We are in the midst of long structural, societal, economic and climate changes that are driving and demanding a deep evolution in the governance, function and role of our cities and neighbourhoods. The combination of the Covid pandemic and Brexit has accelerated the transition of our cities and we need to explore what this future urbanity will look, feel and live like.
The government’s levelling up white paper rightly sets out a plan to spread prosperity, shift power from Whitehall and focus resources towards forgotten communities. However, it ignores the fact that London is an integral part of the UK, not an island site.
While the US and France are making huge investments into their capitals to support the recovery of their country’s economic centres, it is increasingly unclear what role London will play in the UK, not to mention internationally. The levelling up strategy adds further urgency to the question: What does the future hold for London?
We can think about this challenge by asking ourselves three questions.
- How can London create a new role for itself as a physical centre in the UK and global economy when doing business remotely has become the default?
- What infrastructure will allow the city’s citizens to develop personally while leading its recovery?
- How can our public realm and cultural offers give London global relevance whilst diversifying and modernising its reputation?
Not for the first time, London has the opportunity to carve out a role as a city-for-all. But that can only happen by having honest conversations about the scale of the transition we are facing. London can and should become a city of high living standards. It needs to do this while maintaining its place in the world as an “impact city” that fosters a thriving economy to lead the national recovery.
A centre for “Deep Work”
In the world of white collar labour the value of face-to-face environments is shifting. We have learned to perform tasks relatively easily and productively working remotely. But research and development work, so dependent on physical, in-depth, high-quality collaboration, is finding new ways to happen. Here lies an opportunity for London to carve out a role for itself. Attracting companies from across the globe by playing on our reputation for invention, innovation, high quality education and making a second-to-none cultural offer is what we do.
Deep Work environments and their city hosts will become critical for a new economy of work for organisations at key phases and cycles of development. Companies, micro-organisations and individuals searching for periodic innovation and invention that relies on community, conversation and nuance, has the potential to be key to cities such as London. So, let’s start thinking about the infrastructure we need to enable it.
Rebuilding London’s Talent Engine
London’s economy has historically enjoyed the support of a transient population and net migration from across the UK and beyond. But the new recovery can become an opportunity for Londoners themselves to be upskilled, further educated and motivated to be a key sustainable source for the city’s talent economy.
This requires a deep renewal of the infrastructures and everyday conditions for human development. A next generation or evolution of further education infrastructures is required to continuously support the upskilling of all Londoners, while developing new capacities in the areas conducive to London’s continued relevance and progress, such as 3D manufacturing and decarbonisation. This can result in a network of new guilds, accelerators and civic labs, embedding a culture of accessible learning and invention across London.
This progress must be matched by housing and neighbourhood standards that address the impact of noise, sound and light pollution while radically upscaling the nature-based provision for all Londoners. It is by mitigating the negative impacts of urban living that we retain the communities that are so vital to city culture.
The 30-minute neighbourhood
To attract these vital audiences and keep pace with global progress in decarbonisation and transportation, London must become a “30-minute neighbourhood” city. E-bikes and a mix-modal road network will unlock a new permeable city, including the face-to-face economy, with the vast majority of the city being reachable within half an hour. London then becomes a city with radically reduced commuter times. This accelerated “medici effect” of a nine million person city, that’s decarbonised and meaningfully shifting modalities, represents a city taking climate change and its citizens’ health seriously.
London must also leverage its historic multiculturalism and its economic plurality and complexity to set itself apart as a unique centre of diversity, and thereby a new space of intersectional value. A space for the deep advancement of the medici effect, which involves innovation that happens when disciplines, perspectives, cultures and ideas intersect. We have always been a diverse and tolerant city and we can harness this innate instinct to develop a new city of intersecting cultures. A city for the fusion of new capabilities, building on our near history of FinTech to BioTechs, focused on creating a space that makes a tomorrow for us all.
It is through these interventions that London can not only rebuild its utility to the future but also lead to a fair and collective transition of the whole of the UK. This is not meant to be simply a vision for London, on that describes the necessary infrastructure for a new, greater London to emerge with resonance and coherence to the collective future of the entire UK.
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