Cities of The Future

Urban landscapes will have to evolve physically and technologically as city dwellers grow in number. Here we scope out what the city of the future might look like.

The largest wave of urban growth in history is currently under way, according to the United Nations. For the first time, more than half the world’s population—approximately 4 billion people, as estimated by the UN’s Department of Economic and Social Affairs—lives in urban settlements. And cities will get even more crowded over the next few decades. By 2030, the UN predicts that city dwellers will account for nearly 60% of the world’s population, or more than 5 billion people, and that figure will swell to 70%, or almost 6.8 billion, by 2050.

Such a rapid influx raises a question: What will it take for the world’s urban areas to support nearly a billion additional human beings in a little more than a decade? Today’s urban centers are already starting to exhibit stress cracks. Expect those fissures to keep spreading unless our cities evolve—physically over the long run and technologically for the immediate future. 

“The principal challenge is how to make our increasingly large metropolises sustainable,” says Carlo Ratti, an architect who directs the MIT Senseable City Lab and is a founding partner of the design firm Carlo Ratti Associati. He sees data as a key factor for designing better cities because it is useful for helping urban planners understand how these spaces are already used. 

The Real Cost of City Living

Although there’s no universal definition for “urban settlement,” city living tends to be associated with higher levels of literacy and education, better health care, greater access to social services, and enhanced opportunities for cultural and political participation, according to the UN’s study of world urbanization prospects. But that same study points out that cities are also known for having higher levels of pollution, traffic congestion, environmental degradation, and unsustainable production and consumption patterns. 

The American Association for the Advancement of Science’s Atlas of Population and Environment shows that urbanites consume roughly 75% of the planet’s natural resources. If current patterns of water consumption continue unabated, the World Health Organization predicts that half of the world’s population will be living in water-stressed areas by 2025, and the UN estimates that at least 25% will lack access to clean, drinkable water by 2050. Urban expansion will likely exacerbate water problems, as well as expose 11 other stress points such as a strained food supply, dwindling energy sources, limited employment in a rapidly shifting economic landscape, increased housing shortages, and overtaxed transportation systems.

Some urban planners believe, to varying degrees, that these problems can be solved by leveraging smarter infrastructure, design, and planning techniques to create what they describe as a living, breathing organism, rather than the sprawling concrete jungle of inert buildings and disconnected systems we have today. They argue that smart cities are needed to help address a long list of issues that includes energy production, waste management, water distribution, and mobility. 

What Is a Smart City? 

“If you ask 10 different scientists or planners what a smart city is, you’re going to get some very different answers,” says Mitchell Joachim, an architect and co-founder of Terreform ONE, a Brooklyn, New York–based nonprofit architecture research and consulting group focused on socioecological design. None of them is definitive, either, because smart cities have only recently come into development. “It is kind of like asking someone to paint a watercolor in a stream,” Joachim says.  

The definition of a smart city remains so broad that an ancient place like Istanbul could arguably be considered one. “[It’s] had thousands of years of warfare, religion, and different kinds of planning morphologies overlaid,” Joachim says. “And it is still super functional.”

Joachim’s personal definition of a smart city combines sociological planning with mobile technology that ensures nearly everything—a device, an object, an entity—can connect to the Internet of Things. This approach to urban planning and management addresses the needs of residents in large, rapidly growing cities. It acknowledges the symbiotic relationship between a city and the ecosystem it inhabits. 

Indeed, the common thread that runs through future-oriented urban design philosophies is technology. A smart city should have a fully integrated infrastructure with advanced communication networks, automated transportation systems, water services, and power grids that are all connected and unified.

“I do not think that the appearance of the city of tomorrow will be dramatically different from that of the city of today,” Ratti says. “We will always need horizontal floors for living, vertical walls to separate spaces, and exterior enclosures to protect us from the outside. Rather, what will change dramatically will be our way [of experiencing] the city at the convergence of the digital and physical.” 

Essential Technology

At the heart of a smart city is a foundational communication system that includes an “open internet, broadband wireless communications to support the growth of the Internet of Things, secure distributed systems serving the public good and improving resiliency and emergency response services, access to information, and data for analytics,” says Shawn Chandler, an IEEE senior member and director at Navigant Consulting. 

Implementing such a system is harder than it sounds, as such efforts can be hampered by legacy infrastructures. Not so with Amsterdam and its unique community-owned IoT wireless system. The Things Network, a civic project unveiled in 2015 and led by Dutch entrepreneur Wienke Giezeman, crowdsourced a series of gateway devices that use a low-power, long-range, low-bandwidth radio-frequency protocol to cover the city with a signal. That signal allows sensor-laden objects, such as streetlights and trash cans, to be connected without wi-fi or cellular service. Ten devices developed by the Things Network offered a relatively simple solution to a connectivity problem in only six weeks.

The free, open, and community-owned Things Network gives software developers a way to harness data from whatever connects to it, be it boats or buildings. New applications could help operations such as waste management and power distribution become more efficient and environmentally friendly.

Songdo International Business District in South Korea is a planned city located in the Incheon Free Economic Zone west of Seoul. With planning beginning in 2001 and construction starting four years later, it was designed from the ground up to promote sustainable urban living. Sensors monitor conditions in the city and regulate automobile traffic by adjusting signals accordingly. An underground pneumatic waste disposal system removes trash directly from individual homes and sends it to centers that automatically sort and process the waste. Eventually, that waste could be used as renewable energy. 

In new smart cities, significant upgrades to computing power will have to be made so that the massive amounts of data coming from all the sensors and city systems can be processed. In a tower in Songdo, for instance, there is a data management center that monitors real-time information streaming in from across the city.

The Future of Mobility

Some of the biggest problems facing cities of the future are automotive related. For instance, the transportation sector accounts for 27% of the nation’s energy consumption, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. Global emissions from electricity and transportation are expected to make up nearly 52% of all carbon dioxide emissions by 2050, according to MIT researchers. 

While energy consumption and pollution are pressing issues, traffic congestion is also vital to address. In the United States alone, over the course of a year, the average commuter spends 42 hours stuck in rush hour, according to a 2015 report by the Texas A&M Transportation Institute. The university-affiliated research agency predicted that the figure will keep rising, growing to 47 hours in 2020.

“Traffic will probably be the most unacceptable thing you’ll see in 50 years,” Joachim says. “The idea that we’re driving around in 2-ton, manually controlled devices is absurd.” He expects that manual driving might even become illegal in the future. Laws will be enacted to establish configurations for mobility, and the flow of traffic will be connected and optimized to an intelligent grid, Joachim envisions. “We can’t expect double the number of cars in the next 20 years and not have a solution,” he says.

To ease traffic and congestion, some cities have gone as far as eliminating freeways. It seems counterintuitive, but reducing the capacity of road systems actually improves their effectiveness by encouraging drivers to move more efficiently. The construction of the $900 million Cheonggyecheon Stream in Seoul required the removal of the elevated Cheonggye Expressway and replaced it with nearly 7 miles of waterway, vegetation, and public space. Since opening in 2005, the stream has not only become a well-loved part of the city, attracting more birds, fish, and other wildlife to the urban core, but it also has brought the temperature of the inner city down by several degrees, says one urban planner involved with the project. 

At the same time, many automakers and entrepreneurs are betting on autonomous technologies to solve the majority of automotive transportation ills. Flex partner Savari, a Silicon Valley–based auto-tech company, is developing software for connected and self-driving cars. The technology known as V2X, or vehicle-to-everything communication, allows cars to exchange data with other cars, traffic lights, and pedestrians through their smartphones. The technology could help drivers and self-driving cars share data to avoid collisions and keep traffic moving while conserving energy by reducing the number of idling cars on the road. The promise of V2X is to make traffic jams, crashes, and pollution caused by vehicle emissions a thing of the past, says Ravi Puvvala, CEO of Savari.

Although Puvvala sees autonomous vehicle technology as an important step in the right direction, he acknowledges that it is not a panacea. The solution has to be multimodal, which is why you see car companies investing in bike sharing, he says.

Improving transport between cities is also important to the smart city concept. But it involves a serious investment in infrastructure, one that will likely take longer to build than merely improving the system already in place. One of the most ambitious advancements conceived is Elon Musk’s Hyperloop: an ultrafast method of travel involving vacuum tube trains. It would put the city front and center, yet one consequence is clear to Joachim. “It will further distance us from rural communities, or the space in between, or these interstitial neighborhoods or environments—the small villages and towns that surround some kind of large megalopolis,” Joachim says. “You ignore everything in between. You’re just really concerned about going from San Francisco to Los Angeles.”

On Twitter, Musk is encouraging development of Hyperloop systems that will link New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington, D.C. A trip from the Big Apple to the nation’s capital would take only 29 minutes, he says. If Musk’s concept becomes reality, the Hyperloop could create a host of new living possibilities. A person residing in New York could work full time in D.C.

When Will Smart Cities Happen? 

The innovations of a smart city may be revolutionary and worth pursuing, but making an entire city smart is not a short-term endeavor. 

Look at how long it took before hybrid cars became viable, Joachim points out. He says we have a minimum of 40 to 50 years before there is a major shift in the base architecture of a city, and 100 to 150 years before the new version of a future city emerges. But the effects of technology on a city will be seen much quicker. “You are going to get rapid changes in cellphone technology in a five- to seven-year span,” Joachim predicts. That means much faster interfaces and broadband access because the infrastructure behind it doesn’t require a huge shift. This technology can even be used to transform mobility in 15 to 20 years, just in time for the next evolution, Civilization 2.0. [i]