Mukbang, And The Future Role Of Online Streaming

Mukbang, And The Future Role Of Online Streaming

They say art is all about empathy. When you read a wonderful novel, when you gaze at a mesmerising painting, when you listen to an enchanting piece of music: a feeling of connection between artist and consumer is forged. In that particular moment, in that line, in that drawing, in that melody and lyric, you find someone who can portray reality in a way that resonates with you. Connection is probably behind most of what we do outside of basic survival. So what has a live feed of someone eating dinner got to do with it?

Mukbang is a fairly recent phenomenon, so far of significant size only in Korea, where people live broadcast themselves eating dinner. The food is usually of a copious amount, and the eater friendly and charming. Thousands tune in and pay real money (in the form of transferable online currency) for the benefit of watching the Mukbang star dine in. The live message feed is clogged up with messages, with the eater responding to through their live stream.

Confused? You’ll probably be perplexed by Gogglebox too. The show, a highly successful TV show broadcast by UK network Channel 4 since 2013, observes people watching TV. Literally. Families, old couples and good friends watch and chuckle along to the week’s major TV programs and events. Once you wrap your head around how pointless an exercise it is, you’ll start to realise it’s actually quite watchable.

Jeff Yang, an Asian-American cultural critic and head honcho at The Futures Company, a global research firm, believes that the development of Mukbang has its origins in “the loneliness of unmarried or uncoupled Koreans, in addition to the inherently social aspect of eating in Korea.” So, an activity normally done with loved ones is now switching to the online realm as more and more people find themselves alone during said activity. One of the biggest Mukbang stars, Changhyun, similarly stipulates that his broadcasts provide the viewer with someone to eat with. He notifies his audience of what he will eat each night, in advance, so that viewers can mimic the experience of sharing the same meal. Gogglebox does a similar thing with watching TV. But then, how do you feign the experience of watching Gogglebox with someone? Satirical news outlet NewsThump has the answer, in Gogglegogglebox.

Joking aside, the Quartz article, from where Jeff Yang made his remark, sums it up perfectly.

“One explanation, a somewhat grim one, is that Mukbang is the apotheosis of humankind’s trajectory away from face to face interaction.”

So, people are shunning face to face interactions for online alternatives. Understandable. While providing nowhere near the same satisfaction as their real life counterparts, the online choices are instantly available, require no organisation with a fellow person, and reduce all social awkwardness associated with socialising nowadays.

South Korea is undoubtedly the country furthest along the road to complete integration of real life and the internet. It boasts the highest internet speeds in the world and one of the highest rates of internet usage. Trends there could indicate the future for the rest of us, and Mukbang could represent the first of many everyday home activities to become the focus of hugely successful live broadcasting. One of the most well-known Mukbang stars, Park Seo-Yeon, makes over $9,000 each month through her live feeds.

Since Mukbang has proven so successful, what other everyday things could make their way into live online feeds? Let’s think of the all the everyday activities that have a social component. Watching TV and eating are the two most obvious, and they have been done. But there remains a myriad of activities we do to kill time when at home, often with a friend, partner or family member. Simply hanging out, listening to music, sunbathing, reading, studying, working, playing videogames, stargazing, creating and being generally artistic. All activities perfectly doable on your own, but complemented by having someone there with you playing along. Could we see success stories of people live streaming themselves doing any of the above?

Just writing about the possibility of live feeds popping up dedicated to these activities feels absurd in itself. But prior to mukbang, anyone claiming you could make over $100,000 a year by filming yourself eating dinner each night would be laughed off as a lunatic. Yet Seo-Yeon has done just that. Of course it helps that she’s devilishly pretty (see below). But you don’t have to possess good looks to gain a following doing something ordinary and streaming it.

Tayser Abuhamder used to work in a deli, enduring long hours and dull tasks, until he started live streaming his workdays. Hundreds tuned into his streams, where he cracked jokes, messed around, and generally made the day more interesting. Eventually fired by his boss for his streaming activities, he now makes three times as much as he was there thanks to his large following on social media. His deli broadcast could be said to mimic visiting your friend at work. Or, it is simply hanging out. It’s the live aspect that creates a more real connection between viewer and YouNower. Vlogging can have the same effect, but it lacks the length and the live component.

The founder of YouNow, Adi Sideman, was part of a community of tech entrepreneurs in the 90s that believed everyone would eventually be the star of their own web show. Founded in 2011, his website works by taking a cut of the YouNow star’s earnings as it is transferred into real currency; but the voluntary nature of the donations means businesses are wary at best of investing in the industry. There is no advertising on the site, and so transactions are entirely voluntary. The site’s code of ethics also stipulates there is to be no direct cash-for-requests activity, as that can inevitably lead down to the rabbit hole of the weird and illegal. The business opportunities in live streaming are certainly there, but for now it remains a risky investment for entrepreneurs. This will grow substantially over the forthcoming decades, as YouNow’s user base is overwhelmingly under 25.

Image result for younow collage

Take your pick

While Ali’s vision of everyone having their own Truman Show hasn’t come true, he was in the right ballpark. Not everyone wants to have their own show. Most people would rather just observe others. The anonymity allowed to the viewer in live streams takes away any actual requirements from them, while still getting some of the satisfaction associated with real life socialising and hanging out. And with the emerging holographic lens technology will have the potential to make it feel like you are really there.

And this doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Sure, the idea that we are moving away from face to face interaction and into the realm of online-only interaction is perhaps a scary one. But there’s good reason to believe much of the YouNow activity is simply complementing, rather than replacing, real life social interactions. After all, the connection with a complete stranger half way across the world can be an uplifting experience, restoring one’s faith in the unity of people worldwide. Especially considering we basically all live in cities now, where talking to random strangers is more and more socially unacceptable. The idea that technology is hurting both our ability to socialise and the very fabric of our society is one that has been around since the invention of the printing press in the 1500’s. Many studies actually show teens feel more connected to each other thanks to social media.

But even if the live streaming phenomenon is beginning to replace face to face interaction, as mentioned earlier, why is this such a bad thing? Some people are naturally unsocial, whether through their own experiences or their unique psychological and physiological make-up. Standardising social activities into the online realm would free up time for those who can’t deal with excessive real life interactions, allowing their creative juices to flow much better. After all, the greatest minds the world has ever seen were asocial. How many more Newton’s, Tesla’s, Da Vinci’s or Aristotle’s could be out there, now that they don’t need to waste their time trying to be something that they are not? The world’s geniuses and great thinkers didn’t necessarily always lead happy lives themselves, but their achievements have led to a world in which we are healthier and live more fruitfully. Probably a worthy trade-off, wouldn’t you say?

Relating to my own life, I realised that a live stream of someone reading, working or studying isn’t such a ridiculous idea. I find it much easier to work in a cafe or library, or with a friend, than I do on my own. This is the audience effect, something scientists have known about for years. People tend to perform better when in the view of others, at least at familiar tasks: new, more complex challenges are best approached completely alone and without distraction. Could opening a live stream of someone studying help you concentrate on your own work or reading? The idea isn’t so far fetched.

I hypothesise that in, say 50 years, there will be live streams, garnering thousands or millions of viewers, of absolutely every single everyday task or hobby there is. Ones for studying, ones for brushing your teeth, ones for cleaning your room. You can probably find these already on YouNow or Meerkat. But what will change is how successful they will become and how much more commonplace they will be, and how normal it will be to watch a video of someone brushing their teeth while you do so. One day that won’t be weird. One day.

In fact, with lifecasting now increasingly popular, the idea that you could fit your life in to align with that of someone else is not far fetched. And in doing so, you could have someone there with you waking, eating, washing, working and living. Justin Kan founded in 2007, where he wore a body cam to broadcast his entire life. 24 hours a day. Since then, many other people have taken to filming their entire lives, or at least large portions of them. Aligning your routine with someone else’s is entirely feasible, and there’s a chance some are already doing this.

Whatever the future holds for online streaming, expect it to play a much bigger role in social satisfaction and empathy. Mukbang is only the beginning.



What will healthcare be like in the future?

What will healthcare be like in the future?

Picture the scene. You’re waiting for a doctor’s appointment in your local health centre. The décor is disconcerting, the crowd is tense the seats are rigid and the wait is long. And this is the best case scenario. Find yourself in a developing economy, and perhaps there aren’t enough doctors available and your nearest hospital is out of reach.

Innovations are happening at a phenomenal scale in order to meet the challenges of populations’ healthcare needs. Here are some of those geared towards consultation, diagnosis and treating some conditions, that could paint a picture of how future systems could work (the science of surgery and medicine is beyond the scope of this article). As you will see, the common theme is taking these processes out of inefficient outpatient/doctor visit systems and bringing them closer to the patient.

AI Services: bringing your doctor to you

A cliché of science fiction films you are probably familiar with is artificial intelligence taking the place the role that humans used to play. But future doctor appointments might be done in this way.

A company called Babylon, who specialise in telehealth, recently extended their app which allows users to consult with a doctor from their phone. Already available in the UK and Ireland, it was launched in Rwanda in May. In an interview with Healthcare Business International, a healthcare specialist business publication, the head of product, Prem Sharma, claimed the app already has 300,000 users and 100 doctors giving health advice.

Alongside the app, a new AI triage tool has been launched. Users talk about their symptoms and the app uses a huge database of symptoms and possible causes in order to best diagnose the patient and advise on course of action. The advice could be easy treatment options, or recommendations to visit a pharmacist or doctor.

Symptom checking tools already exist on websites like WebMD and the NHS’s main site. However, putting this dynamic into app form allows for a more direct evaluation. It also has the potential to develop and improve to a greater extent than a website, by storing medical records and keeping track of its visitors.

With algorithms becoming more sophisticated apps like Babylon’s AI service will become more and more responsive and finely tuned to the needs of the patient. Symptoms, age, background, medical history, location and public health information could all be combined to create an interface that is as close to a doctor as is possible.

And combined with holographic technologies like Microsoft’s HoloLens, you could find yourself talking to a virtual doctor and receiving real-time information: or a real doctor if they are available, but if the AI technology goes far enough there might not be much of a difference!

POCT: sending data to your doctor

In another article I speculated on the future of healthcare being a skype session with your doctor and a home testing kit by your side. Turns out we’re already moving in that direction.

POCT stands for point-of-care-testing: at its most obvious, it is patients using devices at home to test themselves, sending the information to medical experts for analysis and diagnosis. The growth of this technology will take pressure off A&E departments and swamped local health centres by moving one aspect of the process to the patients’ home.

Not only would it relieve pressure on health service infrastructure, it would also make it easier for the extremely sick and elderly to receive attention without having to send someone to their home. It speeds up the process too, ensuring quick diagnosis of potentially life-threatening conditions. Right now it is generally used to patients already diagnosed with a condition, in order to take day-to-day readings of things like haemoglobin and cholesterol.

But the wider potential for this is huge, and you could imagine there one day being an all in one box for home testing. Would you have been taken seriously if 50 years ago you had said that most homes would have a collection of medication in their cupboards; including paracetamol, temperature takers, and an assortment of treatments for everything from allergies to the common cold?

In the same way, it is possible that one day diagnosis will be also easily done in the home, as common medication is readily available and affordable for most of us. You could quite easily fit tests for a dozen common illnesses in a handy home testing kit the size of a suitcase. The question now is when this becomes widely standardized.

Medical Wearables: tracking your data on an ongoing basis

These are all the rage this year. They combined the technology of wearable devices with biosensor capabilities. An example is the Valedo Back Therapy device which is aimed for those with back problems. A device attaches to your back and collects data which is then used by the companion app to recommend posture exercises.

Then there is the HealthPatch MD. This is a remarkably disposable patch that allows healthcare professionals to keep tabs on the vitals of their patients. With ECG electrodes and a 3 axis accelerometer, it can keep track of a patient’s heart rate, breathing, temperature, activity and even body position in case of a fall or accident. Of course, it can also connect to a companion app for data collection.

While Google Glass was discontinued last year, it remains an active project. Along with technologies like Microsoft’s HoloLens, it has huge potential for healthcare services in the future.

  • Augmented reality for doctors and surgeons: having access to on-screen vitals at all times during surgery or appointments would make their job a lot easier
  • Telemedicine: video calling your doctor with the command of your voice
  • Virtual Dictation: rather than spending hours a day writing up and organising paperwork on patient data, experiments have successfully transcribed information from patient-doctor conversations into data

Many are sceptical over the viability of medical wearables and wearables in general, saying that we are not quite ready for them. Countless companies have gone under trying to establish their place in the market, and the discontinuation of Google Glass summed provided fuel to the fire of bio-wearables scepticism. But the amount of companies entering the market and the new products seen virtually every week are testament to them playing a huge role in the future delivery of healthcare.

The future for healthcare delivery? 

I’ve only gone over healthcare delivery, as the actual science of healthcare is far beyond my reach and would be better found in a scientific journal. In terms of the bigger picture, this has barely scratched the surface.

But regarding diagnosis and testing, it should be clear that the future is one of: AI interfaces replacing the need to see a health professional; should that fail, telehealth allowing video calling with said health professional; POCT further taking one step of the healthcare system out of the hospital and closer to the patient; and wearables allowing for more responsive and personal health monitoring.

It should be no surprise that the most talked about innovations we are currently will seeing are those geared towards relieving the pressure on physical infrastructure and making a more responsive and efficient system for all. One huge problem for health service deliverers right now is ramping up services to meet the demand. The new technologies talked about here should go some way to taking all the hassle out of healthcare. Because who likes going to see their doctor?

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.




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?