Conversation on Future Cities with Sir David King

01 May 2013


The British High Commissioner Residence provided, on 30 April 2013, the perfect setting for an inspiring Conversation with Sir David King on the issue of ‘Future Cities’, as part of the Chevening Lectures series. The discussion, that was hosted by the British High Commission and co-organized by ICLEI South Asia, attracted a diverse group of leaders from business, international and development agencies, research institutions and NGOs based in Delhi.

Sir David King, former UK Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser and Head of the Government Office of Science, used the recent launch of the Future Cities Catapult programme to delve more deeply into the issue of ‘Future Cities’, in a stimulating conversation with Prof. Chetan Vaidya, Director of School of Planning and Architecture, formerly the Director of National Institute of Urban Affairs and urban planner with over 30 years of experience.

As the world is becoming increasingly urban, the solutions developed to tackle the current challenges must be tailored to and for cities. Sir David King explained how the focus must be on the future, as we need to plan now what will be happening in the next 30-50 years, if we want to ensure a sustainable growth. Foresight, explained Sir David, is not about predicting the future but it is about painting visions for it, and work towards achieving them. The Future Cities Catapult programme, hosted in London, is based on a holistic approach, mirroring the need to look at and manage the different areas a city works in (transport, water, buildings and so on) in an integrated way. The programme, currently funded by the UK government, will work with mayors, town planners, utilities etc. around the world, to find ways to shape and build sustainable cities, showing how this can happen respecting the environment and at the same time improving human well-being. The Future Cities Catapult will serve as a hub where all the knowledge relevant for cities will be collected and shared, and will test innovative business solutions in a series of large-scale demonstrator projects – Glasgow, UK, being the first pilot city. 

Professor Vaidya contributed to the conversation by providing a quick snapshot of a rapidly urbanizing India, where currently 31% of the population lives in urban areas; figure that is expected to increase up to 50% by 2050. With more than 4000 local bodies, out of which 53 are metropolitan areas, India needs to focus on finding solutions to the current and upcoming urban challenges, to guarantee long-term benefits for its economy as well as society.

When asked what the main challenges of Future Cities are, Sir David raised the issue of the buy-in of citizens and how to communicate sustainability to them, using as an example the need for high-density urban areas. Whereas high-density is a crucial requisite for a sustainable city, with urban spaces built for pedestrians and bikes and no need for private cars, such condensed land use still finds a lot of resistance on the citizens’ side. Sir David mentioned as a model case the City of Bogotá, radically changed by its visionary Mayor Peñalosa, who carried out revolutionary changes in the city despite a strong initial opposition from the citizens. Persisting in his idea and managing to get his citizens on board, Peñalosa was able to completely change the face of Bogotá and turn it into a liveable peaceful city, with caring citizens.

Sir David also highlighted how, despite the different framework conditions in which British and Indian cities function, mutual learning is possible and wished for; he is looking forward to draw inspiration from the Indian Government’s plan to build seven new smart cities, each home to at least two million people, between Delhi and Mumbai as part of the Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor (DMIC).

The issue of how to fund the Future Cities was raised by a participant, to which Sir David answered by giving examples of innovative self-funding methods, where the initial investment is offset through, for example, the energy savings that are expected in the future through the implementation of energy efficient measures. Building capacity, especially in India, of the current as well as future generations of urban planners was also mentioned as a key pre-requisite for the development of Future Cities.

Sir David King was the UK Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser and Head of the Government Office of Science from October 2000 to 31 December 2007. In that time, he raised the profile of the need for governments worldwide to act on climate change and was instrumental in creating the new £1bn Energy Technologies Institute. As Director of the Government’s Foresight Programme, he created an in-depth horizon scanning process which advised government on a range of long-term problems, from flooding to obesity. He was also heavily involved in establishing the government’s Science and Innovation Strategy of 2004-2014.

He is currently Director of Research at the Department of Chemistry in Cambridge and is Senior Scientific Advisor to the bank UBS. He has published more than 500 papers on chemical physics and on science and policy, and has been awarded numerous prizes, fellowships, and honorary degrees.
 Sir David King was knighted in 2003 for his work in science, and received the award of “Officier dans l’ordre national de la Légion d’Honneur” from the French President in 2009 for his work on climate change and on negotiation the international agreement to build the world’s largest technology project, the ITER fusion reactor.

Prof. Chetan Vaidya
is the Director of School of Planning and Architecture, New Delhi. He was formerly the Director of National Institute of Urban Affairs from February 2008 till September 2012. He is an urban planner from IIT Kharagpur with over 30 years of experience. During his tenure as Director of NIUA he was working very closely with the Ministry of Urban Development (MOUD) on various urban issues and assisting various city and state governments in implementation reforms under the Jawaharlal Nehru Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM).


He advised various cities, state governments and financial institutions in the areas of municipal resource mobilization, development of commercially viable urban infrastructure projects, market-based financing of urban infrastructure and improving access of poor to urban services.

He was Dy. Leader Indo-US Financial Institutions Reform and Expansion (FIRE) during 1995-2008. Prof. Vaidya was Professor of Architecture and Planning at M.S. University of Baroda during 1991-94 and also worked as Assistant General Manager with the National Housing Bank during 1989-91.

Conversation on Future Cities with Sir David King
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