This feature was published in The Planner in July 2017
What would city infrastructure be like if it was designed by Millennials? Stephen Hilton of Bristol Futures Global considers how the agile, dynamic and demand-responsive nature of the digital world might impact on traditional models of infrastructure development.I recently saw a friend’s young child trying to open the pictures in her Dad’s newspaper using the same pinch gesture she’d mastered on the iPad. “Daddy” she exclaimed, casting the pages to one side; “Your newspaper is broken!” I fear that unless we embrace innovation, this is exactly how Millennials will come to feel about infrastructure in cities.
Consider that a month rarely goes by without a new update being released for a phone or tablet’s operating system and Apps . Imagine, the shock Millennials will feel when they realise that the local bus service still operates “Version 1.0” using routes set in concrete before they were born and near-end-of-life vehicles that receive just enough attention to keep them roadworthy. There isn’t even a socket to plug your phone in!
Contrast this with the “hallmark” of excellent digital services – the sprint through the design process followed by a rapid launch; improvements made for the weeks, months and years afterwards in response to direct user feedback; and every new version fixing bugs, updating security or enhancing usability. In fact, excellent digital services exist in a state of “Permanent Beta” – never finished, just continually improving. In contrast, city infrastructure has historically been fixed in place at launch, then runs in broadly the same way for decades until it becomes obsolete and is scrapped. Cities are far from operating in Permanent Beta but luckily for Millennials, there are signs that this is starting to change.
Smart Cities aim to incorporate a "digital layer" into the urban fabric, inviting a dynamic relationship between citizens and the built environment through a focus on networks, connectivity, programmability and innovation. This opens the door to a world where new infrastructure and “Smart Services” can be agile and light and can be citizen-focused.
YoBike, for example, launched in Bristol in May with a minimum of fuss. As an App-based city bike scheme it required no hard infrastructure or Planning decisions. Users simply find and leave the bright yellow bicycles in a range of public places using in-built GPS and their smart phones. The ambition is for security to be managed by design, rather than compliance. There is, of course, vandalism and locks and alarms are needed but the bikes are constructed from custom-built parts, which are non-interchangeable with other cycles, rendering them virtually valueless to thieves.
The same month that YoBike launched in Bristol, CityMapper, the highly successful journey planning App, announced it would be providing a free-to-use “smart bus service” in London. CityMapper has built it’s offer on integrated, real-time data. It seems entirely plausible that “the bus” could in fact turn out to be the real “loss leader” – a tool through which city data is collected, refined and tested in situ.
Like CityMapper, Bristol SME Esoterix has long championed the potential of demand-responsive bus services. Their Buxi, half bus – half taxi seeks to operate using organic bus routes based on the real-time journey requirements of passengers. Even Uber has recognised the potential benefits of sharing data with cities. Using Uber Movement, everyone from city planners to community groups can look at how long it takes to get from one part of the city to another on an exact day and time or make comparisons over time.
So how far can these innovative approaches also change the way that “heavy”infrastructure Is designed and built? Virtual reality (VR) has obvious potential as technology improves, costs fall and an army of children grow up designing cities together in Minecraft. It is hardly groundbreaking to think about creating new developments in the virtual world before the ground is broken for real. This will allow public interaction and feedback before infrastructure is finalised but also, holds interesting potential to allow people to experience developments from perspectives other than their own. For example, seeing what it will be like to walk, cycle or skateboard rather than drive; how colour and contrast will work for people who have limited vision or how easy access will be for wheelchair users; or what the experiences will look like from a child’s perspective. Perhaps the opportunity to use VR to step outside the boundaries of our own personal experiences will help build understanding and increase consensus?
For me, the acid test, of how far we are prepared to reinvent our city infrastructure to make it dynamic and demand-responsive is “the roads”. If ever there was an an infrastructure that stubbornly refuses to “flex” to meet real-time demand then it is these ubiquitous ribbons of tarmac, which allocate exactly the same amount of space to cars, taxis, buses, cyclists and pedestrians whatever the time of day or night, time of year, or the actual demand. As autonomous vehicles start to become real, there is a large prize on offer, which is far greater than simply replacing the driver with a robot. The opportunity is to re-invent the public realm in our cities. Driverless cars can be programmed to accept that what was a dual carriageway at 8am has turned into a single lane of traffic at 8pm to allow more space for walking and cycling. All we need are dynamic barriers, smart road signage and real-time data to allow changes to be made on the fly; this and the idiom and leadership to try something genuinely new.
Re-thinking the future of city infrastructure is at the heart of the UK Collaboratorium for Research on Infrastructure and Cities (UKCRIC). This major national collaboration between Government, Industry and Academia is providing leadership and developing practice through a multidisciplinary research and teaching programme. UKCRIC aims to address the issues of unaffordable and unsustainable infrastructure development. The University of Bristol will focus-in specifically on the Citizen Collaboratory – a new model of co-creation that place citizens at the heart of future infrastructure design and development. So if we get this right, then the Millennials and the generations that follow them might even thank us for doing something “smart”!
Stephen Hilton is a Fellow of the University of Bristol Cabot Institute and founder of Bristol Futures Global, a consultancy that supports cities, businesses and communities to be both Smart and Citizen-focused. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @BristolFutures