Cities, cyborgs and social science: how will we live in the year 2065?

Metropolis: imagining the cities of the future. Image:

Half a century ago, when politicians, planners, writers and film-makers imagined the Britain of the 21st century, their vision was, more often than not, often one of gleaming modern cities and radical technological innovation. Harold Wilson invoked a nation “forged in the white heat” of the scientific revolution; children cowered behind the sofa as Dr Who battled cyborgs; cities were reconstructed from concrete and encircled, connected and sliced through with huge new motorways.

But there are few things as dated as yesterday’s futures – many of the utopian and dystopian fantasy futures of the 20th century now seem somewhere between quaint and absurd. The naïve belief in technological fixes to deep social and economic problems has left many lasting scars in the urban landscape of the UK. Over the past 50 years, we – and the cities that more and more of us inhabit – have changed beyond recognition.

Now, the Economic and Social Research Council’s (ESRC) new multi-million pound Urban Transformations initiative will bring together some of Britain’s most distinguished academics. Their goal: to help us understand and address the challenges and changes our cities will face over the next half-century.

Forging a path

Cities are “path dependent”: their futures are shaped by past and present decisions. At times, they become locked in to outdated technologies. Cities in the US have been shaped and ruled by the car. Meanwhile, by not separating waste and drinking water in domestic plumbing, British cities spend vast sums ensuring the quality of water that flushes the loo is as potable as the water we drink from the tap.

It is estimated that the UK will spend more than £400bn on infrastructure in the next 20 years alone. Most of this will be focused on the built environment of our cities, their transport connectivity and their physical fabric.

Chicago: a city sliced and diced by the car. Image: Stuck in Customs/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA.

It will be challenging to predict what sort of extraordinary changes will shape urban Britain over the next five decades. But we need to lay solid foundations for the future by developing the deepest possible understanding of the present. This means identifying how these urban environments – and the millions of people who create and inhabit them – can be given the very best chance to thrive.

Smart cities

In the future, British cities will become more efficient, and “smarter”, through new generations of computing. Increasingly, information will be gathered by the very infrastructure that reshapes the city. In the Internet of Things, the alarm at home may be connected to your phone, a security company and a remote monitor. Machines can speak to one another, and become human-oriented interfaces simultaneously.

These “big data” systems are embedding into the built environment, and are routinely used by populations through hand-held devices ranging from credit cards that log consumer preferences, to GPS-tracked smart phones. These systems are delivering large quantities of information about the way cities function. The data is streamed and archived in real time, to create a new record of all that goes on in the functions that are being automated. All of this must be done in the context of the new reality of British urban life, which is, in many respects, no less incredible than the sci-fi future imagined in the 1960s.

These days, a Brazilian migrant in the UK, working on a Spanish passport, can simultaneously Skype home to South America, use an app to measure the calories she’s burned, and livestream a film of her young child in a suburban nursery – all on the same hand-held device. We can all become cyborgs – part human, part machine – as we combine our everyday life with monitors, screens, and new technologies worn on the wrist or sheltered in our pockets.

A new science

New data sets provide the foundations for a new science of cities, generating spatial analysis of behaviours and consumer preferences. But the infrastructure of cities shapes culture – and technological change is culturally mediated. This demands a different kind of scholarship from conventional 20th-century social science: a scholarship that does more than generate historical data and extrapolate from trends.

As the city is reshaped by technological change, social science must ask in whose image is the city being refashioned, identifying the ethical make up of the new metropolis; its new inhabitants, as well as its empowered citizen consumers. The social sciences – anthropology, sociology, philosophy – are challenged to justify their value through an interdisciplinary engagement with the natural sciences.

The UK could learn from China’s remarkable flat pack skyscrapers.

Through powerful scholarship, the UK now has the opportunity to learn from other cities across the globe. We must consider the novel challenges being addressed by China and India, as they come up with new solutions for rapid development. We need to see the “urban commons” – the water, air, space and bandwidth that we all share – through the lens of African cities’ informal self-organisation of the disadvantaged and the poor. We must consider the social democratic models of Scandinavia, and examine Latin American experimentation, if we are to understand the alternative scenarios that Britain’s urban systems might explore.

Britain’s cities of 2065 need to be built, not on our imagined version of the future, but on a deep understanding of the present and the past. We must be inspired by lessons from the past and a recognition of the incredible potential of our cities, while keeping sight of the drawbacks and trade-offs of technological innovation. We hope that our research will have a critical role to play in building the foundations of a thriving future for British cities. The Conversation

Michael Keith is Director of COMPAS at University of Oxford.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 

The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.