How ‘smart’ cities will change the world

Urban sprawl: By 2050 it is predicted that 75% of the world’s population will live in cities.

Should we be excited about the future of cities? In 2050 the modern metropolis could be made of micro-homes, sensors, and cyber infrastructure. Here are five ways our cities may change…

1/ Big data = cyber cities. The “internet of things” is coming. This could turn ordinary objects like dustbins, streetlights, and signposts into mini computers logging our every move. Architect Carlo Ratti imagines city-wide sensors mapping the population like a “flock of birds or shoal of fish”. All this data may ease traffic, revolutionise city planning, and help authorities respond to disasters and mass gatherings.

2/ The rise of “smart” infrastructure. Street lights will react to their surroundings — flashing when an ambulance comes or brightening for big crowds. Rubbish collections will be replaced by pneumatic tubes that suck trash straight to the dump. And raised cycle highways will let cyclists ride serenely above car-packed roads. According to Wired, all this already exists in some cities. Soon it could go global.

3/ Neighbourhoods of micro-homes. In the UK the proportion of 25-year-olds who own their own homes has halved in 20 years since 1996. Rising demand could make houses even more expensive. The solution? Supply cheaper “micro-homes” close to city centres. Kasita, a housing company, is creating the "the iPhone for housing" — a home that packs all essentials into just 350 square feet.

4/ Big-brother style advertising. Just imagine: you rush out of your micro-house in the morning, having no time for breakfast. Your belly rumbles with hunger as a message flashes on a huge billboard above you: your favourite breakfast bar is half-price in a shop around the corner. Real-time facial recognition could make this a reality. Already a billboard is planned in London which is capable of targeting adverts at specific passers by.

5/ Cities floating on the ocean. “Seasteading” is the concept of creating entire cities on huge platforms on the ocean — outside the control of any national government. Author and self-described “seavangelist” Joe Quirk claims that floating cities could “restore the environment, enrich the poor, cure the sick, and liberate humanity from politicians.”

Would you like to live in these kinds of cities?

Building the future

“This all sounds quite scary,” say some. Facial recognition and sensors could easily be used for surveillance — heralding the end of privacy. And we should build more affordable homes, not squeeze citizens into ever smaller boxes. We must improve the cities we currently have, not escape onto floating fantasy islands.

“Lives will transform for the better,” reply others. Sensors and smart advertising will make our lives more efficient. And smaller homes will make us ditch meaningless clutter, and focus on what is important. Furthermore, off-shore cities offer the chance to build the perfect community from scratch.

You Decide

  1. Would you like to live in a micro-home?
  2. Do you think that personalised advertising is a good thing?


  1. Imagine that you are an architect and have been tasked with designing a futuristic skyscraper. Draw out your design and label the special features it has. Try to make your building as distinctive, unique, and exciting as possible.
  2. Do some research into the “internet of things”. What uses can it be put to? What are the potential benefits of the technology? Are there any possible drawbacks?

Some People Say...

“The city is not a concrete jungle, it is a human zoo.”

Desmond Morris

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
In 2015 the UK government allocated £40m to research involving the internet of things. And in 2014 a Pew Research study found that 83% of technology experts believed that it will have widespread and beneficial effects by 2025. Also in January this year the Seasteading Institute signed a memorandum of understanding with French Polynesia. This allows them to build a prototype “seazone” in the waters surrounding the islands.
What do we not know?
We do not know exactly how advanced personalised advertising will become, or how one screen will be able to target multiple people at once. Whilst micro-homes are popular in Japan, the extent to which they will take off in other countries remains unclear.

Word Watch

Internet of things
Connecting everyday objects to the internet by embedding them with computer devices. This allows them to send and receive data.
Already exists
Smart streetlights illuminate the sidewalks of Los Angeles. Mecca in Saudi Arabia deals with its rubbish with pneumatic tubes. And cyclists in Holland use the Hovenring to bypass a busy intersection.
According to a report from December 2016 by the Local Government Association (LGA).
The screen is due to open in Piccadilly Circus later this year. Reports claim that it will be capable of broadcasting adverts based on the age, mood, and gender of people in its vicinity.
National government
A common criticism levelled against seasteading is that by creating a city outside of international law, it will merely provide a tax haven for wealthy individuals.


PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.