being fixed.
However useful they are, digital technologies can not replace the powerful and beneficial effects of the highly connected street grid – the “essential structure” of urban living.
Unless digital providers appreciate the risks of small-scale, dispersed settlement patterns, they may be lulled by the quaint imagery of a highly damaging rural idyll. This would be damaging to the social, economic and environmental sustainability of our cities and, ultimately, to the cultures that they nurture.