Tech and the City – not yet a happy combination

Jeff Nottage, Broadway Malyan

Cities are embracing technology but according to Jeff Nottage of Broadway Malyan while it is helping with efficiency, only one in five experts believe it is adding to well-being and happiness.

The UK government predicts that the global market for ‘smart city’ solutions will be $408bn by 2020 and it believes that the UK has particular strengths in delivering services which could account for up 25% of the total market. In July India’s new government announced it will spend $1.13bn on building 100 smart cities, taking its cue from developments elsewhere in Asia, including China and Singapore.

"Only one in five urban design experts thinks that IT is having a significant positive impact on the well-being and happiness of citizens in global cities."

With all the talk about so-called ‘smart cities’, in which ‘smart technology’ will be harnessed to make cities greener, more efficient and improve the quality of life for citizens, there’s an implicit assumption that technology will result in happier and more enjoyable places.

However, research that undertaken at Broadway Malyan in advance of a presentation at the UK’s Urban Design Group’s national conference last week reveals that only one in five urban design experts thinks that IT is having a significant positive impact on the well-being and happiness of citizens in global cities.

That’s despite many believing that IT is playing a major role across global cities such as Abu Dhabi, London, Sao Paulo and Shanghai – in aiding people movement, driving the use of shared places, improving city management, changing the appearance and form of cities and delivering better designed buildings and places.

The study involved interviews with 60 expert urban designers and masterplanners across our 16-strong global studio network – in Asia (India, Shanghai and Singapore), Europe (Azerbaijan, Poland, Portugal, Spain and the UK), the Middle East (Abu Dhabi) and Americas (Brazil and Chile) – and focuses on the impact of Information Technology on cities and towns.

Movement around cities

According to the research, almost half of the experts (49%) say that IT is making it significantly easier and faster to move around their city, while just over a third (35%) describe the impact as slightly better.

Asked which IT has the biggest positive impact in aiding movement around their city, nearly half (47%) nominate smart phones with GPS, with real-time information display boards the next most highly-rated technology (14%).

40% suggest that smart traffic control will be the IT that makes the biggest positive impact on movement around their city in the future, while just over a fifth (21%) nominate driverless cars and vehicles.

Real-time information displays at rail stations and bus stops are encouraging more people to use public transport networks in cities and initiatives such as the Oyster Card in London have helped to make networks feel more joined up and accessible.

IT is also making it easier and quicker to plan journeys and smart phone Apps, such as National Rail or TfL Bus Countdown in the UK, enable people to find out when the next service is, buy a ticket, book a car parking space at the station and check for road delays.  

I believe that ‘driverless cars’, a hot subject but a very challenging concept, have huge potential through their efficient use of space to free up major areas within cities. I would speculate that they could free up to ten per cent of space in major cities for non-road uses. Just imagine what London could do with that amount of ‘new’ land – perhaps it would see new ‘linear parks’ and provide new housing.  

Significantly, our experts in cities in the developing world such as Sao Paulo, and cities in mainland Europe where infrastructure is playing catch up including Warsaw, suggest that the development of basic infrastructure such as roads and railways is still at the top of the priority list – so it’s clear that the higher-tech stuff will have to wait.

Use of shared space

A quarter (25%) say that IT is significant in encouraging the use of shared public and community places, such as parks and plazas, in their city, while 40% describe its impact as slight.

Nearly three-quarters (73%) predict that IT will help to create entirely new types of public and community facilities in their city in the future.

Many of the UK’s major cities including London have public spaces with Wi-Fi – which encourages people to frequent them over the course of the day. When once you fed the pigeons in Trafalgar Square, now you can sit and browse the web!

The design of these public spaces could have a major impact on internet usage and number of people using lap-tops, tablets and other devices. Public spaces with shaded quiet areas, movable seats and a nearby takeaway coffee shop are the most attractive locations for IT users.

Studies carried out in a number of North American cities examined the differences between hard open, unsheltered urban plazas such as Nathan Philips Square in Toronto and leafy green parks with shading and movable seating such as Bryant Park in New York – and confirmed that the latter resulted in a dramatic increase in internet users.

Management of cities

Two-thirds (66%) report that IT significantly improves the management of their city, while just over a quarter (26%) advise it has a slight impact.

Asked which IT will have the biggest impact on the management of their city in the future, just over a quarter say data collection (26%) and just under a quarter (24%) nominate traffic management.

The vast majority (95%) predict that IT will encourage people to participate in making decisions about their city in the future.

Our Sao Paulo-based experts referred to Rio and its data control centre as an example of a city taking city management through IT seriously – there, flash flooding can be forecast, citizens warned and emergency services directed to the scene. The same centre also monitors the city’s roads and traffic flows.

Across the pond in New York, London’s rival for the global city title, there’s a trend for increased local participation in city management and planning. Here, for example, citizens are able to report poorly managed roads with potholes straight to the central authorities.

Meanwhile, in Singapore the system enables authorities to understand rainfall in the city and automatically direct the city’s taxis fleet to the part of the city most affected.

Appearance and form of cities

Approaching half (45%) report that IT is having a significant impact on the appearance and form of their city, while just over a third (37%) talk of a slight impact.

Asked which IT is having the biggest impact on the appearance and form of their city, nearly one third (29%) nominate large scale video screens, while just over a quarter (26%) suggest building design, materials and construction. Other suggestions include telecom masts, antennae and satellite dishes.

Nearly half (47%) say that IT is having a significant impact in enabling the design of better buildings and places, while almost a third (32%) report it is having a slight impact.

The structure of many world cities remains the same today as they have for centuries, with the City of London and its tight medieval streets being a perfect example. We still replace buildings with new buildings – for example, we knocked down the offices at Southwark Towers and replaced them with offices in The Shard and we demolished the housing in the Kidbrooke Estate to replace it with new housing in the form of Kidbrooke Village.

However, it’s clear that IT is changing the character and appearance of cities. For example, in the UK IT is changing the traditional look of many high streets – where the bandstand was once the focal point now it’s a giant video screen with civic information and advertising.

Well-being and happiness

Significantly, less than one in five experts (18%) believe that IT is significantly improving the well-being and happiness of citizens in their city.  

Under one third (32%) describe it as only resulting in a slight improvement and just over a third (36%) attribute a moderate improvement.

Asked which IT will have the biggest impact on the well-being and happiness in their city in the future, over a third (38%) nominate medical and health monitoring and diagnostics – compared with only one in five (20%) who suggest IT that aids freedom of movement.

This negative response relates to the real, perceived and future impacts that IT could have on cities such as London – particularly in a social sense. Sitting in a park or plaza surfing the web is all well and good, but when you are surrounded by dozens of other people all doing the same, arguably that’s not really a good thing – where’s the buzz and the social interaction?

When you can order items online from home, work from home, find out information in an instant that previously took a visit to the library or gallery, it does nothing to help create a sense of community and contribute to human well-being and happiness – and it certainly won’t help to foster vitality in town centres.


IT is a new layer to cities, enhancing our ability to interact with our built environment – rather than replacing or mediating our basic human needs for shelter, culture, recreation, social and economic activity. I believe that the human experience must be kept at the heart of city and place design and the focus should be on creating well-designed places which enhance the well-being and happiness of citizens.


Jeff Nottage is director of masterplanning at global architecture, urbanism and design practice Broadway Malyan