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

4 min readFeb 24, 2024

One of the trends that will continue to shape our world are the evolution of cities. We don’t know what future scenarios we’ll need to adapt to, but we know cities will need to continue to be adaptive as they’ve done over centuries and attract imagination and creativity to re-invent themselves.

In my previous post, I blogged about how we could take the constraint of being “locked into” our neighbourhoods to imagine what a more self-sustaining and resourceful neighbourhood will look like. What will the cities of the 2020s look like?

Many city indexes take a data-driven approach. If you took their methods to their logical conclusion, we could end up living in a world where democracy is replaced by a Panopticon, tracking everything to ensure the places we live 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 smart city movement believes we’ll soon be able to create algorithms for how cities should be run. However, the pandemic has shown that many people need data to feel safe and it has a powerful role to play in reducing the pandemic.

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 instinctive ways — like our trip to the seaside as a child or our first kiss in the park.

However, we’ve had smart city movements before, from Roman builders to Victorian engineers, transforming our lives for the better, introducing new technologies to help us travel quicker to managing 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”.

The difference nowadays is that it’s become much easier for citizens to use the infrastructure that technology runs on to carry out our own 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 make the best use of the spaces around them.

We’ll need cities that are self-sufficient, healthy and resilient, that are data-driven too, but open so that we can all feed in collective intelligence to help our cities adapt to new crises and challenges.

We’ll need sensors to track movements to enable people to physically distance, wider paths and more open spaces and less crowded high streets.

In terms of skills, we’ll need data scientists and epidemiologists, but also curators to reimagine our use of space.

What can we learn from how architecture after the Spanish Flu was “healthier by design”?

Who uses public spaces?

But before we explore the opportunities there are 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 together, 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 very specific types of users of public spaces. The challenge our society faces 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 by those who want to disrupt the way 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 to support different forms of interaction that can complement each other.

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

We can invert roles, getting citizens to be the designers of their local parks. We can subvert resources, filling sweet machines with sweet bombs so children can grow their own food. We can graft practices from other 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 never have been used in public space.

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