Welcome back to the “Life in 2050” series! So far, we’ve looked at how ongoing developments in science, technology, and geopolitics will be reflected in terms of warfare and the economy. Today, we are shifting gears a little and looking at how the turbulence of this century will affect the way people live from day to day.
As noted in the previous two installments, changes in the 21st century will be driven by two major factors. These include the disruption caused by rapidly accelerating technological progress, and the disruption caused by rising global temperatures, and the environmental impact this will have (aka. Climate Change).
These factors will be pulling the world in opposite directions, and simultaneously at that. Rising seas, hotter summers, wetter winters, increased flooding, drought, pandemics, desertification, and shrinking supplies of freshwater will likely lead to all kinds of scarcity, humanitarian crises, and increased levels of mortality.
Meanwhile, technological advances in terms of renewable energy, fusion power, materials science, blockchains, smart technology, additive manufacturing (3D printing), commercial space exploration, and biotechnology are set to lead to a new era of abundance in terms of energy, wealth, health, and new resources.
In an age where Climate Change and technological change will essentially be competing for control of our future, the challenge will be how to leverage one to address the other. All told, there are four areas where this will really come into play:
- Growth of Urban Centers
- Machine Learning and AI
- Decentralization of Everything
- Sustainable Cities
- Rising Seas and Sinking Coastlines
The growth of cities
As we addressed in the second installment, the global population is projected to grow considerably by 2050. In fact, according to the “World Population Prospects 2019” report compiled by the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, the global census rolls will account for about 9.74 billion people by mid-century.
Furthermore, a 2020 report by the International Institute for Environment and Development estimates that by 2050, roughly 68% of the population will live in urban centers. That works out to 6.6 billion people, or an increase of 2.2 billion from today. You might say that almost all of the population growth between now and 2050 will happen in cities.
This will result in an increased demand for housing, electricity, water, food, basic services, education, transport, and medical services in these places. The infrastructure and resources needed to meet this demand will place added stress on the surrounding environments, which are already heavily stressed as it is.
Urban expansion means that more land needs to be cleared to build infrastructure, more water needs to be diverted for utilities, more electricity needs to be generated, and more agricultural land needs to be set aside for growing food.
Luckily, there’s an upside to all this growth. While more people means more in the way of need, it also means more in the way of production. And if there is one thing cities are very good at, it’s fostering innovation, the creation of new industries, and cultural expression – and all through the act of bringing people together.
As a result, cities in 2050 will be built (or rebuilt) to provide for the basic needs of their populations in ways that absolutely must be sustainable. This means finding ways to do more with less, not to mention eliminating waste as much as possible. All of this will be possible through the art of…
The idea of “smart homes” is one that has really taken off in the past decade. The concept builds on the idea of “smartphones” and other such devices, which are accessible anywhere there is an internet connection. In the case of smart homes, a person will have access to everything in their home (appliances, devices, utilities, etc.) through Bluetooth and wireless internet.
In the future, this will extend to the point where the “Internet of Things” (IoT) becomes a reality. This concept refers to the way in which the digital world and real world will become intertwined like never before. On the one hand, this will be driven by the trillions of devices, sensors, and geotags that connect countless points in the real world to the internet.
On the other, people’s experience of the real world will be increasingly mediated through augmented reality, virtual reality (AR/VR), and the help of artificial intelligence. On top of that, the ability to connect with just about anyone and everything will revolutionize the way we live. And strangely enough, many of us have had a preview of this due to the recent pandemic.
For one thing, people in 2050 will be used to being able to have just about everything delivered to their doorstep. Door-to-door delivery services will likely become increasingly automated and involve smart cars, shuttle pods that drive around on their own tracks, and aerial drones.
Similarly, just about everything will be doable from the comfort of home, especially when it comes to working. Home offices with high-speed internet will become the norm, meetings will be virtual, and traveling for the sake of business or attending conferences will be largely unheard of.
Even education will take place in the home or within individual apartment blocks and tenements. Similar to distance education, children will log in to virtual classrooms where they are guided (with the help of a teacher or AI) through various lessons. Haptics will provide the sensation of “hands-on” education, eliminating the need to be physically in a classroom.
An explosion in the use of household robots is also projected to take place by 2050. These could take the form of mobile units or next-generation appliances that are integrated directly into a room. These robots will be able to handle everything from regular household maintenance, cleaning, preparing food, and other such tasks.
Moreover, the concept of the “smart home” will achieve literal proportions. Household AI ‘managers’ are sure to become a common feature of future homes, connected to all your devices, running your household robots and your appliances, and monitor your habits to ensure that you are remaining within your budget.
Another interesting change is the way in which energy, money, goods and services, and even politics and administration will be distributed in the coming years. Whereas the industrial revolution brought about greater centralization of work and economics that is still in use to this day, the world of tomorrow will be almost entirely decentralized.
For example, in the previous installment, we looked at how increased reliance on renewable energy will affect the global economy. Given that the majority of demand for electricity will still be coming from urban centers, the shift will be visible in terms of how and where power is generated. In short, energy concerns of the future will be moving away from the centralized grids and become more localized.
Today, the infrastructure for providing electricity (aka. the electrical grid) consists of the following connected elements:
- power stations located away from heavily populated areas, which are connected
- electrical transmitters to carry power over long distances
- electrical substations that transform voltage from high transmission to low distribution
- distribution transformers to individual homes and buildings
The term “grid” is fitting because the electricity is generated in a central place, then routed through a gridlike network to where it is needed. In contrast, by 2050, cities will have distributed power stations that run on solar, wind, piezoelectric, geothermal, biomass, and other “green” sources of energy.
These localized centers will provide power for a specific area, and large buildings are likely to provide their own power using built-in solar arrays, turbines, and biofuel generators. However, power grids will not disappear, as the development of fusion power and Tokamak reactors will still require distribution centers and nodes.
The proliferation of wireless internet, satellite internet, and blockchain technology will also mean people can connect anywhere at any time. As a result, politics could look more like “town hall meetings” that will be virtual events that far more people will be able to participate in. In the same way that video conferencing will mean that most business is conducted virtually, local politics will also be affected.
Due to the ongoing loss of arable land, cities will also become greener spaces, where architecture and ecology come together for the sake of healthy living. This concept, known as “arcology,” was coined in 1969 by architect Paolo Soleri, who proposed the concept as a means of addressing urban sprawl and the consequent destruction of green spaces.
In designs featuring arcology, agricultural operations and green spaces co-existed alongside residential and commercial centers, and space was to be used more creatively. Whereas most cities are two-dimensional, with individual highrises dotting the landscape (or clustered in the central business districts), arcologies are three-dimensional and built into the surrounding environment.
This thinking has become revitalized since the turn of the century, thanks to the escalating problem of climate change. Today, there are countless architectural firms and design studios that specialize in the creation of urban spaces that are reminiscent of the principles of arcology or similarly governed by the same principles of efficiency and sustainability.
Common features include urban farming, where local residents tend to community gardens, vertical farms, hydroponics, insect farms (high-protein!), and aquaponics (where plants and fish live symbiotically, and both are a source of nutrients). These operations will be helped along with the development of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and microbial engineering.
To prevent stress on the existing water supply, most of what is needed for irrigation will come from rainwater capture, grey-water recycling, and water reclamation units. It’s also a safe bet that by 2050, many homes and domiciles will have a 3D food printer dedicated to manufacturing nutritious meals tailored to specific tastes and dietary requirements.
Another recent innovation is carbon capture, which city planners are incorporating into modern urban development plans for the sake of combating climate change and urban pollution. While foliage has always been a means of cleaning city air, future cities may include large numbers of artificial trees, bioreactor facilities, and carbon-absorbing structures built right into their facades.
As an added bonus, carbon dioxide that is scrubbed from the air can be easily converted into biofuels using Bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECSS) technology. Buildings equipped with a carbon capture apparatus will therefore be able to create biofuel, perhaps as a backup power source, but also as a local supply of fuel for vehicles that still run on biodiesel.
Powering it all will be a number of renewable energy sources, such as the aforementioned solar arrays, vertical wind turbines, piezoelectric surfaces, and heat-exchange technology (for the sake of climate control). Each building that contains multiple dwellings is likely to be its own grow-op, power plant, and fuel station, providing the basic necessities of life locally.
Crystal Island: This arcology was proposed by Norman Foster, founder of the architecture firm Foster and Partners. True to its name, Crystal Island would be a tall, spire-like compression structure that would appear crystalline. The entire structure would be wrapped in a breathable “second skin” that would be sealed in winter to prevent heat loss and opened in summer to cool the interior.
The planned arcology was to be integrated into Nagatinskaya Poyma Park in central Moscow. Standing 1,476 ft (450 m) high and containing 27 million ft² (2.5 million m²) of floor space, it would have been the largest structure on Earth. Construction was postponed in 2009 due to the global economic crisis and has remained in limbo since.
Masdar City: Named after the design firm building it, Masdar City is a planned project for the city of Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates. Also designed by Foster and Partners, the city will be a hub for clean energy companies as well as the location of the International Renewable Energy Agency’s (IRENA) headquarters.
Based on the goal of a carbon-neutrality, Masdar is powered by a combination of solar energy, wind power, and all lighting and water are controlled by movement sensors to reduce consumption. Much of the city’s water is rainwater or captured by condensers, and up to 80% of wastewater will be recycled and reused as many times as possible.
As of 2016, the city’s official website reported that 2,000 people are employed in the city and that only 300 students reside there. However, expansion is expected to continue until it reaches its planned capacity of 50,000 residents, 1,500 businesses, and 60,000 workers making the daily commute.
Cities at sea
In an age of climate change, many designers have incorporated rising sea levels and the loss of coastlines into their arcological concepts. A number of designs have been proposed already, examples of which include:
Boston Arcology: Also known as BOA, this concept for a sustainable megastructure in Boston Harbor was conceived by Kevin Schopfer. Designed in the shape of a rectangle with crisscrossing structures in its interior, this city would house 15,000 people and include hotels, offices, retail spaces, museums, and a city hall.
Consistent with Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) standards, it would draw its power from a combination of solar, wind, and other renewables and would serve as an expansion of the city without adding to the environmental impact of urban sprawl.
Harvest City: The Haiti earthquake of 2010 left 250,000 people dead, 300,000 people injured, and about 1.5 million people homeless. In response, Schopfer (in collaboration with Tangram 3DS) conceived Harvest City, a floating complex made up of tethered floating modules – 2 mi (3.2 km) in diameter – off the coast of Port-au-Prince, Haiti.
The city would be capable of housing 30,000 residents within four communities – dedicated 2/3 to agriculture, 1/3 to light industry – all of which would be interconnected by a linear canal system. The entire city would float and be anchored to the ocean floor, reducing its vulnerability to plate tectonics and earthquakes considerably.
Lilypad City: Otherwise known as just Lilypad, this concept for a floating city was proposed by Vincent Callebaut. Essentially, Callebaut anticipated that rising sea levels and disappearing coastlines would give rise to a new phenomenon known as “climate refugees.” As coastal cities sink into the ocean in this century, people will need to be relocated to new facilities.
Hence the Lilypad concept, a completely self-sufficient floating city that could accommodate up to 50,000 people. Power would be provided through a combination of solar, wind, tidal, and biomass, while the entire structure is able to absorb CO2 from the atmosphere through a titanium dioxide outer skin.
New Orleans Arcology Habitat: Located off the coast of New Orleans, where the Mississippi River empties into the Gulf of Mexico, the NOAH concept was another design proposed by Kevin Schopfer (the same architect who thought up BOA). The design was largely inspired by Hurricane Katrina and the understanding that recurring storm activity in the region is only going to get more severe.
“The first challenge is to overcome both the physical and psychological damages of recurring severe weather patterns,” they wrote. “Though re-population has begun, the need to provide a stabilized and safe environment is paramount to a long-term recovery and economic well-being of New Orleans.”
This triangular city would be able to house as many as 50,000 New Orleans residents within its 20,000 residential units – each measuring 1100 ft² (100 m²). To ensure that it kept the tourism industry alive, it would also have up to three hotels (200 rooms each), 1500 time-share units, and three casinos.
Shimizu Mega-City Pyramid: This megastructure (aka. the TRY 2004 Pyramid) was proposed by Shimizu Corporation in 2004 as a solution to Tokyo’s problem of overpopulation. Inspired by the Great Pyramid of Giza, the structure would be built in Tokyo Bay, measure 6,575 feet (over 2000 m) high, and house 1 million people.
However, the design relies entirely on the future availability of super-materials (such as carbon nanotubes). This is due to the weight of the pyramid, which would be the largest structure ever built and exceed the stress tolerances of existing building materials. While the original plan was to commence construction by 2030, Shimizu remained determined to complete it by 2110.
As the 21st century unfolds, the world will be forced to suffer through two major opposing phenomena. Technological development will continue to accelerate, with serious implications for the way we live, work, play, and even eat. At the same time, climate change will be ramping up, causing severe disruptions to the very natural systems humans are dependent on for their survival.
Luckily, there’s an upside to this mess of contradictions. While rising tides and increased drought, storms, wildfires, etc., will be a humanitarian nightmare, they will also pressure us to find solutions. And while the rapid advance of technology will be a constant source of stress, it will also bring about innovation that addresses environmental problems.
It will be a strange time, where the entire world will be caught between surviving and thriving, scarcity and abundance, recession and growth. Nevertheless, the potential for positive change is there and could lead to a whole new era of better living and sustainability.