Future Challenges in Urban Spaces – How Technology can help us to live better lives

Cities are the states of tomorrow. More and more people worldwide live in urban spaces, making cities powerful economic players and political stakeholders and the most important problem solvers in our globalised world. But cities are more than places: They are the most important living spaces of humans all over the world, which makes the problems of cities the most urgent problems of humankind.

The Challenges of the cities are the challenges of the future
The challenges we face in our cities decide over the future of our planet, our economy and our future quality of life. Already 70% of the world’s population live in urban spaces – by 2050 according to United Nations the total amount of the world population living in cities will be more than 6 billion. One could say, cities are the future labs of the world, the condensed spaces act like a catalyst for change.

Unlike rural life, urban spaces are so densely populated that we need the help of smart technologies and environments to ensure a high quality of life. The faster a city grows the more urgent become problems like pollution, traffic jams, noise and shortage of space. And especially in the developing world, cities grow bigger and bigger too fast, because people from rural areas strive to come to the city to try their luck. The tale of the man leaving for the big city to find success and happiness is as old as the existence of cities itself. However, it has also never been more accurate. Many rural areas lose their attractivity in an economical, but also in a social or cultural sense.

This immense influx of rural populations is creating cities with over a million inhabitants. Megacities are cities or metropolitan regions with more than 10 million inhabitants. According to the UN, the largest ones are the Tokyo metropolitan region with around 37 million inhabitants, followed by Delhi with 29 million, Shanghai with 26 million and Mexico City and Sao Paulo with 22 million inhabitants each. The UN predicts that by 2030 there will be 43 megacities, most of them in developing countries (UN 2018).

From Megacity to Gigacities
A development towards future gigacities with more than 100 million inhabitants is being driven primarily in China. While in other regions of the world cities are growing more and more due to the individual migration of the rural population, in China the government is pushing the rural population to move to the cities. For this purpose, not only the controlled growth of existing metropolitan areas is promoted, but cities are designed from scratch. However, these cities have little or nothing to do with historically grown cities as we know it. The planned Giga region of Jing-Jin-Ji, consisting of the cities of Beijing, Tianjin and the surrounding province of Hebei, is to accommodate over 130 million people on an area of more than 200.000 square kilometers. This is not just a demonstration of power, but above all an attempt to relieve the city centres. Beijing is in a traffic collapse: a permanent traffic jam on the streets, the subways hopelessly overcrowded, air pollution omnipresent – nevertheless, rents have skyrocketed to such an extent that they have become unaffordable for huge parts of the population.

The interrelation of sustainability and quality of life become more and more obvious in cities. Clean air, little noise, unobstructed mobility and enough space for everyone – these are in fact the big challenges of the future that to some extent every city faces and that decide on the quality of life a city can offer.

Will technology save us?
Some of the technologies we need to build a better future in the cities of today are already here. Possibilities digitalisation gave us are waiting for us to use them and make some steps towards a smarter way of living. Digital tools for sharing cars and rides to dramatically reduce the noise and air pollution in cities for example are already existent. If people would use these services to share rides the traffic in inner cities could be halved, which means less noise, less pollution and less need for multi-laned streets. It would also mean less need for parking space, which would open room for more attractive uses of space like broad walking lanes, street cafés or art. And less cars with more people in them would also speed up the traffic, that is so often stuck in the roush hours. Add e-mobility to the scenario and you get a more clean, quiet and sustainable place to live in.

But a technological innovation alone is not enough to make a change. Especially in Europe a social innovation is needed: Making use of sharing providers, changing everyday mobility habits and – maybe most difficult: losing the idea that you need to own and drive your own car as a status symbol or as a matter of comfort. Cities have to get smarter, technologically and socially. All the connected smart devices are futile, if we don’t use them intelligently.

Other technologies, which could immensely contribute to solve the big challenges of the cities are just in the making. Blockchain-based technologies make the distribution of electricity smarter and include local prosumers and renewable sources for example. Other projects, like Iota try to enhance the machine to machine communication, which is crucial when so many gadgets and machines have to get entangled for example to ensure the seamless mobility of so many vehicles and people that all together form a network of cars, parking lots, E-Bikes, public transport, traffic lights, gas stations and so forth. Could they interact more efficiently with all the needed data being present when needed, the whole city could change into better.

Imagine, somewhere in the near future, your e-car drives you autonomously while you can do your daily meditation routine, chat with your friends or share the ride with people who make the same routes through the city regularly. Imagine the self-driving car will pay the smart electro stations itself, the electro stations being integrated in a smart energy grid which in turn operates with renewable energies, that include local producers. Smart data could control the traffic lights so all sorts of traffic (cars, bikes, pedestrians) would intertwine seamlessly. Cities would get safer and more enjoyable.

One smart device alone doesn’t make a smart city nor a smart future. Only the coworking and interlocking of many different smart devices within the internet of things makes the next step. Cities are basically dense networks of people, things and technology. Making these networks smarter, in the sense of the different agents working together more effortlessly and with less space, time and natural resources being wasted is the key to provide a high quality of life.

by Nina Pfuderer and Lena Papasabbas (Zukunftsinsitut)