June 9, 2020

“A City Locks Down to Fight Coronavirus,” an extremely New York Times headline in the New York Times recently cried, “but Robots Come and Go.” The story it sits above concerns the tech start-ups using robots that look like ice boxes on wheels to deliver food and medicine to people during lockdown, and the problems they’ve inevitably rolled into on the way.

To British eyes, however, the robots are not the most striking thing about the piece. (Stories about how autonomous technologies could change the world, if only the world stopped being so damned complicated, are ten a penny these days.) The striking thing is the identity of the place that San Francisco’s Starship Technologies has identified as offering “ideal conditions… perfectly suited to rolling robots”. The city of the future is Milton Keynes.

To anyone who grew up in Britain, this feels a bit like seeing the grey lady describe Michael Portillo as a “popular public intellectual”: you can see how they got there, but no. Futuristic tech dystopias should be exciting and alluring, the sort of places you’re fascinated by even as you find them repulsive. Milton Keynes is none of those things: it’s desolate and suburban, an overgrown housing estate whose search for an identity that didn’t involve roundabouts led it to steal Wimbledon’s football team and convince itself that some cows made of concrete are in some way good. Silicon Valley may be on course to wipe out civilisation, but it is, at least, cool. Milton Keynes is absolutely not cool. Milton Keynes is a joke. (Q: What’s the difference between Milton Keynes and a yoghurt? A: A yoghurt has culture.)

The odd thing about MK — as, with the upsetting air of a 15-year-old boy trying to invent his own nickname, it likes to call itself — is that, from any perspective other than public esteem, it’s been a huge success. The area of north Buckinghamshire that the city now occupies was designated as the site of a new settlement in 1967, as part of the government’s third and final wave of planned “new towns”. The site, roughly halfway between London and Birmingham, was expected to take some of the overspill population from both. It would incorporate three existing towns (Bletchley, Wolverton, and Stony Stratford) and over a dozen villages, turning each into the focal point of one of its districts. The goal was a whole new city, with a target population of 250,000.

Throughout the 1980s and ’90s, in its quest to make this plan a reality, the Milton Keynes Development Corporation took the unusual approach of advertising its city on television. One 1984 ad follows a boy on a day out around the town — fishing, cycling, and so forth — with only a red balloon for company, all the while accompanied by the sort of music that would better suit the heroic climax of a film; at the end it asks, as if the question were in some way justified by the two minutes of film we’ve just watched, “Wouldn’t it be nice if all cities were like Milton Keynes?” In another, a different boy (Milton Keynes: no girls allowed) catalogues some of the uglier aspects of London life from a car window, discovers that Milton Keynes has fields, cows and so forth, and concludes, breathlessly, “I wish I lived here!”

Many people agreed with him. The ads made Milton Keynes a target for mockery in a way no other new town managed — there was a Jasper Carrott parody version of the latter — but in the three decades after 1981, the city’s population doubled, and it passed its target sometime around 2013. The Government is now talking of doubling it again. That’d make it bigger than Edinburgh.

Its success is not merely demographic, but economic, too. Some British cities have well-paid residents; some have relatively affordable housing. Milton Keynes is almost unique in having both. Its enthusiastic expansion means prices have stayed relatively low — there are still three bed houses to be had for £250,000 — yet residents can be at their desks in London or Birmingham, Oxford or Cambridge, in little more than an hour. Its architectural styles are varied; its streets green and parks spacious; it’s even an unexpectedly great place to be a cyclist in, thanks to the network of segregated “red routes” cycleways. Little wonder it’s a boom town.

If it’s so easy to argue that Milton Keynes has worked, why do we hate it so? In Good Omens, Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman credit this to straightforward perversity (“It was built to be modern, efficient, healthy, and, all in all, a pleasant place to live. Many Britons find this amusing.”) That’s no doubt a factor, but at least part of the problem lies with Milton Keynes itself: to visit it is to visit the uncanny valley, where nothing seems quite right. The shopping centre is a mile from the railway station, via a vast, empty plaza that somehow bypasses grand and hits windswept instead. To get to the commercial district on foot means using a system of meandering pedestrian routes that frequently vanish into subways, and are perfect if you’re, say, a wheeled delivery robot, but less so if you’re a human being who likes to see where they’re going.

Along the way, you’ll spot what appears to be the town hall but turns out to be a church; the actual town hall looks more like a light industrial park. You’ll pass umpteen hotels and low-rise office blocks, set back from their dual carriageway behind a sea of cars, a form of urbanism familiar from any American city you could name but strange and alien here in England. (This, perhaps, is why the NYT likes it.) And you will struggle to spot a cafe or a pub, an independent shop or a cultural venue — anything, really, that one might actually think of as one of the benefits of urban life.

And Milton Keynes, remember, was planned. Many cities are ugly or unfriendly by accident. Few are so ugly or unfriendly by design.

Most attempts to use autonomous delivery robots in the wild have stuck to university or corporate campuses: carefully designed, closed environments that lack the unpredictability of normal urban street life. The reason Starship Technologies chose Milton Keynes for the first commercial deployment is in large part because of its resemblance to one of those campuses.

But it’s in the density and messiness of urban living that you’ll find most of its joys: the serendipitous meeting, the new restaurant you find while you were looking for something else. Milton Keynes is too spread out to offer any of that. The wide, open spaces built into its street plan may make it perfectly suited for social distancing. But the very characteristics that make it perfect for robots prevent it from feeling like a real city. A city is more than a lot of houses and offices in one place.

When the American humourist Bill Bryson toured Britain for his 1995 book Notes From A Small Island, he visited Milton Keynes and struggled to find it. A quarter of a century later, it’s the fastest growing city in England, but in some ways it’s still barely there at all.