Creating Cities For The Future



Words by Peter Gahn, Illustration by Ilya Milstein 

Cities are one of humankind’s greatest – and most resilient – inventions. Today, cities continue to be the centre of human economic and cultural activity, and account for a growing proportion of the world’s population and economic output. Yet many long-established cities face a challenge of reinventing themselves – or face the prospect of decline and economic hardship. For many governments, town planners and architects, the question of how to build a city of the future is one they are in the midst of grappling with. Why has this become such a critical question? How are cities likely to change over the coming decades? And how can we design and build cities to ensure they remain vibrant centres of economic and cultural activity?


Cities are a critical part of the social and economic systems that drive economic growth and prosperity. By concentrating populations in close proximity, cities enable governments to invest in deep infrastructure that is highly efficient. They make it economically viable for people to develop highly specialised skills and by so doing become more productive without being economically vulnerable.

Cities also enable businesses to develop niche markets that complement the activities of other firms within larger value creation chains. By concentrating skills and businesses in the one place, cities also create opportunities for the development of new ideas and inventions that form the basis for the next wave of economic growth and prosperity.

While it is hard to quantify the economic boost that cities provide the world’s economy, McKinsey estimates that the world’s top 600 cities account for a staggering 65 percent of world GDP. The city of New York alone has a GDP of around $US1.75 trillion per year, whilst the Boston-Washington mega-region accounts for an almost unbelievable $US3.75 trillion each year. To put this in perspective, the annual GDP for the entire Australian economy was $1.3 trillion in 2015.

But many cities around the world face a new threat to their economic prosperity. Increasingly, the logic that drives the economic and social benefits that cities give us is being disrupted by the same digital technologies disrupting business across many different industries.

Buyers and sellers are now less likely to be located in the same place – or even the same country, but are nonetheless congregating through virtual markets online. Many people take this logic to work – findings ways to work remotely or virtually, which means they no longer need to commute to physical workplaces to get a day’s work done. The rapidly accelerating speed of the internet also means that co-location can be virtual rather than physical. This in turn implies that value creation chains can now be widely dispersed between cities and countries to enable the production of increasingly complex goods and services. For example, the components used to make the world’s largest aeroplane, Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner, are made by 45 companies located in various cities across seven countries, including Melbourne. This allows Boeing to draw on a vast supply chain network drawing on specialist skills located across the globe – and creating something that would be simply impossible to do in any one city.

Not surprisingly for many cities these developments present both a threat or an opportunity – the threat of decline, or the opportunity to renew and become ‘smart’ cities of the twenty-first century. There are a wide range of trends and developments in the ways cities are being designed and re-invented that show us the city of the future.

New ‘smart cities’. One solution is to start from scratch. New ‘smart cities’ are being brought into existence, fully-formed, at an increasing rate, with China alone planning and building around 10 new smart cities each year.

One of the more celebrated examples is Songdo in South Korea. The national government spent around $US40 billion to build the city of Songdo. Opening in 2009, and built on reclaimed land, this city is now home to around 90,000 people – and is expected to be at least twice as large by 2020.

What makes Songdo different is its “invisible infrastructure”. Songdo has technology in its DNA. Rather than simply relying on physical infrastructure, such as roads and railway lines, Songdo is built on a new set of technologies and public utilities designed to make it smart. WiFi is ubiquitous, and most schools, homes and businesses are capable of high quality telepresence connections to each other and the outside world. Businesses and individuals share data and information in ways that enable real time analysis to assist in preventing traffic jams and ensuring trains run on time to meet the ebb and flow of passenger flows.

Songdo is not only a smart city, but also a green city. Rather than conventional garbage collection, for example, waste is collected from homes and businesses by being drawn through a centralised waste vacuum system. Buildings are designed to minimise energy use and where possible contribute to meeting the energy needs of people living and working in these same buildings. The city is also a “connected” city. It has been located and designed as an “aerotropolis” – a city connected by a short plane trip to a staggering one-third of the world’s population.

Retrofitting old cities. It is not always possible – or economically viable – to build a smart city from the ground up. Many cities have a long history and as populations have built up, many have grown without a clear plan for how they work in the future. These cities, with well-established, but older infrastructure, are hard to change.

Many older cities are being re-developed and renewed, looking for opportunities to integrate new start-up technologies into existing infrastructure. As a newly minted PhD graduate, I worked at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. Located in an old neighbourhood close to the historic downtown district, the USC campus was located in a very different LA to that which we are accustomed to seeing in the more glamourous image of Hollywood and Beverley Hills.

After the Global Financial Crisis, however, the old downtown area of LA has been undergoing a renaissance. New populations of young professionals and creatives taking up residence in areas that just a decade earlier were considered dangerous places to live. The old downtown area today is unrecognisable from the city I experienced in the early 1990s.

LA is also a hub of the digital economy, with an expanding population of high tech startups and new generation film production beginning to create new job opportunities. Alongside this economic renewal, the City of Los Angeles has invested millions in redeveloping its cultural and social assets.

This same phenomenon is now being experienced in old cities across the globe – all being retrofitted to become centres for technology and design – smart cities for the future. New technologies associated with ‘the internet of things’, for example, are being used to overhaul lighting systems and traffic flow and improve safety.

In Australia, the city of Adelaide, has long been a place for innovation and experimentation with these new technologies. With a receptive government – and working with a city of manageable proportions, a coalition of government agencies, corporates and education institutions has been set the task of exploring how the city might reinvent itself as one of the country’s leading smart cities. New ways of managing water and energy resources are now under trial. South Australia has also been the first Australian state to re-write its traffic legislation to enable driverless cars on the road. Trials of driverless cars are now underway. Technology is increasingly used to enable people to plan their movements and work habits around the ebb and flow of economic and other activity.

‘Decentred’ cities. A critical challenge for planners and governments is how to retain the benefits of cities while managing the inevitable pressure on infrastructure and amenities that attract people to cities in the first place.

As cities grow, public transport and road networks come under increasing pressure, increasingly beset by ‘gridlock’, housing affordability and pollution. Cities organised around a single hub no longer make sense. Where cities have multiple centres of activity they can continue to grow and function with all the associated economic benefits.

Cities around the world are growing at a faster rate, and account in many countries for a growing proportion of a country’s population. The Tokyo-Yokohama district for instance is estimated to have a population of more than 38 million people spread across the expansive greater Tokyo Bay area. As it has grown and expanded it encompasses several cities and CBD areas that are increasingly interdependent. This has required local and regional governments to work more closely with national governments to create infrastructure that meets the needs of several cities at once.

Eight of the world’s largest cities are in Asia. In these cities, the challenge of retrofitting established cities requires deeper change. Jakarta, Indonesia’s capital city, is one such example. Plagued by population and traffic gridlock, the government is now taking more drastic steps to re-organise the city’s economic activity and build much needed infrastructure to enable it to grow. This has involved moving much of its heavy industry outside of the city boundaries and an inventive approach to building elevated bus lanes to ensure that people can get around faster on a bus than in a car or on a motorbike.

Sustainable cities. Cities not only bring economic benefits, they can also be associated with negative social and environmental outcomes. More crime, social inequality, and pollution all undermine the viability of any city. Unless these things are addressed, some cities will face decline and stagnation, not expansion and wealth. As our cities get larger, and face the prospect of competing with other cities around the world for talent, jobs and growth opportunities, cities of the future will also need to address the relationship between the city as a built and social environment and the natural environment.

Around the world, cities are also looking at investments in environmental renewal as a key component to becoming cities of the future. The ancient city of Tianjin in China, for example, has faced growing ecological and environmental damage as it has continued to develop. As part of a national plan to redress China’s disappearing natural waterways, Tianjin has invested in developing the Ribbon Park and a new ecocity, which will house 350,000 people by 2020. The Ribbon Park incorporates new open spaces – something that is rarely associated with development in China and harnesses the capture of stormwater to flush out the river where the city is located.

In Atlanta, Georgia, the $400 million ‘Beltline” redevelopment, links 35 km of rail, trails, parkland and housing, which encircles the 5.5 million population who live along the Metro Atlanta line. While it is still in development, it has proved transformative – generating not only significant environmental benefits, but generating a pipeline of private sector development and creating economic renewal in more disadvantaged neighbourhoods that had faced few sources of economic growth in previous decades.

Australian cities of the future. The need to rethink urban development to ensure Australian cities become cities of the future has begun to capture the attention of Australian governments at the state and federal level. Faced with a rapidly shrinking manufacturing sector, South Australia has lead the charge. Based on collaborative efforts with industry and universities, the northern suburbs of Adelaide are now seeing urban planning integrated with industry policy to create a centre for advanced manufacturing. The Australian government is also jumping on the bandwagon, releasing its Smart Cities Plan in April of 2017. Although in its early stages, the Smart Cities Plan will enable the federal government to make investments in regional developments to ensure that we have cities beyond our main capital cities.

However, if the current trends are anything to go on, our main cities – especially Sydney and Melbourne – will continue to grow. They will form our two core megacities of the future, perhaps with Brisbane continuing to catch up. Around them we are likely to see greater connectivity to metro-centres close by – Parramatta and west of Sydney, and the burgeoning Eastern and South-western corridors for Melbourne. For the increasing proportion of populations that live in these cities, the CBD will not be  the focal point for their economic and social lives. The quality of life will increasingly be determined by development and amenity within districts or locales – cities within cities. Beyond the capitals, cities such as Newcastle, Wollongong, Geelong and Ballast will remain satellite cities dependent on the growth and prosperity of the main cities.

This development may not be the optimal one for Australia. In a report released earlier this year, consulting firm Ernst and Young reviewed the different challenges that both Sydney and Melbourne face in keeping up with other regions as smart cities. Perhaps surprisingly, technological capability was not the most significant challenge. Instead these cities face problems of ensuring housing affordability, avoiding traffic gridlock, as well as being an enjoyable place to live.

What is clear from the international evidence is that the worst of these problems are avoidable with careful planning. No longer is it possible to leave the future of cities to fate. Much of this evidence also suggests that successful cities of the future will be very different in many ways from those that dominated economic and social life in the past. It is also clear that people are attracted to cities that have a unique character and qualities that promote lifestyle or ‘liveability’. Not surprisingly then, new and old cities look to create sources of cultural and social energy as well as economic dynamism. Perhaps, ironically, those cities that can preserve their past – in the form of buildings, traditions and localities – and the things that make them different from other cities, but develop the new ‘invisible infrastructure’ required for new technologies to co-exist, could turn out to be those that we will depend upon for their ongoing relevance in the twenty-first century.