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Urban life in 2020.

Urban life in 2020.

This section discusses the role of cities in social and economic life. There is a clear trend to urbanisation that develops with wealth. At the same time, the original dynamics which led to urban concentrations seems weaker. We do not see IT destroying the economic heart of cities, however, for reasons which are explored elsewhere, under the discussion of the shape of the knowledge economy. Rather, the way in which value is added is changing, and what aspects of this - and other activities - that are best done in cities are also shifting.

Cities are very heterogeneous things, and we have attempted a classification which is based on objective data. First world cites stand out as extraordinary in the run of world urban centres. Amongst these, a few 'world cities' have quite distinct properties. They are, in effect, nation states owing little to their geographical hinterland and much to their peers.

The governance of cities has never been easy, yet many of these entities have economies larger than medium-sized nation states. They are faced with the problems of a shifting pattern of use, a changing economic base, an influx of migrant peoples and by congestion. Measures taken to manage any one of these tend cause often problems elsewhere, as with the impact of vehicle access pricing on the urban economy.

We discuss these issues from three standpoints. First, how are cities best thought about, systematised, understood? Second, given contemporary dissatisfactions and a changing world, what forces act upon cities within this classification, and what is to become of them

Third, we consider remedial activity. How do we create the 'shining city on the hill'? How do we arrive at public views of the desirable, and how do we steer ourselves towards these?

Systematised cities.

This section discusses three topics. Cities are amongst the most complex objects in the known universe. How are we to think of this complexity? Second, given such insights, how should we categorise cities? How are different types of cities likely to interact with each other and with their host nations? Third, what distinguishes a functional city from a dysfunctional one?

Thinking about complexity

Basic settlements offer their inhabitants shelter and solidarity, entertainment and opportunities to profit from the division of labour. As cities become more elaborate, two things occur. First, the business of managing the city itself become important and a class of resident administrators, merchants, police and communicators emerge. Second, the city as broker of information and value begins to predominate. From a hub, it evolves to become an increasingly self-referential network. In the order of 70% of the world's populations live in cities, whilst the industrial nations are well over 90% urbanised. In excess of 85% of the world's gross product comes from cities. A century ago, half of world product came from primary sources, such as agriculture.

The modern city is best considered as layers of networks: economic, social, information-broking, physical connections; some ephemeral, some literally set in concrete. No one perspective takes in all of these, and a relatively limited number of these connections have any governance whatever. A tiny minority of the interactions are managed by public bodies. Where this is the case, we see something of the true complexity of events: a shipment into London may well pass through the hands of 30 regulatory bodies before it is ultimately discharged as wasted or finished goods. The connections between all of these structures are weak, they respond to differing drivers and they answer to differing time frames.

There are, perhaps, two primary dimensions at work when we consider how to categorise cities. On the one hand, the scale of activity leads to qualitatively different entities. Second, the level of social and economic complexity creates quite distinct entities. Large cities embodying relatively primitive economies and social systems are quite different from similar sized entities capturing complex economic activity and highly evolved socio-political structures.

Categorising cities

A few world-scale cites (New York, London, Tokyo and their peers) are conspicuously different from the 400 or so major conurbations that house and employ most of the rest of the world. They are quite unlike their national hinterlands, but remarkably similar to each other at many levels. Research shows that migration to these cities occurs trans-nationally. The population of London, for example, is increased by inward settlement, whilst UK populations have tended to move out of it. Indeed, migration within nations tends to be between peer-level cities. Excepting the US, where large geographical moves are common, most physical migration is modest in its scope. There is a strong social segregation within cities and between cities, both in respect of hierarchical and geographical movement

Cities are almost always the seat of government, the focus of learning, the heart of strategy and the source of innovation. If major cities are becoming both internationalised and decoupled from their less complex peers - let alone their hinterland - then this has powerful implications. It also suggests a need to rebuild social networks that may be damaged by this, such as within national governance, politics and brand management. It also suggests a growing disparity between what the elite of the industrial world perceive as 'natural' and what the remainder of the world's societies agree to be acceptable. These few 'world cities' set much of the developing agenda. However, they are a minority in all but their influence. It may be helpful to look the degree of relatedness that exists amongst these and the other cities.

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Figure 1: A general categorisation of cities. (click for an expanded view)

In order to do this, we have drawn upon UN data, which assembles statistics for around four hundred cities. These include the self-evident - size, population, wealth - as well as the more subtle indicators, such as measures of health provision, education, waste management, policing and the like. Work by researchers such as Robert Putnam have shown the long and systematic impact of such issues

The results of doing this are shown in Figure 1, in which the degree of relatedness of a city decreases to the left. Three families are evident, as suggested by the captions. The industrial world cities are very unlike those in the rest of the world, as shown in Figure 2, which expands the relevant area of Figure 1.

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Figure 2: Categorising the industrial cities. (click for an expanded view)

You can click on figure 1 or Figure 2 to get a full listing of all of the cities that are innvolved. As a word of caution, this is a large file

The infrastructural problems of the developing world are already acute, and explosive increases in urbanisation are predicted. This represents a significant factor in the way in which the world may develop. These nations (and these cities) must attract the inward investment that they need before they become overwhelmed by the problems of under-resourced expansion. They are unlikely to be able to attract funds (or to save equivalent sums) when the infrastructure is overwhelmed.

Function and dysfunction.

Within the developed world, the segmentation places sophistication over scale. That is, London (or New York) are world scale because of the facilities and the connections which they offer, rather than because they are large per se.

The data reflect this only weakly, however, and Forum discussions noted a number of points that clarified what this might mean. First, the physical infrastructure of a city is complemented by 'intangible' infrastructure. Second, public governance and corporate and private life offer distinct patterns of equally complementary ordering. Third, these positive factors when taken together create a gestalt that is greater than any one of them. Fourth, this unity can come in many balances, and that any one conurbation can contain many such balances co-existing effectively. Not all combinations work, however, and we note the presence of absence of these success factors working together as 'culture', as the collective moral or self-image of the city.

Figure 3: The city as common layers and specialised distinctions.

A successful city can be represented as consisting of a number of layers and nodes. At the base, the physical infrastructure - houses, wiring, drainage, roads is complemented by the intangible infrastructure that we have discussed. The pleasantness of life is an important factor; and any one of the various factors that contribute to unpleasantness can destroy an otherwise attractive environment. The collapse and regeneration of many US city centres present an object lesson that 'getting it right' consists of attention to many parallel factors.

Above these layers rest the social and commercial factors. In respect of society, the single most significant factor appears to be the existence of multiple ladders: that is, that depending on which groups and individual may belong to, so their aspirations also vary. The complex city must cater to aspirations that are not merely segmented by wealth, age and ethnicity but in respect of how internally plural individuals may feel at any one moment. (See box.) Any one professional may expect fun and advancement, self-esteem and consumption all presented as a kaleidoscope of options and opportunities. Measurements of individual attitudes once allowed people to be segmented into 'boxes' which represented their overall identity and aspirations. More recently, people have become increasingly 'unboxed', taking on alternative sets of values with context. It is possible to be environmentally concerned in response to one set of cue, and easily possible to be a rabid consumer or a hard-nosed business person a moment later. Populations which 'rove value space' place great demands on the society in which they operate, for any social transaction can occur in many different equally valid ways.

The commercial layers in Figure 3 draw on directly relevant links and capabilities, but also on a more generic infrastructure: on financiers and lawyers, on technical experts and communicators. Major cities offer critical masses of these skills, suitable experienced and packaged. The terms in which business is done is set by national regulation and local conditions. The level of informal and formal scrutiny, the quality of governance demanded and enforced serves to create trust and forbearance. Transaction costs are lessened.

In addition, major cities offer 'towers of excellence', where the generally good rises to a series of international peaks of excellence. London is a world centre for finance, construction management, health issues and design, to name but a few. Dublin and Seattle have made themselves software capitals. Washington offers expertise in lobbying, policy creation and other public sector capabilities.

There is a remarkably consistent power law, that relates body mass to metabolic rate across something like seven orders of magnitude. This has presented biologists with a problem which has only recently been solved. Essentially, the 'pipework' necessary to connect up a massive object itself creates mass and volume. Minimal connectivity and packing generates the scaling that has been observed. So, too, with cities. Reticulation - connecting things together - has long been a primary goal of urbanisation. The concomitant of this is transport infrastructure, which also follows a power law with scale: water and power, travel, freight and waste all have to move and in so doing, increasing take up space and interfere with each other. Britons now spend more on restaurants and hand meals than they do on food consumed in the home. They spend more on out-of-the-home entertainment than ever in history. Such trends are unlikely to reverse. More activity, confined into realistic spaces, puts a great premium on getting transportation right. This and other features set an agenda of change for cities.

Cities in flux.

Transport is, therefore, one major issue for all established major cities. Other general, sweeping drivers of change are described elsewhere. Many of these - such as social change, the pursuit of best practice and the changes required of governance - are particularly focused within cities. Indeed, cities may well create much of the change that characterises the scenario 'Pushing the Edge' - about which more elsewhere. Two particular sets of issues are, however, very important to the prospects for cities. One of these is the relationship between the knowledge economy and the 'e-economy'. The other is around multi-level governance, its means and its goals. Should we let things self-assemble, or should we strive to set an overall direction? In either instance, how can we ensure high quality in what results from our decisions? At issue is less the drivers than how we respond to them, and the basis for the economic health of the city as an entity.

E-commerce and K-commerce.

Cities may appear vulnerable to changes in the way in which business is to be done. Will not shopping become entirely electronic? Will the financial institutions not relocate to green fields or remote beaches? There is, however, a common misconception that the knowledge economy and the electronic economy are one and the same thing. They are not.

The pattern of outsourcing in commerce has permitted business-to-business e-commerce to grow rapidly, for it found a prepared and fertile soil. Apparently spectacular change has arisen from doing the same thing in new ways. Such rapid change cannot be extrapolated to other things which the internet or its successors can do for us.

If we abbreviate this to 'K-commerce' and 'E-commerce' we can ask ourselves where these two differ.

K-commerce E-commerce
Depends on getting people to pool what they know Key skill consists of getting from generalisations to the specific.
There are many nuances, and value comes from finesse Solutions are not replicable, and do not scale easily.
Depends on having a detailed specification of what is to be done Key skill lies in starting from an established, agreed clear idea.
Huge economies of scale, such that value comes from standardisation Solutions must be replicable, anywhere and by any contractor.

Most large cities deliver K-commerce, at least at the 'commanding heights' of the economy from which other, less complex commerce feeds. They have networks of subtle minds, which strive to offer focused solutions. They seek fast change and differentiation of their product. They fish for new ideas in a complex environment, in which personal relations are very important.

A significant aspect of running an E-business consists of knowledge work: design, financing, software prototyping. It is, therefore understandable that e-commerce activities are often located in city centres. Large, established offshoots of US companies tend to locate close to communication hubs and away from the heart of the city, whilst start-ups cluster close to lawyers, financiers and the design-and-lifestyle heartland.

E-commerce can place contracts wherever it chooses, subject to cost, quality, risk and time parameters, once the specification for the activity has been written. McKinsey have shown that in US and German manufacturing industry, however, such definition costs amount to half of the life costs of a project. One may guess at how profit segments between those two stages. Cities can, therefore, afford to export metal bending and widget assembly, so long as they retain the valuable specification-creating stage of the process. This they seem well fitted to do, although this has and will continue to change what they are.

E-commerce has one other aspect to it. In theory, if we communicate well we need to move ourselves about less. Technologies such as ADSL, and general broad band connectivity, ought to enable us to shop, to do business, to be entertained and to socialise with less physical mobility.

History suggests otherwise. The growth of business travel grew in almost exact parallel with the use of the telephone for commerce throughout the C20th. We used the telephone for one set of missions, and used the time so liberated for other types of interaction, many involving more intense travel. E-retailing will almost certainly lead to more frequent shopping, to shopping which delegates the dull aspects to 'e-' but still entails a trip to the shops, or home delivery. This last promises a surge of traffic to suburban streets, with complex logistics rendered even more complex by missing customers. This is discussed in depth elsewhere.

The solution to this and to other issues of logistics may require us to think hard about the new role of cities. Around 2% of the physical stock of a city is replaced annually (or half in 20-25 years.) Commercial capital decays and is normally replaced at 15% per annum, implying that half is changed in 5 years. This can happen in response to individual decisions, or be focused upon a broader set of goals. What these goals might be - and how we achieve both their definition and the necessary regulatory focus - is the subject of the next section.

Framing decisions.

Direction-setting is subject to two very different dynamics. In one of these, individuals and organisations pursue their own ends, and - in addition to their direct power over public decision processes - have the ultimate sanction to hand: they can leave the city altogether.

The other force is, of course, the pursuit of the public good. How the options are to be tabled and assessed - and by whom the tabling is to be done, and by whom the assessment - is generally vague. The governance of nation states is under challenge from the changes that are in prospect, yet this is generally far more effectively embodied, supported and debated by the public than is city governance. Urban governance is seldom sovereign, co-existing with a web of authorities and regulators which derive their powers from national governance. What may seem clear at an urban level may seem questionable from a national perspective. What seems relevant nationally - such as party divisions - may be peripheral to urban concerns.

Making a coherent 'system of systems' out of this mix of motives and incoherent institutions may require some basic redesign if subsidiary government is to work. Western societies are unlikely to be able to meet the foreseeable speed and complexity of events without such delegation. However, the hierarchical model of the C19th seems unlikely to work in the C21st: we shall have to work with interacting networks, not with neat pyramids of command and control. At the heart of making this work for is lies the knowledge economy.

How are complex organisations to make up their collective minds? Several separate components need to be in place.

The third step may involve political courage, but is conceptually the easiest of the three. It is undoubtedly the case that the first step is the least well handled by current institutions.

A solution will have to work with many independent, expert agents, in the public and private sectors, some of them national, some local, some with long time frames and some with short, some this correspondingly long fuses and others with less patience. In short, a network of expertise needs to be co-ordinated towards an emerging, evolving shared view of what matters, which is possible, what desirable, what contentious. Areas in which research and other exploration is needed must be pointed up and resolved. Such a view cannot take a perspective of less than 20 years, in that it will take at least that long to achieve most structural goals.

Such a network must separate out the tools of policy that cause contention from contentious goals. It must offer a bridge of common understanding between successive political administrations. It must learn from mistakes and successes, both locally and internationally. Its views must be widely promulgated in ways which the general citizens can access and about which they can express their opinions. What is their city to become? How do they want to live their lives, and in how many distinctive and different ways do they wish to live? How much liberty and how much security do various groups seek? Which groups can happily co-exist and which need physical separation? The closest that we have to such a mechanism are the mass media, which are hardly suited to the task.

Great increases in complexity can be matched only by yet greater understanding and oversight. An Olympian model of the all-seeing planner is, however, discredited. Rather, we need insight at may levels. This, in its turn permits choice to be made within the network of interests and institutions that make up the modern city. These afford expert adaptation, but also provide the checks and balances which are needed to prevent one group's adaptation becoming another's blight

Adaptive cities.

We have described some of the many forces to which cities must adapt. We have noted that what we mean by "city" is complex: there are many types of city. The very idea of "city" encompasses much more than roads, buildings and plumbing, and what is involved in this is itself changing.

A successful city is one in which a number of more or less independent factors are 'got right', and where not one feature is grossly 'wrong'. There are, typically, infrastructural things to be got right and these can be both tangible and intangible: congestion and the depth of the human resource supply, for example. There are 'towers of excellence' that must be in place. Poles of growth - such as the London Greenwich-Canary-Dome complex - may act as foci for upgrade and development. All of these, taken together, constitute a gestalt which can swing either way: to a culture of success and self-betterment, or to a spiral of decay and neglect. Adaptive cities not only provide a positive gestalt (a complex process, involving many balances) but they are able to envisage an even better future, such that local and distributed agents can strive towards this. The understand themselves and they know what they want to become.

The need for the products of the knowledge economy will grow. The e-economy may develop out of its current exploratory phase. The number of choices open to a citizen or a company will increase, as will the number and subtlety of the checks and balances which they face. The city, seen as a reticulation system, will face major issues of congestion and these will grow as the volume of material to be moved increases, as the appetite for mobility extends and as convenience shopping - home delivery, frequent trips - increases.


One major generic policy option that all conurbations will have to consider is that of densification. Major cities in the industrial world usually began around a tight heartland, in that transport set a key limit. Georgian London and Rooseveltian New York were far more densely populated than they are today. Rail and later car transport permitted the growth of suburbia, and mass manufacture created industrial zones which it proved effective to segregate from the residential and commercial districts. Today, an increasing fraction of the population want to live in cities, with access to the full range of urban amenities. Almost all of those who are employed in world class cities will seek to move towards the centre at some time in their lives. Many of these will retire in cities - rather than suburbia - and a suburban phase is sometimes seen as a part of child rearing.

Densification accentuates this. Modern commerce is capable of operating close to where people live, are entertained, where they shop and are educated. It is not necessary to 'zone' a city in areas between which people travel. The gain is, of course, less personal travel and a greater sense of locale and community, with likely concomitants such as more effective policing and a closer integration between the time-pressed wealthy and the time-rich poor. The losses include harmonised controls, central control over social choices and supply-side efficiency.

A densified 'village in a city' would expect to manage its own affairs much more than would an arbitrary area on an urban map. It might be socially normative, exclusive or intensely specialised: "Nurdistan", with a wine bar and a security guard on every street corner, making life safe for twenty-something information technologists. Assorted ethnicities, religious groups, sexual persuasions and demographic associations could be expected to form. They do this today, but the pace - as seen in some US cities - might be expected accelerate. Central regulation would, as every, be required to maintain as much as was required nationally of a whole-society approach to exclusion.

Supply-side inefficiencies are to be countered in two ways. First, physical flows in and out of cities, through break bulk to ultimate reticulation, are hugely sub-optimal. There are many simple things that could be done to create systems integration. The relative efficiency of public and private transport for human traffic have been exhaustively studied and, whilst the sums involved are vast and the disruption potentially huge, the potential of effective public transport is well-established. The tendency to use better transport to push the envelope of the possible in commuting will need to be countered.

Second, we have developed the habit of putting goods or services in a central location, and to letting people find their way to these. This has developed for a range of reasons - as a result of economies of scale, for logistic convenience and brand positioning, through planning regulations and zoning, themselves due to fashions in urban planning. In order to reverse this, as densification requires, we need to solve some major logistical issues. Chief amongst these is the just-in-time supply of small scale outlets: shops, schools, places of entertainment and leisure.

Servicing small-scale shops is, in particular, a growing and important skill. A large out-of-town store will hold 30-60,000 items on its shelves. A typical owner-managed grocery may handle 1500 lines. It is potentially feasible to take this to 4-6,000 items, to combine this with electronic pre-packed orders and items on approval. This partnership may well rescue the small store, avoid the congestion implicit in home delivery, cut infrastructural costs and permit densification to flourish.

One radical possibility is that of a dedicated, automated small scale freight delivery system, such that a network of 'pipes' deliver standard packages - essentially, mini-containers marked with a bar code - anywhere across a network, to locations typically a few hundred yards apart. Local delivery can then be handled by human-controlled electric carts or mini-forklifts. The technology to achieve this already exists and its installation is equivalent to laying storm drains: grossly, but not chronically disruptive

Adaptation and scale: the roles of the different kinds of cities.

The implications of these trends depends very much on the city in question. In world class cities, high added value activities always have and certainly will continue to displace the less profitable. The various forms of excellence - as shown in Figure 3 - will continue to develop. Specialisation may extend, but not to the degree that may well come to characterise national - rather than international - cities of the first rank.

These may well focus themselves strongly on doing one or two things very well, such as tourism or technology, entertainment production or car manufacture. Their goal is likely to be to replicate the infrastructure of the international city, but only in regard to this one area of capability. Their vulnerability to world shocks may be increased as their versatility goes down.

World cities will set the terms of debate in much of the world. They will host the media, the key decision-takers, the chattering classes. New ideas and new styles and approaches will emerge from them and they will be increasing decoupled from their host nations, whilst increasing linked to a common agenda. New technologies and focused themes - such as computer games - may well come from specialised national cities, but the grand ideas will tend to emerge from the established centres of excellence. One key exception is science, which has always focused on the educational centres of excellence rather than key cities. The two to three dozen key institutions around the world will continue to dominate science productivity for as long as they dominate science spending

Major cities will have changed very considerably by 2020: we can expect half of the buildings to have been refurbished or rebuilt, the key infrastructure to have been renewed and self-funding renewal of the public transport system to be well in train. Slower moving aspects of cities - such as the layout of roads and property in space - will change more slowly. Social and commercial change will, by contrast, proceed at a much grater pace. The collision between these elements can be avoided only if we begin to plan for dispersed oversight, expert option formation, distributed decision-taking. It will take us at least twenty years to learn how to get these 'social technologies' right.

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