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Ten Immediate Paths

Is Futureproof City actually futureproofed?

Posted on: September 15, 2021

The Futureproof City is one that creates adaptability and resilience in the face of the unknown challenges resulting from technological change, population explosion, global pandemic and environmental crisis. This book brings up-to-the-moment global research and proposed new solutions being piloted globally to meet the challenges of a world on the brink. It identifies ten key areas affecting the physical fabric of our cities where governments, planners, investors, and the individuals responsible for shaping lives can refocus their understanding, priorities, and funding in order to more effectively utilise the limited resources available.

The author of the book – Barry D Wilson – was able to join us to address a number of the questions raised for what seems a very timely publication.

1.This book seems to be very much focused on addressing actions for a changing world in terms of climate emergency, ecological breakdown, technological revolution, population explosion, and global pandemic. Why is this book so important at this particular time?

There is the popular Chinese proverb that says: “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now” and this seems particularly apposite in current global situation of pandemic, flood, drought and ecological collapse. In fact I wish I had been able to publish the book a year or two earlier, before the pandemic perhaps, in order to raise up the issues when there was more time to synthesize the information in advance, however then perhaps the issues would not have seemed to resonate as much as I believe they will now.

I have been expounding on the issues of moving away from business-as-usual planning approaches for a number of years, however the COVID-19 pandemic has really brought this home and demonstrated how significant, actionable change is able to be rapidly taken when there is sufficient leadership will. A paradigm shift is urgently required in the means of conceiving, delivering, and managing city development to create better places to live. The data provided in the book highlights how the future is now so unpredictable that using past metrics to plan future investments is a redundant model and urban decision makers need to adopt both new tools and changed values in order to re-shape development commitments.

In the book I do refer a great deal to the outcomes of the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change (COP21) and how these targets of the Sustainable Development Goals must radically change the way things are done. With COP26 approaching in November, this is perhaps the most significant moment in recent history, it will shape not only the critical development decisions of the next decade, but also the risk levels that society intends to take. This will have a profound effect on what form humanity might exist beyond the immediate future and this book looks at actions likely to be needed after COP26 in order to reduce risk immediately and start to mitigate against adverse impacts.

Both business and societal leaders are facing increasingly challenging decision making, the book should help to support them in making better decisions as to the actions and investments they take in the immediate future.

2.The issues discussed are very wide ranging; from development economics, through health and welfare issues into future technologies and the global housing crisis. Who is it that needs to read this book?

Much of the knowledge of how to create and better adapt cities is already well considered and shared by experts and professionals alike within their various fields. However this is an extremely wide field. Pretty much all sectors of society need to be shaping decision making on how we should be living, its not just down to planners and designers. The pandemic for instance has shown us how critical it is to understand healthcare aspects, yet the impacts of pandemic are still not nearly as significant as those of air pollution for instance, which have been virtually ignored for decades. Nor are they anything near as serious as the tipping points that will result from ecosystem failure. So not only do we need the inputs of healthcare and ecological scientists, we need further understanding of the issues shaping societies facing ageing populations, dense living conditions, food insecurity, technological innovation, and natural disaster. We need the data and involvement of geographers, social workers, logicians, innovators, and insurers. Importantly, we need civic leaders and financers to be able to understand all the complex interrelationships.

The knowledge of experts needs to go beyond their own narrow confines and be taken up urgently by those in positions of leadership and influence: - the decision makers in the boardrooms of banks - the chambers of commerce and the studios of mass-media. Those in the halls of education and especially those in the corridors of government all levels. So this book is critical reading for all of those who play a part in contributing to the way in which cities are created, evolve and develop. It will be key reading for every policy maker and professional working in sustainability, development, technology, health and welfare, investment, and risk issues in cities today, but is specifically written to be accessible to all sectors of society.

3.It seems a huge task to have addressed so many issues and collected data from all around the world. How did you go about writing it?

In fact the research was initiated back in 2016. At that time, just 5 years ago, so little hard data was available about how our cities were performing. Living in Shenzhen at the time I was witnessing rapid change and urban experimentation in real time, all around me, and on an unprecedented scale, not just in the city itself but all over China. My research assistants would collect development news information from Chinese sources that I was not able to access directly at the time and use this to keep me informed. However this was not only useful for my own knowledge but I wanted to share it with the international community, and we could publish much of it in English in order to allow a wider understanding of what was happening in China and to compare this with the situation in other countries.

I was fortunate enough to undertake a training course by Al Gore at that time, under what he calls his Climate Reality Project. The data he was producing had a profound effect and I realised that metrics for many issues that had not been available were now starting to emerge that showed the world was changing very fast. Speakers at various conferences I was attending were substantiating this and I brought it together in a TEDx Talk in Guangzhou, also in 2016 discussing how cities anticipated the future changing world.

The last 5 years has seen a boon in information collection and sharing, meaning that I was able to bring updated metrics to the actions that I proposed and in 2019 I published a paper on Futureproofing Cities through the Institution of Civil Engineers in London which was awarded the Reed & Mallik Medal for best paper in urban design. This really was the fundamental kickstarter for the book, which has expounded on the ideas and provided both deeper and broader research.

4.What is it that has motivated you to write it, and how are you able to cover such wide topics with authority?

The rapid pace of change in our lives has made us busier than ever and also less certain of what tomorrow might bring. It has become overwhelming trying to keep up, when technology, business and social structures are continuously transforming to meet new challenges. What’s more people generally don’t like change, it unsettles them and they resist it even if it should be beneficial. Essentially I was just trying to keep myself informed of all the changes, to keep ahead in planning business and life, without the intent to write a book. Subsequently however, the way that the people involved in the planning and development of urban development projects I was working on were clearly not as informed, aware or willing to respond to the need for change, began to suggest to me that more metrics needed to be shared and more discussion to be undertaken. The way that the world was ignoring climate science really frightened me, particularly the actions of the Trump administration and it has been perfectly obvious for decades that significant change was needed, but instigating change was proving impossible.

When we had our first child, 15 years ago, I was nervous about the decision to bring a child into such an unstable looking world. In hindsight I should have been more concerned than I probably was. At that time, I had no idea I was going to be regularly collecting a shared bike from the street or ordering a pick-up car to go to work, nor even owning a smart phone to manage everyday life come to that. Conversely, witnessing these changes has been tremendously interesting and exciting. I can now expect that soon, when I call a vehicle, it will arrive without a driver. But will it be a car or will it be a drone that arrives? Will I have to use my cellphone to book it or could I just “think it” to arrive? How can we plan wisely for that today?

There was a big city re-planning project in Guangzhou that I undertook starting back in 2011. I really wanted to try a different, more meaningful way to plan projects for China and managed to convince the local government to adapt a more sustainable planning approach. This was iterative, rather than linear and involved the involvement of wide swathes of public representation through planning charrettes. We utilised market research tools not normally associated with urban planning to canvas wide societal sectors and were able to present robust and detailed, statistically relevant models to help guide public decision making on their development trade-offs. Interestingly more socially and environmental planning models, providing better security, heath and wellness outcomes, were deemed preferrable across all sectors, rather than those with an emphasis on risk, economic growth and wealth creation. This really struck home to me, and the government come to that, was the way that development was being planned was no longer relevant. The project pleasingly received an Award from the Alliance for Healthy Cities under the auspices of the WHO.

5.The book is focused on issues of our time. Is the information still going to be relevant to the coming decades? Is the book in itself actually futureproofed?

What a good question. Certainly I was updating data in the book up until the last possible moment before going to press. Everything was continually in flux, such as the outcomes of various court proceedings in Europe and the Bills going through the US Senate. Whilst some of the data substantiating principles will of course age, the overall methodologies are timeless, and the book will continue to be relevant as means of rethinking how to invest wisely in our cities, certainly over the next decade, even if new ideas are accepted in that time. There is no single or simple method to planning cities - a wide range of complex and interrelated actions are necessary. Understanding these interrelations is vital, and this book provides a clear overview of the tools needed to inform better decision making, starting today but remaining FUTUREPROOF - relevant well beyond tomorrow.