Great cities have always had commerce at their hearts. And the continual transformation of society, harnessing resources and using technology to innovate, transforms reality. It provides wealth for everyone. It's why people around the world are now overwhelmingly likely to live in a city.
From the earliest city-states, we saw how Michelangelo captured the moment of a belief in freedom and independence for the Florentines, under Medici rule. His David — eyes fixed on the direction of Rome — is the Republic, art and design, and commerce all mixing up with politics.
More recently, we have seen the bold Victorians who contributed staggering engineering feats of bridges and tunnelling for transportation, along with the first skyscrapers with electricity. Then we had movements, like Modernism and Bauhaus, that had big visions of the role of design as a part — and way — of life.
Today though, we have a strongly dominant narrative: limits to growth and sustainable development. A glaring oxymoron if ever there was one.
London needs a renaissance
Last year I performed a poem at the Battle of Ideas festival — professing my love of London, in a clash between it and other cities. This year I shall be highly critical of London — again because of my love for it. When we talk of 'London' it can mean so many different things. Some think it is merely a tapestry of local areas weaving into one another, often chaotically. Others see a dynamic, creative and bustling global metropolis with ever more skyscrapers on the horizon.
But it seems to me that London is being severely hampered by our lack of imagination: politically, economically and culturally. We need a new vision. We need a renaissance in thinking and approach.
One of the biggest problems in the past three decades since the end of the Cold War is the collapse of big competing ideas that were linked to bold visions. Grand masterplans are often seen as problematic. The electoral cycle influences too much, and the broader commitment to long term ambitious projects for 10-20 years and beyond are trumped by bureaucratic attempts to balance the ever decreasing budgets available. Big universal ideas and projects are often seen unsympathetically. The lack of commitment — the anxious, precautionary approach to large scale infrastructure — is a huge problem for us all.
When in Beijing, I am continually astonished by the scale and speed of development. So too in Mumbai. And we see similarly across much of Africa now, with the highest growing GDPs anywhere. London has taken 30 years to complete Crossrail. It's still delayed.
Entrepreneur Peter Thiel infamously made the point that "We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters." (The characters have gone up now, not so the flying cars.) With this statement he was making a much broader point. He and a few others had realised that behind all the hype of Silicon Valley and Tech, iPhones and social media, the reality is that computers helped transform life in the 1950s-70s, but slowed down after that. Phil Mullan calls this out in his excellent book Creative Destruction.
London has a Tech City and Google campus. Talk of 'Silicon Alley' from City to Thames is all very good spin, yet we are still are flying jets out of Heathrow that go slower than they did in 1970. We're still panicking about new runways. And when you get to Heathrow you have to get a drink in before 11pm. London is in many ways still very provincial.
London is in many ways still very provincial
It's all part of a wider historic and social problem facing society. We are stuck with a limited amount of resources — and old fashioned views of what is left or right. What we need now is ambition and strength — a combination of state and market for the big infrastructure projects: Fast rails. New tunnels. Flying drones. Electric roads with AI and driverless cars. We also need 3D printing across all manufacturing, science, and engineering. We have a lack of research and development, and an unhealthy desire for quick profits.
We need more people with the vision of Elon Musk. All endeavours cost at the start. We need to understand that taking risks is part of success more broadly.
This risk aversion makes us less well off: we in London are particularly hard hit. Real wage levels have stagnated from the 1970s (workers at Ford in the US were on $30 an hour back then). This wage stagnation is a serious issue. People talk about a minimum wage, yet if we were serious about production and creation; about technology and investment; about research and development, we'd ensure the rising living standards of everyone.
The irony is that we now have stagnated wages and low skill jobs that do little to inspire, while companies ever growing bigger are reluctant to invest substantially for the future. This, alongside the political sclerosis, leaves us beyond sluggish. We would do well to remember that with any new development, we have to have the churn of the old. Marshall Berman's masterpiece on modernism and the development of modern cities, All That Is Solid Melts Into Air, shows beautifully (and sometimes painfully) how creatively destroying is the way we transform the world — and ourselves.
London, for all its bragging rights, needs to reorient itself towards a far more ambitious way of doing things all round.
Regulation is suffocation
We know we need new houses. But we need proper partnerships. Not politicians who have taken their hands off the wheel. They jettisoned control of The Bank of England, and control over monetary policy and want increasingly only to tinker — all while Rome burns…
We need three million more homes across Greater London. Higher up, for density. And further out, across the green belt. 90% of Britain is green and not built on. We need to plan together. Some people are doing interesting things. But even the biggest of these plans — like in Newham, thriving in the wake of the 2012 Games — are limited by broader restricted outlooks.
The sad truth is that we are hobbling along
We talk a very good game. Creative This and Innovative That. The sad truth is that we are hobbling along. And we could all have more time for leisure, intellectual and cultural development if we expanded production together and had some of the guts of the old Victorian planners.
One thing we can pinpoint that is hampering our ability to grow is the new dominant impulse to regulate, regulate, regulate.
Here's an irony: Hackney Council has been utterly transformed in no small part from the contribution of nightlife bars clubs and events. This brings in and drives retail, attracts international talent like Mother and numerous other global companies who want to be around the excitement. Yet, in 2016 Hackney Council was claiming that new clubs were "not considered appropriate". The council has now implemented a policy with curfews of 11pm and 12am for new venues. Meanwhile, many other boroughs are now engaging in discussions about 'cumulative impact zones' and 'special policy areas'.
What they mean of course, is that people like going to these places. Just as they liked going to the 2012 Games. But now they address much in terms of urine, vomit, crime, noise, nuisance…
We need to have a far more grown-up approach to the overall curation and design of the kind of future global, 24-hour city that we want. That is why we need to work in partnership for grand urban master plans. King's Cross is a brilliant example of what can be achieved with the right approach.
We need to say that we can do far better: that we will take risks, that business and policy makers will come together — and that the public are part of the positive solutions.
Let's call things for what they are. That's the first step to solving any problems. There are some incredible things in London — and I for one do not think that cereal cafes are a bigger problem than the riots. But I do know that trendy shops run by committed young people for a pittance will not transform London.
We need big plans. Otherwise we run the risk of becoming less of a city, more of a museum.