Mega-cities are no longer sustainable and the bigger they become, the less likely are they to function efficiently. So let’s use our imaginations to come up with something radically more flexible, more productive - and more human
Today we are going into the city. It doesn’t matter which city, and it doesn’t matter what for. What I want to know is, what feeling does that idea induce in you?
Is it the city of Charles Dickens and Sherlock Holmes? A cesspit of grime and a hotbed of crime; of child slavery, and inhumane living. OK, too extreme – prefer modern day London? Think jamming yourself into the sticky sweat of the tube in July, the stress of securing the school of your choice; the six hours at A&E.
Or is it the city of Carrie Bradshaw in Sex in the City? Well, perhaps not too literally. A place of culture and opportunity and fun. I can walk to work. I can dine out at 2am with friends who grew up all over the world. I can buy anything, without having to drive for two hours to Cheadle. I can party every night if my liver will stand it.
Perhaps we should challenge the received wisdom that we simply need to keep investing in cities which get bigger and bigger and bigger like Violet Beauregarde in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
Perhaps like me it depends on the day and what side of bed I woke up on that morning. But it also depends on infrastructure and the vast army of individuals who strive to keep that infrastructure working. Yes, of course, our rural heartlands need infrastructure and services too, but the intensity of providing them in the density of the city puts the challenge in an entirely different league.
And I am starting to wonder, is it sustainable?
It was Wes Streeting who prompted this article. He is the member of parliament for Ilford North in London, and his question at the Treasury Select Committee hearing on the Autumn Statement in mid-December was whether the government should be prioritising investment in the North because London was full. Full of people, full of traffic, and short of everything they need to live, or at least live with quality of life. Short of homes, short of schools, short of healthcare, short of space.
He may have intended the question to be rhetorical, but perhaps we should just pause and challenge the received wisdom that the future of civilisation is the mega-city and that we simply need to keep investing in cities which get bigger and bigger and bigger like Violet Beauregarde in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
The problem is that almost by definition, mega-cities are mono-centric. Everyone wants to be in the hub because that is where the intellectual temperature is hottest. But not everyone can afford to live in the hub
The mega-city (typically one with a population of over 10 million people) obeys the economic rule of the power of agglomeration. Productivity is higher in the city. It stands to reason. There are more people with a more diverse range of skills available to support more businesses. Distances are shorter for people to commute and goods to be moved. Intellectual capacity flourishes in a hothouse of brains and innovation. Financial capital queues up to support. So, driven by the economic logic of market forces each year, more cities become mega-cities. A few decades ago there were 10. Now there are more than 30.
The problem is that almost by definition, mega-cities are mono-centric. Everyone wants to be in the hub because that is where the intellectual temperature is hottest. But not everyone can afford to live in the hub. So the mega-city starts to sprawl. Distances from affordable housing to the centre become longer and longer. Developments on the edge require more and more infrastructure at greater and greater cost to connect people back to the centre. London’s Infrastructure Plan sets out the £1.3trn investment considered needed over the period to 2050. It is the right ambition. But it has no chance of being considered affordable.
So I think we should start to explore a different solution. In the world of autonomous vehicles, Hyperloop (the proposed mode of transportation that propels a pod-like vehicle through a near-vacuum tube at more than airline speed) and leaps in digital connectivity, could our infrastructure become more mobile and more flexible? Does a school need to be of a certain size in a certain place for 50 years? And must policy makers repeatedly endure the censure of the National Audit Office for their inevitable failure to plan for precisely the right amount of capacity? Could health and education facilities become fully mobile? And offices? If an autonomous vehicle could be your home office, could a group of autonomous vehicles become a boardroom?
And through that innovation, is the future not the mega-city but the multi-centric collection of vibrant hubs, some of business, some of leisure, some of learning, moving and flexing as required and connected by perfect virtual reality and ultra-fast transport?
I am sure some readers will suspect that this year I really went too far on the Christmas spirits. But whether you believe what I am suggesting or not, our industry’s Achilles’ heel is the inflexibility of its product. As the pace of change quickens in the world, that inflexibility drives ever greater waste and inefficiency, and failure to meet the expectations of citizens. If we start to contemplate a very different future, perhaps that might lead us to greater innovation in our industry.
Richard Threlfall is head of infrastructure, building and construction at KPMG