Designing the cities of the future

  • Olivier Usher

    Olivier Usher

    Head of Research

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  • Kathy Nothstine

    Kathy Nothstine

    Head, Future Cities

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11 Aug 2019

This is an exciting moment in time – there hasn’t been this much disruption to the fundamental design of urban environments since the invention of the internal combustion engine in the late 1800s.

So how do we harness technology in order to craft the cities of the future? How do we create visionary urban environments that are designed to make us happier and improve our wellbeing? 

These are the challenges that cities across the world are facing as they struggle to catch up or keep pace with technologies that are disrupting how we live in our cities now; from the advent of driverless cars and drones to building design and infrastructure pressures. 


More than half of the UK population lives in cities and much of the country’s economic activity takes place in urban areas. Emerging technology such as AI and IoT could help improve the lives of people living in cities while enhancing productivity and delivering better services. But speed is of the essence and cities need to take control and decide their futures now. Some technology is evolving faster than cities are set up to cope with, with rapid advances outpacing existing infrastructure and legislation. Once that technology is available it’s difficult to put it back in its box, so planning effectively and designing practical visions is critical. 

It’s clear that electric cars, autonomous driving and AI are already creating fundamental changes and demands of city planners. Considerable investment is being made in ‘urban air mobility’ prototypes from both innovative SMEs and larger, more traditional companies. To address these challenges we need to bring together stakeholders such as planners, regulators, innovators, commercial groups, technologists, industry and the public to develop innovative solutions – and supportive regulation – hand-in-hand.   

Drone technology is a good example of this. Consider the Gatwick Airport incident in December 2018 when unauthorised drone activity caused approximately 1,000 flights to be diverted or cancelled entirely, affecting the travel of around 140,000 passengers. It was the biggest disruption since ash from an Icelandic volcano shut the airport in 2010. The response to the incident revealed gaps in legislation regarding the management and response to drones.

This is why it’s so important to bring new stakeholders to the planning table as well as non-traditional players – everyone should contribute. For example, ownership of city airspace is now a big issue that will require the Civil Aviation Authority, city planners, local government, transport regulators and communities coming together like never before. 

Interestingly there’s a growing agreement between the key stakeholders on what the future for drones could look like in the UK. Drones are already active in the military sphere as well as agriculture, construction and offshore drilling; in fact TfL even used drones throughout the Crossrail project to explore the new construction of the tunnels.

Drones can play an active commercial role in supporting the smooth-running and operation of urban environments including medical delivery, traffic incident response, construction and regeneration as well as supporting the fire and rescue service. The reality is that drones are already used frequently – the challenge now is harnessing their usefulness and scaling it appropriately in light of concerns such as privacy, safety and nuisance.  


Nesta Challenges has been exploring the potential for drone usage for a number of years and found that there’s considerable evidence that drones can provide substantial economic opportunity for the UK.  However, Nesta Challenges’ research also found that, just a couple of years ago, many cities across the globe weren’t aware of the potential of drones – whether for parcel delivery, police support, or for medical help. Now some countries – such as the US, Switzerland, Singapore and Australia – are already setting the pace and testing drones to support cities. 

As a charity, with no vested commercial interest, Nesta Challenges is keen to ensure that the UK is harnessing the best ideas and innovation in order to avoid being left behind the rest of the world. The UK is already rich in drone expertise with 700 SMEs currently involved in drone tech. Nesta Challenges is keen to ensure cities are determining the highest priorities for communities, while positioning the UK as a global leader in shaping drone systems that place people’s needs first.

As a result, we launched Flying High in 2017 – the first programme of its kind to convene city leaders, regulators, public services, businesses and industry around the future of drones in cities.  Forward-thinking cities were invited to apply to develop visions of the future use of drones and explore their social impact. 20 applied and five were initially selected: Bradford, London, Preston, Southampton and the West Midlands.

All of the participating cities recognise that drones can be useful but acknowledge that there are many things to work out in relation to their social impact. Importantly, policy and regulation have a big role to play in delivering positive impacts, especially if co-created with collaborating stakeholders. In other sectors, such as banking where Open Banking/PSD2 legislation is fostering new innovation, we’re seeing regulators adapting their approach to better manage evolving risks and take advantage of emerging opportunities. Inspired by the innovative progress that this forward-thinking regulation has unleashed, it’s hoped a similar impact can be made in the use of drones for the benefit of cities.

To enable regulators to behave in this progressive way, the £10 million Regulators’ Pioneer Fund supports bodies to create a regulatory environment that gives innovative businesses the confidence to invest, innovate and deploy emerging technologies for the benefit of consumers and the wider economy. The Civil Aviation Authority received £1 million from the fund to support a project that includes an ‘innovation sandbox’ that will bring together relevant bodies – including Nesta Challenges and the participants in Flying High – to unblock legislative and regulatory barriers to innovations like drones for social good. 


Nesta Challenges is also keen to create a ‘living lab’ – a testing environment that will allow cities to explore the social impact of drones and the knock-on effects. Will cities and urban centres become homes to multiple micro-airports for drones? Will goods now be delivered to roofs rather than basements in buildings? Is it safer to have drones cleaning windows? How do you tackle the issue of security and privacy? How do you control and legislate for drones operated beyond the visual line of site? How can drones be used for social good? It’s a complex situation, and regulations will need to evolve to allow some cases to operate, such as medical delivery, while also factoring in safety and privacy. This can only be done with everyone at the table. 

The first phase of Flying High investigated how cities would craft a vision for drone utilisation in city landscapes and the exciting opportunities for UK companies and organisations. Cities were especially interested in data-capture and how drones could be used to support fire and police, infrastructure development, and medical services. Five socially beneficial use cases were identified to explore the technical, social and economic aspects. These include medical delivery in London, traffic incident response in the West Midlands, Southampton/Isle of Wight medical delivery, construction and regeneration in Preston, and supporting the fire and rescue service in Bradford. 

The UK has an opportunity to lead the way in creating these real-world use cases, pioneering safe, sustainable drone systems that deliver the benefits for cities and members of the public, outlined in the first phase. Nesta Challenges is currently undertaking a design phase, exploring use case scenarios of socially beneficial urban drone services, designing testing capabilities, and creating the specifications of an outcome-based funding, stage-gate challenge prize to stimulate innovative service delivery and technology development, based on public and customer demand. The Flying High Challenge will ultimately lead to live, sustained urban demonstrations of socially beneficial urban drones services in UK cities in two years’ time.  

A key consideration for all stakeholders is how to build flexibility into any future plans. Technology will evolve and change, and it’s not simply the case of designing a future city and sitting back and hoping for the best.

It’s clear that this is a brave new world for many stakeholders whose training and backgrounds have not before had to consider the relentless pace of disruption caused by technology. The Flying High Challenge is a unique opportunity to get ahead of the technology and allow the UK’s urban landscape to embrace new innovations for the benefit of us all. As an internationally renowned, creative nation, with a wealth of expertise, we have the potential to shape not only our own cities of the future, but set the blueprint for cities around the globe too.