Bristol Festival of Ideas – Professor Sir David King: Future Cities – Monday 19th May

Sir-David-King_466The Bristol Festival of Ideas, which is inviting nearly 100 writers, commentators and thinkers to share their expertise at 60 events over a densely packed May programme, continued with @Bristol’s hosting of Professor Sir David King. King is currently the Foreign Secretary’s Special Representative for Climate Change and has an eminent career in helping the government initiate foresight programs to deal with the environmental challenges of the future.

Also, more pertinently to the evening’s discussion, King is the Chairman of the Board for the Future Cities Catapult. Launched by the UK’s Technology Strategy Board, it is the aim of seven ‘catapults’ to become the world’s leading centres of innovation in specialist areas that include High Value Manufacturing, Satellite Applications and Offshore Renewable Energy. The work of the London based, Future Cities Catapult involves using urban innovations and past successful ideas to improve quality of life and overcome the difficulties posed by economic and environmental issues.

After informing us of his Water Management initiatives that were successfully actioned by government to divert flood water away from towns and cities, King speaks about increased life expectancy and global population projections for the coming decades. The shift of average life expectancy from around 40 years at the start of the 1900s to 80 by the end of the century has made for a world population growth of approximately one billion every 12 years; the upshot of this is a global population estimate of 9 billion by 2050 and the emergence of what he calls “middle-class consumers” whose proclivity is to migrate to urban areas. He uses the drastic change over the last 20 years in cities like Beijing and Shanghai as indicative of this migratory pattern. Considering that 50% of the global population in 2008 were urban dwellers, and the likelihood of this increasing to 70% (of a population of 9 billion) by 2050, King stresses the necessity to act now for cities to become “future proof.”

We are then informed of the alarming statistic that 80% of the world’s population already live in areas with high levels of threat to water security; even first world cities like Melbourne, with high demand and degraded rivers, are now experiencing water stress. We learn of the difficulties faced by this issue and how alternative methods of creating freshwater, including the burning of oil and fossil fuels simply make things worse; this is no surprise considering the statistic that 95% of all food production is highly dependent on oil. Later, King uses the example of Singapore, where a highly efficient Water Management system ensures that every drop of rain water is captured and used, as a blueprint for success regarding this issue.

On the subject of energy and urban density, we are informed that the ideal cities of the future are walkable and cyclable. The sprawling urbanisation of Houston, where an average dweller spends 3 hours a day in their car, is not conducive to King’s statement that we need to be a “low carbon society.” Transport and human behaviours are clearly key issues in regard to creating this kind of society; possible solutions given include obtaining petrol from biofuels, waiving road tax for low footprint vehicles, the electrification of a vast high speed rail service and, in what King describes as a “key point to progress,” the micro generation of electricity through the use of solar equipment.

A successful case study in this area is provided in the display of two photographs of the city of Bogota, Columbia taken 3 years apart. The city’s huge traffic and pollution problems were resolved when ex-major Enrique Penalosa expropriated road lanes from cars in order to make rooms for exclusive bus lanes and acquired open suburban land to pave a 16 mile road for pedestrians and cyclists. These initiations clearly worked wonders as the stark disparity between the two pictures showing the exact same road in Bogota is obvious to see.

All in all, we as humans need to “think outside the box” and be as innovative as possible in building what King calls a “circular economy” where nothing is wasted and everything put to use. This ethos is highlighted when King shows us slides of a newly manufactured vehicle designed by Gordon Murray (pic below); it is a car made completely from recycled plastic bottles and requiring zero metal bolts as opposed to the 1,500 that are used in a standard car. Though it looks extremely small, it can apparently reach top speeds of 130mph.


After King’s 50 minute talk comes to an end, there is time for him to field a couple of questions from the audience. One of the questions raised hits on an issue that King then acknowledges he didn’t give requisite focus because of time restrictions. King agrees that the eradication of poverty, and the subsequent tensions that arise due to inequality, are of incredible importance in the sustainability of our cities of the future.

For more on these issues, the Future Cities Catapult is hosting a talk at the Watershed as part of the Festival of Ideas from 11am-12pm on Saturday 24th May.

Scott Hammond