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Cities are shaped by complex, often competing, local, national and global forces. That makes it hard for place leaders, both public and private, to accurately predict and plan for the forces that shape our streets, towns and cities – especially when trying to look further ahead than a few years. Successful future cities will therefore be characterised by adaptability. Luckily, the very forces driving the transformation of our cities and towns also offer the tools needed to enable such adaptability.

From the winding pedestrian lanes of Brighton, conceived by people who never imagined the need to make space for ‘horseless carriages’, to the planners behind the likes of Swindon and Milton Keynes, who could think of little else, developers and planning officers are often making decisions about tomorrow based on today’s ideas. Of course, the best planners and developers do consider the future, but in doing so they face an uphill struggle. In a rapidly changing world, anyone making decisions about something as complex as a city must channel their inner mystic when developing and evaluating plans – considering not just one set of trends, but a complex interplay of different possible futures that intersect and overlap.

At the Connected Places Catapult, the UK government-backed centre of excellence for innovation in mobility and the built environment, we see four key technology-enabled trends which are shaping towns and cities by redefining our collective relationship with the built environment, the economy and each other.

The first of these trends, ‘Space-as-a-Service’, has emerged from the recent shift in the way the commercial real estate industry provides products and services to tenants, transforming their role from rent collectors to service providers. In short, it is the change from accessing space through ownership or long-term rent, to a model where space is something we can access when and where we want. This trend can be seen across UK cities, from Box Park’s ‘meanwhile use’ retail centres to WeWork’s co-working spaces, The Collective’s co-living spaces and peer-to-peer home sharing platforms like AirBnB. These businesses represent a distinct shift towards the agile optimisation of space and services within cities.

Moving on to the theme of augmented and navigable space, the emergence of services like Google Lens and Google Map Augmented Reality (AR) means our experience of the world around us is increasingly mediated through digital filters, adding a new layer of information to our everyday lives. With the rollout of ‘smart street furniture’ like BT’s InLink UK pods, which serve advertisements and hyperlocal content tailored to individual passers-by, soon everyone will have a city experience unique to themselves. Just as we are using tech to find our way through the city, it is tracking our movement as well – generating valuable new data, but also raising questions about individual privacy and public trust.

Which brings us to predictable behaviour – a trend grounded in the ever-growing bank of data about how people, vehicles and goods move through cities, and the increasingly intelligent algorithms which can sift valuable insights from that data. Such analysis allows for complex urban modelling and more accurate insights into how cities function today and how they might work tomorrow. Since 2007, Google has provided live traffic information in its wayfinding apps to help users avoid congested areas of the city in real-time. This year, CrimeRadar launched in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, using machine-learning to predict where and when crime is likely to occur. Drawing on five years of crime data and 14 million crimes provided by the state police, every part of the city is now rated. Meanwhile, academics at University College London and the Centric Lab are looking at how cutting edge neuroscience data can be integrated to models to improve the fidelity of behavioural predictions still further.

Advances in data analysis and monitoring are not limited to things that move. They are also being applied to the built environment itself to create intelligent infrastructure. From sensors threaded throughout the London Underground which enable predictive maintenance and reduced management costs, to the proliferation of smart metres which will enable more dynamic energy networks (‘smart grids’), infrastructure and the services they support are becoming more responsive and resilient.

For both city managers and private developers, staying ahead of the innovation curve is as essential as it is challenging. Places that plan for and harness innovative connected places technologies are likely to reap benefits in terms of economic productivity, prosperity and citizen satisfaction, while those which fail to adapt to the changing world may fall behind.

To ensure that more places enjoy the fruits of innovation, the Connected Places Catapult is working with place leaders and private firms across the UK to support local authorities engage the market with confidence, and with the private sector to help firms develop and demonstrate solutions to the pressing needs of buyers. In particular, we have been working with planning authorities and developers to catalyse an urgent upgrade in the UK’s planning sector. This ‘PlanTech’ revolution has seen firms large and small applying data analysis, augmented reality, machine learning and a range of other digital technologies to bring land use and transport planning into the twenty-first century, reducing risk and therefore cost for developers, driving efficiency in planning services and delivering transparency for the public. With our help, many of these once futuristic products are on the market today to help place leaders make smarter choices that will stand the test of time.

Looking ahead, the next level of innovation will see whole infrastructure systems and the places they support reproduced in the form of ‘digital twins’ – incredibly sophisticated virtual models which can be used to test proposed changes before making costly interventions in the real world. Combining dynamic data about fixed assets like buildings, transport infrastructure and utilities networks with real time and modelled data about the movement of people and goods through the space, these digital twins will be an essential tool for city managers of the future.

Nicola Yates OBE is the CEO of Connected Places Catapult. This article first appeared in our Centre Write magazine On the home front. Views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue.