The Possible issue 05: what kind of places are we creating?

September 2019

Words by Tom Smith

That’s a question that crops up a lot in this issue of The Possible, sometimes from unexpected angles.

Smart city technologies are developing quickly, in capability and implementation. What’s lagging behind is our understanding of their implications, for societies and human psychology. We are only beginning to quantify the profound influence the built environment exerts on people, with the aid of disciplines such as neuroscience. The next step is to work out how to use this new knowledge — and the incredibly powerful tools at our disposal — to make places that are healthy, sustainable and successful.

We need to tread carefully. The unintended consequences of good intentions echo throughout this issue too, from carbon reduction policies that lower air quality, to the risk that urban greening leads to suburban sprawl. Managing buildings digitally can increase comfort for occupants but leave them prone to intrusive surveillance, while the smartphones that enable us to navigate unfamiliar cities may sap our cognitive abilities at the same time…

The new world we are engineering requires thoughtful, multifaceted solutions, as we seek answers to questions that no one has faced before. The challenges have never been so great — but then neither has the potential.

Tom Smith is global director, property & buildings, at WSP

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