Research Priorities: A Modeller’s perspective

placeholder-project-001Sir Alan Wilson FBA FAcSS FRS, Professor of Urban and Regional Systems in the Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis at University College London

We know a lot about cities, but there is much more that we need to know to meet future challenges effectively. My aim here is to sketch some research priorities from the perspective of the Government Office for Science Foresight Project on The Future of Cities – but much coloured by a personal position of having spent 50 years of my life on a quest to build a comprehensive mathematical model of a city that is both good science and is useful for planning and policy purposes! This narrows what I can offer but I can argue that a combination of the Foresight framework and a modelling perspective provides a good starting point.

The Foresight project has a 50-year time horizon and works at two scales – the UK system of cities as a whole, and particular city systems. There are six themes: living in cities, urban economies, urban metabolism, urban form, infrastructure and governance. A key message at the outset is the need to recognise high levels of interdependence (and hence the need for a comprehensive model to contribute to the analysis). What do we need to know? And what do we know now?

We know a lot about how people live in cities: housing in relation to incomes, work and incomes, use of services, connectivities through transport and telecoms systems. All of this can be modelled pretty well. We are less good at integrating this knowledge into comprehensive indices of utility – the economists’ perspective – or of well-being – the broader social science view. So measuring utilities of people – whether as revealed preferences or otherwise – by type and at a place, should go on to our priorities list.

We know a lot in theory about urban economies. The Centre for Cities provides a top-class analysis on the basis of available data. We know how to build input-output accounts and models of cities but we don’t have the data to actually do this in practice. We know from national input-output models that we can gain an understanding of balance of payments via imports and exports by sector across national boundaries. We understand the consequences of long-term imbalances, particularly deficits. It would be valuable if we had this information for cities – imports and exports now subdivided between the intra-national and the international.

Modelling urban metabolism is straightforward in principle though a substantial task in practice; redesigning cities to meet low-carbon targets on the basis of this knowledge is wholly non-trivial! We also understand the history of our urban forms in the UK and how they have evolved. From a research perspective, for the future, this throws the searchlight on to ‘land’: land uses and values, land availability for conversion or development. ‘Governance’ as a topic is underpinned by our knowledge of policy levers – fiscal, revenue and capital expenditure, regulation and planning; and perhaps by the flow of public money which is what the current autonomy debate is about – well illustrated by the recent Centre for Cities paper on this topic: ‘Mapping Britain’s Public Finances’, by Louise McGough and Paul Swinney.

What are the drivers of change? Interdependencies kick in all the way through this discussion. Modes of living in cities will change through technological change – an obvious example being internet retailing and new ways of delivering services. Core demography is important with ONS projecting an ageing and a growing population – though with neither category evenly distributed across the country. There is much uncertainty in the growth estimates – the scale of growth being determined very much by the assumptions that are made about migration. Technological change will drive much of the economy – much of it highly unpredictable. Climate change will drive us to low-carbon targets and that will impact on all themes: retrofitting for energy conservation, short trips (no cars?), higher densities, different transport systems?

What can be done? Three kinds of thinking are needed: policy development, including citizen engagement; design, or invention, of plans and solutions to challenges; analysis of challenges and plans. The science is typically centred on the analysis though it can contribute to all three. The levers of government have been outlined earlier. All of this thinking should be rooted in an interdisciplinary knowledge base and urban research is about building this base. The task of overcoming disciplinary silos is substantial but at least broadly understood. What might be less understood, though the case is obvious once made, is the need for interprofessional approaches to meeting challenges. Can engineers , planners, policy developers and politicians work together and with an interdisciplinary science base? Ways and means for this represent research challenges in themselves.

So what does all of this mean for research priorities? We have already had some modelling examples: a better integrated construction of place utilities for different population groups. This would help in a currently-acknowledged push towards place-making above development control for the planning profession. And the need for data on urban economies that would underpin the building of urban input-output models – and indeed a UK system of city input-output models with associated trade flows explicit. The gathering of new data should be based on identified need – so we need to be cautious about ‘big data’ initiatives and ‘smart solutions’ which are not underpinned by understanding. ‘Data science’ is not ‘science’ without ‘theory’ – can anyone imagine doing physics on such a basis? There could be a longer list of more specific analysis topics. Can economists – or economists in an interdisciplinary team – articulate the full range of impacts of HS2 and the way in which such knowledge could be used in future evaluation of transport projects?

Can we then connect analysis to design and policy? We can’t forecast for the long-run future. What we can do is articulate the challenges for the short-run and design scenarios to be explored for the long run. This involves real invention and the URBED prize-winning design for the Wolfson Prize competition is a good example of this. This is territory which doesn’t figure large in academic life but could be the basis of a significant new research area. There are many other potential areas for research. In relation to autonomy, can we articulate good principles of subsidiarity both in relation to responsibility and the allocation of resources? To what extent will challenges be met through markets without much public intervention? A good project would be the articulation of areas of market failure coupled with proposals on how to handle them.

And finally, there is a challenge on the geography of governance. I have avoided the question which I am often asked: what is a city? These days we are likely to fall back on the idea of functional city regions? What does this imply for broader scale – geographically – of governance? Are we prisoners of existing local authority boundaries (even when they are combined)? And a related question I am often asked in conferences and public meetings: what about rural areas? We can actually draw boundaries on a plausible basis that make city regions contiguous. Or in the more extreme cases – Norfolk? – someone introduced me to the idea of a county as a distributed city. Underlying these questions, of course, is a deeper one: what are the levels of connectivity we need (or would like) in different kinds of areas?

This is very evidently not an organised list of research priorities and any views expressed are entirely personal! So please, reader, take it in the spirit of the blog rather than an academic paper, and as a contribution to what will be an ongoing debate. There are more explorations of this kind in my own blog: – comments always welcome.


Guest author biography:

Alan Wilson is Professor of Urban and Regional Systems in the Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis at University College London. He is Chair of the Home Office Science Advisory Council and of the Lead Expert Group for the GO-Science Foresight Project on the Future of Cities. He was responsible for the introduction of a number of model building techniques which are now in common use – including ‘entropy’ in building spatial interaction models. His current research, supported by ESRC and EPSRC grants, is on the evolution of cities and global dynamics. He was one of two founding directors of GMAP Ltd in the 1990s – a successful university spin-out company. He was Vice-Chancellor of the University of Leeds from 1991 to 2004 when he became Director-General for Higher Education in the then DfES. From 2007-2013 he was Chair of the Arts and Humanities Research Council. He is a Fellow of the British Academy, the Academy of Social Sciences and the Royal Society. He was knighted in 2001 for services to higher education. His recent books include Knowledge power (2010), The science of cities and regions, his five volume (edited) Urban modelling (both 2013) and (with Joel Dearden) Explorations in urban and regional dynamics (2015).