Tech and the City – not such a happy combination, according to research by Broadway Malyan / by Ben Ramsden

Only one urban designer in five believes that Information Technology (IT) is having a significant positive impact on the well-being and happiness of citizens living in global cities – that is the headline of research into the impact of IT on cities and towns by global architecture, urbanism and design practice Broadway Malyan. 

In September Broadway Malyan interviewed 60 expert urban designers and masterplanners across its 16-strong global studio network – in Asia (India, Shanghai and Singapore), Europe (Azerbaijan, Poland, Portugal, Spain and the UK), the Middle East (Abu Dhabi) and Americas (Brazil and Chile).

The research reveals that IT is playing a major role across global cities – in aiding movement, driving the use of shared places, improving city management, changing the appearance and form of cities and delivering better designed buildings and places – but, critically, IT is not significant in enhancing citizens’ actual well-being and happiness.  

 James Rayner, Main Board Director and masterplanning expert at Broadway Malyan, said: “Projections of urban population growth tell us, that between 2000 and 2050, the amount of urban space will need to be doubled in developed countries and expanded by 326 per cent in developing countries to accommodate people. This is equivalent to building a city the size of Greater London every month for the next 40 years. 

“Modern construction technology is enabling us to rapidly expand our cities to help meet the demand for new urban space and housing and IT is helping us to analyse huge amounts of data, connect individuals in new ways and enhance our control of resources and built environments – promising smarter and more liveable cities and places.

“In all the talk about so-called ‘smart cities’, in which ‘smart’ technology will be harnessed to make cities greener, more efficient and improve the quality of life for citizens, there is an implicit assumption that technology will result in happier and more enjoyable places.‎ 

“However, while our experts predict that IT will play an increasing role in helping citizens move about in cities, it will create new types of shared places, aid city management and drive citizens’ engagement in decision-making they also report that IT is not contributing to citizens’ well-being and happiness in any significant way. 

“We see IT as a new layer to cities, enhancing our ability to interact with our built environment – rather than replacing or mediating our basic human needs for shelter, culture, recreation, social and economic activity. We urge that the human experience is kept at the heart of city and place design and that the focus is put on creating well-designed places which enhance the well-being and happiness of citizens.”

James and his team are set to present the findings of the research at the Urban Design Group’s national conference on urban design on 19th September at Nottingham Trent University, UK – with Broadway Malyan the main commercial sponsor – and where the team will join a host of experts speaking on world-wide best practice in the design and management of towns and cities. 

The UK government predicts that the global market for smart city solutions will be $408bn by 2020 and it believes that the UK has particular strengths in delivering services which could account for up 25% of the total market. In July India’s new government announced it will spend $1.13bn on building 100 smart cities, taking its cue from developments elsewhere in Asia, including China and Singapore.

 The main findings

 Broadway Malyan’s research identified views from urban designers within five key areas:

1) Movement around cities

According to the research, almost half of the experts (49%) say that IT is making it significantly easier and faster to move around their city, while just over a third (35%) describe the impact as slightly better.

Asked which IT has the biggest positive impact in aiding movement around their city, nearly half (47%) nominate smart phones with GPS, with real-time information display boards the next most highly-rated technology (14%).

 40% suggest that smart traffic control will be the IT that makes the biggest positive impact on movement around their city in the future, while just over a fifth (21%) nominate driverless cars and vehicles.

2) Use of shared places

A quarter (25%) say that IT is significant in encouraging the use of shared public and community places, such as parks and plazas in their city, while 40% describe its impact as slight.

Nearly three-quarters (73%) predict that IT will help to create entirely new types of public and community facilities in their city in the future.

3) Management of cities  

Two-thirds (66%) report that IT significantly improves the management of their city, while just over a quarter (26%) advise it has a slight impact.

Asked which IT will have the biggest impact on the management of their city in the future, just over a quarter say data collection (26%) and just under a quarter (24%) nominate traffic management.

The vast majority (95%) predict that IT will encourage people to participate in making decisions about their city in the future.

4) Appearance and form of cities

Approaching half (45%) report that IT is having a significant impact on the appearance and form of their city, while just over a third (37%) talk of a slight impact.

Asked which IT is having the biggest impact on the appearance and form of their city, nearly one third (29%) nominate large scale video screens, while just over a quarter (26%) suggest building design, materials and construction – other suggestions include telecom masts, antennae and satellite dishes.

Nearly half (47%) say that IT is having a significant impact in enabling the design of better buildings and places, while almost a third (32%) report it is having a slight impact.

5) Well-being and happiness

However, despite the above, less than one in five experts (18%) believe that IT is significantly improving the well-being and happiness of citizens in their city – while under one third (32%) describe it as only resulting in a slight improvement and just over a third (36%) attribute a moderate improvement.

Asked which IT will have the biggest impact on the well-being and happiness in their city in the future, over a third (38%) nominate medical and health monitoring and diagnostics – compared with one in five (20%) who suggest IT that aids freedom of movement.

Distinguished by its global reach with 16 studios across world centres, unrivalled diversity with 500+ design experts and distinctive client focus with over 75% income from repeat business, Broadway Malyan creates world-class and fully-integrated cities, places and buildings to unlock lasting value and deliver a ‘return on design’.

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