Extreme urbanism: live here at your peril

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(Photo by O Palsson)

In “The Triumph of the City“‘ Edward Glaeser argues that efficient cities should be built up around elevators, rather than built out around cars. As a resident of Birmingham, the city where Matthew Boulton and James Watt came together to commercialise the steam engine that powered the first of those elevators (see here and here), I’m predisposed to agree.

Glaeser, along with Richard Florida, Tim Stonor and others argue that cities are vital to our society and economy as they are the places where people congregate to generate and share ideas, and enact Matt Ridley’s memorable idea that value is created when “ideas have sex“. Glaeser even argues that cities emphasise our basic humanity because the defining characteristic of that humanity is our ability and desire to learn from each other.

It’s also clear that our cities need to improve in efficiency. As more and more people live on the planet and as more and more of us live in cities, political, charitable and scientific organisations have pointed out that each of us simply must consume less resources. For examples refer to the United Nations “7 Billion Actions” programme; the lobbying organisation Population Matters; and the recent report published by the UK’s Royal Academy, “People and the Planet“.

But how far do we want to go in using the modern technologies that have succeeded lifts and cars to enable us to live in ever greater numbers at ever greater density?

Some imaginative but frankly scary forms of extreme urbanism are emerging as technologists invent concepts for ever larger and more densely populated cities, and for systems to supply the resources that enable the people who live in them to live and work. I’m saying that as a technologist myself; and as someone who’s passionate about the possibilities technology offers to improve wealth and wellbeing in urban environments – I gave some examples in a previous blog post.

But I don’t personally find it attractive, for example, to consider that the only way we can feed city populations is by growing artificial meat in laboratories, as Dutch and Canadian scientists have suggested. Or that we should farm vertically in skyscrapers, at the same time as building homes and offices for people underground in “earthscrapers“.

To me those ideas are extreme urbanism; and they don’t represent the sort of city I’d like to live in. (I do live in a city, by the way; and whilst I live in a relatively spacious suburb, I nevertheless find it easy to use efficient public transport to get around far more than I use my own car).

There are alternatives to extreme urbanism. One of them is adopting a sensible approach to population growth, as promoted by Population Matters amongst others. Our challenges would be less severe if there were less of us; and many of the most disadvantaged communities and individuals across the world would be better off if they were more able to choose the size of their families and provide equal opportunities to all of their children of either sex.

And there are healthier ideas for applying technology to make cities more efficient. Rather than growing meat in laboratories, why not provide the know-how to encourage people to grow vegetables and keep small animals in city gardens, as Landshare and Growing Birmingham do? And why not use social media intelligently to connect food consumers with local food producers as Big Barn do, making it as easy to buy sustainable, locally produced food as it is to buy globally sourced food from supermarkets?

There are tremendous efficiencies that can be realised in city systems by such “hyperlocal” thinking; and the same ideas could make city life more attractive and nuanced, rather than clinical and engineered.

For a couple of years now I’ve been producing my own air-dried and smoked meats such as salami, bresaola, and chorizo at home in Birmingham. Of course they do not taste the same as the Mediterranean originals; but they taste vastly superior to anything I’ve bought in a supermarket. Rather than think of them as poor alternatives to Spanish and Italian produce, why not consider them regional variations to be explored and valued?

The aforementioned Royal Academy report asserts that as a species inhabiting a planet we find ourselves at a crucial juncture for determining what the size of our population should be, and how we should collaborate to use resources to sustain ourselves. I would argue that our response should be a balanced assessment of the opportunity for technology to enable efficient city ecosystems, in combination with moderation of population growth.

If we get that right, we can all enjoy a more interesting, healthy and efficient life. I would much prefer that outcome to the possibility of descending by default into the extreme dystopias described in novels such as “We” by Yevgeny Zamyatin or films such as Logan’s Run. They describe worlds that are fascinating to experience as works of art; but I’d hate to live in them.

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About Rick Robinson
I’m an Executive Architect at IBM specialising in emerging technologies and Smarter Cities. You can connect with me on Linked-In and as @dr_rick on Twitter. The views expressed here are my own.

15 Responses to Extreme urbanism: live here at your peril

  1. Rick, I like the term extreme urbanism to describe a mechanical view of the future. There was a TV programme recently that postulated that we would all have fish farms in our gardens, the fish living of our waste and I thought how boring will it get. What’s for dinner tonight. Fish souffle! No people live in cities for many reasons and the new technologies will allow us to live better in cities but this tomorrow’s world approach is just faction. People won’t buy it. So fully in agreement with your view.
    The technology offers real possibilities for organic improvements but a key issue is how will it get paid for. Where I live in Birmingham a simple investment of circa £40m would vastly improve my life and 1000’s of others (opening up a local train station) but it has now been put back to 2026. We need to identify a step change in finance for those improvements we now know we need and those that will be with us tomorrow.

  2. Duncan Anderson says:

    Touche – I agree! Some of the examples you quote a bizarre and I think its unlikely that anyone would find them attractive. I think there’s a human dimension to this – a number of things might be technically possible, but they just don’t work for the human soul. We aren’t robots and we shouldn’t be trying to build cities for robots. Its an over-used example, but the film The Matrix is a great example of why the human spirit can’t be contained in these ‘extreme urbanisation’ visions of the future. I like your examples of the home-cured meats and the local communities within a city.

    Having said that, I like in a market town not a city. I think we should concentrate less on ‘smarter cities’ and more on ‘smarter communities’. After all, why shouldn’t ideas apply to my market town just as they do to a city?

  3. rickrobinson says:

    Thanks Duncan and Patrick for some great comments; I think they both illustrate beautifully the need to accommodate the multitude of individual lives that people want to live in towns and cities.

    I suspect I live somewhere near Patrick because I have the same issue with the lack of any passenger stations on the line that passes close to my house!

    And Duncan, I agree with your point about towns as well as cities. In fact, when you see the oft citied statistics that more than 50% of the world’s population and more than 90% of the UK’s now lives in “cities”, you should actually interpret that as “lives in urban areas”. Those areas are defined by high population density and the proportion of economic activity that is non-agricultural. To cut a long story short, the definition includes many if not most towns.

    Personally, I think you’re right, we should focus on Smarter Communities or Smarter Regions. Communities in dispersed regions have their own significant challenges, most notably the availability of broadband connectivity. For example, IBM’s doing some interesting work on this in Karnataka in India where “spoken web” technology is being used to deliver the benefits of online recruitment to a region with very little internet infrastructure.

  4. Peter Cripps says:

    Hi Rick, Interesting and thought provoking post however I have a contrary view which is basically this: What one generation considers normal another will probably have considered extreme at some point. For example, to people 25 or over (taking a random, what seems young to me, age) the idea of sharing the most intimate details of your life in the blogosphere or twitterverse seems alien and somewhat perverse. However to people under 25 it’s just normal and what they always did, what’s the problem? The issue here is not so much what is normal and what is extreme but who sets the standards? Keeping with the social media example one person (Mark Zuckerberg) created Facebook in his bedroom and unleashed a whole new way of living that has sucked in billions of people. An example of “an idea that had sex” I guess. ‘Zuck’ unwittingly set a new standard or norm. It’s often not government or other civil bodies that set standards but rogue individuals or groups of people who JFDI. It does not mean its ‘right’ but then who is to say what is right in this context, after all it’s not breaking any laws. To use your particular example from what I have seen of cities like Tokyo or Hong Kong they are closer to this idea of extreme urbanism already but people seem to rub along okay in those cities. Despite their overcrowding and pollution those cities do have a certain seductive quality to them which even I could fall for. I guess as a veggie meat, artificial or otherwise, has no particular attraction for me but vertical farms (presumably to grow vegetables rather than keep cattle) seems like an interesting idea. I guess the key thing is we debate the type of future living space we want and try not to create something that future generations will not condemn us for.

  5. rickrobinson says:

    Pete, as usual, you make some great and insightful points!

    You summed it up perfectly at the end – the key is to have an informed debate and make choices, rather than to proceed in a default direction.

    Tokyo and Hong Kong are interesting examples; in particular when I visited Tokyo I was struck by the tremendous politeness with which people behaved in public – for example they whispered and covered their mouths with their hands when speaking on a mobile telephone on the train. Of course that specific behaviour may have changed in the 10 years since I last visited! But they were and are clearly the fore-runners of high density urbanism.

    To offer a counter example of sorts, which again represents the idea of conscious choice: the National Trust recently issued a challenge to parents to encourage children to undertake more physical activity in the real world, away from social networks and computers games – here’s their list of “50 things to do before you’re 11 and 3/4“. The list appeals tremendously to me on behalf of my son – because it reminds me of what I did as a child. I’m going to offer my son every opportunity to do the same things; and in doing so I’ll be encouraging him to adopt a continuation of the lifestyle I grew up with.

    What remains to be seen is how much of that lifestyle he’ll adopt as an adult; and just what his attitude to urbanism, extreme or otherwise, and technology will be. I’ll hope he and the world achieve what I’d view as a balanced synthesis; but then maybe I’m just getting old!

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