What unifies the world’s most liveable cities?

Scott Cain reports how densely populated cities are evolving to provide opportunity, inspiration and most importantly, wellbeing

I draw inspiration every day from a little known 1960s architect called Cedric Price, who said, “Technology is the answer, but what was the question?”

In our desire to be at the bleeding edge of technology and innovation, we risk losing sight of what really matters: the wellbeing of all of us who choose to live, work, move and learn in cities.

Ten years ago futurists predicted the ‘death of distance’. A new digital economy that enabled people to work from anywhere would diminish the need for, and attraction of, city dwelling, they insisted. 

Yet the opposite has happened. The internet has fostered new reasons to travel and more people than ever before are being pulled into the orbit of city life. Businesses and families are increasingly opting for physical proximity ahead of space.

That we are now primarily an urban species is well documented. Current UN estimates suggest that city dwellers will account for over 60 per cent of the world’s population by 2030.

So, as urban life becomes the global norm, is it time we put greater energy into ensuring cities are truly liveable? 

During my time at Future Cities Catapult, I have met with over 400 city leaders, from mayors to chief executives. What emerges most clearly during these conversations is that, in whatever part of the world, successful cities need three elements: a strong economy; a good quality of life; and a more effective use of resources.

How to put those practices into action is where things get interesting. Bristol is a great example of a city that incorporates citizen insights (rich data), data science (big data) and an innovative use of civic and green spaces. Its waterways incorporate the calming effects of nature into the cityscape, while smart city ideas like the ‘Shadow’ alley – where a pedestrian sees the shadow of the person that walked before him – create a playful coming together of people via place, where trust is built among the shared community.

Part of our conversations with city leaders – and in Dubai’s case city builders – is to take a human perspective. Innovation zones are prevalent in Dubai, and are vital in allowing focused activities and clusters to form. But, viewing these places as distinct from each other misses the importance of their interconnection, the so called white space of innovation. Where different elements, disciplines, sectors and skills convene – and how they evolve collectively, not independent of one another – is where breakthrough innovation lies.

Measuring the distinct elements that make up a good city, be it in smartness or aesthetics, is an activity that is only helpful when it acts as a kind of playbook for choices.

On the most fundamental level, we all need shelter, security and food, and have historically moved to cities in search of those essentials. The second tier of requirements is based around achieving a sense of fulfilment, where ideas spread rapidly and personal talent is realised through stimulus from others.

Returning to my three elements of liveability, interestingly (but perhaps not surprisingly), of economy, resource ef ciency, and quality of life, the element that becomes assumed rather than systematically prioritised is wellbeing and happiness. So it is gratifying to see the efforts some cities are making to prioritise that necessity. In Dubai, for instance, the leadership has placed happiness at the pinnacle of its strategic programmes. This is a real and meaningful vision.

Importantly, such a vision provides a motivating and unifying concept that ties together the diversity that exists in such a fast-paced economy and fast developing city. That unifying concept is key. When you look at some of the world’s most liveable cities, they have had a vision and lived that vision over many political cycles. 

The leadership of those cities has followed through on long-term policies, never chopping or changing, never looking over their shoulders.

Consider when cities rst emerged in ancient Greece, which, coincidentally, was the era in which Aristotle laid out his theory on realising your potential in a way that was personal and fundamentally civic. You couldn’t be considered a whole person unless you were also involved in realising some form of public good. There is much potential in interpreting this concept to our times and urban contexts.

Historian WH McNeil said: “Better hindsight deepens insight and makes for a less imperfect foresight.” On that note I can think of no more important question for our cities – assuming security, food and shelter are in place – than the question of happiness.

Scott Cain is Chief Business Officcer at Future Cities Catapult, which works on urban innovation projects worldwide