The Future of Settlements 2025
The popular TV show “Friends” aired its series finale in 2004, attracting over fifty million viewers and making it the most watched television episode of the last decade. It’s hard to believe now, but Friends’ portrayal of six young people living and working in New York City provided a window into urban living that relatively few people had experienced at the time. When the show premiered in 1994, New York was one of only ten megacities on the planet – cities home to more than ten million people. The population of the entire earth was just over 5 billion, only forty percent of whom lived in urban areas at all.
Since Friends went off the air, over 200 new cities have welcomed their millionth resident.
By 2030, two thirds of us are expected to live in cities, with four times as many New York sized megacities to potentially call home. It’s difficult to overstate how quickly the world’s urban population has grown in our lifetimes, a demographic shift completely unprecedented in the history of the world.
And as the global population now climbs steadily towards eight billion people, we are reaching an inflection point in the density of our settlements. Cities pull hundreds of millions of new people into the global economy each year, but they relegate hundreds of millions more to the slums and shadow cities of overburdened urban infrastructure. Systems built for thousands are cracking under the weight of millions, and the institutions and industries that persisted for centuries will not scale to the billions of people suddenly relying on them.
As traditional systems fail to adapt, the innovations required to reorganize our settlements are emerging from unexpected sources. The next generation of network technologies are being developed and deployed by versatile and highly motivated groups unhindered by legacy policies and regulatory constraints.
Welcome to the 21st century criminal innovation zones.
In the developing world, network technologies cut both ways. The Internet is quickly flattening the global workforce through convenient outsourcing and microwork platforms, and providing poor countries an opportunity to leapfrog past the west with digital-first mobile banking and insurance services. But the emerging networked world is also empowering criminal groups to organize like never before, creating parallel transportation, communication and even manufacturing infrastructure that rival their official national counterparts. These new breeds of criminal network are globally active and vertically integrated, allowing them to operate in a variety of industries across multiple regions, much like modern corporations. Each year, the transnational criminal economy generates close to a trillion dollars, trafficking illegal goods, migrant workers, and human slaves. The most extreme criminal groups demonstrate an aggressive disregard for human rights, but many others are running pragmatic businesses in legally grey markets, providing goods and resources to areas where the formal economy has failed to meet people’s needs.
To outpace governments and intelligence agencies, these groups are pioneering decentralized systems that operate entirely across digital networks, leaving no central headquarters for police or rival organizations to target. While traditional organizations become more strained and brittle as populations increase, decentralized systems are resilient and flexible, and can easily scale with the hyper-dense settlements of our present and near future.
In fact, even though they’re enabling global criminal activity today, decentralized systems may provide better transparency and security than our traditional institutions ever could.
The blockchain protocol has become famous in the last few years because of Bitcoin, the cryptocurrency that supports massive underground markets like The Silk Road. But behind the currency story, the blockchain itself provides the technology foundations for any kind of complex decentralized activity. It works by creating a ledger for transactions, similar to what any bank might create. But instead of trusting that ledger to be held by one centralized authority, it is distributed to millions of computers on the network. Whenever someone initiates a new transaction, algorithms check the distributed ledger to determine whether that transaction is possible, or if it conflicts with something that happened in the past. If it goes ahead, the transaction is permanently added to a new block, which gets added to the end of the chain, and then distributed back through the entire network. Because the blockchain is distributed across so many computers, and maintains a transparent record of every previous interaction, it is virtually impossible for it to be manipulated or corrupted. This makes it a profound new resource for facilitating secure and consistent transactions in low-trust environments, without involving any central institution or authority.
Many in the cryptocurrency community believe that this technology will soon allow formal organizations and companies to operate autonomously from the cloud, outside the reach of any nation state or legal system. It might also provide the key to evolving the contentious privacy relationship between citizens and their governments, by allowing personal information to be selectively shared without requiring governments to collect and store that information themselves.
Whether the blockchain provides the path forward or not, it has become clear that our traditional institutions are no longer effective in the hyper-dense and hyper networked world of the twenty first century. Even in advanced economies like the U.S, the essential viability of basic systems is no longer assured, and band aid solutions only provide more opportunities for criminal elements to corrupt and degrade society’s foundations by taking advantage of their systemic weaknesses. In order to thrive in the future, we need to fundamentally transform our basic grid for human settlements.
Part of the answer might come from our cities themselves. Everyday citizens have better access to information and each other than ever before, and visionary cities are hoping to tap those underutilized resources by shifting their development strategies to open innovation processes. Corporations developed the idea of open innovation to meet their mandate for continuous economic growth, but for cities, it’s a way to better address urban needs and improve quality of life.
New platforms like Uber and AirBnb are operating at city scale and collecting data that was previously unimaginable. Cities want to be able to use that data, and the public wants to make sure that data is used safely and effectively. Seoul Korea declared itself a global Sharing City in 2012, and is actively pursuing partnerships with emerging tech companies to encourage open sharing of data, and to advocate for the needs and health of their citizens. Shenzhen, China hosts an International Makers Week each year, a top-down policy that redirects the city’s resources towards the development of open source software and hardware that can be used by anyone.
Tech startups are beginning to collaborate directly with cities and their citizens to create inclusive platforms that identify urban needs and distribute solutions as broadly as possible. CityZenith’s 5D platform treats the city almost like a smartphone, offering an entire app store of Smart City apps to advance the usefulness of open city data. If we get this right, the next decade may well herald the rise of the civic innovator.
Equally fundamental to the future of our cities is the physical grid itself, particularly the energy and transportation networks. While these have historically operated as two separate systems, they will start to merge as the tendrils of the networked world create previously unforeseen new connections.
At the core of this disruption is the co-development of fully electric and self-driving vehicles. Tesla’s Model S is a shot across the bow for the automotive industry, and for the first time technology giants like Google and Apple are expressing an interest in developing their own highly-networked vehicles. As this fledgling industry matures over the next decade, our highways and garages will suddenly be populated with millions of car-sized, self-driving batteries that can interact directly with the energy grid to store and transport electricity.
These mobile batteries will create buffers in the system, increasing the usefulness of distributed generators such as solar panels and wind farms ,and ultimately might lead to the creation of so-called nanogrids and microgrids at the scale of individual households or neighborhoods. They will also make the system more resilient during severe weather or natural disasters, routing power across the city when power lines are unavailable. And they will fundamentally change the business models for car ownership and power generation, creating entirely new value flows that follow the distributed logic of the networked economy.
As our human population continues to grow beyond anything our ancestors prepared for, the adaptability of our settlements will be key to ensuring that quality of life continues to increase for billions of people across the globe. The future promises to bring us physically closer together than ever before. Whether we work together once we get there is up to us.