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Max Wide: The future is coming to a place near you

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What do you get when you search for images under the phrase ‘future cities’?

You will see it is always night, and despite the alleged ‘smartness’, everyone has left the lights on. How else would you see the light trails from vehicles? If dawn ever breaks it is to show the sleek curves of the inevitable flying cars. Harrison Ford cannot be far away. Such dazzling imagery can distract us from the real issues.

One of the many unfortunate consequences of austerity has been to focus the attention of leaders on the immediate and very near term.

Stuck in the trenches of the medium-term financial strategy, it is hard to lift our heads and see the realities that will soon come to shackle or liberate the places we serve unless they are considered. We can become so caught up with whether the best way to save money is to work topdown or bottom-up that we can ignore the challenge of this age.

Leaders must look at where they want to be in the future and work back to consider what needs to change now – a ‘future-back’ approach. Likewise they must seek the views of others and look outside their organisation to decide how they might need to change things – an ‘outside-in’ approach.

So what of that future? According to the cyberpunk writer William Gibson, it “is already here – it’s just not very evenly distributed”. Although he was talking about the digital divide, his words describe a broader truth as people across the globe deal unevenly with the realities of population growth, ageing, climate change, water scarcity, congestion, pollution, immobility, and isolation.

The real effect of these things around the world is on our screens daily, and increasingly they press on our budgets and our people. As well as dystopian visions there are utopian ones: the possibility of people leading cleaner, healthier, less hassled lives as government and business operate in a hyperconnected world. Specific technologies like artificial intelligence and robotics simultaneously hold positive and negative possibilities.

Our experience is that there is an awareness of the change and a desire to get to grips with it. The issues are bigger than single councils and involve developing alliances across the public, private, financial, technological and academic sectors.

There are also a stack of UK innovators, inventors and small and medium-sized businesses wanting to change the world, possessing amazing capabilities and wanting to sustain a business. Bringing them together productively is challenging.

On the demand side in cities and places, the coalition of interested parties, including councils, is often fragmented, lacking funding, unsure of what it needs, unaware of the technologies that will be genuinely helpful and fearful of making costly mistakes. Innovators can be frustrated by that.

It makes investment difficult to justify. And because it is often the nature of technologists to produce things that are clever rather than useful, they can end up trying to sell things people don’t need. The result is a collective lack of progress.

Future Cities Catapult is trying to develop a more knowledgeable and valuable environment for everyone to work in. We are teaming up with the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives & Senior Managers and the Public Service Transformation Academy to help develop the skills and awareness that help leaders to work more smartly in creating more prosperous, sustainable and liveable cities and places.

We are not a leadership development organisation, nor are we trying to be. Our goal is to create a learning platform that brings together key elements and presents them to participants in a form that takes account of their area’s specific context.

As part of our day-to-day work, Future Cities Catapult gathers practical, unbiased knowledge about the activities of government, city leaders, researchers, technologists and companies working in this area, and that positions us uniquely to share the knowledge. Over the coming months we will, through a variety of learning experiences hosted by our partners, equip people with the chance to consider a variety of important questions.

First, how might global challenges play out locally? How are they affecting other places and how might they affect you?

Second, what strategies are being developed across the world to deal with these challenges and grasp the available opportunities?

Third, what are we learning from the stories of individual leaders and what they are doing to pioneer change? Similarly, which cities and places are leading the way and what can we learn from them?

On a practical level, we can tell you, through our tracking activity, what technologies are emerging, how useful they are as tools in the hands of leaders, how ready they are for deployment and what benefits they offer. We can also tell you what standards exist and are being developed to de-risk procurement.

Finally, we want to hear from you to help shape the activity of innovators and small and medium-sized businesses, to help them to understand what they need to be working on to ensure we get the products and services we need.

Max Wide, associate director, Future Cities Catapult

Article sponsored and supplied by Future Cities Catapult. Visit its website to register your interest and be among the first to hear about its programme

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