Technology is reshaping our fundamental conception of place. We’re seeing the mainstream uncoupling of work and location for knowledge workers, the growth of megacities - particularly in Asia and the global south - and new forms of networks built initially online, facilitated by distributed ledgers and decentralised leadership.
What does this mean for our communities? The next decade will mark the emergence of two trends.
First, the centralisation of data and technological coordination, as jurisdictions across the globe seek to accommodate the mass migration to cities. Governments will need to create a new generation of public infrastructure and manage significant climate risks. While some knowledge workers may continue to work from home after the pandemic, hyper-connected places will be a hallmark of both mega cities and those living in urban-adjacent communities.
Second, a decentralisation of control driven by the blockchain and crypto. This will have a major impact on intermediaries in finance and the media - core institutions of the 20th century - and on regulation, as governments seek to establish a new contract with those working beyond the traditional infrastructure of the state.
Combined, the impact of these two forces will be unevenly distributed, but will reorient our understanding of the communities in which we live, work and play. Our work on Future Communities will therefore focus on three core areas:
How can governments across the globe manage the massive shift to urbanisation that’ll continue throughout this century? How can the technological revolution in infrastructure, transport and urban planning transform the health and environment of our communities? Where is it possible to make progress in the near-term, and what’s the right combination of actors to support this shift?
What capabilities are needed to support ‘crypto communities’ and decentralised networks? What could a global-first model of industrial and innovation policy look like?
How can we equip public leaders to lead well, in response to these pressing science and technological challenges - in addition to those generated by bio-tech, climate change, and the future of food?
Projections suggest that 68 per cent of the world’s population will live in urban areas by 2050, with almost 90 per cent of this increase taking place in Asia and Africa. This equates to 2.5 billion new urban dwellers. While this level of migration offers opportunities, including the prospect of more productive economies, this is matched by major challenges in mitigating carbon, upgrading energy and transport infrastructure, improving building efficiency, and strengthening the food supply. Resource stress is also predicted to grow, with the demand for water due to significantly outstrip supply in several cities in India, China, Africa and the Americas in the next decade.
By 2080, a typical winter in Miami may be over 6 degrees warmer and 92 per cent drier than today. Summer in Denver is projected to be 9 degrees warmer and 39 per cent wetter. This trend is mirrored across the globe, with between 500 and 700 million people facing a ~20 per cent annual probability of lethal heat waves in Pakistan, Bangladesh and India by 2050.
Removing carbon and reducing emissions must be at the forefront of leaders’ minds as they shape the next evolution of our major urban centres. The good news is that tech provides new opportunities to make progress on this aspiration. Driven by the increased availability of 5G and progress in data processing capabilities including edge processing, the integration of data and physical infrastructure means we’re able to increase the capacity, efficiency, reliability and resilience of assets.
To date, integrating renewables into the grid has proven challenging given the variable nature of many renewable energy systems and the complexity of connecting them to the existing grid infrastructure. Microgrids and decentralised energy systems offer a new opportunity to localise generation, and battery storage is emerging as a key technology with a significant role to play in smart energy provision. The real-time data linked to these systems is being used to unlock demand-side change, with customers able to tailor their energy use in response to shifts in price, which would alter in line with grid surges.
Turning to transport, urban systems previously optimised around road use are now being reshaped. In the US, there’s a major push for the removal of highways as many reach the end of their life spans and their negative impact on urban communities becomes increasingly apparent. In Paris, Mayor Anne Hidalgo has pledged to install a cycle path on every street and bridge - in part by removing 70,000 street parking spots. According to the Deputy Mayor, David Belliard: “We can no longer use 50 per cent of the capital for cars when they represent only 13 per cent of people’s journeys.” City mayors and governments across the globe are adopting similar positions.
Looking slightly further ahead, the regulatory process for Connected and Autonomous Vehicles is currently being updated in the UK, and the barriers to electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) technologies are gradually being removed. German eVTOL firm Lilium is currently developing 10 landing zones in Florida, with hopes of the first commercial flight in 2021.
Real time data analysis and predictive modelling is also enabling providers to be more responsive to customer demand and incentivise customers to change their behaviour to smooth inefficiencies, including through off-peak travel or distributing journeys across alternative modes of transport. Such an approach has been introduced in Seoul, with the city using AI to reserve parking spaces for people with disabilities and installing 50,000 IOT devices across to monitor transport use and predict demand. Smart transport infrastructure is now being embedded in the construction of the Busan Eco Delta Smart City - a 2.8 square km area in Western Busan which will serve as a cluster for five innovative smart infrastructure projects and is due to be completed by 2024.
Each of these technological developments rely on a robust programme of data management, from raw data collection (via GPS, sensors, satellite images at domestic and industrial sites), to applying big data analytics and data mining to better understand patterns and correlations, to rule based automation and human validation when required. Alongside technical questions - including integrating multiple distinct data sets and assessing liability in the event of an error or data leak - public leaders will need to ensure that the use of technology remains problem-driven, focused around the needs of citizens and users, rather than as an end in itself.
Traditional communities have are largely mediated by trusted institutions. National and local governments, and financial and media institutions have long played a part in enforcing trust among disparate parties. Yet the blockchain and crypto is quietly reshaping the role of these intermediaries, enabling parties to contract independently. Crypto is an essential part of this shift. It provides a single medium of payment across jurisdictions, acts as a secure store of value in instances where there’s little trust in central institutions, as is often the case in volatile nations, and cuts out transaction costs. Combined with moves from central banks to create digital currencies, the impact of blockchain and crypto on traditional banking is likely to be seismic.
This rise of crypto is representative of a broader shift away from networks and communities based on physical proximity, to one in which physical location is secondary to a shared belief, interest or industry. The separation of personal location and work location - hastened by the COVID-19 pandemic - has spurred the first widespread adoption of online-first communities. Yet many tech progressives believe this will go further - to a larger, highly-mobile community with the collective power to reshape physical locations. The example of Francis Suarez’s engagement with crypto entrepreneurs, and their collective efforts to make Miami a hub for this kind of innovation is a notable example. In addition, a new wave of start-up cities are being created. These geographies tend to be given a special jurisdiction, giving officials the freedom to create new forms of regulation. While Shenzhen and Dubai are well known, private cities are also emerging like Prospera in Honduras, with a model that could be franchised out to other new urban areas.
In 1956 Charles Tiebout proposed that consumers would choose where to live based on the provision of local public goods. The Tiebout Hypothesis proposed that, with enough consumers, local jurisdictions would be subject to competitive pressures and, by voting with their feet, each community would be clearly optimised around the needs of those who choose to settle there. Over six decades on, crypto communities have the potential to act as a live example of the model in action. When combined with the use of cryptocurrencies to help facilitate geographic independence, these new communities could have a significant impact on models of governance, taxation and global mobility.
Some jurisdictions are beginning to explore how best to support this kind of innovation across geographic boundaries. Estonia’s e-residency programme offers entrepreneurs access to the EU market, without the need for a physical base or residency in the country. Similar e-residency programmes are currently being rolled out in Lithuania and Portugal. Yet few nations or economic blocs have yet managed to unpick the complexities of disaggregating citizenship, personal location, professional location, tax jurisdiction, capital type / location and, eventually, participation in democratic engagement beyond a person’s primary physical location. This may involve location ‘slates’ with jurisdictions informally aligning to support tech progressives who operate out of multiple jurisdictions, and raises a new series of questions for public leaders as our traditional concept of communities is pushed to the fringes.
Finally, few public leaders and policymakers have the technological backgrounds or subject matter expertise to span the frontiers they will now be looked upon to govern. While technical specialisms aren’t a prerequisite, the willingness to engage with the technological revolution is. How we handle the technology revolution is the central question of our time. Progress cannot, nor should it be, stalled. Instead, public leaders will need to adopt a new posture. One which is open, which sets a vision for how technology can improve the lives of each of us, and which focuses not on finding the ‘right’ answer, but in helping us navigate the trade-offs and choices we have over our shared future.
We are optimistic about the role of technology in creating safer, more sustainable communities, and confident in the role of technologists and public leaders in exercising leadership and grappling with the politics of change.
We look forward to working with partners as we continue to identify the hard questions we will need to face on this agenda over the coming years. If you have thoughts on these topics or would like to discuss collaborating, we’d love to hear from you: email@example.com