The numbers tell the story – people love cities. More and more of the world’s population are choosing to live in them. But their success creates a challenge. Around the UN Climate Conference (COP21) it was a common statement: "Cities are key in challenging climate change in the world". Against the backdrop of population growth and climate change, can cities of the future remain liveable and happy? This was the question we asked as we embarked on a vision for cities of the future.

At the heart of the urban challenge lies the fact that more and more people are choosing to live and work in cities. By 2050, mega cities with 10 million inhabitants or more will be common. Some people believe this dramatic growth will see cities becoming more powerful than countries. My own view is more nuanced, although I anticipate local governments will play a more important role in peoples’ daily lives than national government, particularly in areas like infrastructure and healthy living.

Are city authorities equipped to manage these responsibilities? 

Before we answer that question, we need to appreciate that governance itself is changing – albeit at different rates in different societies. Alongside an increasing awareness that governments alone cannot solve all the issues, people, businesses and other organisations are getting involved. 

For example: 
  • We are seeing groups of individuals setting up cooperatives to develop solar and wind power plants or other technologies to meet their energy needs in a sustainable way. 
  • We are working together with companies and local governments to create business cases enabling the principles of the circular economy to be incorporated into their activities.
Disrupting developments as 'The Internet of Things' and 'Big data' will also impact governments, and not only in smarter city operations. With technology, individuals are now able to check air quality and other indicators using their smart phones. By arming people with real information (which may contradict official figures based on models), this technology will serve to increase the urgency upon governments for action.

Interconnectedness is part of the challenge

Action on any single aspect highlights the inherent complexity of the urban challenge: the interconnectedness of the elements. Across the challenge, it is rarely possible to solve one problem without impacting on many others. For example, improvements in air pollution will benefit residents’ health but are unlikely to be achieved without change in the areas of transport, industry and perhaps energy too. Solutions will not only require integration across sectors and disciplines: they will require networks of support that draw together governments, people and private businesses. 

The way in which we respond to these problems needs to change

Rather than addressing a single issue and expecting to wipe out the problem, in my view it will be more effective to tackle several issues at once with the aim of creating general improvements across the board.

All these observations – and many more - have been considered by our experts in developing our vision for cities of the future. The result, as you might expect, integrates elements including governance, smart cities and circular principles, as well as water, planning and transport. We believe these six themes are key for liveable happy cities in the future. The vision is strengthened by the fact that they are interconnected. We believe that any serious progress towards liveable happy cities requires action across these six themes.

Now it is time to act

Alongside the insight I have gained while leading the urban challenge programme within Royal HaskoningDHV, I have picked up three simple truths.
  1. The urban challenge is critically important 
  2. It is recognised at every level, from experts to politicians to those who live and work in cities
  3. The topic has been discussed at length. Now it is time to act.
I want our vision to be a catalyst for action. As well as circulating it via the Internet, we are holding a series of launch events across the world. I hope these will generate debate, discussion, and engagement. I hope people will challenge the vision with their own observations. But most importantly I want it to be the basis for action. 

Everyone who lives and works in a city has an interest in ensuring it remains liveable and happy. This vision provides a sustainable way forward. Read it. Discuss it with your friends and colleagues – and with us. Most importantly, use it to consider how it can change the way you do things. 

Together I hope we can generate the impetus, courage and innovation to act to create liveable, happy cities of the future. I encourage and welcome your feedback.

Elements for future cities further explained

This is the first in a series of blogs revealing our vision for liveable happy cities. In the next blogs we will discuss in more detail the elements we think are most important for future cities, such as urban mobility, smart cities, circular economy and governance.