Bright light on big cities

The Iain Gray Column

As our urban areas struggle to cope with a welter of pressures, future cities need to be accompanied by a holistic philosophy

There has been a lot of focus on the topic of Future Cities at the Technology Strategy Board in recent weeks and, together with my colleagues, we are now looking in detail at the strategic path we need to take to support UK businesses in this incredibly important arena.

One of the big events for us this month was the announcement in the Budget statement that Future Cities would become one of our final Catapult Centres. This Catapult will operate alongside a major demonstrator programme (due to be formally announced later this year) and will also aim to build on the excellent stakeholder communications work that has already been undertaken via our Special Interest Group. We have already conducted more than 100 interviews and have nine of the UK’s largest cities, more than 50 companies and 25 innovation groups supporting us in this emerging programme.

By 2050, more than 70 per cent of the population is expected to be living in cities

The strategy of using Catapult Centres to create critical mass and expertise formed part of an interesting discussion I had this month with Natascha Eckert, from Siemens Corporate Technology Office, who was in the UK to better understand the country’s R&D landscape. Siemens also has a reputation for looking at challenge-led innovation and I was happy to give Natascha and the team an update on the progress we have made with our Future Cities plans. In 2008, for the first time in history, more people lived in urban areas than rural and by 2050 this figure is predicted to rise to a rate of more than 70 per cent of the global population living in cities. At the Technology Strategy Board our role is to look beyond these societal challenges and to identify the business opportunities that these changes will bring and identify ways in which UK companies can develop the future technology, products and solutions needed.

Across the world, cities are struggling under the impact of climate change, ageing populations, traffic congestion and pressures on key resources such as healthcare. We are already delivering major programmes in these, and many other areas that are important to cities such as energy supply and the built environment but our view is that in order for future cities to succeed we need to take an overall holistic view of the separate components of city infrastructure and look to deliver integration through innovation.

Our mission to improve the performance of UK businesses through innovation also means we are well placed to develop programmes that focus on enabling the strong UK industry and science base to collaborate and deliver the integrated solutions the market needs. With world-leading companies in project management, engineering, and architecture, the UK has the potential to be a key centre for large infrastructure projects. Estimates show that more than £6.5 trillion will be invested globally in city infrastructure over the next 10 to 15 years and this is definitely an opportunity that the UK needs to be ready for.

Iain Gray is chief executive of the Technology Strategy Board