Decisions made long ago still shape urban life today. But merging technology with rediscovered traditional techniques could free cities to develop solutions tailored to the 21st century.


Credit: Architect Koen Olthuis–Waterstudio.NL Developer ONW/BNG GO

Architect Koen Olthuis conceived a floating apartment complex, the Citadel, for the Netherlands. It expands on a traditional technique used to deal with variable water levels in some developing countries.

Just as the cities of today are living with choices made long ago, so should people be aware that today’s decisions and technologies will shape the urban spaces that serve future generations, says Steve Rayner, the James Martin Professor of Science and Civilization at Oxford University and co­­director of the Oxford Programme for the Future of Cities. “Cities are crucibles of innovation, but are prone to infrastructure lock-in and path dependency,” he told participants at ULI Europe’s Annual Conference held in Paris in February. “The city decisions we make today tie us into development routines we only become aware of centuries later.”

Steve Rayner addressing the ULI Europe
Annual Conference in Paris.
Examples of lock-in are evident throughout our daily lives. The “QWERTY” keyboard exists in its current format not because it is the most efficient layout, but because it was designed to slow down users of early manual typewriters so they would not jam the keys. Over time, the layout became the standard, and the design was transferred to subsequent generations of typewriters and, in turn, to computers. It is now firmly embedded in society despite the fact its original design function is no longer relevant. This is an example of lock-in, which provides many unforeseen consequences and challenges for cities.

Rayner argued that nowhere is lock-in more evident than in the location of major cities. Centuries ago, the only way to transport heavy cargo over long distances effectively was by ship, and as a consequence 23 of the world’s 30 most populous cities today are near the coasts. With many of these cities making use of reclaimed land, they may be at, or below, sea level and prone to flooding.

Wealthy countries are able to invest in infrastructure solutions to defend against that risk. London has the Thames Barrier, and the Dutch, who pioneered hydraulic-engineered flood defenses, have the Oosterscheldekering, the world’s largest movable flood barrier. However, these protection systems inherently lead to lock-in. Once such measures are established, a dependency is placed upon the system and a commitment is made to renew and update it ad infinitum. Furthermore, this approach is not feasible for developing countries, many of which lack the money, expertise, or raw materials required to implement it.

Traditional Tech Tweaked

The answer to such problems may not be to develop new technologies, but rather to turn to traditional techniques to find solutions, Rayner said. For example, in parts of Asia such as Vietnam and Cambodia, poorer communities have battled the twin pressures of land affordability and wide variations in water levels by creating floating homes and neighborhoods. This is far from being just a solution for the developing world. The Dutch, who were the masters of the hard engineering solutions to flood protection, are now looking toward such techniques for inspiration. Rayner cited architect Koen Olthuis’s plans for a floating apartment complex called the Citadel and his imagined Sea Tree conservation park, both in the Netherlands, as examples of what could be achieved when traditional techniques are combined with new technologies and imagination.

Drinking water and waste disposal are other issues that may link the rural poor and the urban wealthy in the search for solutions, Rayner argued. In advanced societies, the flush toilet is a mundane technology that has had a significant lock-in effect. Its universal adoption was made possible by two largely independent 19th-century public health measures—the introduction of sewers in response to the “Great Stinks” of London and Paris, and the desire to introduce clean drinking water to the rapidly industrializing cities to prevent diseases such as cholera and typhoid.

However, the flush toilet inadvertently linked these two infrastructures together, Rayner asserted. “No one in their right mind would design a system where you purified billions of liters of water to drinking standard and then used 40 percent of it to flush waste away,” he said. “It has now become the global sanitization standard even though it is not sustainable.”

A convergence of interests now exists—among older world cities where this 19th-century infrastructure is beginning to crumble, wealthy parts of the United States such as Orange County, California, where people are moving into semi-arid areas, and developing countries—to devise solutions to disconnect drinking water and wastewater systems.

Mundane technology lock-in does not stop with water. Rayner contended that “the air conditioner, probably more than any other tech­­nology, has altered global geography in a profound way.” The introduction of the air conditioner in the mid–20th century allowed previously uninhabitable areas to be transformed into major urban centers because they were no longer confined by natural climatic limitations. It was this technology that enabled a hot, humid city like Atlanta to become the “New York of the South” in only a few decades.

Furthermore, air conditioning has led to the homogenization of architecture. Regional adaptions in building style to accommodate climate variation have become superfluous, resulting is massive increases in energy use, not just in terms of power consumption to create cooling, but also to counteract the consequent urban heat-island effect.

However, once again architects and engineers are starting to look back to traditional practices for inspiration for future projects. Rayner cited the traditional Queenslander house—with 360-degree air circulation and large overhanging eaves—as the inspiration for the University of British Columbia campus in Vancouver. In Abu Dhabi, influences from old-style wind towers in Middle Eastern cities have been combined with the latest innovations in aerodynamics by architect Norman Foster in his designs for Masdar City.


Auto Domination



Credit: Tomas Saraceno; Cloud Cities, 2011, Photo Collage

A photo collage of Argentine artist Tomás Saraceno’s Cloud Cities
installation, set against the backdrop of the Hong Kong skyline. No discussion of technology shaping our cities can ignore the impact of the automobile, Rayner noted, which in only about 100 years has progressed from small-scale use to being one of the most dominant factors in shaping the urban landscape. However, despite great advances in technology over this period, average road speeds in London have remained static at about 11 mph (18 kmph) due to rising congestion. Rayner said cities’ traffic challenges will not be solved by electric or hybrid cars, and he wondered if a more advanced automotive equivalent to the popular bicycle-sharing systems in London, Paris, and Amsterdam is the answer. He envisions automated taxi or buslike vehicles constantly on the move, booked by cellphone and with routes optimized by computers to transport the most passengers.

Rayner sees the hybrid car as an example of a transitional technology—an interim step that allows new and old systems to be used simultaneously. Transitional technologies have been used at various points in history, often in relation to energy requirements, including the oil lamp, which allowed people to move from sperm-whale oil to kerosene because both fuels could be burned in the same vessel. (As an aside, Rayner noted that sperm-whale oil is the only form of energy mankind has ever given up, and consumption of every other energy source is greater today than ever before.)

Imagination is crucial in helping cities evolve, Rayner said, illustrating his point with an image of an installation by Argentine artist Tomás Saraceno. The artwork forms part of Saraceno’s Cloud Cities art project to build impressions of a sustainable city in the sky with bubble-like cells fueled by solar energy. “I’m not suggesting people will live in floating cities in the sky,” Rayner said. “But the image is a reminder that the future of cities is not just a design challenge; it is a fundamental challenge of the human imagination.

“Cities, when you think about it, are very much the product of human dreams.”

Register now for ULI Europe Real Estate Trends Conference and Dinner, entitled “GameSHIFT – Sustainability, Housing, Infrastructure, Finance & Technology”, June 18-19 in London.