Brave New World

13th October 2021 | Lee Salvidge, Creative Director

We’re always looking to do new things, better things. We love challenging and pushing for a different way to make an impact. We often we find ourselves sitting next to the change makers of the world, in a position to be part of the move to a better way for people and the environment.

When approached by a client bidding for a Green Energy project in Bristol recently, we got excited about being involved in a project which would change the environmental impact from a city of over half a million. Half a million people, who would for the most part love to pollute less and live in a cleaner world.

We did however wonder how this type of project might look if there was a larger pot of funding to build a green city from scratch. Could we clear the hurdles on the journey to a brand new cityscape?

I’m sure we have all pondered the notion “what if we could start again?”

With land and resources becoming scarcer year by year, new ‘mega’ cities are popping up around the globe at an unprecedented rate: Such as South Koreas self-styled “smart city” Songdo.

They are often barely differentiable and designed and serviced by the same cohort of international consultancies. Yet, the majority of these newly planned cities are not designed to benefit everyone. They are instruments to attract international investment and make the urban rich even richer, at a time when property has become the ultimate global currency.

They also provide a powerful means for wealthy countries to expand their strategic influence abroad. The construction of new cities has been described as a form of “debt-trap diplomacy”, or framed only slightly differently, new financial colonialism.

Writers and futurist visionaries have imagined plans for new cities and worlds for centuries, both Utopian and Dystopian. At a time when 2 billion people are predicted to move from rural to urban environments in the next 20 years, proper consideration of the impact this change will have to society is imperative.

The green, gold rush.

Imagine a place where water is the new oil, where people cluster in the richest of seams. Somewhere nature becomes city and data is the branch and root system.

Enter Neom, Saudi Arabia.

A new city called ‘The Line’ is to be built in Neom and will be home to one million people, living in interconnected societies run by artificial intelligence designed to coexist with nature. All energy will come from 100 per cent renewable sources, harvested from the near local environment. Confronting the traffic, pollution and infrastructure challenges that overshadow urban life in conventional cities, this futuristic development will prioritise walkability, clean energy and technology to create a new way of living. Sounds great doesn’t it?

However Neom, with its moderated and selective inclusion and its parallel legal system is more an elite enclave of privileged society. A futuristic version of financial paradise that is also set to include a vast data-gathering network, including drone and facial-recognition technology covering the entire city-state.

George Orwell might be concerned about this type of new society, given the control mechanisms necessary to limit benefits only to those chosen by wealth. The very terms from Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four which are now common vernacular, like “Big Brother”, “Thought Police” and “News Speak” are immediately relevant and demonstrate how contentious this approach to building new communities could become.

What about here in the UK? Could we conjure the political will and planning foresight needed to be radical in our aspiration for change? Where bold schemes from the past often seem like unsightly misjudgements in the contemporary landscape, how would we find the space or thirst for a concept so long term in its realisation? This would need brave thought, brave money and brave leadership.

We’re working on more and more projects that have a positive impact on the environment, and less on the damaging and in-equitable ones. It’s a trend we are aiming to embrace and nurture.

We’re brave enough with our clients to work ‘at risk’ on projects we think could have a lasting, positive impact on the world going forward. It’s because everyone is at risk if no-one is brave enough to welcome change with open arms.

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