Welcome to the city machine

By Simon Toze, CSIRO October 30th, 2015

Increasingly, throughout the world, cities are being thought of not just as haphazard groupings of population, but as machines for creating prosperity and productivity.
A city setting lit up at night with people dining by the water

Cities are centres of culture and knowledge and engines of growth but they’re facing mighty challenges

FRENCH architect Le Corbusier, who famously described a house as a “machine for living in”, also recognised that cities were the engine of creativity and innovation in the modern world.

“Modern life,” he said, “demands, and is waiting for, a new kind of plan, both for the house and the city”.

To date, and with the notable exception in several planned cities, this has not yet occurred. But increasingly, throughout the world, cities are being thought of not just as haphazard groupings of population, but as machines for creating prosperity and productivity.

CSIRO’s research underpins a whole-of-system approach that will enable Australian cities to become economically, environmentally and socially resilient.

Until now, aspects of urban life have been dealt with as discrete issues, rather than urban design being treated as an organic whole.

We are now mapping a future of Australian cities to enable them to plan and adapt for major challenges, such as population growth, extreme events and a changing climate.

Yet as the engines of growth, cities also face significant challenges as they themselves grow. These changes will be compounded as we enter a new era in which a changing climate, technologies still in their infancy or yet unthought of, and a growing population will all provide new challenges and opportunities.

Planning the growth of cities has seldom been seen as a matter of national importance.

Previously, innovation and change generally occurred in individual sectors, such as energy production, water supply or building laws. Often this was spurred on by a crisis, an example being the major changes in Australia’s water policies during the millennium drought. But change in one sector can have knock-on effects on other parts of our cities, not all of them beneficial. Co-ordination and control are needed to manage the multiple changes required and make our future cities as profitable, liveable and environmentally sustainable as they can be.

We need to take the risks allowing and encouraging safe-to-fail technology to enable new and renewed urban developments.

Our cities are people’s homes, workplaces and recreation areas. They need to be all of these at once, and better than others.  Australia is competing with the rest of the world to retain our human capital and to attract the skills we will need in the future. Skilled, adaptable people have many choices open to them and we need Australia to be the most desirable choice.

We have already seen the major impact rapid advances in digital technology and automation have made on the jobs we do and the way we do them. This is likely to increase in the future. Much of today’s hard, repetitive or dirty work will be automated, and many of the jobs of today will be done by machines. But as the Industrial Revolution 250 years ago created more jobs than it destroyed, so too will its digital successor. And with this comes the chance to seize the moment of transformation, to make changes and innovation in sustainability and resilience through improvements in transport, urban greening and efficiencies in water and energy, to make Australian cities the best and most liveable they can be.

We are on the cusp of potential major changes in technologies that will influence how we live and work and how our cities are designed and operated. Australia is already one of the most urbanised countries in the world, with 89per cent of the population living in cities. It is clear that, with the mining boom ending, Australia’s future productivity challenges will need to be met in urban centres.

Australia’s future cities will need more green open space, for recreation and health benefits. They will need smart design to make homes more efficient and more liveable. More agile public transport will be needed to service cities with higher populations without falling prey to congestion and gridlock. The cities of the future will be vibrant, exciting places that are also producers of environmental value, rather than producers of waste.

It’s important that we get started now. Developments and changes in urban infrastructure move slowly, and delaying will reduce our ability to compete in the new world of digital technology and automation.

Most importantly, we need  strong, research-based planning to underpin a vision of vibrant, liveable, smart cities, economically productive but sitting lightly on their environment, powering Australia’s people and its economy into a prosperous, sustainable future.

Dr Simon Toze is research director of the Liveable, Sustainable and Resilient Cities program at CSIRO Land and Water


A version of this article was originally published in the Newcastle Herald. Read the original article.

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