41 Foresight on The Future of Cities

For the last three years (almost), I have been chairing the Lead Expert Group of the Government Office for Science Foresight Project on The Future of Cities. It has finally ‘reported’, not as conventionally with one large report and many recommendations, but with four reports and a mass of supporting papers. We knew at the outset that we could not look forward without learning the lessons of the past, and so we commissioned a set of working papers – which are on the web site – as a resource, historical in the main, looking forwards imaginatively where possible. The ‘Foresight Future of Cities’ web site is at https://www.gov.uk/government/collections/future-of-cities.

During the project, we have worked with fourteen Government Department – ‘cities’ as a topic crosses government – and we have visited over 20 cities in the UK and have continued to work with a number of them. The project had several (sometimes implicit) objectives: to articulate the challenges facing cities from a long run – 50 years – perspective; to consider what could be done in the short run in evidence-based policy development to generate possibly better outcomes in meeting these challenges; to review what we know and what we don’t know – the latter implying that we can say something about research priorities; and to review the tools that are available to support foresight thinking.

We developed six themes that seemed to work for us throughout the project:

  • people – living in cities
  • city economies
  • urban metabolism – energy and materials flows and the sustainability agenda
  • urban form – including the issues associated with density and connectivity
  • infrastructure – including transport
  • governance – devolution and mayors?

What have we achieved? I believe we have a good conceptual framework and a corresponding effective understanding of the scale of the challenges. It is clear that to meet these challenges in the long term, radical thinking is needed to support future policy and planning development. The project has a science provenance and this provides the analytical base for exploring alternative future scenarios. Forecasting for the long term is impossible, inventing knowledge-based future scenarios is not. In our work with cities – Newcastle and Milton Keynes provide striking examples – we have been met with enthusiasm and local initiatives have produced high-class explorations, complete with effective public engagement. There is a link to the Newcastle report on the GO-Science website; the Milton Keynes work is ongoing.

Direct links to the four project reports follow. The first is an overview; the second a brief review of what we know about the science of cities combined with an articulation of research priorities; the third is, in effect, a foresighting manual for cities who wish to embark on this journey; and the fourth is an experiment – work on a particular topic – graduate mobility – since ‘skills’ figures prominently in our future challenges list.

An overview of the evidence


Science of Cities:


Foresight for Cities:


Graduate Mobility:


Alan Wilson

May 2016

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