We have invited partners and participants in the Festival of the Future City to contribute articles on areas of work they are engaged in of relevance to the upcoming events. Professor Sir Mark Walport is the Government Chief Scientific Adviser and head of the Government Office for Science.

Cities matter to the UK. They concentrate the majority of the UK’s population, trade, commerce, cultural and social life. They are places of opportunity, where national policy objectives can succeed or fail, shaping not only their own future, but also that of the wider national system of cities.

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The UK is moving from a period of centralization to a new period, in which central government vests powers to cities and city regions through a range of bespoke City, Growth and Devolution Deals. This change presents decision-makers with many opportunities and challenges. So city policy makers need access to robust evidence and science on the nature and development of cities in order to make positive and resilient decisions. Their decisions will have long term impacts on the future of cities around the UK.

During the last two years, the Government Office for Science has run a Foresight project to develop an evidence base on the future of UK cities to help policy makers. It has looked forwards 25 and 50 years to 2040 and 2065 to think about how people might live, work and play in cities in the future. Cities are immensely complex systems bringing together large numbers of people with advanced infrastructures: social, built, engineered and technological. So the evidence base is correspondingly diverse.

The challenge is to understand how this diverse evidence can be used for policy and decision making, given that the object under consideration (a city) is constantly evolving and changing. Decisions made in cities and at a national level have impacts over a long timeframe. These decisions typically transcend sectors and areas of service delivery. For example, we are still living with the health impacts of the decision to promote car-oriented design in cities almost 50 years ago. So the Foresight project looks backwards as well as forwards. Understanding the past is key to thinking about the future.

Throughout the project we have worked with cities that are developing visions of their own futures, helping us to ensure that we are asking the best questions and creating an evidence base that is both robust and useful.

The point of the project is not to attempt to predict exact futures. This is impossible. It is to consider a range of scenarios that can help policy makers to think in a structured way about different possible futures, some much more desirable than others. Scenarios can also help to analyse the uncertainties inherent in policy design, for example by simulating the ways a policy might play out in different futures, and identifying those policies that are most robust to changing circumstances.

Cities cannot be considered in isolation – they are part of a complex system. They interact locally with towns and with the countryside, and with other cities nationally and around the world. Policies made in one place affect another – so an effective system of policy making is needed to manage this complexity that brings together local, regional and national policy makers and leaders.

Through combining innovative use of evidence and different futures approaches, as well as the pro-active creation of spaces for open and creative exploration, the future of our cities can be thought about, designed, developed and delivered.

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Illustration at top: One of four future visions developed by Urry, Birtchell, Caletrio and Pollastri for the Foresight project.

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