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In an article published on October 4th, we discussed how the technological evolution of buildings is creating a complex landscape of lifecycles across the system and structural elements in smart facilities. The article, based on our latest report, argues that in order to future proof a smart building we must find a system of design that accounts for the varied technology uptick times and the relatively long-term nature of the structure itself. Our cities are even longer-lived and future proofing problem even more complex — often tackling broad societal and environmental trends.

“The ‘smart city’ has captured the world’s imagination, but policymakers and innovators have not yet built cities that are “smart” enough to survive the challenges of the 21st century. Our cities are unprepared for the future because three megatrends are poised to change the nature and purpose of urban life in the next 30 years,” states Wal van Lierop, President & CEO at Chrysalix Venture Capital and economics consultant to the World Bank and EU. “They are mass urbanization, aging populations, and the climate crisis. All three are accelerating.”

Today, most people (55%) live in cities, and that is set to rise to 70% by 2050. More than one-third of urban growth will take place in just three countries — China, India, and Nigeria — each with very different approaches to city planning. 30 countries already have urban population rates over 90%, while dominated by small nations the list also notably includes Japan, Belgium, the Netherlands, Uruguay and Argentina.

Our growing urban population is also aging rapidly. In East Asia, 25% of the population will be over 65 years old by 2050, more than double the percentage we see today — but still less than Europe with a 27% elderly population. In Japan, the world’s oldest population, a staggering 40% of people are expected to be over 65 by 2050.

In addition to these social trends, the global environment is changing and, as home to most of the people, cities are at the forefront of impacts from that monumental transformation. Increasing wildfires, for example, may generally be considered a rural problem but when they reach our sprawling suburban areas it becomes a humanitarian crisis. Sea levels, meanwhile, will rise two meters by 2100 from climate change-induced ice sheet melting according to research published in the National Academy of Sciences. It predicts that by as early as 2050, approximately 187 million urban-coastal citizens around the world could be forced from their homes.

Our warming climate will begin to cause irreversible damage to life-sustaining ecosystems, such as coral reefs, if we don’t reduce carbon emissions by 45% by 2030, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). While technical solutions do make this reduction possible, the apparent lack of social and political will makes it difficult to envision the necessary action being taken. At some point, we will need to shift to a more pragmatic stance.

“Like it or not, we’re entering a phase where adaptation to climate change is no less important than curbing emissions,” Lierop says. “As an investor, I think critically about the cities of the future because they may render obsolete technologies that we are all (venture capitalists included) supporting today and they may create massive new opportunities that require some imagination to recognize.”

The effects of climate change do not discriminate but the human impacts are most severe in population centers. Sea level rise will be felt in major cities around the world; in Shanghai and Osaka in the Asia-Pacific Region, Mumbai in India, Dubai and Doha in the Middle East, but also, in London, New York, Vancouver, and Rio de Janeiro. These cities are all employing smart initiatives but few deal with long-term issues like sea-level rise. The slow encroachment of the sea is a serious challenge that we can address through smart city initiatives and greater collaboration.

“The threat of climate change to cities is always collective, and so is the required course of action,” says Lierop. “It requires that policymakers make very strategic choices. The free market cannot replace a freshwater source for millions of people, nor can it orchestrate collective defense for 10 million people. We will need to adapt our city structures, governmental systems, and cultures to battle these challenges.”

Our buildings and cities are becoming intelligent & highly-connected, designed to support healthy, open, productive societies. However, they collectively neglect the major issues looming over their futures. Shared challenges are best solved through collaborative solutions and with indiscriminate groups of cities around the world facing similar existential issues, we should find a new way to work together to redefine urban planning for the 21st century. What buildings and cities will look like with this new direction will depend on the world’s best brains working together with open minds.

“The fortified castle towns of yore may have more in common with future cities than the sprawling metropolitan areas of the present,” claims Lierop. “How to handle the combined threats of accelerating urbanization, aging populations, and environmental catastrophe? The free market on its own is not equipped to make such decisions,” he suggests.

“Future cities will demand new designs based on shared protection and sustainability, supported by all the smarts available. And these cities may not be able to accommodate all the free-market ideologies and individualism that predominate in North America and have a growing fanbase elsewhere,” Lierop continues.

We have had many disruptive eras in urban planning — from the first human cities of Mesopotamia, to Plato’s urban-social reform, Roman infrastructure, George-Eugène Haussmann’s urban renaissance in Paris, to the bold architecture of Manhattan. Lierop and others believe we need to think big to force another disruptive period in urban planning that will tackle the biggest challenges facing city-dwellers in the 21st century.