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The Future of Cities

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: Project update, Regional meetings

View of London streets at night (Stew Dean/CC-BY-2.0)

In the first Future of Cities blog post the Government Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir Mark Walport, explains what the project is about and what experts in Cambridge have to say about it.

People love living in cities. George Holmes knew this in 1916 when he wrote ‘The Man who Unmade Cities’ (Illustrated World, May 1916). In this work of speculative fiction, the protagonist revolutionises aeroplane design such that planes become affordable personal vehicles.

In the wave of excitement that follows, people leave the cities, choosing to commute by air from the countryside over living in densely packed urban spaces. Nevertheless, being fundamentally social creatures who enjoy the day-to-day interactions made possible by urban dwelling, in time people return and cities survive and flourish once more.

In the 21st century some see a similar shift in the appeal of cities. Innovations such as the internet, video conferencing and online shopping are eroding our need to live in cities – but people continue to be attracted to them, all around the world.

The Project

The Government Office for Science’s new Foresight project on the Future of Cities is exploring how UK cities work today and how they will need to evolve in the future to meet the challenges and opportunities that the coming decades will pose. Coupling a holistic view of new technologies and innovative design with a better understanding of what makes successful cities ‘liveable’ engines of economic growth will help us understand how future cities can be more resilient and dynamic. While perhaps not as entertaining as George Holmes’ 1916 piece, the Future of Cities project will be based on rigorous scientific expertise and analysis.

I have appointed a group of leading experts to advise the project. Chaired by Professor Alan Wilson from the Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis, University College London, their knowledge, experience and networks will be vital in shaping the progress and outcomes of the project.

The Diversity of UK Cities

Cities in the UK differ hugely from each other, so to capture the input of people who work in, live in and help run these cities I am holding a series of informal roundtable meetings across the country.

The first of these was in Cambridge recently, when I met with 12 representatives from industry, local government and academia.

Aerial view of Cambridge

Cambridge is a unique and innovative city in the UK – it has a dense cluster of high tech companies employing 37,000 people and the highest patenting rate of any UK city.

As a result of this, it has enjoyed a period of sustained and productive growth. From my discussions, however, it is clear that Cambridge has important choices ahead.

It could expand and grow into a much larger city like Manchester or Birmingham, but then it would lose much of what makes it special. Its small size (it was described to me as an ‘urban village’) made possible the cross-fertilisation of ideas that has been so crucial to its network of emerging start-ups. The natural beauty of the surrounding area that attracts talented workers would also be threatened if the city was to expand.

I heard a tremendous amount of enthusiasm for the Future of Cities project. There was a feeling that while Cambridge’s unique situation could provide a valuable case study for our work, the project could also help provide useful insights for some of Cambridge’s challenges.

Cambridge was a great place to start the discussions that we need to have about what sort of cities we want to live in. I’m looking forward to taking this conversation, and developing new partnerships and collaborations, around the UK over the coming months.

So that you can follow the progress of the Future of Cities project and find out more about it, this blog will be regularly updated with contributions from our lead experts and the project team about a whole host of issues. We would welcome you to join the conversation in the comments below.

Featured image by Stew Dean on Flickr. Used under Creative Commons. Cambridge image by Cmglee on Wikimedia. Used under Creative Commons.

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  1. Comment by Joshua Singh posted on

    I think that the future of cities project is a crucial think tank that can really start a visioning process we need to adopt in the UK. If we look to our counterparts across the globe we are seeing evidence of this process coming to life: Masdar, Songdo, Korea, Malmo, Sweden, Dubai and closer to home places such as Birmingham all at the forefront of city development and future proofing.

    At a local level I know that young academics and civil servants like myself are trying to do the same to vision where areas like the Black Country (where I work) can fit into UK growth. How we can foster advanced engineering? How we can draw down invesment into R&D? How can we safeguard land to design and ensure we can build local science / business / engineering parks bringing clustering of companies together? How can we bring forward young apprentices to learn and want to work in growth sectors such as the automotive and green tech. Im sure these are all key elements of a much bigger national strategy.

    From my point of view its just good to see that we have people at a national tier of governance who have the blue sky thinking and the power and vision to start moving the UK 50-60 years ahead. Keep up the good work and look forward to following this blog.

    • Replies to Joshua Singh>

      Comment by Luke Hughes posted on

      Dear Joshua,

      Thanks for the feedback, and it's great to hear your enthusiasm for the project! You're right, while our focus is on the future of UK cities, we're of course mindful of the fascinating case studies that international cities can provide. The questions you raised that you're considering for the Black Country are exactly the sorts of issues we are exploring in our project.

      We'll do our best to keep this blog updated about the work we are doing. In the meantime, I would point you towards our Twitter feed, @foresightgovuk, which we'll be using more in the coming weeks.

      All the best,


      Project Team,
      Future of Cities

  2. Comment by Ilma Smith posted on

    Cambridge is one of a few unique cities where the pace of scientific and technological development is enormous, but its small size and character of the surrounding environment, villages, etc. is an integral part of its success. It is completely correct to understand that many people who work in the high-tech companies in Cambridge do desire and prefer to live in rural surroundings, matching the high quality of their work life with a high quality home environment.

    As one who lives in a village just south of Cambridge city, and moved to the village because of its rural and intimate neighbourhood, to grow the city to a significantly larger size would be a huge detriment to many like myself. Whist that sounds nimby'ish, there's a very real point here, in that with modern high-speed Internet communications and the ability to build small business parks in rural locations, the requirement for big cities is much reduced, with the corresponding increase in quality of life.

    To examine such a distributed model, to develop other 'Cambridges' rather than 'Manchesters', should therefore be a core focus of such a project. This entails looking at extra-city infrastructure as well as the planning of intra-city resources, for example, more emphasis on point-to-point road and rail transport routes rather than large hub focussed routes; deployment of fibre optic networks to the premise rather than just as backbone and to medium & large businesses; developing smaller but highly efficient and economic energy generation stations, e.g. small LFTR (Liquid Fluoride Thorium Rectors), etc.

    Quality of life can be defined by the quality of our work and home environments, and there is no doubt that living in a village outlying a 'small' city can be held up as one alternative of an ideal.

    • Replies to Ilma Smith>

      Comment by Liz Stevenson posted on

      Dear Ilma - Absolutely agree! The interconnectedness of Cambridge is essential. Digital exclusion elsewhere in our county matters to Cambridge’s economic growth and social capital.

  3. Comment by Andy Goldring posted on

    Dear Mark,

    This is a timely piece of research. Our concern at the Permaculture Association, is how we can enable cities to become sustainable over the long term. This of course means looking closely at issues of energy, water and many other matters, but in our opinion also requires a rethinking of cities from being entities dependant on long linear supply chains from across the world, towards more self-reliant entities that have rich connections with their rural hinterland. The potential for connected rural and peri-urban energy and food production, and the rich cultural and economic benefits that could result, are worthy of close attention. We would be delighted to contribute to the thinking, and reimagining of how a future city may function to enable and promote the goals of personal, social, economic and environmental wellbeing.

  4. Comment by Derek Whyte posted on

    The problem with the "small is beautiful" approach in terms of city growth is that in most cases small is not beautiful. In terms of international comparisons the UK's second tier cities are much smaller than would be expected. Not all of this can be put down to the growth of Greater London and its catchment area. Cities like Cambridge are "outliers" whose agglomerative power comes from the intensity of intellectual property concentrated in a small area. By its very nature this is not a phenomenon which is replicable in other parts of the country for similar sized - or even larger cities.

    Agglomeration effects suggest that greater economic activity is stimulated by greater economic and population concentration. Which in turn suggests that for the UK to be more economically competitive we need more larger concentrations of economic activity. It also means that, for reasons of path dependency, not all current urban concentrations have a realistic prospect of growth - so urban policy should concentrate on identifying those that have such potential and concentrating on enhancing their size and economic impact.

    The new Key Cities network has begun to grapple with some of these issues, drawing on some of the work undertaken at OECD on medium sized cities and by Phillip McCann for the EC. That work suggests that the key is not trying to replicate the experience of a Cambridge or a Manchester but of identifying those factors which are specific to each individual situation and working with those to enable each city to grow to its individual potential and form.

    So far,so laissez-faire. What would really transform that sort of approach would be a greater concentratin by government on its spatial planning role, from which it has essentially rowed back since the days of the New Towns. A more concerted approach to working with the grain of market (economic and housing) demand, would identify and support ways of enhancing population and economic concentration in a more effective way. Not that I'm holding my breath on that one though...

  5. Comment by Arthur Acheson posted on

    This is a good productive discussion which would be most effective with a wider range of participants.

    Surprisingly, it was not mentioned at the meeting in London yesterday where information was exchanged and planning undertaken for the next stage of visioning and reporting of the Foresight Future of Cities project.

    Shall we use it more frequently now that the conversations have begun between the participating cities? It could be a great way to increase both connection of existing and participation of others, very efficiently, as suggested yesterday.

    The notes of the meetings which have already been held with the various cities could highlight points as has happened for Cambridge and Newcastle. It does not all have to be carried out by the central office at GO Science - experience in other blogs would suggest that these things write themselves with minimal intervention needed from the host organisation.

    By registering, would we receive regular updates when a new comment is posted?