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In his 1956 sci-fi classic The City and the Stars, Arthur C. Clarke imagined an Earth one billion years into the future. He pictured a world very different from today’s – no oceans, no mountains, all desert. But one thing remains the same: people live in cities. In fact, they live in a single mega-metropolis, Diaspar.
Clarke’s vision shows that, though the city might be a recent ‘invention’, it’s a persistent idea. Today, most experts agree that cities will be where most of us live – at least for the foreseeable future.
Chris Murray, director of Core Cities UK, says: “Urban living is not inevitable. But it is highly probable. People are still moving to cities from rural areas, and existing city populations are getting bigger at the same time. All the evidence points to more city living and much bigger cities.”
Murray is alluding to stats such as those from the United Nations. It says more than half of the world’s population currently live in cities, but the number will be 68 per cent by 2050. That’s 2.5 billion more people than now.
It adds that most people will live in megacities of more than 10 million inhabitants. There were 33 megacities in 2018. The UN says there will be 43 by 2030.
Can such vast, crowded spaces ever be good places to live?
Chris Murray believes this is a fundamental question. He says: “If we assume more people are going to live in cities, we have to work out how to make urban spaces safe and clean. Technology will certainly help us to do this.
“But then we have to work out how to make cities fair and open. We have to ask whether things like artificial intelligence and smart objects will lead to more equality or less. Because we know that inequality is really bad for cities.”
We might have the answers soon. Ambitious smart city projects are already under construction. In Saudi Arabia, for example, work is under way to turn a 10,000 square mile area of desert into a $500bn smart city called Neom.
According to the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, everything in it “will have a link to artificial intelligence and the Internet of Things”.
Neom offers a glimpse of what is possible in the next decade. But futurists are already thinking further ahead – to the technologies that could define the urban landscape of 2050. Here’s a preview of some of them…
Cities need buildings. And buildings need power. Solar is the obvious answer. But panels are bulky, expensive and cumbersome to install. By 2050, these shortcomings could be solved by spray-on solar cells. This is thanks to the development of tiny light-sensitive materials known as colloidal quantum dots. Spray-on power turns any surface into a battery, so pretty much anything can capture and store power.
What if the buildings we live in were themselves alive? Architects in Paris believe ‘plant-embedded smart architecture’ could be the most elegant way to make cities sustainable and also provide sources of renewable energy. As part of the Paris Smart City 2050 project, the architects envisaged towers with algae bioreactors, bamboo exoskeletons and vertical farms.
As urban spaces get bigger and buildings soar higher, it’s possible that skyscrapers themselves will become mini-cities. Experts believe that one giant building could accommodate flats, shops, offices, entertainment complexes, community spaces and so on, meaning inhabitants need never leave. Mexican architect firm Studio Cachoua Torres Camilletti illustrated the concept with a pair of 92 storey towers linked by bridges.
It’s the ultimate sci-fi dream – and people are finally trying to make it happen. German company Volocopter has built a two-seater aircraft that looks like a giant drone. It can take off vertically, and is almost silent.
Construction is dangerous work, but in 2050, it might all be done by robots. This seems unlikely now, as robots are best suited to repetitive tasks in controlled environments and building sites are unpredictable places. But there’s progress. For example, Fastbrick Robotics’ Hadrian X bot can lay 1,000 bricks per hour. Meanwhile, a study by Balfour Beatty says: “The construction site of 2050 will be human-free. Drones flying overhead will scan the site and the data to predict and solve problems before they arise, sending instructions to robotic cranes and diggers and automated builders with no need for human involvement.”
If the car of 2050 is driverless, why is it just a car? Think about it. If vehicles are constantly moving and require no driver, people could use them for meetings or parties or workouts.
By 2050 buildings will be filled with smart sensors that will analyse and regulate the environment. They might also regulate the people. Futurists have suggested that toilets will inspect ‘waste’ products and alert inhabitants about any irregularities.
Social changes are often overlooked by future-gazers; there was no gay marriage in the classic sci-fi of the 1950s. What new norms might be established by 2050? Perhaps the heteronormative convention will break down completely. A woman might marry her platonic best friend or her sister. A man might choose a robot as his life partner…
How best to feed 50 million people in one city? Probably not by killing animals. And – if current trends keep up – it’s possible that most people won’t want to eat meat anyway. What’s the answer? There’s meat made from plants or grown in a lab. But what about food made from algae? It’s an efficient food source that can produce about seven times the amount of protein as soybeans from the same amount of land.
Paying used to be an active thing. Then came the internet, and it started to happen in the background. The next step is moving this contextual payment into the physical world. By 2050, everything will be able to make and receive payments on your behalf – your car, fridge or television. If physical payment disappears, so might local currencies, leaving a single global token in place of sterling, dollars or euros.
Our investment team looks for large thematic ideas that are changing the world around us and will continue to do so in the years to come. We are trying to capture ideas that are either changing how we operate as a society or things that humans need to survive. For more information, visit the Research section.
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