How smart thinking can make life better in our cities

Author: George Atalla, EY

Today’s cities are growing at an unprecedented rate. They are now home to the majority of the world’s population and jobs.


According to UN predictions, by 2050, 70% of the world’s population will live in urban areas, up from 54% today. (And that figure rises to 86% for the 35 economically developed countries that make up the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.) 


But while this rapid growth continues, cities worldwide are also under pressure to achieve better living conditions, a healthier population, economic development, competitiveness and enhanced connectivity.


This is a big challenge but also a big opportunity. It’s why I’m hosting the Future of Cities session at our Convergence Lab — a one-day event that follows our Innovation Realized event for executives and disruptive entrepreneurs.


Addressing the big challenges


At the session, we’ll look at the social, environmental and logistical challenges that growing cities face. But we’ll also consider the opportunities that technology, governments, businesses and entrepreneurs can create to ensure the rise of citizen-centric, resilient cities.


In particular, we’ll be discussing four big questions:


1. What will cities look like if people don’t go to shops anymore?


Several US retailers, including Sears and Macy’s, have recently announced store closures, and more are expected to do the same this year. At the same time, e-commerce is expected to continue to undergo double-digit growth through 2020, when sales will top US$4t, according to eMarketer.


The digitization of both products and services is changing the way people need to engage with the traditional retail-focused “city center” — and raises the possibility that people will be able to ignore it altogether. 


Will physical retail continue to live within city centers? Will current city centers be renewed, or replaced by new models elsewhere? And who will pay for the change?


2. What will mobility mean in cities if no one owns a car?


Driverless cars, robots and drones — technology is transforming how people and goods move around, creating many legal, planning, architectural, regulatory and energy challenges.


Who will win the battle for city transport — drivers, business, government, cyclists or pedestrians? Who will be in the driver’s seat, and who will own the vehicle? Who’s liable when there’s an accident? Who pays for the infrastructure, and who pays for the ride?


3. What will work itself look like?


The gig economy, co-working, artificial intelligence are changing why and how citizens work, as well as who they work for.


How will cities need to change to support work?


4. How can cities avoid becoming economically polarized?


Cities continue to attract citizens in unprecedented numbers, largely drawn by the economic opportunities that urban living affords. But, at the same time, demographic trends mean that city inhabitants are aging faster than rural populations.


How can cities cope with the growing strain on already stretched social services?


A bright future


The advance of new technologies is creating an inflection point for cities and governments, as it has for industries and businesses. It is changing how cities and governments operate, opening up new opportunities for alliances and partnerships.


I’m excited about the future of cities and the prospect of using innovative technologies and alliances to make cities better places to live for everyone.


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