Interview with Peter Madden: sustainability, innovation, place and technology


10 minute read
Jo Morrison

Jo Morrison

Director of Digital Innovation & Research

Digital Insights

Two children looking over wall, over park to London skyline

In order to reach net zero emissions by the mid-century and achieve the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals by 2030, society needs radical new models and mindsets. For society and nature to benefit from new forms of economic growth, we need to rethink our economies and how we consume – and we need to innovate at speed. 

With this in mind, Calvium has been speaking with leading figures who work at the intersection of people, place and sustainability, to share their ideas about what can be done to achieve sustainable urban futures. 

Peter Madden is Professor of Practice in Future Cities at Cardiff University, chair of Building with Nature and director of consulting company vivid futures. He has worked in sustainable development for 30 years, advising property companies, investors and city leaders on how to thrive in a digitally-connected and low-carbon future. 

Photo of Peter Madden and Jo Morrison

Read on to find out what Peter thinks makes a good public realm, how innovation could be done better, and more about the new digital planning module he’s helped to create for Cardiff University.

You publish a bite-size ‘Friday Futures’ series on LinkedIn – what made you start these weekly posts? 

One part of understanding the future is looking at signals of the future like seeds; this thing might turn out to be important in the future, there might be a signal of what’s going to happen. I tend to spot those as I walk around cities or engage in things or read, so I thought I’d start picking one each week and sharing it with people. 

From your experience of working at the intersection of people, place and sustainability, have you seen a change of approach from governments, business and/or civil society? 

I’ve been working in sustainable development for 30 years and there’s been enormous change in understanding and behaviour. Probably, back in the day, I thought it would happen quicker because I assumed everyone was going to understand this and get the importance, and also the benefits, of change. It’s happened much more slowly and the inertia and the forces of reaction have been much more powerful than I’d imagined. 

But of course, it’s part of normal behaviour, discourse, innovation and business. Coal-fired and fossil-fuelled power is on the way out. Wind energy, which didn’t generate any of our energy back then, is providing a major part of economies and changing societies. But we still have quite a long way to go. 

What examples of great practice have you seen? 

It’s difficult to single things out. Obviously the thing I love, because I chair it, is Building with Nature. Building with Nature comes from the approach that we’re going to have to build and refurbish things if we’re going to have homes and workplaces, so why don’t we do that in ways that are good for nature and for people? We know how to, but too often people aren’t doing it; they’re building cheaply and badly. 

Building with Nature’s initiative is to make all of the industry build in a much more nature-friendly way. Because of our wellbeing and mental health, having access to nature when you look out the window or step out the front door is really important. Caring for the natural world and enhancing the natural part of everything that gets built in the UK, that’s our mission.Young people protesting climate change

Who or what inspires you and why? 

I’ve both been inspired and saddened over the last couple of years by the school strike for climate movement. Inspired, because I can’t imagine myself as a 12- or 13-year-old kid having the gumption to go out and protest and be on the streets and skip school. I’m really inspired by the fact people are acting and doing. 

I’m saddened because our generation is leaving it to school children to sort out the planet for us. It’s our job, not theirs, and it saddens me that we have to rely on that upsurge of energy and attention to wake up the adults. It saddens me that the younger generation is having to do this and miss school because my generation is failing. 

Fast-tracking tech innovation has been defined by a ‘make things fast and break them’ mentality underpinning practice. This has proven really unhelpful in many ways and has been discredited by many. When launching tech-enabled products into the public realm how can we fast-track innovation in ways that do not cause negative disruption and harm to members of the public? 

Innovation does involve making mistakes. You can’t launch a perfect thing but we could probably do a bit better. The first thing is to have proper controlled pilots and tests. We’re having an e-scooter pilot in Bristol but I haven’t seen any evidence of good studies into who’s using it, what journeys it’s replacing, and what’s the long-term impact on mobility and health and so on. If we’re going to do these pilots, let’s do them and test them before we roll out the technology more widely. But let’s ask the right questions. Too often the people launching those technologies are either launching with good intentions but they have unintended consequences, or they don’t care because they just want to make a bit of money and roll out this cool thing.

Whoever launched Airbnb many years ago: the idea of sharing your sofa or spare room with another traveller is a cool idea, but who would have known that it would end up being used by property investors to buy out whole chunks of central Amsterdam or Barcelona and rent houses out by the night? Pushing people out and raising property prices, there’s people who stay in those properties who just don’t care about their neighbours or their neighbourhood. You end up having unintended consequences, so we need to do a better job of trying to think about what might be the wider impacts of this technology before we launch it. Can you mitigate against them? Can you learn from other technologies? 

The other problem that is inherent in these technologies is that many of them only succeed if they get scale. Everyone wants to get scale as quickly as possible. So if you are the go-to micro mobility, staying, or delivery platform, if you get the scale it works. But if you’ve only got a chunk, it doesn’t. Everyone rushing to scale, and very quickly, without worrying about the consequences is a problem. Pilot these new technologies, think about regulation earlier and think about unintended consequences before you enable them.

Amsterdam canal

You are working at the University of Cardiff – if you could create a new course or department tomorrow, what would it be and why? 

I just helped create a new module, which we’re launching next year, on digital planning. I work in the Planning school and we train the next generation of planners to go out and work in our consultancies and in our city planning departments. Training them to use all the digital tools that we have at our disposal, intelligently and well, is really important. So we’ve designed a course to help do that. 

That should be a really important contribution and I’m hoping lots more universities and planning schools will be training their planners with the same kind of skills – the stuff that Calvium develops – and we’re producing future people to work at Calvium, for example. 

Which organisations are doing interesting work around environmental sustainability? 

The interesting thing is we’re seeing innovation in lots of places. Sometimes it might be in the finance sector – think about green lending, green bonds or green mortgages. It might be in architecture and building – creating passive houses or low impact carbon developments or neighbourhoods. 

The exciting thing for me is seeing innovation and best practice coming in so many places. It can be a local government trying something new out, or a business either launching a new product or doing something differently. 

There’s great stuff happening all around – and loads in the area around Bristol. Ecotricity and Good Energy have both been pioneers in how to think differently about energy generation and use. The Soil Association is helping us think differently about food. The Centre for Sustainable Energy is thinking about how we can do better on energy efficiency and insulating homes. 

Aerial view of wind farm

I’m currently leading a research project for the NHS that explores digital placemaking to support health and wellbeing in London. What do you see as the critical aspects of city living that can enhance people’s relationships with their neighbourhoods? 

Thinking about the great public realm is important. Don’t focus entirely on buildings themselves; think about the spaces between buildings and how people interact in those buildings, in their spaces. Making sure that we’re able to step out of our homes into greenery; not having to visit some special place to access nature, but when we step out our front doors and walk to school or work or to see friends we’re walking under trees or by greenery and through nature. For me, that makes a good public realm and good city experience. 

Also, the ability of people to meet on foot. I go to cities that are dominated by cars and it doesn’t feel like people are meeting in the city. The ability for people to stroll along and bump into or chat to somebody else, and different people – every class, nationality, age, gender – to be able to enjoy the space. A diverse and inclusive, accessible, high-quality public space is important to create a good and thriving labour. 

Back to the NHS: activities are important – spaces that encourage people to be active to walk and cycle – so building public realm and infrastructure that help that. Increasingly we need to think about not just physical wellbeing but mental wellbeing. Again, we know that being in nature and having a good public realm and natural environment enhances your mental wellbeing as well. Designing for good physical and mental wellbeing in our spaces through accessibility, greening and also through noise and sound – the hidden pollutant that affects a lot of people’s physical and mental wellbeing. Good sounds are an important part of cities but bad noise absolutely impacts people. 

Thinking about designing places for health is really important and if you design them to work well for health, they’re going to work well for lots of other things. 

Thank you Peter for sharing your time and inspiration, it has been a pleasure to speak with you and hear the positive action being taken.

Calvium is a member of the SME Climate Hub.

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