Smart distinctiveness by design

by Simon Payne

23 Nov 2016

Imagine, as the John Lennon song goes, ‘all the people living in peace … and all the world will be as one….’ In one sense technology combined with globalisation is creating one world. But these changes are creating a reaction to assert identity and a longing for the lost certainties of former times. What does this mean for our cities?

I believe it means that we should take a grasp of the understanding of these changes and picture the impact on our societies. We have seen huge technological change since the advent of the commercial internet but the changes that are coming over the next 30 years will surpass what has happened so far. So often the popular debate is about each technological change in isolation. Robots caring for the elderly, drones delivering parcels, driverless cars, 3D printers printing buildings, autonomous domestic machines talking to each other…. But what about the combined impact on our society and the behaviour and life styles of our citizens? And more especially, what about the impact on the design of our buildings and open space and the cities themselves?

In Britain, we have a development industry that, like the John Lennon song, ‘lives for today’. For example, it is hard enough to persuade volume housebuilders to imagine a sustainable present let alone imagine a sustainable world based on the smart technology of the future. But are our architects, planners and designers imagining the future and trying to shape the new technology or will we simply respond when the driverless cars roll out (hopefully not all by themselves) from the manufacturers showrooms?

So much of our urban planning in recent decades has been determined by the needs of the motor vehicle. Highway geometry, visibility splays, parking spaces and all the paraphernalia (such as traffic lights and road signs) have taken precedence over the design principles that created many beautiful historic places in the first place. What happens when the rules of the new technology change again? In a city of only driverless connected vehicles that move together, interacting with the environment, then perhaps the signs, the traffic lights, the visibility splays may become redundant and the highway geometry can change too? What a wonderful opportunity for design-led solutions that put the quality of place before the necessities of motorised transport.

In asserting the need for design of place to shape these changes I think there is another fundamental need. That need is to recognise that in a world of global technology we need to respect local character and the needs of our local communities. It is the same smart technology in Silicon Valley as in Cambridge UK or in Beijing and yet the character of these places and the needs of the local communities within these places are different. The technology opens up new ways to solve mobility issues where there is a historic place with limited road space, not just in terms of the means of movement but also in the need and purpose to travel. If we fail to shape and apply the new technology to take account of the character of our places, then we will fail to meet the needs of our local communities.

I believe there is an urgent need to imagine how the emerging technology can be designed and applied to our cities in a way that recognises the special character of each city and considers how the varying needs of our communities can be best met. This task is, in my view, too important to leave to globalised business alone and it needs a long-term and joined-up approach led by city administrations to engage with our citizens and seek to envisage and shape the huge technological changes that are currently unfolding around us. A smart city is not the final goal to strive for because smart technology is simply a tool. The goal must surely be to create distinctive and sustainable cities where we are seeking to create a high quality of life for all our local communities and we need to shape the technology around this objective.

Simon Payne is Director of Lambsquay Consulting of Cambridge Limited. Simon has worked in local government for over 40 years in the UK, most recently as Director of Environment at Cambridge City Council.

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