Cities of the future

How should societies rethink their cities to meet future challenges and make urban life better for all?

Explainer
Published 2 November 2022 Updated 15 September 2023 8 minute READ

The United Nations (UN) expects the world to gain 2.2 billion new urban residents by 2050, increasing mostly in Africa and Asia.

How the cities of the future are governed and developed will affect their ability to provide these growing populations with healthcare and housing – and how successfully they will adapt to the effects of climate change.

This article explains the local and global challenges future cities will face, and how cities have potential to take a leading role in driving social change.

Future cities   

Future cities need to be adapted, redesigned, and constructed to tackle increasingly significant challenges. Some challenges are structural so cities need to be redeveloped and built to be better adapted and resilient to a changing climate, extreme weather events such as flooding, and other environmental challenges such as air pollution and biodiversity loss.

Cities will also need to accommodate more people, as urban populations continue to grow. This means cities must continue to find ways to reduce their carbon emissions – already cities consume around 70 per cent of global emissions.

Today’s cities are highly inefficient in many ways.

Cities have a crucial role in setting practices and policies to reduce human consumption of energy and resources, adapt to the impacts of climate change and improve people’s lives in urban areas.
 
Today’s cities are highly inefficient in many ways. Air conditioning cools building interiors but pumps heated air into public spaces. Concrete buildings and paved spaces absorb heat and inhibit natural drainage of rainwater.

Buildings often have a short life span, and most of them are not designed to be recycled. Streets service car traffic not people, increasing air pollution and making cycling or pedestrian travel difficult, unpleasant, or unsafe. Cities are major sources of waste and many lack adequate collection, recycling, and disposal solutions.

Technology is often perceived as the foundation for creating, ‘smart’, green, sustainable cities. New tools, such as digital twins, artificial intelligence, and internet of things may help analyze and reduce emissions from transport, buildings and other city functions. But this can only assist the fundamental behavioural shift the world requires to a more circular urban economy.

Context is also important as cities in different parts of the world will have to consider different cultural, economic, and social factors to meet the needs of their populations.

Urbanization and the future of cities   

More than half the global population lives in cities but this urbanization trend differs worldwide. Across the Americas, more than 80 per cent of people live in urban areas while inhabitants of African cities make up just more than 40 per cent of the total population.  

Regardless of this variation, urbanization is set to increase to two-thirds of the global population by 2050, driven mostly by sharp increases in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia. For example, across ten Southeast Asia countries, it is predicted by 2050 there will be 705 million urban residents – 205 million more than in 2014, and an increase from 47 to 65 per cent. 

To accommodate this growth, major cities will continue to expand but many small and medium-sized cities are also set to experience rapid growth.

How these cities are developed and constructed is incredibly important to their future – their resilience to climate change, suitability for settlement, ability to efficiently manage resources, and growth.

Building design and construction is a long process so planning and design decisions made today about the future of human settlements have long-term consequences. Making the wrong choices in planning and construction practices could lock in high carbon emissions during this crucial period of climate action while potentially creating poorer living experiences.

Alternatively, investment which supports ambitious, sustainable practices could play a significant part in limiting emissions, meeting UN climate goals, and creating the best possible living spaces for city residents.

Cities as global actors

Cities are already policy agenda setters, shaping the development of future society. As cities grow, they will continue to exert greater and greater economic and political power influencing national issues beyond their own boundaries. In the case of sustainability, cities have long been leaders in setting their own ambitious climate goals, whereas national and international goals can be more limited by complex political issues.

Cities have long been leaders in setting their own ambitious climate goals.

Oslo in Norway has committed to reduce its emissions by 95 per cent by 2030 but, at the national level, the Norway government committed only to meet this reduction target by 2050.

A similar scenario is played out around the world, putting cities at the forefront of the most ambitious climate action.

Cities are often engines of national growth and have their own power and influence at both national and international scale. They can bring about change through their economies, research and development capacities, cultural interactions, and direct impact on the environment.

Many networks exist to help cities share learnings and collaborate, such as the C40 network and the ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability. New mechanisms such as the Marrakech Partnership are further enabling collaboration between governments and cities within international environmental negotiations.

More than 1,000 cities across 50 countries have committed to reach net zero by 2050 through the Cities Race to Zero initiative, some in the absence of an equivalent national target.

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Sustainability and future cities

There is no single model of a sustainable city as no model can apply worldwide. Different cities face unique challenges according to their wealth, governance, culture, and vulnerability to climate impacts.

Many countries and cities have zero-carbon ambitions, but no government has yet found its own definitive solution to building a truly sustainable city. In emerging markets such as those in the Middle East, Africa, and East Asia the need to build new cities creates opportunities to integrate sustainable planning and urban systems which are much harder to retrofit in existing cities.

But efforts to design sustainable eco-cities cities from scratch have not been successful. The development of the Dongtan eco-city in Shanghai faltered due to corruption and poor management. Masdar City, a zero-carbon city in Abu Dhabi, is just five per cent built a decade after the project began.
 
Electric vehicles are another technological solution often proposed as an essential ingredient of future cities. But in a city, an electric car creates many of the same issues as an internal combustion vehicle. Air pollution will be reduced, but any city with significant numbers of cars and roads will still inhibit cycling and walking, demand valuable space for parking, consume large amounts of energy, and perpetuate the difficulty that those without cars have in accessing services.

All cities of the future need to become more efficient in their consumption of natural resources

All cities of the future need to become more efficient in their consumption of natural resources such as energy, water, and materials, while reducing their generation of waste and emissions.

They will have to do this without undermining economic and social benefit, and create better places for human health − while ensuring they are resilient to the impacts of climate change.    

Use of green spaces can help address these challenges, absorbing excess water and mitigating the impact of flooding. Trees provide shade and cooler environments to help populations during heatwaves. Urban farms can produce food locally without the need for import and transportation. A greener city should improve the quality of life for its inhabitants by reducing air pollution and providing more shelter and public spaces.

While the challenges are significant, the opportunities are considerable. Cities which invest in sustainable solutions could stimulate innovation, new business opportunities, and potentially become hubs for new industries.

What is a smart city?

A smart city is one which uses digital technology and data to make safer, healthier, and more efficient urban environments. Some cities already use smart solutions to inform their governance and design.

For instance, air quality monitoring has been deployed in many cities to issue health updates in real time and implement low-emission zones. And traffic flow data has informed the creation of congestion charges.

There are many other new applications for smart technologies. Monitoring building use could help optimize heating and cooling through the structure, improving energy efficiency. Virtual reality can be deployed by architects and engineers to create the most efficient possible designs.

Informal settlements in developing countries with fewer essential services such as cooling, sanitation, or healthcare, can have access improved by digital technology. Mobile phones could offer applications like mobile banking, location tagging for free energy sources such as solar power, and locations for services such as pop-up clinics.

But the smart city concept brings significant concerns. The rollout of technologies such as facial recognition may create ever more powerful and intrusive surveillance, and gathering enormous data sets on residents’ behaviour presents serious privacy issues.

Future cities have enormous potential as centres for innovation.

Bad governance could also result in technological solutions being unequally distributed, entrenching existing class divisions within cities.

Wealthy enclaves could become more sealed off from their neighbours as islands of technological abundance while technology is used to control and isolate poorer citizens rather than improve their lives.

But future cities have enormous potential as centres for innovation. They are the perfect environment to trial new technological solutions in transport, healthcare, energy efficiency, and climate change adaptation.

Future-proofing existing cities

No city can be entirely ‘future proofed’. Many climate impacts are already becoming a reality and other factors such as population growth are unpredictable. So building resilience into cities is vital to mitigate and adapt to an uncertain future.  

Cities can learn important lessons about good and bad governance from each other. Cape Town in South Africa almost became the first city to run out of water in 2017, largely due to corruption and tensions between national and regional government. Water will need to be carefully managed in future to serve a booming population and to account for the increased likelihood of drought.

Copenhagen faced significant opposition to its transition to majority cycling transport, a change only seen through by strong political will. Reducing reliance on private cars and encouraging public transport is an essential ingredient of more sustainable cities.

More circular cities will also be well prepared for the future. A circular city has a waste management system with sophisticated sorting and collection methods to – ideally – eliminate landfill entirely. Such a system would reuse and recycle all waste and organic waste could be used for fertilizer for urban farming.

More modular design practices can create buildings which can be dismantled and recycled instead of demolished and discarded. Urban mining could see cities as centres of resource extraction, retrieving rare metals from accumulated electronic goods such as copper, silver, gold, and palladium. Through such methods future cities could be more self-sufficient and energy efficient.

Such a shift is complex and needs to consider global implications. More circular cities may have significant impact on international trade. An ideal circular city would consume considerably less fast fashion by recycling existing garments. But this would adversely impact lives of those in the textile industry in producer countries such as Bangladesh.

Financing is also a crucial issue for sustainable future development, needed both to adapt exiting cities and build new ones. Trillions of dollars will be invested in urban infrastructure just to 2030 and these investments must be aligned with sustainable goals. In recent years some development banks have set up new urban climate financing vehicles, and city-level policies can also help facilitate private investment into low-carbon city infrastructure and services.  

Investment now will be significantly cheaper than the enormous price of failing to act.

The cost of retrofitting existing cities to be sustainable and resilient may be significant. But investment now will be significantly cheaper than the enormous price of failing to act.

Cities are vulnerable to climate change, and hugely valuable real estate is being threatened by climate impacts such as rising sea levels.

The human cost would also be enormous: death, injuries, disease and illness caused by heatwaves and flooding could overwhelm health services and contribute to economic and social decline.

City government professionals of the future can strengthen their skills and knowledge about how to manage sustainable cities to maximize social benefits. To be successful, everyone living in cities – from business and civil society to young people and the workforce – must have a chance to contribute, helping shape cities which balance local needs and future challenges fairly and effectively.