How will the city of the future function?

How will the city of the future function?

Name a sci-movie or book that accurately predicted that one day cities would be full of people with their heads glued to their phones. Give up? There you have the main problem of futurologists. They rarely see the change coming. However, our question today is answerable because we can already see the innovations and shifts that are making cities work better.

The question of how the city of the future will function is really a question of how society will function. With half of us living in cities today, that figure is expected to be two thirds by 2050. The city is already the nerve center of the national economy and society itself, and will continue to be so as far as anyone can see. Technology is fundamentally changing the way cities work, and looking at the most significant innovations and shifts indicates how the city of the future will live and breathe in its truest sense yet.


What many futurologists and CIO’s (Chief Information Officers) talk about is data-driven cities. This means government making data public. For example, traffic numbers, pollution levels, footfall, energy usage, crime and incidents statistics, as well as other data could be made available, free-of-charge through open source platforms.

The benefits of this would include collaboration, more scope for private sector initiatives, as well as more transparent government and city that delivers solutions to the citizen immediately. To take a really simple example, traffic jams could be avoided by notifying motorists whenever an accident has occurred, or when traffic is starting to pick up on a certain road and its best avoided. Right now this is generally done by radio stations, which works okay, but real-time updates would be far more efficient.

Or, apps could link in to city infrastructure, which in a very simple way could solve the problem of parking. Apologies for overusing motorists as an example, but congestion in cities is a huge problem. Some city officials estimate that around 40% of moving cars in central parts of the city are looking for parking. Phone apps could notify where there is a free parking spot, and you could pay via the app. Just imagine how much better it would be to have an app guide you to a spot. It would also eradicate that age-old problem of having to find change for the meter.

And it doesn’t have to be just motorists either. Imagine if you could get real-time data on a place you were going. You wan’t to go to the park today, but what if its overly crowded? That restaurant seems like a nice idea, but how long is the queue? Nowait is an app that already does this. And Google is already using its own data, presumably from check-ins, to tell you when some businesses are busiest, be they restaurants, bars, swimming pools or anything else. Real-time data makes cities work much better for the people navigating them.

Apps also have a tremendous social impact. While some of the most commercially successful have been those geared around transport, dating and delivery, there is significant potential for community and local co-operation to become a focus of app developers. Apps geared towards finding volunteers for community projects or small tasks, craigslist-style marketplace apps with a local focus, or simply as a way to raise local issues that affect everyone.

Wifi and smart cities

Soon cities will have wifi everywhere. In some places it already feels like you do, but the real challenge is to make public, free wifi a given. Innovations like Strawberry Energy‘s solar-panel tree provides a self-powering phone charging unit as well as wifi point. Google-backed Sidewalk Labs is in the process of turning New York’s now defunct pay-phones into wifi spots that emit a wifi signal to a radius of up to 150 feet.

Strawberry Energy’s Strawberry Tree, Belgrade, Serbia

Then, there is the Internet of Things. If you are unfamiliar with this, it is essentially the infrastructure of the expanding internet. Real world objects will now be connected via the web to work better. Your front door could be connected to your phone, your window to your TV. It is extending the power of the internet to physical objects to make everything work better.

And in the city? Well, the opportunities are endless. Smart traffic lights could be linked to a control grid that is scanning the streets to determine how best to use them. An example could be if you were the only car in an area at night, the system would ensure you would always have a green light. This would save time for the consumer, and help the environment as stopped traffic emits more CO2. These exist in a few places but it is their expansion that will be effective.

The video below, created by Keiichi Matsuda, show’s apps and an interacting city taken to its most extreme possibility. Quite nauseating and in some ways harrowing, it nonetheless shows the possibilities. Matsuda made it to show the dark side that technological advances could take. It would be up to society to ensure the outcome is a little more healthy than this one. See what you think.

HYPER-REALITY from Keiichi Matsuda on Vimeo.

Public Transport

We’ve already gone through a little of how smart cities and technology could make private transport more efficient. But what about the public domain? Well, there are already some examples in operation of what could become the norm for cities in 100 or 200 years.

For example, the Maglev train, a shortening of Magnetic Levitation, is an eco-friendly (has no engine), low-maintenance (track and train don’t touch) and more comfortable (levitation means a smooth and quiet ride) passenger experience. They are in operation in Shanghai, China, and Linimo, Japan.

Maglev Train, Shanghai

Another possible public transportation system of the future is personal pods. Several have been tried out, but the longest-lasting and most successful is undoubtedly the Morgantown Personal Rapid Transit system at West Virginia University. It does not look particularly futuristic (shown below), but that is because it was built in the 1970s. Eight fit in each pod, and users can choose destination and skip unnecessary stops (though during busy times this the pod does stop at each stop).

Seoul’s public transport system is regularly touted as the world’s greatest. With lightning fast wifi at stations and on trains, TV’s providing entertainment, very few delays and a schedule worked out by mathematicians and scientists to ensure efficiency, it is a model for the future. Oh, and the seats are heated in winter.

While the city in the U.S most associated with innovation is San Francisco, it is Austin that is leading the way forward my integrating public transport and phone apps. CapMetro app lets you buy tickets, plan your journey and check schedules on-the-go. Toronto also has its own version of this.

Other cities showing innovation in public transport systems include Helsinki and Curitiba. In Helsinki, you can use an app to designate your desired pick-up and drop off points. The system calculates the most optimal route for all users of the service and delivers it promptly, providing a shared, efficient system to satisfy everyone. Kind of similar to Uber which now has a pooling option, where users on the same route pool together to save money.

Boarding a bus in Curitiba, Brazil

In Curitiba, buses have their own designated lanes ensuring they are never caught in traffic. This on its own might not be special, but what is is the fact that the buses are linked in to traffic lights, which stay green a little longer if a bus is approaching. Meanwhile Medellin in Colombia has a metrocable system, where cable cars connect different parts of town. However, extending this to a whole city would create logistical and aesthetic issues, so expect it only for exceptional routes.

Public Services

Most of our interactions with the state involve long waiting times, stifling bureaucracy and unnecessary forms. Government is still in the mindset of ‘there’s a form for that’ and needs to join the tech world in saying ‘there’s an app for that’. HMRC in the UK and IRS in the USA often still refuse to use email in favour of written letters. It’s 2016!

An IRS worker, or at least how I imagine them to be

The sooner they adapt the better. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to pay fines, bills and obtain licences through apps or your computer rather than going down to city hall or your local administration office? The amount of time saved would reap huge economic benefits. It would also mean less footfall in the center of cities, with less need to leave the house to do those annoying tasks.

Hospitals and doctors appointments could become less of a necessity. One thing talked about in healthcare circles is the future of tele-health. Instead of waiting to see a doctor, web calls could be made with home testing devices, for those simple check ups. Obviously, if its something serious nothing will replace going to see a specialist. But for small things and regular checkups the future lies in not needing to leave your house. Again, this would mean less congestion in cities.

And what about security? Imagine if instead of flashing a passport you simple had your eye or thumb scanned. The technology exists, it just needs to be implemented. Police could even avoid the whole problem with reaching for your licence by scanning you instead. Sounds a little scary actually, but who knows what the future may hold.

Signs could become screens instead of static metal sheets. They could change to adapt to the time of day or circumstances, notify people of news and events in the nearby area, or give public service announcements. Then there is the commercial side. With smart cities and data available to companies, personalised advertising is a hot topic right now in start up circles.


While they might look like something out of the Terminator series, drones will undoubtedly play a bigger role in cities of the future.

Including security and policing, public-service delivery, weather observation, logistics planning, news, real-time data collection as well as commercial uses already being tried out by Amazon, they are sure to change the world. They will be to the 21st Century what planes were to the 20th.

The security and policing aspect is fairly obvious. Drones are a low-cost alternative to helicopters, and whether they are an eye in the sky while chasing criminals or for general surveillance during busy public events, the possibilities are numerous. They could also help deliver public services. For example, they could be a more rapid way to deliver emergency medicine to inaccessible areas or heavily-congested parts of town, in the same way helicopters do now. Thanks to their low cost compared to helicopters they could be dispatched on a patrolling basis: yep, starting to sound a little dystopian now but with the right nuance it could work very well.


Perhaps the most important change that will need to be made to cities is their energy consumption. In another article I wrote about the moves towards sustainable and even regenerative urban planning. Whether its making urban spaces greener or using recycled materials to build homes, the move to greener urban planning and architecture is a common one.

And it will soon become a necessity, as the harmful effects of inner city pollution on the health of its inhabitants becomes clearer. New research highlighted in the Guardian found that pollution may be contributing to almost 10,000 deaths a year in London. At the end of last year, ten cities in China were placed on red alert, the highest of four pollution categories: so bad they were advised not to engage in outdoor activities and schools were closed. This simply cannot continue, and cities of the future will have to be greener and use less energy, even if out of necessity.

And with more eco-friendly public transport on the way, smarter networks leading to less congestion and the electronic car industry growing daily, the city of the future will be greener and healthier than currently.

Final Word

So there it is. If we combine all the above into a single city, we have one that:

  • Is data-driven, with entrepreneurs and inventors providing solutions to real-world problems the city faces using open-source data
  • Has apps integrated into its infrastructure and networks: apps for taking public transport, apps for checking local news, apps for finding a parking spot, apps for keeping up to date with everything that’s going on, apps for generally interacting with the city infrastructure
  • Has regained its sense of community that has been lost over the last few decades thanks to apps that foster collaboration and cooperation
  • Gives you free, public wifi everywhere
  • Boasts a public transport system that is green, efficient, rapid, geared to the customer thanks to being linked in to apps on their phones, linked in to the city infrastructure in a way that speeds the service up, and has its own isolated routes in the case of buses
  • Has drones flying all over the place, delivering security solutions, public services such as healthcare in a more efficient way
  • Delivers public services in a way that is up-to-date, taking full advantage of all technological options on offer
  • Is sustainable and regenerative for the environment

Now that sounds like a city I want to live in. Of course these already exist in one form or another: nothing I have written about is hypothetical. They just haven’t been combined and consolidated into entire-city networks yet. But one day they will be.

Not to end on a pessimistic note, but I believe this sort of city is more likely to be seen in developing economies. The most innovative and interest cities are being built in the developing world and the Middle East, where rapid economic growth and more greenfield sites is allowing for more ground-up construction, with the benefit of hindsight and these aforementioned ideas.

The chance of New York or London ditching their subway systems for a transport system more like the ones mentioned here is very slim due to the huge costs involved. Much of the technological stuff could be implemented fairly easily, but the really revolutionary change that requires huge construction costs is more likely to be seen in countries where they have a fast-growing economy and can build from the ground up.




How We’re Not Killing The Planet

How We’re Not Killing The Planet

Notice how whenever human impact on the environment is brought up, people instantly focus on the negative. Sure, humans have done some detrimental things, but we are trying to make up for it. Teams all around the world are currently brainstorming ways to preserve the planet. We may not have everything figured out, but it’s time to cut the human-race some slack, as we are moving in the right direction.

As a frequent flier, I’ve noticed significant changes in aircrafts. Older planes were super loud, coughed out excessive amounts of pollutants, and used way too much fuel. Nowadays, when I fly long-haul, i’m transported on the dreamy Boeing 787 Dreamliner. Not only does this humongous plane make me feel comfortable and relaxed, it’s also Eco-friendly! This state-of-the-art invention is manufactured with fewer hazardous materials, produces less emissions, and consumes lower amounts of fuel. No longer will you be contradicting yourself as an “environmentalist” when you fly often. Speaking of transportation, we all know that carpooling saves resources and energy, but is usually thought of as an activity carried out through friends. Recent future advancements have resulted in apps allowing people to carpool with strangers. You heard me, carpool with strangers. Though it may seem daunting to hop in a car with someone you’ve never met, programs like Blablacar provide extensive details about the drivers driving experience and recent reviews from other passengers. Avoid emitting unneeded pollutants from your car into the ecosystem and instead join someone who’s headed towards your destination. Not only are you being greener, but you may also make a new friend.

National parks, such as Grand Canyon and Yellowstone, may have a bad-rep for being over-crowded with pesky tourists and high-strung families, but they exist for a good reason: they are beautiful. The idea of allowing the government to protect different natural wonders worldwide is genius! Conservation on this level ensures that generations to come can bask in the beauty of Earth the same way we have. New laws are developed all the time to decrease oil-drilling or guard new-found lands to minimize the human footprint. Along with finding new areas, important information is spread diligently once it is released. Take Cowspiracy, for example. This documentaries popularity has skyrocketed since Leonardo DiCaprio decided to fund it. The information in this film is shocking to many, as it explains how animal agriculture is the leading cause of deforestation. This film is meant to cause cognitive dissonance, in order to make a change for the future. By spreading awareness of the primary reason for trees being destroyed worldwide, the filmmakers hope that the human-race can make a simple switch to their diet in order to save the entire planet from collapsing.

Remember when recycling was seen as something that only crazy, earth-loving hippies did? Fast-forward to today, where recycling bins cover street corners and schools offer separate containers for plastic bottles and paper waste. In fact, certain colleges don’t even sell plastic water bottles on campus to prevent unnecessary non-biodegradable substances from polluting the Earth. But it doesn’t stop there, as we are growing everyday. Groups of teens have clubs where they spend hours a week brainstorming new Eco-friendly strategies and ways to get their peers to care more about their environmental footprint. Perhaps the most revolutionary realization by man was that we can use the sustainable, natural resources from this planet to generate power. Life depends on energy, so how incredible is it that we discovered ways to never run out of it? Through the use of less-polluting energy sources such as thorium, natural gas, wind, solar, and nuclear fusion, we can have as much power as we want, without consequences. All of these natural phenomena reduce environmental damage and generate power wonderfully. Advancements like these have been discovered recently, imagine what the future has to hold.

Notice how many positives we have contributed environmentally to this planet, that we often skim over? It’s inspiring how every minute, we are advancing more and more into environmental friendly growth. The future looks bright when you notice our significant changes in only the past few years. By continuing sustainability efforts, we are heading into a direction where we can save the heart of society, mother-nature, from collapsing.

What will the city of the future look like?

What will the city of the future look like?

When you hear the words future city the first thing that springs to mind might be a landscape of flying vehicles, glossy skyscrapers and neon textures.

City of the Future

Maybe something like this?

Undoubtedly influenced by the minds of directors like Ridley Scott (Blade Runner), James Cameron (Terminator), Alex Proyas (i-Robot) and George Lucas (Star Wars Franchise), an image arises mostly inspired by their aesthetic or plot-driven considerations, when in fact what will determine how cities of the future look is their functionality.

Join us as we take a look at the myriad of ideas about how the future city will look, from buildings made of sand to solar panelled roads, ecological city gardens to huge dome structures. The emphasis is on the visual, so logistics, connectivity and socio-political developments will not be looked at (…yet…watch this space).

Urban Planning

One aspect that sci-fi films touch on accurately regarding future architecture and urban planning is the need for vertical growth as opposed to horizontal. This means building up instead of sideways. Aside from developing economies where the rural-to-urban switch is in its nascent or developing stage and it might be necessary, urban sprawl is generally deemed a bad thing.

One of the most talked about entrants to the Now + When: Australian Urbanism exhibition of 2010 was John Wardle Architect’s Multiplicity. It envisages a future where new streets and boroughs are built on top of each other, rather than developed alongside. It can be viewed in this video.


Tokyo, which regularly appears on lists of the most futuristic-looking cities, will have a mile-high skyscraper built in its bay area, partly as part of a construction of islands to protect against earthquakes. It will contain a mix of residential facilities and amenities.

However, when it comes to future architecture, talking about skyscraper plans and abstract concept exhibition entrants is a little conservative. Entire cities are being planned and plotted.

One example is Masdar City, a planned city in the UAE. With hugely reduced energy and water needs, a driverless personal transit system and a walkable and pedestrian-orientated layout, it is aiming to be the blueprint for future urban planning.

Masdar City in the UAE

An even more experimental and downright audacious idea is HavvAda Island, near Istanbul. It does away with a horizontal landscape altogether; starting from scratch and envisaging a series of huge domes with residences lining the structure and public amenities inside.

The plan of the designers is to have the structure of the island and the urban constructions intertwined, seamlessly merging into one gigantic geo-urban behemoth.

The dome design is clever in more ways than one. Firstly, it mimics a natural volcanic island. Secondly, it makes up for the waste of air space resulting from the evolution of cities up until now. Because to all intents and purposes, the space in between skyscrapers is useless. Very often you can’t build there, planes cannot fly through it and the landscape is ruined from a naturist’s point of view anyway. I’ve illustrated this with the following simple drawing.

Green Dome City

The green area represents both the dome structure, but also what is aesthetically and functionally difficult to use in the current urban set up without building more skyscrapers. With the domed urban design, the area could be used in a myriad of ways, as you will no longer be limited to building upwards, but could go down or sideways as well; non-structural usage like weather mimicking, entertainment, or other endeavours are also aided by its enclosure.

Another example of a future city concept proposed is the Shan Sui City design, developed by Beijing-based MAD architects. In this video the head architect walks you through the design.

The project is essentially a marriage of nature and people, paying attention to the urban landscape and treating it as an environment: the design has greenery and waterfalls permeating it. It aims to stop the isolation of buildings from nature, and create an atmosphere that emanates from the designs themselves.

An EcoCity Concept

An EcoCity Concept

It has much in common with HavvAda Island in this sense: a response to the lightning speed urbanisation that has been seen in the developed world and is underway in the developing world. A process that has taken place without much, if any, consideration of the ramifications of taking humans completely out of their natural habitat and plonking them in a concrete jungle (more on this later).

Skyscrapers are like penguins

However, assuming that we stick to regular bottom-up, horizontal construction, skyscrapers will not emerge in the way depicted in sci-fi art, such as the picture in the beginning of the article. What they tend to do is cluster. For obvious logistical reasons and to minimise the effect I demonstrated with the diagram, skyscrapers tend to be built alongside each other.

Whether it’s the City of London, Dubai’s business towers dotting its E11 road, the bay side business district in Singapore, the midtown and downtown areas in New York, or the cluster of skyscrapers that is Hong Kong, tall buildings buddy up.

Skyscraper Clustering in Dubai

Skyscraper Clustering in Dubai

Skyscrapers might not be everyone’s cup of tea, aesthetically speaking. However, their productivity benefits and morale-boosting effect are documented by papers reported on by the Economist and the LSE. Benefits include increased face-to-face meetings for workers, easier accessibility to amenities for breaks, wonderful views while working and the prestige of working in a landmark.

Hong Kong

Hong Kong

So unless we find ourselves living in a HavvAda-style island dome any time soon, building skyscrapers could continue to be the modus operandi for meeting the needs of economic output and urban settling. And with the cluster effect, it is likely we will see plenty more Hong Kong’s in the future. More on this later.

Concrete Jungle or Marrow Metropolis? Alternative materials for future cities

The very materials used for future construction are also now a topic of discussion. Steel and concrete are the standard at the moment, but this could change.

Recent research has suggested that bone marrow and egg shells could be a more eco-friendly alternative. Sounds absurd at first, perhaps, but these materials are made up of a combination of minerals and protein that provide a strength and resistance to fracture that is nearly on par with steel and concrete, if used with the right consistency and adequate structural integrity.

Others speak of advanced fibre composite materials, 3D-printed bio materials, and even sand playing a bigger role in the future. Another idea is a completely ecologically sound, self-building city, where it grows only using the waste it produces, mimicking the material cycles found in nature. This would be done through a process of urban mining (recycling) and producing building materials from the fruits of that labour. City Metric compiled a list of 9 building materials made entirely from waste products.

Glass Building in Tianjin, China

Glass Building in Tianjin, China

Putting the idea of building skyscrapers out of bone and sand aside for a second, there are some obvious ways that building material patterns could change. Increased taxes on emissions in the future should see a general switch from materials with high carbon emissions in their production (steel, concrete and timber) to those with lower emissions (glass, aluminium and plastics). This would see a shift from the dark, monotonous grey of the modern industrial city, to a slicker, lighter grey and white theme we see reflected in sci-fi projections of the future (again, the directors prove they thought these things through).

The ecological city, and reconciling this with the skyscraper frenzy

So while I mentioned the trajectory we are heading towards with skyscrapers dominating the skyline for the time being, there is a move away from this by some architects, towards plans with sustainability at the forefront of them.

The Hanging Gardens of One Central Park

The Hanging Gardens of One Central Park

You’ve already seen how a city could work more like a natural environment with the Shan Shui idea. One could achieve the green effects aimed for by MAD by constructing buildings that capture smog and carbon emissions, the design of which will lead to some fantastically intricate building facades, which can be seen here. Another way would be hanging gardens like the ones that are part of One Central Park (pictured above): 23 gardens and 85,000 plants decorate the building.

Not to mention solar panels. Already they are taking an increasingly prominent place in urban development, with the latest wonder being the solar panelled roads in the Netherlands; while Norway is aiming to construct roads that produce more power than they consume, so called Power Roads.

Concept art of Ecopolis

Concept art of Ecopolis

Ecopolis, pictured above, is one of the most comprehensive ideas put forward for a sustainable city design, details of which can be read here (warning, it’s long). It is part of a wider move in urban planning away from merely ‘sustainable’ (not causing further damage) to ‘regenerative’ (actively reversing the effects of climate change wrought thus far).

Humanity will need to make a choice in this regard. Pursue a program as we currently have done for the last 60 years of economic growth with the objective of increasing material wealth, and we will see the skyscraper clusters become the staple city image. London alone has 119 tall buildings (above 150m) in the pipeline, and the UAE has seen most of the world’s new skyscrapers built over the last 20 years.

E11 Road, Dubai

E11 Road, Dubai

Or conversely, programs of sustainable or regenerative growth such as the ones we’ve looked at (Ecopolis, Shan Shui, HavvAda) could be pursued, with cities increasingly blurring the lines between things nature and things urban.

Analysing the eco-city plans, one notices the idea of making those skyscrapers we do construct take on an increasingly natural look, like a tree or hill, rather than the rigid columned monoliths we’re used to. An effort to make the citizen feel like they are in a natural environment, perhaps to combat those ramifications of displacement I mentioned earlier.

And even when architects haven’t necessarily subscribed to the eco-friendly framework of design, there is a visible departure from the concrete block of the post-WWII building frenzy, which will continue and evolve in the future.

City of Arts and Sciences Valencia

City of Arts and Sciences, Valencia 1: museums and cultural centres have some of the most innovative and futuristic architecture you can see today.

I know, intriguing, right? Here is a list of 35 of the most stunning works!

In any case, skyscrapers and ecological approaches to urban planning are not mutually exclusive. To what extent this fact will play out in future is uncertain. What is certain is that those born today will see a change in the city at least on the scale of the last 70 years, if not, even greater.

Toronto: the near future?

Toronto: the near future?