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Markets & Geopolitics

How are cities getting smart?

City leaders were in London at the World Built Environment Forum 2018 Summit to share their ideas of how cities can embrace the 21st century.

World Built Environment Forum Summit
24 April 2018

By the end of this century, over 80% of the world’s population will live in cities.

As a result, those cities face a raft of challenges: the urgency of a changing climate, the exponential rise of new technology, a new kind of engaged citizenry and populism on the rise.

The puzzle is how to make this process of global urbanisation produce good outcomes.

It requires exceptional vision and leadership. What can we learn from city leaders that have already overcome major challenges?

London - a city for people

London’s new transport strategy puts health at the heart of its agenda.

The city is investing heavily in extensions to its existing system, such as the Bakerloo line extension, as well as building new ones, like the new Elizabeth line.

But in tandem, it has put a huge focus on encouraging active transport.

Alongside public transport improvements the city is investing in what it calls “liveable neighbourhoods”. This includes building strategic cycle and walking networks, and a flagship project to transform Oxford street into a pedestrian-only zone.

“We want to change the way people travel. We want to increase the proportion of trips on foot and public transport from 64% to 80% by 2041. It’s an ambitious goal. Especially as we have a city growing from 8.5 million to 10 million in the same time frame.” - Valerie Shawcross, Deputy Mayor, Transport at the Greater London Authority

"It’s not just about healthy streets", she adds. "It is also about good customer services, like good disability access, good information, and good customer care.”

In addition, the city’s transport strategy is a blueprint for how London itself will grow.

“We will build new homes and jobs using the transport system to unlock good growth and built communities not dependent on car use. New housing development will be based around transport hubs” she says. 

Vienna - the smart city

Over in Vienna, Maria Vassilakou, Vice Mayor and Vice Governor has the job of keeping the fastest growing city in the German speaking area sustainable.

Vienna is regularly ranked number one in terms of quality of life, how do they do it?

“The most crucial thing is that we are a highly affordable city,” states Maria. 

“Our ancestors decided to invest in public and social housing a century ago, so today 62% of the overall population is already living in public flats or social flats.”

The second reason, according to Maria, is their investment in public transport.

“We have a dense and highly public transport system which is the city’s backbone, and we encourage people to use it” she says.

The city brought in a highly affordable annual card for public transport, effectively priced at one Euro a day, and one out of every two city dwellers now uses it.

In addition, the city invests EUR 10 million a year in cycling infrastructure.

Maria says that, when it comes to the vision of a city, there is one simple way to view it.

“I say that a city that’s good for children is good for every generation. What do we want for our children? We want safety, contact with nature, a healthy environment, and to move around freely. These are all things we want for ourselves as well.” - Maria Vassilakou, Vice Mayor and Vice Governor, Vienna

In fact, she goes on to say that this is why so many families leave the city when they are expecting their first child, the city isn’t designed for them. “It results in a suburban nightmare, cities where people will spend hours in the car trying to get to work.”

Stockholm - the digital city

Ingela Lindh is CEO of the City of Stockholm, also one of the fastest growing cities in Europe.

She talked about the influx of young, talented Swedes who want to study and find work, thanks to country’s booming economy.

A key part of the city’s strategy was looking at its demographics and making sure it was inclusive.

The city had a high birth rate and an ageing population, and needed workers to support them. This meant that they had to provide excellent day care for working mothers, for instance.

The city had also recognised the importance of digitalisation, and had invested in a digital network - including the world’s largest open fiber network. This had given rise to an ecosystem that had created five unicorn companies, including Spotify. “99.4% of people in the Stockholm region have access to broadband,” she says. 

The city encouraged diversity and openness, which they felt would support this growth further.

The broader perspective

Nicola Yates, CEO of Future Cities Catapult, gave us a broader perspective on cities.

Too many city planners thought about the future using today’s knowledge. What they had to do was “channel their own Mystic Meg” and think about what the future would hold and use that as a basis for planning, she explains. 

For instance, had they thought about emerging technology, including 5G and the immersive experience? “We have to think about the impact of that on travel and on workforce locations,” she says.

Driverless cars and less personal mobility, like car sharing, would lead us to think about what to do with redundant car parks.

We had to think about drones and robots, because “these things are going to come in a form we don’t yet know”.
And lastly, we had to think about data:

“50% of the entire world’s data was created last year, and only 0.5% of it has been used. Can we find a responsible way to use that data for our future needs?” - Nicola Yates, CEO, Future Cities Catapult

Cities also faced huge challenges in the now. 

Congestion and poor air quality and the effect that had on health, housing affordability and mobility, wellbeing, social issues, economic pressures and climate change.

“Peak hour commuters have high levels of stress. Commuting couples are more likely to divorce. Up to 30% of traffic is people trying to find car parking space,” she says. “These are the things we need to think about.”

What does it take to effect change?

City leaders have to be bold, she concludes.

Closing roads, dedicating lanes for public transport, congestion charges, these were all bold decisions that some cities had already made, sometimes in the face of real opposition.

City leaders have to put political concerns aside to truly effect change, she says. 

“City leaders have shown that when you believe you can, and you believe you’re right, you can do it.”

The World Built Environment Forum facilitates industry leading discussions harnessing the enormous potential of the 21st century's people and places.