Bulletins Tomorrow's City | August 2, 2017

Building a connected tomorrow’s city

Global cities are revaluating their physical infrastructure priorities as they come to terms with the reality of rising densification, increasing usage and demand, and a new risk landscape. Looking ahead in time, 75% of the global infrastructure that will be in place in 2050 doesn’t exist at present. This shortfall has been recognised, with innovative new ideas seeking to ensure future cities are kept moving and economically efficient. However, significant legal and regulatory hurdles stand in the way of delivering for tomorrow’s city.

Today’s challenge
It is clear that the infrastructure demands of future cities are diversifying, and converging. With digital and physical becoming ever more interconnected the challenge is to develop infrastructure which provides an economic stimulus for today, and a sustainable, resilient system for the future.

To take the UK as an example, by 2030, the cost of congestion to London alone is estimated to hit more than £11bn a year, while crowding on public transport, particularly rail, is forecast to double by 2050 if new transport solutions aren’t introduced.

Meanwhile, internet access is fast becoming accepted as the ‘fourth utility’ and integrated into infrastructure planning and delivery. The UK, though, is lagging behind many of its global peers in terms of digital connectivity with only 2% of the current UK population having access to ‘full fibre’ connection. Estimates suggest that an extra £17bn could be added to UK economic output by 2024 simply as a result of increased broadband speeds.

Planning, funding and delivering
It is little wonder, then, that the Queen’s Speech following the 2017 General Election, pared back as it was, still contained a significant commitment to infrastructure. Further, at the same time as the Queen was addressing Parliament, Sadiq Khan published his new London Transport Strategy, seeking to make the capital’s transport infrastructure fit for the future.

Meanwhile, for Lord Adonis, Chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, there are twelve key priorities these plans should focus on – ranging from HS2 and 3, to Crossrail 2, to the roll out of 5G services along with a smart and sustainable approach to energy production and delivery.

The funding for these much-needed projects, though, remains a key issue and concern.

Geographically speaking, Sadiq Khan’s forward-looking approach for London is to be applauded, but there are real challenges to effective implementation at a city and regional level (including London to an extent). Firstly, for instance, while the so-called ‘Northern Powerhouse’ and ‘Midlands Engine’ have attracted plenty of headlines, in terms of actual investment current figures suggest that there still exists an 85% transport funding gap between London and the North East. Secondly, London, and the new devolved city mayors of Birmingham and Manchester, do have some powers to implement significant change but civic governance structures will likely need to adapt to keep up with the pace of change.

Whilst one city solution may not suit all, city-to-city collaboration at this level may be valuable and consideration should be given to how this can be facilitated for the future.

More broadly, the industry will doubtless welcome Chancellor Phillip Hammond’s commitment to protecting access for capital projects to funding via the European Investment Bank during the Brexit negotiations and, further, the news that the UK Guarantee scheme will be expanded. However, there is a real socio-political tension here between the requirement for new and future-proofed infrastructure, and how far we are prepared for the state to actually deliver – which will likely entail significant data-capture and processing or re-development of places and spaces. Lord Adonis, and others, has observed that with the downward pressure of Brexit having a marked effect on investment appetite, it is very much up to the public sector to drive forward the commitment to infrastructure development and facilitate new forms of investment. But there is a place for private sector investment too, though current financial, lending and tax structures will likely need a shake-up to better facilitate and encourage the patient capital investment that infrastructure demands.

There is, therefore, broad agreement that infrastructure is a priority for the UK, but questions remain over where and on what the firepower is focussed.

Connecting tomorrow’s city
Cities are becoming ever more digitally connected, with new smart urban offerings and an increased appreciation and usage of data-led solutions. Meanwhile, continuing densification will necessitate the development of innovative new transport systems – from the Thames cycle deckway to Gensler’s so-called London Underline. Globally, motorised mobility is set to double by 2050, while the impact of electric and autonomous vehicles will radically alter what is needed in terms of not only road networks and charging points, but also the laws and regulations that keep populations both mobile and secure. In terms of public transport, we have seen new solutions come to market from data-rich private companies such as City Mapper, while the rise of Uber has demonstrated how high the ceiling is in terms of shared and interconnected transportation.

As these systems become more connected through the ‘internet of things’, cyber security will become an increasingly important element to resilience planning for infrastructure and the wider built environment. However, ‘smart’ and ‘big-data’ analytics have the potential to radically streamline not only how infrastructure is managed, and how users experience it, but also how it is planned for and developed sustainably.

Put simply, many of our key infrastructure and transportation systems, including the railways and London Underground, are essentially Victorian constructs and addressing the needs of tomorrow’s city will not be about developing solutions retro-fitted to yesterday’s tech. Solutions will need to be forward looking, innovative and developed to maximise the potential of today’s technology.

Of course, laws and regulation often lag behind innovation, and the pace of change is quickening. New structures, strategies and frameworks (from investment to tax to planning legislation) will need to be developed to not only enable infrastructure delivery, but also to police the system and ensure that the future cities we are building are not only mobile, connected and integrated, but safe and secure.

This article was first published in UK Construction Online on 31 July 2017.

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