Sustainable cities of the future – honed through technology and necessity – will see us dining out at insect cafés and visiting holographic doctors for bug-burger stomach upsets

How cities should develop in the future is one of the world’s greatest conundrums. The solution lies somewhere between the needs of the human population and the technological levers that need to be employed – both politically and economically – to make change happen.

Search online for ‘city skyline 1915’ and you’ll get an impression of how quickly things can change in just 100 years. But the requirement to find answers to so many important questions will speed up even this level of development in the coming decades.

Catering for a global population boom

Many of you reading this article will still be alive when the world’s population reaches 10 billion, sometime around 2050. I myself will be 72 and will need to rely on the goodwill of others to safeguard resources for my children and grandchildren.

There is a clear moral imperative for creating future cities that are efficient, lean and cater to all, but there is a business case too. Grant Thornton is acting on both motives through its Future Perspectives team, which is tasked with anticipating and researching future trends.

Kresse Wesling and Charmian Love are innovation advisers at Grant Thornton. Both are entrepreneurs with a keen interest in how technology and innovation can improve the future. They have identified four areas of particular importance: energy, food, health and finance.

It’s a complex shortlist, featuring forces pushing and pulling in different directions. For example, it’s hard to think of food without considering the health of those eating it or the energy needed to bring it to their plates. The natural overlaps don’t necessarily make for an elegant solution. Riddle me this: how can the world produce enough food to accommodate a 60% increase in population while reducing our abrasive impact on the Earth?

Necessity will drive invention

The questions are as numerous as they are hard, yet Love takes a glass-half-full stance. She relishes the prospect of the world’s smartest minds rising up to meet the challenges, however ominous.

“The narrative always seems to be: ‘We’re screwed, there are too many people, so let’s put our heads in the sand.’ I actually think this can be framed as an exciting challenge – an opportunity – if people are encouraged and enabled to stretch their thinking and explore ways to create a better world.”

Cities of the future will feature many of these solutions. Necessity will play a bigger role in design than ever before. Most new constructs, processes and systems will have a laser-defined purpose and waste will be reduced to a singularity.

How all this will make cities actually look and feel is anyone’s guess; the bulk of changes may well happen in their veins and arteries, from road systems to digital cables.

Food and fuel of the future

“It would be a fun exercise to try and draw what a future city will look like,” says Love. “It’s very hard to predict, but we are already starting to see bug cafés, energy walls, plans for vertical farms and medical check-ups happening digitally. The future could include holographic doctors and solar-panel-paved highways,” she adds, pointing to just a handful of evolving ideas.

The insect cafés could be the culmination of the current – though embryonic – industry of insect farming. This happens not just to create natural pest controls, but also high-protein, low fat and energy-efficient food for humans.

Cattle typically consume eight pounds of feed to generate one pound of meat. Insects are four times leaner at just two pounds of feed per pound of produce. Love admits there is work to be done on making palatable the switch from cow to cricket, however.

Energy walls, such as Tesla’s Powerwall, are home batteries that are charged by electricity generated from solar panels, or when utility rates are low. They can be installed in private dwellings and large industrial workplaces alike, storing energy when it is not needed and distributing it when it is.

Tesla’s product hasn’t even been launched yet but it is sold out until 2017, such is the demand.

Virtual GP visits

Meanwhile, doctor holograms might sound a tad Doctor Who-ish, but current healthcare systems are under huge pressure and solutions are required immediately. A major stream of ideas involves diagnoses and treatment remotely via digital channels.

Instead of paying a visit to an overworked GP or occupying a scarce hospital bed, in future people will be monitored, diagnosed and treated for most conditions at home. People are already happy to self-diagnose via a web search, while fitness monitors are an undisputed consumer craze. The system just needs to be formalised.

So how confident is Love that business and policymakers will see through these changes and so many others like them?

“Historically, forces in some incumbent industries have leaned on the pace of change, but the scope and potential of innovation is starting to transform changing attitudes. Consensus among most experts is that world oil production will peak before 2030, so fossil fuels cannot be relied upon. We need alternatives now.”

Pretty confident, then.

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