The return of the impossible – Astana Economic Forum

Good afternoon. It’s an honour and a pleasure to be here in Astana today with this distinguished panel.

In speaking about the cities of the future I’d like to speak about three technologies that I think are not only exciting but are also capable of genuinely addressing the “Global Challenges” theme of this Forum.

The first is a mobility technology. The second is a physical transaction technology. The third is a digital technology.

As an architect involved in the design of everything from new buildings and public spaces to entirely new cities, these are three technologies that I’m particularly invested in. MOBILITY

First, mobility.

When we think about mobility we usually think about going faster. This was the prevailing philosophy of twentieth century urban planning. And it was largely a disaster. We saw cities ripped apart by highways – nowhere more than in the USA. These highways created or reinforced racial and economic inequalities. Some have now been removed at enormous expense. Most are still there. Today, the lessons of building inner urban highways haven’t been learned and we can see them going up in cities throughout Africa and Asia.

Slide 1 – Cycling

So my first technology is not the highway but the bicycle – a slow, sociable, efficient and healthy mobility device. And I’m not the only person to think this way. In cities throughout the world, cycling infrastructure is transforming the mobility patterns of cities. We can certainly see this in London, Paris, Amsterdam and countless European cities. But also in China. Beijing is currently being transformed by the bicycle – in some ways back to the mass cycling city it was.

Slide 2 – SkyCycle

The title of this session is “The return of the impossible” and I think that, in cycling, we truly see the return of the impossible. In London, the city is running out of space for cycling. Working with Norman Foster and colleagues, we have created SkyCycle, a project to build a sheltered, cycling deck above the existing railway tracks – a deck that is over 200km long and will allow over half a billion additional cycling journeys. We’re looking for investors if there are any here today!

And why not here in Astana? Yes it’s cold and windy in the winter. And hot and windy in the summer. But that doesn’t stop some people cycling in the snow in Copenhagen and other extreme cities. And when it becomes too hard to cycle, people then shift to public transport or to cars – or they temporarily change their working schedules. Sheltered cycling, as part of a basket of mobility solutions, is a way forward.

The impossible is possible.


But mobility isn’t everything. (Try telling that to a transport engineer though!) The ultimate purpose of cities is not to move around them. It’s to trade: to create social and economic transactions between people. This is why we have cities.

And one of the most important locations for socio-economic transactions is public space: the business meeting that takes place in a street café or the quick conversation that happens on the street corner – at the end of a meeting that had mostly happened a few floors up.

Slide 3 – La Rambla

My second technology therefore is the street – the slow transaction environment of the street. A place that has withered and died in cities that have pursued the approach of the fast highway. One directly relates to the other. Build highways and you lose streets.

Great streets are generators of enormous property value. Think of the Ramblas in Barcelona, or the Champs Elysées in Paris or 5th Avenue in New York. On the flip side of this, bad streets suppress property values. Get the design of the street wrong and you’re leaving a good deal of money on the table.

In the world of architecture and urban planning however streets are not seen as particularly glamorous objects. There’s far more excitement about designing a 1km tall tower than there is about a creating a 1km long street. I wish it were different. My clients certainly want it to be different, which is why they ask me and my colleagues to design them great streets. But I’d say they are the exception rather than the rule.

My hope is that, where the twentieth century was the century of the tower, the twenty first will be the century of the street.


Slide 4 – IUM

My third and final technology is a digital technology called Integrated Urban Modelling. This is a Smart Cities technology that connects together Big Datasets on how cities work:

– their patterns of movement

– their patterns of land value, air quality, health outcomes

and, crucially, their patterns of spatial connectedness: how street systems either connect or don’t connect to make it easy or difficult for people to move about them, to access their services and interact with each other.

Slide 5 – Darwin Urban Value model

Integrated Urban Models work in predictive mode too: to forecast the likely impacts of urban planning proposals on the social and economic performance of cities.

I should declare an interest: my company, Space Syntax, develops Integrated Urban Modelling technologies – and we think they are the future, not least because in the absence of integrated models we’re left with two inadequate options:

First, we’re left with single-purpose models such as traffic models that seem to be as bad as they are good. Why is it that, despite billions of dollars of investment, traffic models seem to generate traffic jams?

Second, we’re left with guesswork, which has arguably been the modus operandi of urban planners for a long time. Of course they wouldn’t call it guesswork. They call it professional expertise. But it hasn’t always worked. The standard product of global urbanism appears to be either the socially segregating gated community or the slum.

Slide 6 – Darwin masterplan

Effective economies need effective urbanism and, in my experience, it is easier to argue for great streets, parks, public spaces, public transport systems and cycling networks if you have a model that connects spatial planning inputs to economic performance outputs. And this, in summary, is what Integrated Urban Models do.

So these are the three technologies that I’ve selected and they combine both the physical and the digital reality of cities. Their common denominator is human life. But not just the simple existence of the human species because that’s not enough. My vision of cities is that they should promote thriving life to the genuine benefit of societies, economies and cultures. It is to this purpose that any technology should be addressed.

And it is to exactly this purpose that my colleagues and I have been working in our proposals for the future of Astana – proposals that I will show during my talk at 3.30 over at the Hilton. I hope to see you all then!

Thank you.

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