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22nd Nov 2018

How Will London Look in the Future? Part 1

What will London look like in the future in terms of its buildings, its infrastructure, its people, its technology? These were just some of the questions under the spotlight at the recent EG Future of London event, which bought together some of the industry’s key players.

In part one of our review, we look at the challenges the capital faces, how the urban space is designed and how to reduce food waste.

London’s challenges

Richard Watson, author, lecturer and scenario thinker kicked off the event, and in his keynote session suggested that the acronym ‘VUCA’ is a great framework for London when thinking about its future:

V – Volatility
U – Uncertainty
C – Complexity
A – Ambiguity

In other words, London faces many challenges in achieving its targets, tackling its problems, and maintaining its status as one of the strongest global cities in the world. And we need to be clever in how we deal with this.

Imagining the future 

However, Richard further warned us of the following concepts: 

  • Groupthink: clever people in groups making terrible decisions
  • Confirmation bias: where we echo our own thoughts and opinions back to ourselves
  • Conventional Wisdom: this can collapse, and trends do bend

Richard also shared an interesting scenario: if we covered 1% of the Sahara Desert with solar panels, we would have enough energy to power the entire world indefinitely.

Humans are inherently social animals, so getting rid of the human interface completely would be a failed city, one that lacks interaction and lacks humanity. While innovation in technology, specifically creating Smart Cities, is important, the people of the city must come first.. 

Richard’s key ‘take-away’ from the session: ‘Why do we spend so much time trying to predict the future and so little time trying to imagine it?

Designing the urban space

The first day’s sessions continued with a focus on design, innovation and conceptualising how London can be ‘The Urban Place of the Future’.

Panellists, including Prof Peter Bishop from University College London; Paul Finch of World Architecture Festival; Eleanor Fawcett from Old Oak and Park Royal Development Corporation; Lyn Garner, from the London Legacy Development Corporation; and Kat Hanna of Cushman & Wakefield, all discussed automation in transport, automation in the workplace, artificial intelligence in the workplace and urban farming.

The politics of design 

The panellists were keen to point out that one of the major barriers to urban design is that it is extremely political.

How can we get away from the current planning system and the politics behind the process in order to gain true public consultation at an early stage to produce what people want out of a space? It was suggested that the extreme views of the few do not represent the views of the many. This again begs the question as to how we gain true consultation on urban design, particularly in a city as large and complex as London, where boroughs such as Bromley may have a different agenda when it comes to how they see their borough’s future in terms of infrastructure and its urban landscape.

Community involvement 

Other panellists further emphasised this requirement to listen to communities earlier, to ensure they feel a sense of ownership and responsibility for creating their own space. There is very little merit in talking to communities about things that do not resonate with them, e.g. development values or yields. We need to discuss relatable elements such as the social value of developments.

Speedy decisions needed 

With regards to Urban Design, one thing we cannot do anymore is procrastinate. One thing we must do is to look at how other global cities are tackling the inherent problems of a global city. Following on from this, there was an interesting point raised by journalist Paul Finch: 1001 Singapores would be enough to house the entire global population.

Singapore is not an enormous city. So this suggests they have been able to find a good balance between housing density and liveable spaces for a large proportion of the city’s demographic. This is something London could look to emulate.

Planning should not be easy, but it should also not be inefficient. While it remains inefficient, there is the feeling that developers will always price a premium and the targets set out will never be met.

Smart parking

In a debate on Developing for the Transport of Tomorrow, Margot Orr Jones of Jacobs, highlighted a study carried out by TFL, which revealed that one third of drivers surveyed in the central London area were looking for a parking space. The panel also included Iwan Parry from Transport Research Laboratory; Hannah Prideaux from District Technologies; Andrew Walters of GL Hearn; and Bruce McVean from the City of London Corporation

How can we utilise this idea of a Smart City in order to get these people to available parking spaces quickly, and reduce congestion on the roads? While it was agreed that smart mobility, such as autonomous cars is crucial for the future, what we want to avoid is negatively impacting how efficient the transport systems already are. In other words, new ‘sexy’ technologies and modes of transport may attract those that don’t really need it and so encourage them to take less efficient forms of transport.

Feeding the City 

The Local Authorities in London spend approximately £50m on food waste a year. The panel, which consisted of Saasha Celestial-One from Olio; Kate Hofman of Growup Urban Farms; Sarah Hughes from Eat My Flowers and moderator, Nicky Wightman of Savills, talked about the need for people to grow their own foods, and how future developments have a large part to play in making this happen.

There are methods out there, but they remain relatively unknown, whether that’s a ‘green wall’ or a ‘fridge system’ which can be autonomous and require little manual input from the owner. Similarly, there are methods which encourage a hands-on approach, and these methods have also been praised for their therapeutic-like effects. Vertical farming is predicted to grow to £7.6billion from £2.9billion in 2017. There is currently a requirement for a 60% increase in agricultural production by 2050 to satisfy projected demand.

Savills together with Meristem Design, helpfully showcased several of their ‘green wall’ and ‘living wall’ products, which typically consisted of a steel frame for housing plants. As well as enabling self-sufficient food growth, they also have other attributes, such as aesthetics and insulation. It’s likely these products, along with other technologies, will quickly become a part of many developments in the future.

Are the robots coming?

What is automation’s impact on human interaction in the workplace? Are we making way for AI? Is modular office construction the future? A panel of experts including John Williams from The Instant Group; John Miu of ABP London; and Mel Olrik from Malcolm Hollis agreed that the construction industry is full of fragmented and sequential processes, so there has potentially been a slower uptake in the use of new technologies.

That said, Smart Cities and smart buildings are now being thought of as a must-have and not a nice-to- have. John Mui emphasised this slow uptake, and suggested that UK Developers have a safe and organic process which they follow and are reluctant to move away from this into the ‘unknown’.

As seen with Nokia, if you reject every change then there is a high possibility of falling behind the market. That being said, technology is not available to everyone, so we must be careful in our approach when integrating cities and technology. Smart Cities will not be smart for everybody.

The future of Canada Water

As the event was held in Canada Water, Emma Cariaga from British Land also educated the room on how the area will transform over the next decade. There was an emphasis on mixed use and creating convenient spaces where diverse sets of people choose and want to live, work and socialise, while also having extremely easy access to other areas of London and beyond.

In part two of our The Future of London review, we look at the future of the high street, flexible working and the challenges around housing.

By Adam Gibbins, Associate of Henry Riley LLP

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Adam Gibbins Associate

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