The disruptive 4th Industrial Revolution and its impact on Garden Cities

The disruptive 4th Industrial Revolution and its impact on Garden Cities

Just before the country plunged into the overwhelming disruption of the Second World War, Sir Anderson Montague-Barlow was asked by the Chamberlain Government to undertake a commission to appraise the geography and impact of industrialisation across the UK. 

Behind the commission was a contemporary rationale that industrial manufacturing was paramount to the gross domestic product of the nation, but that its current geography created a range of social problems.  There was an underlying belief that its future growth would be founded on providing quality new homes for workers.

When the commission reported, its primary recommendation was for the decentralisation of industry from the existing congested cities.  The recommendations of the commission became a blueprint for the idea of decentralising populations which later evolved into the post-war Better Britain campaigns. 

Fast forward to today, and the apple that is our new Industrial Strategy: Building a Britain Fit for the Future, released on the 27th November 2017, does not fall too far from the same tree: the British Industrial Strategy will help the UK to address the issues of low productivity and regional disparity of prosperity, and ‘propel Britain to global leadership of the industries of the future’ as the UK seeks its future outside of the EU.

Whilst the nature of the industrial opportunity is different, the rationale and needs are not too dissimilar. The Industrial Strategy heralds a 4th Industrial Revolution that will sweep the globe, as a range of new technologies fuse the physical, digital and biological worlds in a way that will impact all disciplines, economies, and industries. A 4th Industrial Revolution will be truly disruptive, and the UK needs to be ready for it.  In the November Budget, the Chancellor announced a range of fiscal measures looking to prime the 4th Industrial Revolution.

Yet it would appear little attention has been made to the intrinsically disruptive nature of what is heralded as the 4th Industrial Revolution on housing and the geography of growth. In the same Budget, measures were announced to support housing growth which, despite other measures to support devolution and economic rebalancing, many believe is likely to continue the concentration of housing growth in the South East.

Embracing the 4th Industrial Revolution

So what is the 4th Industrial Revolution, and what does it mean for a typical garden settlement?

Klaus Schwab, Founder and Executive Chairman of the World Economic Forum, set out in his book The Fourth Industrial Revolution some critical technology driven mega-trends he saw occurring across the globe that are impacting on economic growth and political governance.   And that are coming with an unprecedented velocity, breadth and depth. 

This is a technology revolution that will alter entire economic and political systems. 

Schwab breaks these trends down into:

  • Physical technology (autonomous and electrified cars, robotics, 3D printing)
  • Digital systems (the internet of things, digital currency)
  • Biological (genomic, materials)

He suggests that our future cities, under this revolution, could be built from new biosynthetic materials that have been 3D printed under controlled conditions in specialist manufacturing facilities.

Energy will be delivered through secure zero-carbon generation.  Cities will be autonomous where movement, health monitoring and education are managed through a single digital platform.  Even biological ecosystems could be genetically modified to be drought and flood resistant, with urban forms that support natural wildlife evolved to cope with severe climate change.

This is a future vision that the 4th Industrial Revolution could deliver, and one which the recent Chancellor’s budget has just underpinned.  There are some negative technological impacts too, that may be part of the revolution, and may create a much more subversive element.  The dissemination of information around the globe, and the challenges of verifying what may be true, what may be false and what may be misrepresented, will be part of the change.  Reliability of data streams will be core to the 4th industrial revolution, and the management of access and influence will dictate how well these new urban places are able to function.

This vision though does not deal with how city growth creates ‘place’ which forms the basis of societal interaction.  The policy framework associated with the 4th Industrial Revolution therefore needs to agile to ensure people and society are at the centre of the outcomes rather than dictated to by technology. 

How does this impact policy direction now and how does this affect Government plans for garden cities?

Humankind is global, but the differing nature of societies operating at the local level has always brought its challenges, whether this be economic or cultural – how much more will this be if technology is allowed to further erode what we understand as society. What does this mean for housing and economic policy at the national and city region level? And how are we expecting new settlements to respond to the opposing pressures of technological progression and the need to encourage growth which results in healthy, productive societies?

Perhaps we need another ‘Barlow Commission’ to fully explore this? As the Deputy Chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, Sir John Armitt, pointed out in a key note speech at the 2017 National Infrastructure Planning Association Dinner last week, a national spatial plan is needed to ensure that infrastructure investment supports growth in the most effective way; and as pointed out in the Final Report of the Industrial Strategy Commission, also in November 2017, Place Matters.

The breadth and depth of the 4th Industrial Revolution changes the entire system through which we will plan growth.  The capacity to pre-fabricate buildings - 3D printing houses in a controlled manufacturing environment, could changes the construction industry’s current local and regional service model, to a national model based around national manufacturing facilities.  This technology should, ultimately, be cheaper and result in a better product – potentially within greater variation and consumer choice.  The development of such a national industry will bring economic wealth to the city region who is able to accommodate it. 

As the Barlow commission reported, this centralisation does not necessarily need to be in the existing urban realms.  This may need to be an entirely new City Region – and if the UK isn’t at the forefront of competing for and developing these markets, this industrial revolution could be anywhere on the planet. 

The UK should be well placed in the international market.  Hence, this single centre for home manufacturing could be here – we could be a global centre for home manufacturing.  But we would need to act now – putting other short term distractions aside, to participate in this new race for economic productivity.

A ‘city region’ created on a flexible policy framework to enable mega-trends such as advanced manufacturing, 3D printing and new materials will be at the centre of global trade in home creation. 

Rather than building 200,000 homes a year for the UK, the global output requirement would be far greater.

A million homes for Europe every year, for example, will create a multi-billion new economy that will need labour, infrastructure and investment underpinning it.

The garden cities, towns and villages we are planning now should be the laboratories where we hone the skills and techniques we need, and build the businesses that will carry this revolution forward.

Where will success be then?

Klaus Schwab suggests that such a successful city region will need to be founded on ultrafast communication networks, zero-carbon energy and infrastructure that will determine its ability to attract talent.

This poses an interesting question.  If the, quite literal, balance of power (renewable power in this instance) is in Scotland and the North, not the South East; the scope to grow manufacturing capacity and labour force is in Scotland and the North, and the availability of land is in Scotland and the North; why has the Government focused its attention on housing growth and garden cities in the South?

It may be that this current housing strategy is too traditional, to backward facing, too much about projecting forward the trends and economic growth patterns of the past, and may miss the fundamental opportunity of the future.

If the Chancellor really wants Britain to lead the 4th Industrial Revolution, it might be an idea to dust off the Barlow Commission findings, and work out exactly where the UK wants the 4th Industrial Revolution to happen, and why.

Then we can plan amazing, exciting, desirable new garden settlements – from cities to villages, that will not just respond to a need, but will create, sustain and lead a new economic renaissance.