The impact of a changing population

By 2050, the United States looks set to be home to 438 million people -- 111 million more than today. Three-quarters of them are estimated to live in cities and urban areas. Statistically, the cities of America will home the same amount of people that live in the entire nation now. And a similar pattern is emerging worldwide.

But numbers alone do not explain the changes we face. There will be more people in the cities, but they will be different people. For example, we are living longer, which leads to an older population. In fact, 2050 will mark the first time in history when more people in the world are over 60 than under 15. However, older people themselves will be different. They are already working longer, thinking younger, and receiving their pensions later.

So that means planners are needed who can design homes and the built environment with older residents in mind; homes which are accessible, hazard-free, and amenable to their physical needs and preferences, but also inspiring, social, and participatory. 

Previous generations have met old age with easy acquiescence, more or less going along with what they were told and where they were put. But from the baby boomer generation onwards, older people are becoming more informed, mobile, driven, and involved. Generations X, Y, and Z will demand to be part of the decision-making process in their cities as well as in their immediate circumstances.

A glimpse into the future

How you imagine the future city to look depends on your priorities and expertise. But almost every area of life will be touched by new technology, design trends, and environmental solutions.

Transport immediately stands out. Wider cities will need vaster transport solutions, but they need to be sympathetic to the climate crisis. Emerging solutions are already highly visible today, from electric cars to the (vaguely sci-fi) autonomous vehicles and networked road systems, to powered scooters whooshing past on the streets of, for example, LA, Seoul, and Oslo. By 2050, we will likely see driverless flying cars above our heads! 

Architecture, neighborhoods, and infrastructure will also be re-thought. How can a city expand its physical footprint without expanding its environmental footprint? Bioswales, green roofs, and urban farms sound wonderful in theory, but each instance will require sensitive handling as it is plugged into an existing cityscape.

Moscow 2050

In October 2019, international laboratory of experimental urban design HSE Laboratory for Experimental Urban Design Shukhov Lab, together with the Committee for Architecture and Urban Planning of Moscow, held the international workshop ‘ Moscow 2050’ for young architects and designers from MARCHI, MGIMO, MARCH and other organizations. The event was mentored by chief architect of Moscow Sergey Kuznetsov and ex-chief architect of Barcelona Vicente Guallart, and curated by Shukhov Lab leading expert and architect Paolo Goldin Markovich. 

Within two weeks the selected participants of the workshop, together with students of the Master's program ‘Prototyping future cities’, were developing a vision of Moscow 2050 for the pavilion at the Biennale of Architecture and Urbanism 2019 in Shenzhen (China). Following such elements of future cities as decentralization, re-naturalization, renewable energy sources, water regeneration, local food production, smart transport, use of local and renewable materials in construction, waste collection and processing, joint consumption, digitalization and big data, distributed co-workings, robotics, and industrialization, students develop concepts, animation and 3D modeling, diagrams and maps, collages, photos and videos.

The results of the workshop will be exhibited as part of the 'Moscow 2050' vision at the Shenzhen Biennale of Architecture and Urbanism.

The role of technology

Big data, ubiquitous sensors, and overlapping networks make for a smart city that puts the internet of things (IoT) on an urban scale. City authorities can map and analyze Information and behavior, then pump the data back into smart grids, optimizing utilities usage, emergency services, and highly-coordinated transportation networks. Nearly every facet of urban life has the potential for cost reduction and improved usability and sustainability thanks to advanced analytics and user interfaces. 

However, designing for life like this comes with substantial social and ethical responsibilities. The interfaces and algorithms that process all this data are subject to the same biases as the human workers who they may succeed. Smart buildings and systems may offer solutions for sustainability, but the information and communication technology they require itself takes a heavy ecological toll, and should not be accepted uncritically. 

The smart 21st-century city must be ‘useful’ for its inhabitants and visitors while sidestepping the wasteful convenience that characterized the 20th century. And it requires an engaged and vigilant userbase (what we used to call a ‘population’!) to navigate the often self-interested private, public, and corporate interests that play out from home to street, from mall to city hall.

Cities already leading the way

The city of the future is already underway, with mixed examples of new ways to live and care appearing in every part of the world.

Los Angeles is known for being the city of Blade Runner, the 1982 cyberpunk science-fiction movie set in a ‘futuristic’ 2019. Tech solutions are indeed a big part of the city’s evolution. But the city is also thinking organically, for example, through the landscape architects fighting drought by replacing thirsty non-native flora with endemic desert plants.

In Medellín, Colombia, a new cable-car system has drastically reduced the fragmentation of the city (and the class divide that ghettoization exacerbates). The city next added beautifully-designed ‘library-parks’ and other features usually reserved for middle-class areas. “A good building, a well-designed space, a dignified public transit system, a quality cultural event—these all work on a psychological level to generate a feeling that you are included in the city,” says Alejandro Echeverri, Medellín’s director of urban projects.

Historically, cities tend to get a major overhaul ahead of hosting a major sports event. Tokyo is no exception, except that the Japanese capital is preparing a welcoming committee of robot taxis, smart wheelchairs, and multilingual service bots for the 2020 Olympics. A trip to Tokyo will never be the same again.

And in Europe, "the future is more likely to be defined by quieter upgrades to existing infrastructure and new partnerships that better represent residents, than flashy new developments that resemble visions from science fiction," writes James Ransom, a PhD candidate researching the role of universities in cities around the world, in The Conservation. Ransom found thoughtful partnerships and consultation between universities and residents are helping shape a future model of the city that puts people ahead of corporate and political interests.

Policy-makers, designers, and engineers face an exciting challenge: to realize the potential of the future city while figuring their way around the issues it provokes. Indeed, they need to figure out what those issues may even be. There is much to learn from urban history, but there are also unprecedented developments ahead.

You can help drive the change

If technology is the train that moves cities into the future, people are the engine that power the movement. If you’re interested in joining them, HSE University’s Master programs are the perfect way to position yourself for success.

Prototyping Future Cities is an international Master’s program based at the Vysokovsky Graduate School of Urbanism in Moscow – one of the top 20 urban centers in the world for infrastructural development. The two-year, English-language degree focuses on five cornerstones of future city design: City Project, Technology, Information, Management, and Culture.

Nadia Khort, the coordinator of the program, says, “The Master program Prototyping Future Cities is shaping professionals who will be able to deal with future challenges of urban development using existing and creating new technologies. [It] provides graduates with tools and competences that give a variety of career opportunities from working in large technological companies and city administrations to creating their own innovative businesses. [Students study] in Shukhov Lab, which is the laboratory for prototyping future cities in the Higher School of Economics in Moscow. The laboratory has all the necessary technological resources to implement any project you want. [...] You will be immersed into an open-minded and friendly environment and work very closely with your tutors. All ideas and research are more than welcome here!”

HSE University offers three other Master's programs in particular which prepare students to build the cities of the future. The 'Governance of Science, Technology and Innovation' Master's program prepares students for careers in management and policy for science, technology, and innovation, covering the newest trends in these fields and the full spectrum from generating knowledge to applying and using it for technology and innovation. The 'Cognitive Sciences and Technologies: From Neuron to Cognition' program teaches a fascinating mix of psychology and neuroscience, examining neural systems underlying complex behaviors such as emotions, language, attention, and memory, and is the only English-taught program in Russia in this field. And the Master of Data Science is Russia's first English-taught Master's program which is implemented entirely online, on the Coursera learning platform. 

As HSE University's current Megacities of the Future 2.0 webinar series is indicating, the focus is on digital solutions (big data and IoT), urban design, and social innovation. Students develop soft skills, including critical writing, strategic thinking, and decision-making. These skills, in turn, inform the program's practical training in computer-aided design (CAD), 3D printing and other manufacturing technologies, electronics, robotics, and new media.

The city of the future is coming, but it needs ideas, new skills, and an informed sense of compassion if its populations are to thrive. Will you be a part of building City 4.0?

Article written in association with HSE University (Higher School of Economics).