If we covered London like the media covers Africa...

Local strongman "Bambo" Johnson taunts his enemies with a traditional gesture. Image: Getty.

Veteran travellers who criss-cross London, Britain’s booming capital, have no shortage of tales of the extraordinary. A cable car, erected at vast expense to the taxpayer, which has few regular passengers. A custom-made bus, intended to symbolise the city’s bright future, which reaches dangerous levels of heat in the summer months. The city’s Olympic Stadium, which has been given over to West Ham, a football club from London’s shanty towns, for an annual rent of just £2.5m, against an estimated cost to the taxpayer of £700m.

It all comes back to “Bambo” Johnson, the eccentric strongman who is still beloved by the natives, now nearing the end of his term of office, but whose reputation for lavishing taxpayer funds on eye-catching projects has called into question the city’s governance.

The latest boondoggle is the soi-disant “Garden Bridge”, the brainchild of one of the region’s most popular performers, who, as the star of the show Absolutely Fabulous, has delighted the townsfolk for many decades. The bridge’s chief architect is not an architect but a designer, Thomas Heatherwick, who has been the preferred target of Bambo’s largesse. It was Heatherwick who designed the new Routemasters, a paean to the capital’s better days, and part of the atavist streak that has global finance increasingly concerned by the city’s turn away from 21st century thinking.


The cost of the Garden Bridge – intended as a memorial to the deceased Princess of Wales, who has something approaching god-like status among the city’s denizens – has skyrocketed over the years. The taxpayer will now end up paying out £60m into its construction, and close to an additional £4m towards its upkeep*.

International observers are pessimistic about the capital’s hopes of reform. The two candidates most likely to succeed Bambo are the leftist Sadiq Khan and Zac Goldsmith, a languid aristocrat who favours an “Out” vote in the country’s coming referendum on its membership of the European Union, despite concerns that this will further disadvantage the locals. Both are committed to maintaining the Garden Bridge.

For those hoping for a city administration that blends innovation with genuine rigour, the 2016 election will bring little respite.

*UPDATE: The Garden Bridge Trust has now been in touch, and asked us to publish the following message for our readers:

“The Bridge will not cost the British taxpayer £60m. £30m of public money has been received from the Department for Transport and £30m from Transport for London but £20m of this will be repayable over a period of time. The public will not be paying for £4m a year for maintenance costs either. Maintenance costs are estimated at £2m a year and will be paid for by the Garden Bridge Trust who have a business plan to raise money through the hosting of private events for the costs.

“Also, just to point out that the Bridge is not dedicated to the memory of the late Princess Diana, this was Joanna Lumley’s original idea.  However this aspect was not really looked at again when the idea of the Bridge started to be looked at seriously in 2012. The idea of the Bridge is for people to be able to cross the bridge in their own time and pace and enjoy new views of London in a tranquil setting.”

Stephen Bush is the editor of our sister site, the Staggers

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Smart cities need to be more human, so we’re creating Sims-style virtual worlds

The Sims 2 on show in 2005. Image: Getty.

Huge quantities of networked sensors have appeared in cities across the world in recent years. These include cameras and sensors that count the number of passers by, devices to sense air quality, traffic flow detectors, and even bee hive monitors. There are also large amounts of information about how people use cities on social media services such as Twitter and foursquare.

Citizens are even making their own sensors – often using smart phones – to monitor their environment and share the information with others; for example, crowd-sourced noise pollution maps are becoming popular. All this information can be used by city leaders to create policies, with the aim of making cities “smarter” and more sustainable.

But these data only tell half the story. While sensors can provide a rich picture of the physical city, they don’t tell us much about the social city: how people move around and use the spaces, what they think about their cities, why they prefer some areas over others, and so on. For instance, while sensors can collect data from travel cards to measure how many people travel into a city every day, they cannot reveal the purpose of their trip, or their experience of the city.

With a better understanding of both social and physical data, researchers could begin to answer tough questions about why some communities end up segregated, how areas become deprived, and where traffic congestion is likely to occur.

Difficult questions

Determining how and why such patterns will emerge is extremely difficult. Traffic congestion happens as a result of personal decisions about how to get from A to B, based on factors such as your stage of life, your distance from the workplace, school or shops, your level of income, your knowledge of the roads and so on.

Congestion can build locally at pinch points, placing certain sections of the city’s transport networks under severe strain. This can lead to high levels of air pollution, which in turn has a severe impact on the health of the population. For city leaders, the big question is, which actions – imposing congestion charges, pedestrianising areas or improving local infrastructure – would lead to the biggest improvements in both congestion, and public health.

We know where – but why? Image: Worldoflard/Flickr/creative commons.

The irony is, although modern technology has the power to collect vast amounts of data, it doesn’t always provide the means to analyse it. This means that scientists don’t have the tools they need to understand how different factors influence the way cities function and grow. Here, the technique of agent-based modelling could come to the rescue.

The simulated city

Agent-based modelling is a type of computer simulation, which models the behaviour of individual people as they move around and interact inside a virtual world. An agent-based model of a city could include virtual commuters, pedestrians, taxi drivers, shoppers and so on. Each of these individuals has their own characteristics and “rules”, programmed by researchers, based on theories and data about how people behave.

After combining vast urban datasets with an agent-based model of people, scientists will have the capacity to tweak and re-run the model, until they detect the phenomena they’re wanting to study – whether it’s traffic jams or social segregation. When they eventually get the model right, they’ll be able to look back on the characteristics and rules of their virtual citizens, to better understand why some of these problems emerge, and hopefully begin to find ways to resolve them.

For example, scientists might use urban data in an agent-based model to better understand the characteristics of the people who contribute to traffic jams – where they have come from, why they are travelling, what other modes of transport they might be willing to take. From there, they might be able to identify some effective ways of encouraging people to take different routes or modes of transport.


Seeing the future

Also, if the model works well in the present time, then it might be able to produce short-term forecasts. This would allow scientists to develop ways of reacting to changes in cities, in real time. Using live urban data to simulate the city in real-time could help to inform the managers of key services during periods of major disruption, such as severe weather, infrastructure failure or evacuation.

Using real-time data adds another layer of complexity. But fortunately, other scientific disciplines have also been making advances in this area. Over decades, the field of meteorology has developed cutting-edge mathematical methods, which allow their weather and climate models to respond to new weather data, as they arise in real time.

The ConversationThere’s a lot more work to be done before these methods from meteorology can be adapted to work for agent-based models of cities. But if they’re successful, these advancements will allow scientists to build city simulations which are driven by people - and not just the data they produce.

Nick Malleson, Associate Professor of Geographical Information Systems, University of Leeds and Alison Heppenstall, Professor in Geocomputation, University of Leeds.

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