Professor Michael Keith is the Urban Transformations Portfolio Coordinator, Director of COMPAS and Co-Director of the University of Oxford Future of Cities programme.
Cities are changing what it means to be human. How do we make sense of this new world? In the new city, that which is historically distant might be spatially proximate. Urban life gets under the skin, the combinations of atmosphere and disposition that generate mental disorders, the markers of other times and places in our DNA, reveal geographies and histories that become legible traces in the body. That which is geographically proximate might be culturally so remote that it defies comprehension. The passing glance across the bus might fire recognition in the eyes of others or distance strangers across the social chasms of the segregated metropolis.
Alongside these combinations of metropolitan humanity and new technology the call for new powers for cities to shape their own economic destiny drives constitutional change, particularly on the political agenda of the UK. A rebalancing of the British economy depends in large part on a renaissance in metropolitan economies, a response to the national housing crisis demands solutions that might look very different from local perspectives in Leeds or Cambridge. But the nation state is not disappearing any time soon. So the constitutional change agenda is in many ways less about the autonomy of cities across the world than about the fiscal and political positioning of cities and nation states, the multi scale governance challenge of recognising consumer choice and citizen rights whilst promoting the national interest in major infrastructure investments, airport and rail networks.
It is estimated that the UK alone will spend over £400 billion on infrastructure in the next 20 years. Most of this will be focused on the built environment of our cities, their transport connectivity and their physical fabric. Much of this new infrastructure will be ‘smart’. It has the potential to develop a capacity for semi-autonomous communication across the physical environment.
Streams of data, technological changes and seductive visualisations of smart systems can suggest a technocratic answer to the problems of the city. But five decades ago the prime minister Harold Wilson invoked the vision of a Britain that was confronted by a scientific revolution and suggested that the country was “going to be forged in the white heat of this revolution”. Wilson’s rhetoric momentarily dissolved the differences between the right and the left of his party through a displaced focus on the technological logics of change. It was meritocratic and optimistic. He aimed to “replace the cloth cap [with] the white laboratory coat as the symbol of British labour”.
Wilson’s lines are cautionary as much for their afterlife as for their ambition. They caution us to think carefully about how new technologies are socialised and how they act on and change urban life. The long history of Britain’s cities will record whether 21st century London’s current affluence and Liverpool’s sustained decline are moments of hubris or permanent trends. But through powerful scholarship the UK now has the opportunity to learn how other metropoles across the globe manage organisational trade-offs between markets, hierarchies and networks in different ways. The new challenges of post transition China and India’s vernacular modernities disrupt old taxonomies of the urban global south and north. We need to see the urban commons through the lens of Africa’s informalities, social democratic Scandinavia and Latin American experimentation if we are to understand the alternative scenarios that Britain’s urban system might explore.
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