Ideas about the future
It’s hard to imagine the future without imagining cities. Cities are the conceptual home of the future in the human imagination. I’m fascinated by our conceptions of the future, and therefore by our conceptions of the future city. What will the world look like in 50 years? It will look however our cities look.
The fate of humanity is undeniably intertwined with the fate of our cities. Cities are the longest lever by which we can move the future of civilization. How and what to build… that is the great opportunity of my generation.
Most of the great challenges of the 21st century will play out in cities. This is a beautiful thing, because as complex as they are, cities are organisms that we can study and understand. It’s also scary in a way because we can’t control organisms, we can only influence them. But with curiosity, wonder, and courage, we can try to ask questions that expand our understanding and move us forward. Questions won’t necessarily lead us to perfect solutions but they can at least lead us to improvements. And it is admirable to aspire to even small improvements. Still, dream no small dreams, as Goethe would say.
If we take stock of the challenges that will be addressed by humanity over the coming decades, they mainly involve adaptation, managing change, and navigating transitions. We’re in an extremely dynamic and transitional period. Change has always been the only constant, but the rate and magnitude of change today are unprecedented. We are navigating through multiple high-stakes transitions that have profound consequences associated with the outcomes. The vast majority of these dramas have cities as their stage.
The next 100 years will not be like the last 100 years. The city is no longer the sole domain of governments and professionals like planners, architects, and developers. In the last decade, we’ve seen private technology companies rise to become some of the most influential stakeholders in the built environment. And who is to say that tech companies will be the last great category of change-makers to enter the fray? For now though at least consider how Uber is changing mobility, how Opendoor is changing home-buying, or how Google Maps has and is changing many things. And we’ve only scratched the surface of what will be a Cambrian explosion of innovation. The next 100 years will bring profound disruption to the city.
Cities have historically been slow-to-change. They have been bureaucratic late adopters of technology. Those characteristics make any entity vulnerable to disruption. Now, technology is permeating every layer of the urban milieu. It is tying everything to the pace of change inherent in technological progress. Disruption always brings chaos, but that chaos is usually constrained to one context like a business or an industry. That will not be the case with cities. Since cities are the underlying context of civilization itself, the disruption and chaos will be broadly unconstrained and highly distributed.
Regulation and government will play a role, but we know how the genie of technological progress behaves. Once the genie is out of the bottle it’s extremely difficult to control. National and international governments will lag further and further behind. Governments were just not built for this situation. Municipal governments may be the only regulatory bodies capable of keeping up with the pace of change. Mayors may eventually become some of the most important decision-makers in government, but that’s a topic for a future post.
Despite the complexity and high stakes, I’m optimistic about the future of cities. I am, therefore, optimistic about the future in general. The challenges we face today and the ones that haven’t yet emerged are daunting, but cities have a stellar track record of resilience. There are and will be solutions. We can and will create them.
The way forward will be led by inspired imaginations. As Elon said “life cannot just be about solving one miserable problem after another, that can’t be the only thing. There need to be things that inspire you, that make you glad to wake up in the morning and be part of humanity.” That’s the ethos of optimism I hold for the future of cities. What exciting visions are we willing to champion? What bold innovations are we willing to bet on? Are we ready to swing for the fences on epic moonshot projects? Dream no small dreams. We are continually building and rebuilding our cities. We might as well do it with good taste, bold ambitions, and artistic inspiration.