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The City of The Future: It's Changing -- But Into What?

Leading futurist Glen Hiemstra on what's driving change in 21st century cities

Glen Hiemstra is the founder of and curator of He is a consultant, writer and speaker who focuses on future trends and strategic planning. He spoke with about the future of cities.

Txchnologist: Which cities around the world are the most forward-looking and why? What do they need to consider as they prepare for the future?

Glen Hiemstra: One American city that might sound counterintuitive when we’re talking about cities looking to the future is Los Angeles. I think L.A. is waking up to the reality that it’s over-autocentric. It’s got a long road to go down, but the whole  LA Metro project is pretty impressive. Another community that is attempting to look ahead is metro Atlanta, which is thought of as the picture of out-of-control sprawl but is now trying to shape their community for the future with a program called  Atlanta Fifty Forward.

Any city planning for the future must take into account that populations are getting older. Over 20-25 percent of the population will be over the age of 65. You’ve got to think about transportation alternatives and housing alternatives and choices. You need many more functional spaces for an older population and smaller households.

You also must be attractive to the creative class. To do that, you’ve got to reconfigure the city away from very large commercial centers surrounded by large housing centers toward smaller, more numerous commercial centers surrounded by local housing with everything connected by mass transit.

Of course there are a number of cities around the world that are soberly planning for the future. Sydney, Australia, and Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, are two that stick out. I think the most creative project in the world is MasdarCity, in Abu Dhabi (U.A.E.). It’s trying to be the most sustainable city in the world. It’s a small project, but it’s the prototype city of the future—like a live version of Epcot. They say some day all cities will be like it. They are doing a lot of stuff orienting the city for much less need for external energy inputs.

Every technology must meet three tests: it has got to be practically doable; it must be economically viable; and it has got to be socially and politically viable. I think  a project like Solar Roadways [electricity-generating photovoltaic smart roads] is a great idea with lots of potential. This idea has been out there for years but only recently has it gotten the chance to possibly meet the three technology tests. And if you can do it, then why not? Much of the city will still be there, but there could be a lot of invisible changes as the push for more energy efficiency progresses and the pace of retrofitting increases. The changes will come in steps—cities will become 20 percent more efficient, then 50 or 60 percent more efficient. I think we’ll see a surprising amount of retrofitting, with some places reaching 100 percent water-use efficiency and rooftops becoming green.

Txch: We are in the infancy of mobile technologies with integrated global positioning. How do you see the synthesis of these into urban life evolving in the next 50-100 years?

GH: It’s quite clear in 20 to 30 years from now that everything will be much more connected. I’m still frustrated I can’t walk out onto the street and ask my phone, “Where’s the bus?” and then within a second it tells me every public transit vehicle around and how to catch it.

The online and offline worlds will fully merge so the concept of going offline will have left our conscious and language, unless you specifically unplug from the network by going into the wilderness. You’ll always be online. That’s just a generational change of accepting it as reality. The younger generation doesn’t perceive the difference all that much already.

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