From the disruptive to the playful: what will the city of the 2020s look like?

3 min readMar 20


One of the trends that will continue to shape our world is the evolution of cities. What will the cities of the 2020s look like?

Paul Mason listed "the ten things a perfect city needs", ranging from hipster economics to political unrest, but with no mention of public space. Other city indexes focus on public space, like those produced by the EIU and Monocle. Where they differ from Mason's is their data-driven approach. If you took their methods to their logical conclusion, we could live in a world where democracy is replaced by a Panopticon, tracking everything to ensure our places are aligned with these indexes. Imagine your council's promise in 2030: "If it's not measured, it won't get done"! Part of the intelligent city movement believes we'll soon be able to create algorithms for how cities should be run.

While one day, the Smart City may be able to track every interaction we have with the spaces around us to design the optimal "user experience", we value public spaces in much more intuitive ways — like our trip to the seaside as a child or our first kiss in the park.

However, we've had intelligent city movements before, from Roman builders to Victorian engineers, transforming our lives for the better, introducing new technologies to help us travel quicker to manage our sewage more efficiently.

Nowhere is this more visible than by the sea. As Dan Thompson highlights, seaside towns were "the places that industry carried out its R&D. They are scattered with rusted remains of prototyped cutting-edge technology, from concrete seawalls…to mechanical marine lifts".

Nowadays, it's become much easier for citizens to use the infrastructure that technology runs on to carry out our R&D, from creating a website to 3D printing a house.

So before we throw the 3D-printed baby out with the bathwater, let's explore how we can support citizens to use technology to use the spaces around them best.

Who uses public spaces?

But before we explore the opportunities for people to make the best use of the spaces around them, let's understand what motivates people to use public spaces, using Demos' typology of different users of public space.

What influences people most in whether public spaces meet their needs is the level and type of interaction they expect to have with others. Some groups look to spaces where institutions will structure & control interaction, like shopping malls, churches or sports clubs. Other groups prefer to use public spaces as infrastructure to create new forms of interaction, from doing hobbies and watching over the neighbourhood to more spontaneous interventions.

There are different models of how cities should be designed. As you can see from this diagram below, they cater to particular types of users of public spaces. Our society's challenge is that it's becoming increasingly difficult to relate to people who don't think or act like us. People who don't feel comfortable interacting with people they don't know feel threatened by those who want nothing more than this. People who want things to stay the way they've always been those who want to disrupt how things are done to stimulate innovation.

Trying to organise public spaces based on the design principles of a particular model will, therefore, always create inequalities between different groups. What's most important is supporting various forms of interaction that complement each other.

So how can we create "in-between spaces" at the intersection of spontaneous and curated activities, formal and informal design and intimate and collective interactions?

We can invert roles, getting citizens to design their local parks. We can subvert resources, filling sweet machines with bombs so children can grow food. We can graft practices from another field, like using sensors & gaming to get lamp posts to talk to people. In other words, we can find new ways of using existing resources which may have yet to be used in public spaces.

As Demos argue, "if we can get the micro public spaces of street corners, cafés, malls and parks to flourish in a way that simultaneously meets people's personal needs and the wider common good, then this intelligence and the patterns of interaction stimulated might just 'trickle up' and start creating patterns and value on the next scale up."




Head of Policy Design, Scrutiny & Partnerships @newhamlondon #localgov Co-founder of #systemschange & #servicedesign progs. inspired by @cescaalbanese