Professor Michael Keith, Director of COMPAS and University of Oxford Future Cities Network

A cardboard graffiti tag decorates a wall: ‘Change is the only constant. Fight it and I shall sue you’.

In a way this moment of street philosophy ironically captures the dilemmas of urban life, in Oxford but also in cities across the world. We know that the future is uncertain. But there are three fundamental challenges and ways of measuring value that cities in the UK and internationally must all confront in shaping their futures.

  1. Technological lock in. We inherit the city our parents leave us; the transport systems that privilege the car, sewage systems made to combat 19th century cholera rather than value the 21st century scarce resources of clean water they waste, buildings and architecture that reflect historical circumstances as much as contemporary needs. Understanding the consequences of these forms of ‘lock in’ is central to making the 21st century city flexible enough to adapt to new pressures of environment and economy. We use new technological innovations to ‘retrofit’ the cities that we inherit much more than we create entirely new worlds when trying to achieve laudable long term goals such as zero carbon emissions, ecological sustainability and rapid adoption of new technologies.
  2. Social justice and inequality. There is always a moral obligation to ask in whose image the city is being refashioned at any one time, to understand the normative consequences of technological and economic dynamism, the hype of the marketing utopias, the hubris of the fictional nightmares, and recognize, contest and reform the ethical basis of city life.
  3. Economic flexibility. As the pace of economic change accelerates the propensity of the city to reinvent itself, to flex its economic and social infrastructure, is never more important. From the British creativity of Morris in his Longwall Street garage via the days of British Leyland to the contemporary (and maybe passing) European investment moment of BMW, Oxford’s economic base bears witness to these imperatives to adapt or perish.

So how might we best think about these futures in a fashion that addresses such diverse and possibly incommensurable measures of what we value? In trying to create a vision statement for what Oxford should look like in 2050 we do at least know that the city is a useful geographical scale to consider alternative scenarios through which such challenges might be reconciled at some times but create choices and irreconcilable alternatives at others.

The British Citizenship survey for many years demonstrated how people feel more intensely as we scale down the geographical scale at which we examine our social worlds. Local politicians are generally more trusted than national politicians, equally people tend to feel things are better in their own neighbourhood than in the city as a whole. And notwithstanding the scale of flux and change, at moments of crisis these city solidarities can be powerfully expressed in public assembly and general sentiment. So the city may be a useful vehicle as much for ongoing debate as for deciding finite ‘solutions’ to problems; for making visible trade offs that have to be made between values of technological change, economic and moral imperatives.

In spite of some claims made by British politicians a ‘have your cake and eat it’ policy rarely works. Cities involve hard choices as well as broad visions. Different cities must shape bespoke futures from their particular pasts. Oxford’s own legacies generate particular ‘path dependencies’ that will mean different economic trends, social changes and technological disruptions play out differently here than in similarly sized cities across the rest of the country. At the heart of successful policy design are systems that have the capacity to reflect and to learn, to shape a city that is open to new innovations, flexible in its economic agility and intelligent in understanding the drivers behind such change.

We inherit the city our parents leave us but the city belongs to those who have yet to arrive, generations yet to be born and people that might move to Oxford – both from within and beyond the UK borders. In that spirit it is important to debate and make visible the options, the scenarios and the challenges we will leave for their future as well as the decisions we make on our own behalf.