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Connected Places fit for the future

Cities and towns thrive on their ability to connect people – to resources, opportunities, ideas and to each other. The smooth flow of people, goods and services into and around a place, between them and beyond (by air and sea) is a vital component of economic success.

Throughout history, the diffusion of innovative technologies has enabled ever-increasing levels of connectivity – physically through bridges, aqueducts, railways and skyscrapers, virtually through internet connected sensors and contactless payments, and socially through urban design and civic infrastructure – delivering in turn scale and productivity. Research from MIT shows that an urban area which doubles in population enjoys a 130% boost in productivity.1 As the UK Government’s Industrial Strategy rightly notes, ‘Place’ is a key foundation of productivity and a driver of Britain’s future economic success.

However, just as places with high quality, high capacity connectedness enjoy success, when the quality and ‘bandwidth’ of that connectivity falters – whether physical, virtual or social – productivity and wellbeing also suffers.

As more and more people globally live, work, play and learn in urban areas, for many the growing pains of urbanisation are starting to outweigh the benefits.

Places around the world now suffer from congested roads, toxic air, creaking public infrastructure and social isolation. To give just one example, a British study by Hewlett Packard found that peak hour commuters (road and rail) experience higher levels of stress than fighter pilots or riot police facing protestors. The time it takes to detoxify those workers brains from that stress eats into their productivity for up to an hour after arriving at work – and weakens their social bonds at the end of the day too.

This work/life pattern, enforced by our inelastic built environment and overburdened transport networks, is one contributing reason for why 35% of UK citizens report they do not feel connected to community – an epidemic of loneliness ranked as high a risk factor for mortality as smoking and a further drain on economic productivity.

In the UK and around the world, a new step change in connectivity is required to reset the balance and upgrade ‘humanity’s greatest invention’ to meet the needs of the 21st century.

Developing and scaling the products and services that will enable these upgrades represents a major commercial opportunity for UK businesses. Whether new mobility services for people and goods that tackle productivity sapping congestion, data-driven digital tools that drive transformation in the real estate and development sector, next-generation digital connectivity and devices that improve the efficiency of public services, or applications of cutting-edge neuroscience that shape inclusive work places and public spaces, the opportunities are myriad.

The global market opportunity for firms that develop, service and sustain our urban settlements and their hinterlands is already estimated to be worth $500bn and is expected to double by 2023. The closely related global markets for connected autonomous transport and new mobility services are estimated to value £581bn and £525bn respectively by 2030.

Such innovations promise considerable spill over benefits to the wider economy:

  • Optimising the flow of goods between the place(s) of production, the marketplace, and the place of use would reduce cost and drive competitiveness (currently 10- 15% of product costs are transport-related).
  • ‘Clean’ mobility solutions that cut emissions and particulate matter from vehicles (currently 12% of all PM and 51% of NO2) would deliver significant health and productivity benefits – already around 1.2bn working days a year are lost globally due to the negative impact of air pollution on employee wellbeing.
  • More agile spatial planning that reduced the time commuters waste in transit (400 days over a lifetime) and the time needed to distress would drive workplace productivity for all.

Our Connected Places centre in London focuses on placemaking innovation like Planning, Housing, Breathability and Mobility, whilst our centre in Milton Keynes focuses on innovation in Transport Systems. If you have a project or innovation idea you would like to discuss with us, please get in touch with the relevant centre and we would love to help you develop your idea.