How will where we live change?


I write a little piece every Friday morning with insights on the future: something that has struck me that week as a potential signal of what might be to come. Because Linkedin is a little bit ‘blink and you’ll miss it’, I’m assembling the four insights here every month.

Stranded Assets of the Future

Walking between meetings in the City of London, I popped into a lovely Wren church, St Vedast, to have a gander. The vicar at the front was giving the service to an entirely empty church — with not one person attending.

This set me thinking: what will be the stranded assets of the future? What buildings will be obsolete because their ‘parishioners’ have moved away or their ‘congregations’ now believe in something else? Will enough people want multi-storey car-parks, traditional pubs, multiplex cinemas, or hugely energy-inefficient housing?

Of course buildings — including churches — can be repurposed. I’ve visited amazing art galleries, across Europe that were previously an abattoir (Madrid), a coal-fired power station (London) and a Nazi submarine base (Bordeaux).

There is, though, a trade-off between building for the long-term, which makes sense for embodied carbon and for placemaking, and building to respond to shorter-term changes in technology, attitudes and fashions. St Vedast was certainly a product of long-term thinking: established in 1170, it has been enlarged, repaired, and substantially rebuilt over the centuries. It was, however, built for one sole purpose.

“We should build to last, but we also need to build for flexibility”

We should build to last, but we also need to build for flexibility, designing-in the ability to respond to the known and unknown future: housing units that can be repurposed for different life stages; buildings that can perform different functions at different times of the day; buildings that can be dis-assembled and turned into something entirely new.

And the digital technologies that are making so many buildings redundant will also be key to these more flexible uses.

We’ll Have to Adapt in Smarter Ways

All the snow at the winter Olympics in China is artificial. This is a cold reminder that changing climate is going to have a big impact on tourism and leisure. Ski resorts will find themselves promoting mountain biking or health and wellbeing retreats. Many beach resorts will become too hot to handle.

Climate change will impact how we live more widely. Sweltering cities, water shortages, and increased risk of flooding will profoundly change how — and where — we build and live.

“The world cannot just deal with the impacts of climate change in ways that generate more climate change.”

The Beijing Olympics dealt with the lack of snow by pumping out artificial snow from nearly 400 high-powered machines, using lots of energy and 50 million gallons of (scarce) water. This highlights an increasing problem. The world cannot just deal with the impacts of climate change in ways that generate more climate change. We have to change the mindset that thinks it’s OK to pour carbon-intensive concrete to deal with flooding, switch on energy-hungry air conditioning to deal with urban heat, or spray artificial snow in resorts that are now too warm for the real thing.

Choose Health!

I was walking in the centre of London this week, and saw this hoarding promising ‘100% fresh filtered air — no recycled air’. West End theatres are promoting their shows, not through the stellar cast or plaudits from the critics, but by promising to help safeguard your health.

“Concern for health will increasingly shape people’s choices.”

Keeping the population healthy in cities — through pandemics like Cholera, Spanish Flu or Aids — has long been a preoccupation of health and city authorities. In the future we can expect to see more compelling evidence on the causes of endemic diseases, on the links between air pollution and asthma or active travel and obesity or access to green space and mental wellbeing. At the same time we are seeing portions of the population trying to understand, control and improve their personal health. Concern for health will increasingly shape people’s choices.

Will we see more buildings and urban spaces routinely advertising their health-protecting and enhancing properties? Will labels, billboards or sensory signifiers like flourishing habitats encourage us to visit, work and live-in places that support our physical and mental wellbeing?

Is This the Future for Online Delivery?

I read this great piece in Wired about ‘physical jobs going remote too’: autonomous forklift trucks doing the routine work, with operators — often sitting miles away — taking over for the tricky tasks.

The big logistics and delivery companies would love to automate their entire delivery chains. The warehouses are already heavily automated and there is lots of investment in delivery drones — terrestrial and airborne.

“The big logistics and delivery companies would love to automate their entire delivery chains.”

The problems come with the so called ‘last-mile’, where the person delivering often has to ask directions, ring a few doorbells to get access, and decide where it’s safe to leave the item.

So, will the future job in online delivery be driving a white van or pedalling furiously around the city? Or will it be sitting in front of a bank of monitors, stepping-in to assist the robot when it encounters a difficult situation?

With the roll-out of 5G (and then 6G), expect to see lots more tasks being guided remotely. And as robots move out of factories onto the streets, expect to see the fabric of our buildings and cities adapted to accommodate them.



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Professor Peter Madden, OBE

Futures for cities, places, & real estate. PoP in Future Cities, Cardiff University; Chair, Building with Nature @thepmadden