The Town of the Future Will....
7 Jul 2022
Looking back at the impact of the first lockdown in March 2020, and despite the fear and confusion, a general mood of optimism emerged. We enjoyed the clean air, the empty roads, the plane free skies and the birdsong. There was even an enhanced sense of community spirit, we were looking out for our neighbours and thanking those who run society’s systems and infrastructure. Sadly, once our freedoms were restored this collaborative, optimistic and contented mood did not last long.
But perhaps that is what “The town of the future” could be like? A place that is fundamentally local, traffic free, connected, clean, well-served and well maintained. Historically this is how our towns and villages used to be, it was the affordability of the private motor car followed by the advent of the digital age that disrupted those community networks. The result is the dysfunctional and disconnected urban sprawl that we see almost everywhere today.
Our challenge is clear, how do we create cleaner, greener and happier environments to live in?
Over the last thirty years the digital revolution has changed our physical environments in ways that are perhaps irreversible. More importantly it has changed the way that we think and interact, it has re-wired our brains, and that is having a fundamental effect on society. Is there any point in resisting this change? It is almost certainly too late; the fabric of the Establishment has been unpicked and the balance of power has shifted. The reach of Big Tech and the internet has focussed wealth and power into the hands of a few individuals that now wield far more influence than either church or state.
Whilst this connected age has many advantages, it has changed the very nature of our society. We now seem to live in the “age of the individual”, an age where “my truth” is fact and non-negotiable. An age where history and tradition are open for reinterpretation and where the tribes we belong too are no longer defined by common interests and beliefs.
Western society has regularly been through these transitional phases, as an example lets look at the 1960s. The radical youth movements of the time seemed to threaten the very foundations of “civilised“ society. The establishment was fearful that the manifestations of this movement, music, art, sexuality, feminism, dress, language, etc. would displace the moral authority of the remnants of the Edwardian world that survived two world wars. We can now see that the ideas they spawned became a “new” establishment and these in turn are being questioned and re-written in an era of identity politics and critical race theory. A new set of rules are replacing those that my generation grew up with, history is no longer linear.
If we consider our built environment, it is questionable whether it is fundamentally shaped by such changes. Statues may be removed, street names changed, but the foundations remain. So, what will shape the town of the future? The biggest challenge facing all of us is the destruction of the very environment that sustains us, and we are making a very good job of doing just that. If we don’t halt, and then reverse this damage, we will not survive. It is a fact that man made carbon emissions are accelerating the degradation of our planet and the built environment is responsible for 40% of global carbon emissions, so we will have to reconsider our towns, homes and lifestyles very carefully indeed.
Science has enabled us to create this situation, and more positively it has the potential to solve it. There are solutions, nuclear power could replace fossil fuels, and hydrogen is a clean source of power but a switch to all-electric will not solve the problem on its own. Power stations still burn wood chip, and batteries are an interim solution, the mining of rare earth metals used in their manufacture are part of the big problem. The solutions will inevitably change the way we live forever, it will reshape our cities, towns, villages and homes.
As the built environment changes, our dependency on data and technology will become firmly embedded in everything we do. It will help us to use less energy, reduce the need for travel, and shops, schools, universities and office buildings will be redundant. Hospitals will become robotic. Art galleries and concert halls will be digitised, we won’t need to be there to enjoy a “live” performance. In time we will self-medicate, self-educate, and we will no longer have to step beyond the boundaries of our homes to experience life.
The city, town and village as we know it, will be no more.
This essay was written for The Academy of Real Assets first book, 'The Town of the Future will...' a collection of prose, poetry and essays from school children across the UK and members of the Real Assets Academy.
The Academy of Real Assets is a philanthropic membership group, drawn from across Real Estate and Real Assets who believe that, by coming together and aggregating resources, skills and enthusiasm they can have a positive social impact on large numbers of UK school pupils to promote diversity and opportunity for all.