What will the city of the future look like?

Indian visitors look at a model of a 'smart city' at the Smartcity Expo in New Delhi on 20 May 2015. Image: Getty.

The city of the future is a highly interconnected smart environment where people, government and business operate in symbiosis with spectacular improving technologies such as big data, the Internet of Things (IoT), artificial intelligence (AI), robots, drones, autonomous green vehicles, 3D / 4D printing, and renewable energy.

Simultaneously, it is also a place where surveillance is pervasive and data capture is considered permissible by city residents.

At their heart, smart cities are designed to capture massive amounts of data about the population and its patterns, and use it to inform decision making. This information gathering results in what is called big data, and it is essentially gathered via surveillance.

It is collated from a constantly evolving and expanding IoT – encompassing traffic lights and cameras, pollution sensors, building control systems, and personal devices – all feeding giant data stores held in the cloud. The ability to crunch all this data is becoming easier due to rampant growth in the use of devices algorithms, AI, and predictive software.

Singapore is a leading example of a smart city, and is constantly evolving its “city brain,” a backbone of technologies used to help control pollution, monitor traffic, allocate parking, communicate with citizens, and even issue traffic fines. The behavioral aspect is not to be overlooked. Singapore’s “brain” is attempting to modify human behavior – for example, one system rewards drivers for using recommended mapped routes, and punishes those who do not.

Ultimately, Singapore’s planners hope to discourage driving, and guide most commuters to making greater use of public transportation. The city is planning for 100m “smart objects” including smart traffic lights, lamp posts, sensors, and cameras on its roadways, which will be used to monitor and enforce laws.


Essentially the Internet of Things means that everything – and potentially everyone – will become beacons and data collection devices. Hence, after data, the IoT is the second driving force behind the rise of smart infrastructure; in order for everything from air conditioning to parking meters to function in a smart city, the use of microphones, sensors, voice recognition, etc. must be hooked up to the IoT.

Companies and planners are already beginning to explore the possibilities; a case study from India suggests that light poles along the highways can offer both smart city and connectivity solutions. In addition to helping monitor road conditions, the light poles could be fitted as high-speed data connections.

As cities grow in size and importance to the global economy, it will be increasingly important that they adopt the most innovative and forward-thinking design and sustainability ideas. As a smart infrastructure future unfolds, three important new technologies – big data, the IoT and renewable energy – are working in tandem to transform the day-to-day. For example, South Korea is planning an entire network of smart roads by 2020, including battery-charging stations for electric vehicles (EVs) as well as infrastructure to handle autonomous vehicles.

All this data and awareness will enable decisions that make the best possible use of space, fuel, energy, water, electricity, and all resources, with an emphasis on sustainability. For example, a clear priority is being able to anticipate big traffic jams and provide alternate routes to save time, fuel, and reduce impact on the city infrastructure itself. Limiting waste is a very logical outcome and benefit of the merging of big data, AI and IoT which feeds into the rise of smart infrastructure.

There is also a new scientific forecasting tool to predict solar weather, which will make the rollout of solar on smart roads (and in homes) a more feasible option. Eventually, with a growing array of such distributed power solutions, a centralised energy distribution grid for UK homes and businesses may not be necessary.

The smart city movement now afoot has the potential to transform the organisation of people and physical objects in a way that transcends urban development as we know it. The shift to smart infrastructure is not simply fashionable or aspirational; in many ways, it appears to be a critical enabler of the future sustainability of cities. It can be argued that the future of human life on the planet rests on a smooth transition to cities that are more efficient, less wasteful – and more conscious of the impacts of the individual upon the greater good.

Rohit Talwar, Steve Wells and Alexandra Whittington are from Fast Future which publishes books from future thinkers around the world exploring how developments such as AI, robotics and disruptive thinking  could impact individuals, society and business and create new trillion-dollar sectors.

 
 
 
 

To fix the housing crisis, we need to decide what success would look like

Building houses in Ilford, 1947. Image: Getty.

Recent years have seen growing public and political recognition that there is a crisis in housing. This has led to a widening debate on the causes and potential solutions.

However, within this debate there has been little in the way of a consensus view of what constitutes the current housing crisis – or what a “crisis-free” housing system might look like. There seems little clear idea of any measurable goal. The nearest we have as a target to aim at has been a series of aspirational numbers for new-build homes, with limited clarity on what to expect if we were to hit those numbers.

Clarity about what success would look like is essential. Without a framework for what we need and want from housing, our ability to understand and fix it appropriately will be compromised. A lack of clarity also increases the risk of unintended consequences from misguided policy interventions.

The current housing debate is, to quote UCL’s Michael Edwards, “bedevilled by rival simplifications”. There are several, quite often competing explanations for why we have a housing crisis. For many it is our failure to build homes at the same rate as projected household formation. This failure might be assigned to the planning system, the greenbelt, housebuilder business models, the land market, or NIMBYs.

For others, the crisis is a result of falling interest rates, rising credit supply, low income growth, wealth and income inequality, tax incentives, or simply our fixation on house price growth. For some, there is no shortage of homes, rather a poor distribution. And for others there isn’t really a housing crisis.

Despite the apparent contradictions in this mix of positions, each of the arguments that support these various views may hold significant elements of truth. Housing is a complex and interconnected system within the economy and society. There is no simple single housing market: there are multiple markets defined by location, property type, tenure, and price. Therefore, there is no simple single housing crisis. Instead we have multiple overlapping issues affecting different parts of the country in different ways and to varying degrees.

There may be factors that influence all housing markets across the UK, indeed across much of the globe. There will be others that impact more locally and within specific housing sectors.

So, for instance, there is growing acceptance by many experts that the cost and availability of credit has been one of the biggest, if not the biggest, drivers of increases in national house prices over the last twenty years.


But it is not the only factor. The growth in buy-to-let has contributed to the financialisation of housing, with homes increasingly thought of as an investment rather than a place for people to live. A lack of supply is predominantly an issue for London and its surrounds, but there are localised shortages elsewhere, particularly of specific types or tenure of homes.

Planning (including a lack of) and the land market limit the responsiveness of supply to rising demand. Housing is unevenly distributed, mostly across generations but also spatially and within generations. Some areas don’t need a net increase in housing but desperately need existing poor-quality homes improved or replaced. In many areas the biggest issue is low (or negative) income growth and employment insecurity.

All these issues and others play a part in defining “the housing crisis”. Having a framework for what we need and want from housing, combined with an understanding of the complexities and interactions that run through the housing market, is essential to resolving the problems they create.

The problem with ‘households’

A misunderstanding of the complexities of housing can be found in one of the most frequently stated explanations for the crisis: a lack of new supply compared with household projections.

Unfortunately, this argument is flawed. Household projections are not a measure of housing demand. The effective demand for new housing is determined by the number of people or companies willing and financially able to buy property. Meanwhile new supply only accounts for around 12 per cent of total transactions and probably less of available homes for sale.

Importantly, even if some analysis may suggest there is no shortage of supply, that does not mean there is no need for new supply. Household projections are a statistical construct based on the past, not a direct measure of future housing demand. But they are still important if used appropriately within a framework for what we need and want from housing.

If we are more explicit about the role of household projections in measuring housing need and the assumptions they contain, then the ‘supply versus household projections’ argument might be recast as a debate on changing household sizes and the consumption of housing (both in terms of space and multiple properties).

This then implies that we should be clearer about the minimum acceptable amount of housing people need, while also accounting for what they want. Should younger people still expect to form households at the same rate and size as their parents? The assumptions and projections around future household sizes should be moved from the background, where they are typically only discussed by planners and researchers, to the centre of the debate.

They should be just one part of a framework for success that explicitly states what we need and want from housing – not just in terms of size but also cost, tenure, quality, security, and location – and better defines the minimum we are prepared to accept. That will provide a clearer understanding of where housing is failing to meet those requirements and help set objectives for how to fix it. These could then be applied appropriately across different markets.

“Rather than trying to return to the relatively short-lived 20th century ideal of mass home-ownership, perhaps we should be focussing our efforts on making renting cheaper”

If measurement against the framework shows that households are not able to form at an appropriate rate and size relative to what they need, then we probably need to increase supply while possibly encouraging older households to move out of larger homes. If rents are too expensive then we may need to reform the rental sectors and increase supply. If housing quality is poor, then we need to work harder at improving and replacing existing stock. If many areas are struggling due to low (or negative) income growth and employment insecurity, then we probably need to look beyond just housing. It might even question whether we need to rebalance the economy and infrastructure investment away from London and its commuter zone.

Having a framework for success may even highlight which issues we can fix and which we can’t. For example, it looks likely that we are stuck with a low interest rate and hence high house price to income market. Under those conditions, prospective first-time buyers will continue to struggle to raise a deposit and access home-ownership irrespective of how much new supply can be realistically delivered.

Rather than trying to return to the relatively short-lived 20th century ideal of mass home-ownership, perhaps we should be focussing our efforts on making renting cheaper, higher quality, and more secure as a long-term home. Increasing new supply would be an important tool in achieving that outcome.

When we have a framework for what success could look like, our ability to understand and fix housing appropriately will be dramatically improved. It would be an important step towards making housing available, affordable, and appropriate for everyone that needs it. It would also be more useful than simply setting a nice round number national target for new homes.

Neal Hudson is an independent housing analyst, who tweets as @resi_analyst. This article originally appeared on his blog.