2054: an earth odyssey

Science fiction would have it that city life is set to change beyond recognition over the next 50 years – but experts have a rather different vision.

What will our cities be like in around 50 years’ time?

Science fiction has never been short of ideas on this subject and the latest vision is offered by Steven Spielberg’s new film, Minority Report, which opens this week. Contrary to the commonly held view that inner city life is destined for continued decline, Spielberg’s film, set in Washington DC in 2054, predicts that increasing numbers of people will move back into cities. Urban living will, it envisages, offer not only a focal point for entertainment and employment but also refuge from rising sea levels.

Unusually in the movie world, this vision is based on expert opinion. Before filming Spielberg assembled a team of gurus to come up with ideas on what architecture, design, technology and transport will be like in the city of the not-too-distant future. They predicted that developments in nanotechnology will mean vehicles and even buildings are manufactured on demand, while hydrogen, solar power and nuclear fusion will become the main energy sources. As people migrate towards them, cities will become increasingly dense, and the buildings taller.

But while Minority Report is based on the premise that psychics can predict murders, and includes magnetic levitating vehicles and iris scanners on every street, for the most part the film presents a city that looks pretty familiar.

Architects, engineers and governments cannot simply demolish London, New York or Singapore and start again – much as some may want to – and future cities will have to be developed around existing buildings and infrastructure. So how different will they really be?

With space limited, and land becoming increasingly expensive, the skyline of cities is indeed set to rise, says Dr Chris Luebkeman, co-leader of consulting engineer Ove Arup’s research and development team.

‘People will never stop needing to gather to work, so cities will become more dense, and we will see higher buildings globally.’ These buildings will be able to react more actively to the world around them, particularly to seismic activity, and every high-rise tower is likely to contain ‘muscles’, or actuators, which will adjust to earth tremors with tiny movements, he says.

Buildings will also be able to respond to the people within them, through ubiquitous computing. Offices will know who should and should not be there, what an individual’s likes and dislikes are, and even miss them while they are on holiday, says Luebkeman.

An increase in the number of high-rise office blocks was one of the main features of the vision offered by the Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, last month in his London Plan. The document, setting out strategies for London over the next 15 years, also attempts to address the question of where people will live. It sets a target to build 23,000 new homes each year, of which half will be affordable housing. With house prices continuing to rise, this has become a major concern. New materials and building methods are being explored to offer cheaper alternatives.

Mass production of housing is now being seriously considered, according to architect Richard Rogers, chair of the government’s Urban Task Force and chief adviser to Ken Livingstone on architecture and urbanism. ‘Since the days of the Model T Ford mass-produced cars have become cheaper and cheaper, and we are nowhere near that yet with housing.’

Lord Rogers says researchers in Japan and South Korea in particular are looking into stamping out house units from plastics or metal. ‘I am sure there will be breakthroughs, because the way we build houses brick by brick is completely illogical.’

Civil engineering firm Whitby Bird has won honours, including a Design Council Millennium Product award, for its Murray Grove housing block in Hackney, north London, built for the Peabody Trust. The five-storey block of 30 flats pioneered the use of factory-built units in mainstream multi-storey housebuilding in the UK. Complete apartment modules were factory assembled as steel units complete with insulation, wiring and kitchen and bathroom, and transported to the site, where they were simply lifted into place in a concrete and steel frame.

But factory-built houses are only part of the solution, and the majority of new homes are more likely to come from adapting more warehouses and former office buildings, says Mark Whitby, senior vice president of Whitby Bird and president of the Institution of Civil Engineers. ‘I do not see everything in the future being factory made – we are going to be working with the existing fabric.’

This emphasis on recycling will also be seen in the use of waste materials in the structure of new buildings. With national governments and the EU increasingly toughening their stance on waste, particularly landfill, city dwellers will throw away much less because it will simply be too expensive to put into the ground, says Whitby. ‘Because of landfill or aggregate taxes things that might have been considered waste in the past are seen as having value, including rubber, glass, and paper.’

Household rubbish, sewage, wood chippings or the waste from construction sites are all regarded as potential building materials. Even waste products generated from scrubbing carbon dioxide and sulphur out of power station chimneys have value, and are being turned into plaster, says Whitby. ‘In London at the moment we throw everything away, but in 10 years’ time we will dump a quarter of that. Everything else will be recycled as we will have to pay to throw it away.’

But it is not just in the greater use of waste materials that environmental concerns will influence the city of the future. Profligate in their use of energy, requiring heating in cold weather and air-conditioning when it is hot, buildings are responsible for half the world’s CO2 generation. Many experts believe life in cities in 50 years’ time, or even sooner, will be defined by the need to harness more natural energy, and reduce overall energy consumption.

Technology already exists to generate power from wind, sunlight and ‘clean’ gases such as hydrogen, but these are not yet being used on a large scale as they are still too expensive. Photovoltaic systems in particular cost too much when set against the amount of electricity the cells can generate, but developments in thin film technologies and nanomaterials are likely to dramatically reduce the cost of solar power, says Bill Addis, leader of the sustainability group at consulting engineer Buro Happold. ‘In 50 years I expect all buildings will be required to have a large area of their roof, possibly their walls, covered with a mechanism for harnessing the sun’s energy.’

Arrays of water-filled tubes installed on roofs can be used to harness the sun’s heat directly. The hot water is then used in the building’s heating system. ‘Photovoltaics don’t generate all the electricity you need. A large amount of our energy use is heating, and photovoltaics are a rather inefficient way of collecting energy for that. It is much better to use the sun’s infrared energy directly,’ says Addis.

One of the biggest existing energy inefficiencies is in transporting electricity via the national grid. As cables get hot and dissipate the heat around a third of our electricity is simply released to heat the atmosphere.

In the longer term local areas within cities will have their own combined heat and power stations, generating electricity much closer to where it is needed. Turbo Genset, a spin-off from Imperial College, has developed a system for converting gas into electricity based on a micro gas turbine, or baby jet engine. The micro-engine is coupled to a high-speed generator, and an inverter is used to convert the power into the voltage and frequency needed. The waste heat can then be used to heat water or for air-conditioning, making the system extremely efficient, says the firm’s general manager, Justin Hall.

Local power stations could be set up to provide groups of around 300 homes with electricity and heat, he says. ‘The concept is to replace electricity distribution with gas, then bring the process of converting it closer to the end user. Most blackouts are caused by the grid, not the power station.’

Futuristic films inevitably focus on sensational visions of life. Iris scanners that allow billboards to adjust their advertisements to the interests of pedestrians passing by may be more exciting than new devices for generating energy. But it will be the drive to make cities more sustainable that will have the greatest impact on future urban life.

Cities that consume fewer finite resources and produce less waste and harmful emissions will not only be cleaner, but also more attractive places to live and work.

Sidebar: Vehicles for thought

Science fiction films typically predict that people will travel around via hover-aircraft and magnetic levitation vehicles in 50 years’ time. But many experts believe transport will be far less outlandish.

The most important technological change over the next few decades will be in the move away from carbon-based fuels, making a huge difference to the air within cities, says Lord Rogers. ‘We will have eco-transport, with sustainable, non-carbon based fuels in 15, never mind 50 years.’

Vehicles will also be much safer, he predicts. ‘Cars will stop when somebody walks in front of them, and they will not be driven but instead controlled electronically by a guidance system.’ Computer-controlled driverless taxis, which follow a simple metal guide-strip in the road, are already being developed. Ultra, or Urban Light Transport, is the brainchild of Martin Lowson, professor of advanced transportation at Bristol University, and could be operating in Cardiff by the end of this year.

But there are unlikely to be any changes in transport technology on the scale of magnetic levitation vehicles, says Stephen Joseph, executive director of Transport 2000, a lobby group concerned with the future of transport. ‘But public transport networks will be upgraded, and people will pay for travel using smart cards that also act as their credit, debit and identification cards,’ he says.

The way we use transport will also change, he adds. ‘Transport can be used to atomise people in cities, or it can be used to bring people together. You can have cities based around walking and cycling and neighbourhoods, or where people commute from further and further away.’

More walking, cycling and use of public transport will not only mean fewer pollutants in the atmosphere from cars, but also encourage more people to open office windows rather than switching on the air-conditioning, a huge and growing consumer of energy.

Additional reporting by Rob Coppinger