More than smart: designing cities with a heart

Cities are for people. People will always want places to interact, to express themselves and to make personal and real connections, says Atkins senior urban designer Rajkumar Suresh.

Our future city visions should be centred around people, says Rajkumar Suresh, senior urban designer at Atkins.

Every day brings more change to our cities: electric vehicle charging points, augmented reality, mobile phone walking lanes, flexible working hubs, autonomous vehicles, the list is getting increasingly longer. 

This less than gradual creep of technology has given rise to the concept of the ‘intelligent city.' We in the building industry have jumped on the bandwagon, outlining visions of a technology-driven, hyper-connected city of the future. 

Now, more than ever, we are planning our cities for an unknown future. I remember Bill Gates saying that we ‘always overestimate the change that will happen in two years and underestimate the change that will happen in 10 years.’ 

Our visions for the future aren’t wrong per se, we simply under or over-estimate the impact changes will have. We create a vision for the future from our understanding of the present – whereas, it will be formed from what we can’t see or imagine now. 

There is one thing that we do know. Cities are for people. That priority shouldn’t change, it’s been that way for centuries. People will always want places to interact, to express themselves and to make personal and real connections.

So, amidst the ongoing drive to create an increasingly digital world, I want to bring us back to basics, to a people-centric approach that prioritises social, economic and environmental benefits above all. I want our ‘future city’ vision to be centred around people and a better understanding of what they want and need. Only then can we deliver the city that people deserve.

As with every big advance in civilisation, we need to think not about ‘can’ we do it, but ‘should’ we do it? With technology advancing at the rate it is, the world is our oyster – but why do we want to implement it? What outcomes are we hoping to achieve? What is the impact it will make on people’s lives? As professionals in the building industry we have a big part to play in this.

To build a true picture (or as close as we can get to it) of a future city we need to look first at people, asking: How do the next generation want to live and work? We then need to build scenarios, putting ourselves in people’s shoes 20 years from now and thinking outside the box. 

In the future, would there be a need to commute? Would permanent and fixed layouts be a thing of the past? How do you design for a renting rather than ownership economy? Do we need to create more spaces where people can connect and build communities outside the virtual world?  By putting people at the centre of the narrative we’re more likely to create a consistent story of where we’re headed, one that we can all aspire to, one that’s grounded in and closer to reality. 

Technology should only be an enabler. Let’s shift the conversation from simply intelligent cities to cities that have a heart – cities that are designed around people first and foremost.

Rajkumar Suresh is a senior urban designer at Atkins.

If you would like to contact Rob O’Connor about this, or any other story, please email roconnor@infrastructure-intelligence.com.