The Future faces of urban Britain: The characters who will populate our cities a decade from now

International bitcoin dealers, zero-hours contract workers, restaurateurs delivering drone meals to bankers

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The Independent Online

What do you get when you bring together an international bitcoin and arms dealer, a zero-hours contractor, a body modification artist, and a pensioner trading second-hand clothes on eBay? Urban Britain in 2023, it seems.

These fictitious characters have been dreamt up by a coalition of innovators in a bid to understand how people might live in the capital in a decade’s time. The intentionally “provocative” faces of the future have been imagined by looking at predicted trends, existing data, and small studies of how people live on the ground.

They imagine an international student who uses real-time projection space to speak to his family in Mexico, a man trying to live off-grid, a local councillor who runs a community healthcare service, an owner of a local restaurant chain who uses crowdfunding, a financial analyst who also makes her child’s clothes, and an author who also works as an executive director of a local energy trust.

All 10 characters reflect key trends that are thought to predict Britain’s urban future, including flexible working, collaborative production, an active aging population, global connections, and inequality leading to a skills and housing divide, said Jessica Bland, technology futures analyst at Nesta, the UK’s innovation foundation.

“It’s about imagining who the people will be that live in those futures; what they might be like, what their desires or fears might be and what services, technologies, or everyday needs, they might have. It’s about coming down from the big trends to the everyday… It’s about turning what are often seen as abstract trends into real people.”

While some of the characters seem to have difficult lives, balancing a number of jobs and yet struggling to afford a home, Bland said they do not represent a “dystopian” future. She says some are able to explore a variety of careers and be active later in life.

“It’s important in part to lay out the fears and desires about our future,” she said. “It’s a space to shape what we would like to happen, to anticipate things and prevent them from happening. It’s a bit like democratising the future; giving us all a chance to shape it and not just those yielding power today,” she said.

The 10 “Future Londoners” are part of a FutureFest series culminating in a two-day event this weekend in east London, where thinkers from Wikipedia’s Jimmy Wales to model and social entrepreneur Lily Cole, will debate what the world might look like over the next few decades.

Profiles: Lives of the 10 Londoners

1. Andre, 25 International student

Lives: Bethnal Green with another international student, rents flat as part of AirBnB-type scheme to supplement income.

Works: Halfway through Masters in textiles at Central St Martins. Virtual tutorials and seminars.

Plays: Automated meet-ups based on geo-tagging of people with similar interests.

Technology used: Hires real-time hologram projection space to speak to his family in Mexico. Increasingly dependent on Bitcoin and semi-legal virtual currencies.

Key trends: Globally connected communities; collaborative production and consumption.

2. Nicki, 19 Zero-hours contractor

Lives: Wanstead, with her parents.

Works: Bids for sub-minimum-wage temp service industry jobs online. Often works for an hour or two at a time in cafés and retail chains. Can’t claim benefits if stops.

Plays: Rarely uses social networks after her parents were priced out of broadband. Many hours eaten up bidding on freelancer auctions.

Technology used: Cheap android tablet, hacked Oyster cards and hacked Boris bikes.

Key trends: Flexible working; inequality causing skills and housing divides; socially divisive access to communication technologies.

3. Amaya, 27 Financial markets analyst, expecting her first child

Lives: Maida Vale, with her husband who also works in finance. Extended family, from India, nearby.

Works: In Canary Wharf and from home two days a week. Adapting to flexible contracts before child’s birth.

Plays: Makes clothes for her child out of materials that respond to the child’s temperature and movement.

Technology used: 3D virtual office at home. Local health service provides chest-strap sensors to monitor her pregnancy.

Key trends: Flexible work; inequality causing skills and housing divides; use of personal data.

4. Paulette, 72 Pensioner, widowed with one adult daughter

Lives: Barking, in two-bed housing association flat. Sometimes lets second room to avoid bedroom tax.

Works: Claims state pension. She trades second-hand kids’ clothes on eBay that she gets from charity shops.

Plays: Local women’s DIY group; local ASBOwiki – hyperlocal online neighbourhood watch scheme.

Technology used: Smart electricity meter, eBay and app for traders finding street bargains.

Key trends: Active ageing population; fragile energy supply and environment; inequality causing skills and housing divides.

5. Liam, 32 Biotech lab assistant and body modification artist

Lives: Pimlico, in an empty government building, under the new Empty Buildings House-sitting scheme.

Works: Small biotech company making materials used originally for prosthetic bone but now also used as eco-cladding for buildings.

Plays: Creates digital installations as part of semi-professional artists’ collective. They move the installations around “week camps” as a focal point evening entertainment.

Technology used: Large format gesture pad, wearable computers, body-embedded RFID chip.

Key trends: Collaborative production as well as consumption.

6. Mai’da, 45 Local councillor and healthcare activist

Lives: Co-owns two-bedroom flat with partner in Tulse Hill. Moved to London from Somalia.

Works: Owns community healthcare service, organising patient groups with similar illnesses to share data with each other and NHS patient database.

Plays: Acts as a bridge between local authority and mosque.

Technology used: Tablet with Arabic/Somali/English interface. Web platform, app development with overseas providers.

Key trends: Increasing collection and use of personal data.

7. Ty, 51 Self-sufficient

Lives: Boat on Regent’s canal. Unable to afford flat or house, but also wants to live off-grid.

Works: Uses his mother’s allotment in Barnet to grow vegetables. Experimenting with unregulated GM vegetable strains to produce variants of his father’s native Vietnamese vegetables.

Plays: He is part of group that hacks large companies’ wireless networks to stream classic films at makeshift outdoor cinemas.

Technology used: Commercial grade mobile internet station.

Key trends: Collaborative production; fragile energy supply.

8. Li Yong, 43 International Bitcoin and arms dealer

Lives: Battersea Power Station in penthouse. Along with 80 per cent of residents, Li is Chinese.

Works: Uses secured internet connections at rented desk space in City. He makes payments in untraceable digital currency.

Plays: Gambling on the value of Bitcoin to make small change.

Technology used: Encrypted smartphone accessing dark net technology routed through Africa.

Key trends: More globally than locally connected communities; socially divisive access to communication technologies.

9. Rebecca, 65 Executive director of local energy trust, author and part-time PhD student

Lives: Tufnell Park in a four-bed house. Pregnant daughter and partner live with her.

Works: Expert on energy supply chain. After writing first novel, returned to university for Masters in environment policy with a study on Middle East renewable energy infrastructure law. Planning to run an international consultancy.

Plays: Attends Anglican church.

Technology used: Self-publishing software, wind power.

Key trends: Active ageing population; flexible work.

10. Sohail, 68 Owner of restaurant chain

Lives: Stratford, while his family have moved to Dhaka. One of prosperous East End Bangladeshis.

Works: Built up chain of restaurants and online catering service. Considering expanding into drone-delivered lunch service targeted at high-end City workers. He also has some business interests in Bangladesh, creating local crowdfunding platforms and investing via them.

Plays: Runs business courses for recent school-leavers.

Technology used: Bangladesh-subsidised digital travelcard for flights, automated food ordering app and personal drone with local flight paths programmed by UK firm.

Key trends: More globally than locally connected communities.