Signals of the Future — From Running out of Babies to Robots going Wrong

Image: Rene Asmussen

A selection of futures signals from the past few weeks.

What do young people want from their cities in the future? A project by Innovate UK and Britain Thinks engaged 200 young people on the question of net zero in cities.

Although the respondents think climate change is important, they were focused more on more tangible things about their urban spaces — how they look and what they are like to be in. They wanted cities are clean and safe, places that they could be proud of. They also valued having facilities and things to do nearby (the ’15-minute city’) and wanted to see greenery on every corner.

Generally, the young people saw climate change as a global, rather than local issue. This suggests prioritising net zero solutions that bring co-benefits in terms of enhanced functionality and lifestyle improvements.

Despite the fact that they will inherit the consequences of decisions today, young people didn’t feel like they have agency. They don’t see themselves represented in urban planning, with decision-making out of touch. To help shape the future for the next generation, we should see more use of Apps like Commonplace, or initiatives like ‘Craft Our Future City’ with school-children in Cardiff.

As a response to rising urban temperatures, a project in Los Angeles has painted a million square feet of roads, playgrounds and parking lots. Surfaces are generally painted white to reflect back heat, but this paint — with special additives to reflect infrared — comes in multiple colours. Artists have painted colourful murals, although the predominant colour in the GAF Cool Community Project is a light grey.

The impact on heat reduction and how people live will be measured over the next couple of years, though the project already suggests cooling of surfaces of 5–6 degrees Centigrade.

This summer we’ve had searing experiences of the urban heat island effect — even in the UK — and things are only going to get hotter for cities. In the future we may see the wholesale repainting of existing tarmac and reflective surfaces being mandated in new developments.

I’m usually a big fan of DIY-urbanism, but when I saw that New York Mayor Eric Adams is handing out 8,000 inflatable dams to citizens, I was left scratching my head.

We know flood risk is going to get worse for metropolitan areas. Throughout history we’ve built towns and cities on low-lying land near water. We’ve laid tonnes of concrete and tarmac that speed up the flow of water and prevent it from soaking away. And climate change will bring a combination of rising sea levels and more extreme weather, making the situation far worse.

Are inflatable dams really the answer? Not everyone will be physically capable of deploying them. Few people will know how to position them correctly. They’ll obstruct movement. And if they do work, they may just push more water onto neighbouring properties.

We should, of course, look to Government to help manage increasing flood risk with more strategic interventions. Where we also take individual responsibility for flood management, maybe that responsibility should start with having a personal flood plan, reporting or clearing blocked drains, or not concreting over your front garden for an extra parking space?

Last year, instant delivery — your groceries guaranteed in 15 minutes — was the thing. This week, I see New York cracking down on delivery companies and the businesses themselves imploding as the investment money runs out.

New York City Council is passing bills to regulate businesses more tightly and to protect delivery riders. At the same time, many start-ups are facing financial difficulties. Gorillas and Getir, two of the biggest companies, have laid-off thousands of workers and retreated from some urban markets. Other companies, have disappeared as fast as they arrived.

The economics of the market don’t help. A bike courier costs the same whether the purchase is worth £50 or £5, and the promise of instant gratification means people are making low-value impulse buys. And the fierce competition means low charges, low margins, and costly deals to attract new customers.

So it looks like this mini-boom may be going bust, which I think is a good thing for our cities. I’d rather have vibrant high streets and buzzy restaurants than people eating take-outs on their sofas.

In the future, instant delivery will be back — with consolidation, algorithms, dark-stores, drones, and delivery robots. I hope, by that time, administrations have better strategies to get the best out of this new economy for their cities and citizens.

A few days ago in San Francisco, a fleet of driverless taxis swarmed together and then abruptly stopped, blocking an intersection. Local traffic was in chaos for the next few hours. Eventually, humans had to come and take the vehicles away. General Motors — who operate the driverless taxi service in the city between the hours of 10pm and 6am — blamed a ‘software glitch’.

As we live in an ever-more-automated, smart city future, where everything gets managed and delivered digitally, what happens when the tech stops working? As cities only continue to function because our over-burdened infrastructure is digitally calibrated and micro-managed, what happen when the system crashes?

As everyone who relies on computing knows, software does glitch. Physical infrastructure supporting the virtual world, also fails. In Canada, recently, beavers took out connectivity by felling a tree which brought down fibre cables; while last year a group of beavers shut down a town’s internet service by chewing through fibre cables and using them to build their home.

There are also malicious attacks, with hackers getting ever smarter. And the urban internet of things is eminently hackable — on 24 hours a day, rarely updated, often unencrypted, with lots of points of vulnerability.

We may have to accept that faulty tech paralysing the city will be a part of the digital, automated future. It’s just when the machines start chasing after you that you really need to worry…

A headline caught my eye this week: ‘Britain is running out of babies’. The Analysis by think-tank the Social Market Foundation posits that the falling birth rate in the UK might be caused by the tough housing market, welfare cuts, the cost and availability of childcare, and changes in patterns of migration. The mini birth-boom from the Covid lockdown that some predicted has not materialised.

Of course declining birth rates are a global phenomenon. The UK has a higher fertility (1.6) rate than countries like Spain and Italy (both 1.3) or South Korea (0.8), but the overall trend is for women to have fewer children. The current huge sense of uncertainty (Covid/war/climate) and long-term decline in the standard of living, will also contribute.

For futurists, demographics is destiny. So what does this fall mean for cities, and what we build? We can expect to see less demand for school buildings and, over time, for University places. The boom in student housing will end. Shops selling baby gear or children’s clothes and toys will see a steady drop in demand.

We can expect more automation across all sectors to cope with labour shortages (but robots don’t pay taxes) and perhaps more positive attitudes to immigration? Women should be able to choose whether or not to have babies, with proper financial, policy, and legal support for those who chose to have kids.

As well as fewer nurseries or soft-play areas, existing buildings and land will need to be re-purposed. Schools could become retirement villages; theme-parks might be turned into logistics hubs, nightclubs could be transformed into urban farms.

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Professor Peter Madden, OBE

Futures for cities, places, & real estate. PoP in Future Cities, Cardiff University; Chair, Building with Nature www.vividfutures.co.uk @thepmadden