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An Interview with Indy Johar

Our Research Director Claire Harding sat down with Indy Johar to discuss what the future holds for the capital, and what our policymakers should be doing to ensure London continues to be a world-leading global city.

Claire: What does an optimistic future for London look like to you? 

Indy: I think an optimistic future is one where we liberate ourselves from a late 20th century vision of London. Optimism for me is a function of freeing ourselves from historic obligations and perceptions of success. An optimistic vision of London is focused not on population growth but on human development growth and its collective capabilities. It recognises that London is not just about the quantum of people, but about their functional collective agency. 

The next part would be a London that perceives itself as a place that actively governs through the lens of a system with a global footprint, rather than actively governing for the interests of people that live within the M25 boundary. That’s a systemic misunderstanding of London. An optimistic London embraces the scale of innovation and can have an honest conversation with itself. It can’t currently do that because it’s too focused on preserving old value models and theories of growth. An optimistic London isn’t built by the real estate economy. There is going to be a real structural transformation where values aren’t just about land but the human development economy. That pivot to me is fundamental.

Claire: You mentioned the late 20th/early 21st century vision or paradigm, I wondered if you could define what you mean by that? 

Indy: I would say it’s centralised consumption – retail followed by managerialism as a theory of value. Our cities are functions of managerial capabilities and that’s where we’ve seen a massive office boom, combined with the consumption of leisure and retail at the centre. I think that’s now being disrupted. We’re moving into a post-managerial economy where consumption is moving back into people’s homes through new logistics infrastructure. Together these have turned London’s story to one of the ‘inner/outer city’ but they’re now being dismantled. There is an opportunity for London to reframe itself as a city of villages and I think that is worth us imagining in a radical way. 

Claire: You wrote last year about the big transformations London needs. Has your thinking changed at all since you wrote that piece? 

Indy: It has evolved, and that is largely because I think the scale that we’re talking about is unprecedented. I’m not convinced that our democratic institutions have the power, capacity, or legitimacy to drive the transformation needed. Deep democratic reform is required to support London’s transition, and the city must recognise its interdependence with the rest of the UK rather than competition. London needs democratic reform just like the rest of the UK does, a third house – another layer of government – with future generations giving a longitudinal perspective of London. London is a very short-termist city right now. It has no strategy that looks at the next 100-year cycle, the risks it faces, and how it manages them. Future generations are a missing piece of democratic legitimacy.

Claire: You talk about future Londoners which links to what others have said about being good ancestors. Are there any cities or other governments that you think are doing a good job that London could learn from? 

Indy: We’re working with places like Milan that want to put in standing citizen assemblies to look at the transition. I’ve said before that I think the London boroughs are the wrong size; we need micro-governance at the Hanwell – Ealing – Acton layer and aggregated government at the City Hall level. The boroughs are intermediaries which are neither economies of scale, nor are they economies of participation. There should be three layers of democracy, the participatory layer, the representative layer, and the future citizen layer, which coexist in an integrated way. The Welsh Government has introduced the Office of the Future Generations Commissioner, which is a good example, but I think the biggest challenge that London faces is that it’s illegitimate within the UK and doesn’t have political power. 

Claire: You’ve talked about some really, big structural ideas here about governance, democracy and use of space. Of the ideas you’ve been thinking about or working on which are the ones that might be easier to reach or we are already moving towards, and which do you think will be more of a challenge? 

Indy: Easier all depends on your point of view and the political frameworks that we operate in. However, I think the reality is that we’re going to have to deep retrofit all of London. Everyone has tried to do this at a unit-by-unit level, I think that’s rubbish. A whole-street retrofit across London would be really extraordinary and would need us to think in a completely different way about collective, social value. We have to have a different conversation about how we choose to live. The house is now the site of production and consumption for many people, around 40 per cent of the working population, for who our housing standards are just not fit for purpose. That’s a systemic problem. If our housing standards are not good enough then people will vote with their feet and leave London. I have long said that we could see a massive exodus of people and at the moment I see that continuing because I do not think the vision of what life we support in London is adequate right now. We need to have a complete rethink and understand that people want different things from their lives. People with kids at home have begun to work fundamentally different hours and patterns, which requires different home ideas. Our theory of neighbourhoods and how we operate in them is changing, as is the role of nature-based assets. All this stuff is up for grabs.

Claire: It strikes me when you talk about the home being the site of production and consumption that in some readings of British history, this was also true of the home prior to the industrial revolution. Do you see the shift you’re talking about going back to the way things were before or as a completely different paradigm? 

Indy: It’s never going to go back but it’s going to rhyme, let’s put it that way. I don’t think we’re going to return to that way of life but working at home will be a component of the economy for many, many people, especially when we talk about automation. The detachment of work from the site of production is going to increase but at the same time at the centre will be creative. We know how to create places like universities or traditional clusters, but we don’t yet know how to create a network of villages for creativity and innovation. The reality is that material supply chains will be regional at best, and our food system will be regional and global so it’s not a new kind of parochialism, but a new interdependence. The city of villages concept is useful but it’s also problematic because it returns us to a kind of parochialism which I think is never coming back unless all civilisation falls apart…

Claire: I was wondering whether to follow up on ‘all civilisations falling apart’, but I’m instead going to ask if you think there is a tension between London continuing to be a successful global city and a pleasant and comfortable place for people to spend their days? 

Indy: It depends what London chooses. If it chooses to be successful through being an extractive, competitive commodity economy then I think it will struggle and that tension will persist. If London competes on deep creativity, innovation, and value creation then it becomes a different city. A new economy of radical innovation is going to almost certainly be a platform with a universal basic income at the end of it. Universities will play a lifelong learning role in every one of these villages so the city and village will be a learning infrastructure. If you go down that other route, you’ll have quite a high level of synchronicity between the needs of human development and the needs of value creation. And that should work at the same time as we’re decarbonising all the transaction infrastructure behind it. It’s a complex game. 

Claire: How does responding to and preparing for the climate crisis fit into ‘a new London’? Is there anything else we should be doing now to build resilience for the future?

Indy: The biggest thing for me is that the climate transition is not about carbon mitigation. Carbon mitigation is a symptom of the problem whereas the problem is structural. We are a fossil-fuelled economy, and de-addicting ourselves from carbon and fossil fuels is a systemic challenge because it’s buried into pretty much everything we do. The hard lesson I’ve been learning is that the transition is going to require us to reimagine democracy as I’ve already mentioned. How do you build the finance innovation capacity to put together the quantum of capital required to deal with this? How do you then retrofit every street, road and square in London? How do we transform the logistics infrastructure of London to de-roadify it? How do we rebuild biodiversity into London, remake our food systems and fully decarbonise the grid? This is a pretty massive transformation of London and rebuilding the foundations for growth is going to require strategic investment. We don’t know how to do all of this, but we know that’s where we have to go. 

Claire: One of the ideas you’ve written about before is deep work – working intensely for five days a week – with your team. How do you think this intersects with the hybrid model that so many businesses seem keen to transition to?

Indy: There’s multiple aspects to that. First is building the deep work infrastructure in people’s homes. Second, I’ll use my own organisation as an example. We are 55 people and growing. We brought everyone together for a four day retreat every six months where the whole organisation manifests to work collaboratively together, like a pop-up studio. I think that’s going to be a key component of work, these temporal work environments where you intensively work on a topic or issue for four days rather as opposed to a two-hour meeting. That is is where we’re going to see face-to-face work becoming very valuable and critical.  

Historically, when we’ve booked these environments, they tend to be rural, because they’re designed as retreats for deep work. I think there’s something about whether we’ve created cities for leisure, rather than for the deep capacities of contemplative innovation. There is a fundamental question about the nature of the environments we’re creating and why we’re creating them. I think we’re largely creating those environments for the disruption of our concentration and manipulation of our attention. 

Claire: I just want to come back to this idea of deep retreats, because I know that’s something a lot of organisations across sectors will be thinking about at the moment. I wonder how you’ve squared doing these in your organisation with some people’s caring responsibilities?

Indy: It’s really tough, and I think you make it work by seeing it as a massive exception to the norm. You do it for these intensive moments. The norm should still be that people don’t have to go to the office. They can do stuff as they need to at home and shouldn’t have to work 9-5. It’s a rebalancing of people’s lives, which is challenging, but I think it’s the way we’re heading, and we’ll have to think about what’s required for people to be able to participate in that society. Rather than building offices, we might need to provide services such as temporary childcare, to support those transactions in an equitable manner. 

Claire: Some of the people reading this interview will be national and local policymakers, and some will be business leaders or part of community groups. Thinking about the ideas discussed today, what should be led by policymakers, and what should be being led by people outside of those structures?

Indy: The biggest thing I would ask of policymakers is to speak more truths. I know that sounds difficult to say, but the reality is we don’t know if our cities are coming back or if people are going to work in those offices again. We also know that the UK is probably not going to be driven by population growth in the same way it was. I think we need to start having more honest conversations. Take the realities of our logistics infrastructure and the fact that we don’t have enough lorry drivers –  maybe this is a good moment to start investing in automated logistics infrastructure. This requires honesty of discourse from politicians. I would also say let’s be deeply imaginative about the future of the UK. We need to put human development at the front and centre, starting with reimagining our university education. Back when Tony Blair became Prime Minister he reinvented schools across the UK, I think we’re now at the same moment where we must reinvent our schooling infrastructure, with inter-generational investment. I would go big! 

Claire: The flip side then is that if you’re reading this and you’re not in a position of power, but want a better city and agree with this vision, what would you advise people in these communities and villages to do?

Indy: I would say make your intentions clear. I think we all have intentional power, and the problem for many of us is that we don’t even know what good looks like. Because we’ve all been living as frogs slowly frying, in inadequate housing, inadequate neighbourhoods, inadequate natural assets, and lifestyles of massive stress. One of the biggest obligations is to think about what good could look like. I think that’s a key part of moving this transition. And the other part is that innovation is a fundamental collaborative act of society, it is built on the foundations of each other, and that requires a new form of comprehension of the collective. I would say understanding that your life chances are fundamentally linked into the imaginative potential of a place and taking leadership around that is critical.

Claire HardingClaire is Research Director at Centre for London. She joined the Centre in 2020 and is responsible for our research programme. Before joining Centre for London, she worked at Coram Family and Childcare. Claire has also previously worked in mental health and local government consultancy. 

Indy Johar is an Architect and Co-Founder of Project00.cc and darkmatterlabs.org. Dark Matter is a field laboratory that aims to radically redesign the institutional infrastructure of our cities, regions and towns for a more democratic, distributed great transition. Indy is an Advisor to the Mayor of London on Good Growth.

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