The interconnectedness between the built environment and the social, ecological, and economic performance of our cities is clear; well-designed places enable people to live, work, and enjoy life in full; well-planned neighbourhoods enable communities to connect and collaborate; and well-planned urban regions enable populations to thrive within the boundaries of our planet’s precious life support systems. Technology has always played a key role in defining the nature of these relationships. In many ways, digital technology is just the next wave of tools – like telephones and light bulbs – to help us shape more liveable and sustainable cities. In other, quite fundamental ways, digital technology has created a whole new world of its own. How should the physical and non-physical environments converge? The answer starts, and ends, with people.
On Monday 6 September, the NLA’s Expert Panel on Built Environment Technology met for the first time to discuss the development of new technologies and the better use of data to solve real urban problems. The panel is made up of diverse people from across the built environment industries, selected by the NLA, with expertise ranging from software development to urban policy. After initial introductions had been made, the panel was prompted to consider London’s most pressing urban challenges, and what role – if any – technology should play in addressing these. At a macro level, issues such as climate change, economic volatility, and social inequality were front of mind. More specifically, the panel discussed technology’s role in creating a more democratic, pleasant, and sustainable city.
In broad strokes, the democratic city is about using technology as a communication tool, to facilitate a more inclusive and informed dialogue between citizens and public and private stakeholders. The pleasant city is about using technology to improve the everyday environmental conditions and experiences of shared buildings, spaces, and mobility systems – for the collective as well as the individual. And the sustainable city is about using technology as an operational tool, ensuring the safe, equitable, and efficient distribution of material and immaterial resources today and for the generations to come.
What’s stopping us? Besides the lack of actual solutions available at the city-level, the panel brought to the attention issues such as skills gaps (in both public sector, private sector, and within communities), poor integration of existing solutions, poor visibility of existing solutions, low levels of engagement across sectors, a public leadership void in the space of defining urban technology for common good, and low levels of creativity in terms of how we use technology to unlock alternative futures. And of course, there’s the greatest challenge of all: with so many possibilities and barriers ahead, where do we start?
Once again, the answer is centred on people. In the next year, we’ll be starting the debate together with the NLA, aiming to push forward the most pressing of the aforementioned aspects – or perhaps the most actionable. In doing so, we sincerely hope to engage the wider London community of built environment and technology practitioners, to use the NLA as a bridge between silos and as a platform for cross-sector collaboration. As one panel member pointed out, technology is neither good nor bad; it’s exactly what we make it. So – for the sake of our great international city, healthy blue planet, and shared urban future – let’s make it good.