Each year, innovations by people around the world battle it out for a coveted Cannes Lions award and, as those projects undergo the scrutiny of the jury, a diverse program of talks, workshops and demonstrations are going on elsewhere. We were honoured to be invited to give one such talk this year: about how we believe the cities of our future will look and what roles we share in making them better.
Our city infrastructures are struggling — and in many cases failing — to keep their growing populations moving. PWC estimates that New York, Beijing, Shanghai and London will need approximately 8 trillion USD in infrastructure investment over the next decade to keep up with the growing demand.
We must take a thorough, critical look at — and properly address — the challenges facing transportation in urban areas if we want to improve quality of life in the world we inhabit and the world our descendants will inherit.
There are a lot of things affecting cities right now, but for now let’s start with the three key drivers and how we get around them:
1. Accelerated population growth.
2. The rise of electric transport.
3. Our on-demand culture.
Growth comes with challenges
If you spend any time in a city, you’ve probably experienced traffic congestion, overcrowded public transportation, long queues and so on. When many of our cities already feel — shall we say — a little cosy, it becomes rather sobering to look at the projected growth numbers:
Today, there are 7.7 billion people on the planet. By 2050, that number is expected to rise to 9.8 billion. That extra 2.2 billion is six times the population of the USA. While 90% of this growth is expected to occur in Asia and Africa, urban centres in the rest of the world are expected to grow in population size as people continue to move from rural to urban communities.
Today, 54% of the world’s population live in cities (that’s 4.1 billion). By 2050, that percentage is predicted to rise to 68% (so 6.7 billion).
Cities generate the vast majority of global GDP (85%), but while they’re doing that, they’re also consuming two-thirds of the world’s natural resources and producing over 80% of global greenhouse gas emissions.
If we are going to solve some of the big challenges facing our world, we must start with cities.
The unintended consequences of meeting demand
Cities everywhere are dealing with enormous challenges brought by the exponential rise in on-demand ride-sharing services. While they originally seemed like a brilliant idea, taxi apps have increased congestion and air pollution. A recent study found that 60% of Uber and Lyft users would have taken public transportation instead of using a ride hailing service, whilst the other 40% would have chosen to use their car or a taxi.
Ride-hailing services aren’t reducing traffic in American cities — and they won’t, even if they meet their goals for converting solos trips to shared rides, according to new research from transportation analyst Bruce Schaller. And they aren’t just compounding congestion; they’re stepping up driving, cannibalising transit trips and increasing traffic deaths by 2–3% nationally.
In cities, we’ve also seen a rapid rise in dockless bikes, electric scooters, and many other micro-mobility services. While they solve some problems, jump-on-jump-off bikes and scooters are causing unforeseen negative consequences in cities like Paris where scooters were eventually banned in October 2018, and Xiamen where thousands of bikes have been abandoned.
If the roads are full, let’s take to the sky?
Knowing the limitations and unintended consequences brought by the services currently on offer, the Uber Elevate team is already working on airborne ride-sharing at scale. They plan to launch fleets of small, electric VTOL (vertical take-off and landing) aircraft in Dallas, Los Angeles and an international market in 2023.
But before any flying taxis are ready to take off, officials have to be persuaded to make wholesale changes to aviation laws and regulations, and it’ll take a lot of thinking to work out how to manage city airspaces swarming with tiny aircraft. A whole host of major unresolved issues still exist with no solution — ranging from their not-so sustainable implications, potential for increased noise pollution, and sheer cost to use the service. While perhaps air taxis may one day soon make getting to a destination easier for the 1%, it doesn’t provide a suitable means for millions to travel more easily.
What does that mean for the future of our cities?
First, it’s important to understand that our cities are shaped not only by government, but also by millions of different people, organisations and companies.
Next, we need to be realistic, and look at the near-term and long-term future a bit differently. We already see problems in our urban environments today that can’t be fixed by flying cars, so while there’s value in exploring these things for the longer term, we must seek steps that we can take right now to improve the mobility systems for now and with a view that one day they may accommodate those airborne cars.
Finally, we need to accept that nobody can accurately predict the future. Our visions for the future will always be proven wrong by unanticipated technological advances, environmental shifts, political changes, economic dips and societal pressures. We can only make our best guess, based on what we do know right now and what we believe our future cities should be like. With an idea of what we want, we’ll have something to work towards.
Setting the future we want, instead of predicting it
We believe the future city must be sustainable, smart, and connected.
The future city needs to address climate change from a whole host of different perspectives. We must consider how we live, we must consider the goods we purchase, use and discard, we must explore more sustainable modes of planning and, of course, we must have more sustainable means of transportation.
The future city must be smart, with priority given to getting people from place to place, and accommodating their challenges to enable them to do it easily. We believe our mobility options will start to be knitted together to form an ecosystem in which many services will connect or merge, and the main economic and social value will lie in smart system management. To start knitting these things together, our focus must be to pull together existing and emerging services and systems so that the connections between become seamless. We’ll see city planning and design taking a more agile approach, which will bring us systems that respond to real-time data and citizens’ evolving needs.
The future city must be connected, not only allowing residents to get from A to B easier, but also connected to one another. Our future cities need to speak to one another and learn from each other. Cities all around the world are facing many similar issues and we need to look outside of our own cultures and continents into how others are successfully solving challenges.
We need to work together to achieve the future we want. We need less platforms and more partnerships. We need more open data and data sharing and less data silos. We believe that the future city must be sustainable, smart and connected. And the more we work together, the more we can make this happen.