Could the UK’s next big export be urban development?

We already have a “future cities industry”, apparently.

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All over the world, cities are expanding and developing. And as they do so, interested parties such as city governments and property developers make countless decisions about how they’re designed, how they run and what they’re filled with.

All this decision-making contributes to what is now a growing, international industry; a hybrid of architecture, engineering and digital strategy. This, according to a new report by the Future Cities Catapult, will be worth £200bn globally by 2030.

The Future Cities Catapult is a government-backed project, focussed on making cities more forward-thinking and improving their services (no aerial bombardment is involved). And it argues that the UK could take home a healthy piece of the pie as the market expands.

Peter Madden, its chief executive, estimates that the sector in the UK is already worth over £16bn – mostly a combination of our architecture and civil engineering industries.

But Madden thinks it could be a lot bigger - the group believes that the UK is “best placed” to take advantage of this market globally.

To make its case, the report gives examples of UK-based urban initiatives which have taken off in other countries. These include Citymapper, which started off by releasing a route planner for London but has now expanded to other big cities; and Spacehive, a crowdfunding website for civic projects (basically Kickstarter, but for parks and outdoor pianos) which has spawned copycat sites all over the world.

Predictably, London accounts for a large chunk of our urban development industry: the capital is home to 34,000 technology businesses, 27 per cent of the country’s architects and lots of big civic bodies like TfL. But the authors argue that urban thinking and innovation is also thriving in other UK cities, too.

Glasgow was recently awarded a £24m grant to set up an open data platform and intelligent street lighting, featuring energy efficient LED bulbs and sensors to track footfall and pollution levels. Bristol, meanwhile, was awarded the title of 2015 European Green Capital by the European commission for its cuts in carbon emissions and investment in renewable energy. 

Climate change is actually a running theme of the report – if future city development is carried out with climate change in mind, goes the thinking, everyone will better off. Keith Clarke, a Future Cities Catapult board and former CEO of design and engineering consultancy WS Atkins, says:

The UK...is ideally positioned with its deep academic skills, institutional strength, engineering depth and its own world leading Climate Change Act, to not only adapt to climate change to ensure we stay closer to [a 2 degree temperature rise] than the horrendous scenario of 3 degrees plus.”

Stop it, we’re blushing.

Of course, local firms may be better placed to propose schemes that work for particular cities, and will be cheaper to hire than UK architects or analysts flown in for the job. But if UK firms do manage to corner a good-sized chunk of the “future cities” market, it can only be a good thing for our economy. Oh, and the rest of the world will benefit from our “deep academic skills” and “engineering depth”, of course. You’re welcome, everyone.

This is a preview of our new sister publication, CityMetric. We'll be launching its website soon – in the meantime, you can follow it on Twitter and Facebook.

Barbara Speed is comment editor at the i, and was technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman, and a staff writer at CityMetric.

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