Inventing Future Cities


The current, established way of thinking about urban development no longer applies as the cyber age sets in. Digital technologies are fundamentally altering the flow of people, goods and information – and hence, cities as such. Our writer JP O’Malley has interviewed futurist Lasse Jonasson and writer Michael Batty about urbanity and the development of cities

JP O'Malley

Posted Jul 29, 2019 in Cities, Urban Life & Mobility Article from Scenario 02:2019

In his 1957 book, The Poverty of Historicism, the Austrian-British philosopher Karl Popper claimed that there is no such thing as a predictable future. Popper's argument is based around a fairly simple premise: there will always be extraneous events outside of our control preventing us from predicting with certainty what form and content a coming history might take.

There is, however, as Popper noted, one intellectual discipline where prediction does become possible with some accuracy: science. More specifically, physics. It allows for an abstraction of a system so it can be completely separated from its wider environment, subsequently allowing ample space to work out certain models of predictions that are based on mathematical equations.

Popper liked to use the example of Sir Isaac Newton's laws of motion, which were cal- culated in what was a closed system available to Newton at the time: the solar system. Today, using this model of prediction, we can apply the complete laws of Newtonian mechanics to compute the trajectory of satellites which orbit the earth. And, we know with certainty, such a model of prediction presents accurate results.

But what happens when there is an attempt made to move this rigid model of scientific prediction over to a social system? Especially one that encompasses millions of human beings living cheek by jowl in close proximity to one another: with a multitude of desires, drives, fantasies, ideas, hopes, and dreams? Say, for instance, something as complex, chaotic and multifaceted as a city.

Understandably, computing those mathematical equations becomes a little more complex. After all, a city is much more than a simple amalgamation of numbers. As the American historian, sociologist, philosopher of technology, and literary critic, Lewis Mumford, once aptly put it: “The city in its complete sense is a geographic plexus, an economic organisation, an institutional process, a theatre of social action, and an aesthetic symbol of collective unity.”

Award-winning British urban planner and geographer, Michael Batty, has been rigorously analysing and writing about cities for many decades now. His work examines cities as complex spatial systems, using mathematical modelling, fractals, and complexity theory as guiding tools. The Emeritus Professor of Planning at the Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis in University College London has published a number of insightful books that attempt to deconstruct what appears to be a litany of paradoxical contradictions lying at the epicentre of the social, economic, psychological, and physical fault lines of urban life.

Batty’s newest book is called Inventing Future Cities, and it centres around one fundamental idea: old certainties dominating city planning since classical times are now becoming redundant as technology develops at a faster rate than the average human being can keep apace with.

“What has happened since the development of computation over the 70 years is the rate of change is so great that we suffer continually with information overload,” Batty explains from his London home. “So just as we think we understand how technology works, very suddenly unpredictable things occur that change our understanding. And so, our ideas about how the city as a concept actually works becomes quite problematic,” Batty adds.

He points out that up until the Machine Age, cities changed incrementally. It was enough to embrace new innovations that could be easily absorbed into the fabric of building and the location of urban activities. However, up until that point, building a city was an unselfconscious process of evolution, says Batty.

Past the industrial revolution, however, technology and net- work systems have upset the equilibrium of those traditional ideas. Primarily because the concept of time itself changed in urban space. Batty says London, where he currently lives and teaches, perfectly personi es a city whose spatial, cultural, economic, and geographical identity has shifted over time, in tandem with technological progress.

Prior to the industrial revolution, for the most part, cities were closed single locations, with walls enclosing them into a single geographical urban space. But that all changed when the British Empire began to transform how goods travelled, not just around the world – when Britain commanded the globe's oceans – but also within cities themselves. With the advent of free market global capitalism, an industrial landscape emerged where goods and people began to move like no time in human history. During this time, the city became a series of aggregations or agglomerations of interactions, rather than a single, static entity.

“Today every place is global and interconnected because of in- formation technology,” Batty goes on. “And so, this technology now makes [London specifically], but a city [more broadly] a very complex entity that is highly unpredictable.”

“It's very easy to think about future cities as a kind of idealised fiction,” Batty says rather philosophically: “Mile high towers and architecture dreams come to mind. But to really invent cities, we have to think more broadly about how they actually work,” Batty adds.

Until recent times, a golden rule when trying to work out the basic evolutionary patterns of a city was to keep in mind a key catchphrase: form follows function.

“Form is the basic fabric we see in a city,” Batty explains: “the location and the density of things or the patterns of what a city look like.”

“The function, on the other hand, is what makes the form work: these are essentially layers of things underneath,” Batty adds. “Form can be seen as a location of things, and function as being the inter- action of things: what a city is for, and how we go about doing it.”

Batty believes that in the world of urban planning there has been a notable lack of attention paid to how the form and function of cities has been drastically altered by smart phones – and other forms of digital technologies – over the last decade or so.

“If you compare London today to London during the 1600s, the street plan is pretty much the same,” says Batty: “But London no longer reflects the function of the city from 400 hundred years ago.”

“All of the function has changed: the nature of finance has changed,” Batty goes on: “but the form looks fairly similar. Now if you disentangle what is actually going on in these buildings, there have been great changes more than the original form implies.”

He points to email, online mapping, apps, and social media. As those technologies influence the physical, social and economic movements of cities, new functions are simply layered over old ones. This is something that complicates the picture of a city rather dramatically, since the physical form of the city itself appears – on the surface level – considerably less reactive to social and economic changes than it actually is.

Such cyber-age processes are essentially invisible compared to the material flows that we have traditionally seen as embodying economic and social functions in cities through physical net- works. Batty believes it's high time we began a proper discussion about how all of this new digital media is rapidly altering the course of city life experience.

Looking to get a well-rounded and nuanced view of predicting urban spaces, I also spoke with Lasse Jonasson, who has written extensively on this topic. The Director of the Copenhagen Institute for Futures Studies looks at three specific areas in his work on future city life: transportation, infrastructure, and mobility.

“These three aspects are going to drastically shape the future of cities in the coming years,” Jonasson explains by telephone, from his office in Copenhagen. “and how different cities adapt to new technology in these areas will influence how they develop.”

Like Batty, Jonasson believes that predictability is hard to judge with complete confidence when it comes to the future of cities: “What is easier to do, though, is predict the likely outcome of possible futures,” he says. “Of course, with such a static thing as a city, very few things are up for immediate change.”

“Street plan is pretty much the same,” says Batty: “But London no longer reflects the function of the city from 400 hundred years ago.”

Batty dedicates one chapter in his book to what he calls “the inventive century.” Specifically, it focuses on how automation and other forms of advanced technologies will affect cities. Batty points to the growth of artificial intelligence (AI); machine translation; noninvasive digital implants; electrical paper with erasable memory; forms of real-time sentient data, and data generated by our own actions.

But one thing that Batty is not skeptical about is how the metamorphosis many urban environments presently seem to be going through as technology rapidly evolves is only further enhancing what Batty refers to as the paradox of the metropolis: where proximity or nearness is becoming more important as the cost of connecting across urban spaces is rapidly decreasing all of the time. “The paradox of the modern metropolis means that the notion of why we live in cities is now up for debate,” says Batty.

Understanding this paradox firstly involves being familiar with the fundamental model of almost any city. Traditionally, economic logic has dictated that cities are centred around their central business districts: usually the original market where exchange once took place physically.

Land in this traditional city system tends to be more expensive the closer it is to the centre where all the commercial exchange happens. Distance thus plays a crucial role in this standard model.

But in a world where more of us are communicating – and trading – through smart phones, laptops, and applications, rather than face to face, and storing our information in the cloud, Batty says the traditional glue that constrains what we do in any one given space in a city is losing its effect. And yet, while that glue is dissolving, the cement that enables us to build ever denser net- works between ourselves using information is, conversely, strengthening. A broader way of looking at this paradox is to see how information technologies have enabled us to spread out and communicate globally. Big cities have become more polarised: their cores are denser but their suburbs are more spread out.

What Batty calls the “death of distance” has enabled us to live and work anywhere, but to interact with like-minded people in the pursuit of the same goals at central cores in the global urban land- scape that is being created.

Batty then points to automation of communication and the possibility of old systems of communication being destroyed across urban landscapes, such as postal services and telephone operations. The extent to which these old systems will vanish will largely depend on how their tasks can be automated. Clearly, many can, says Batty. But automated platforms, he stresses, still don't possess the same reliability as human decision-making can offer. Thus, a possible future where automated communication systems are the only game in town remains a highly uncertain prospect.

Technological advancements notwithstanding, Jonasson believes living in the middle of a city will continue to be an attractive prospect for many citizens. “Interconnectivity hasn't really changed that fact,” he says. “There are other technologies, such as virtual reality that could change that. But most new technologies will also not take away our need for meeting people physically.”

Batty claims that by the end of this current century everyone will be living in some sort of city or urban space. As population density increases in the mega-cities of the world, so will problems relating to pollution, health and polarisation, Jonasson stresses:

“And when there is not sufficient infrastructure to cope with that it can generate some serious health issues as well as polarisation, which can lead to security issues. And that will no doubt create a lot of tensions in the coming years.”

Jonasson, however, takes a more nuanced and optimistic approach to rural living: “We may also see a revival of living in rural areas,” he says. Unlike Batty, he also takes a much more optimistic approach to how technology will influence the coming modes of urban transport: “Twenty years from now when we have autonomous cars, you could still live way outside the city and commute in and out. And if you are sitting in an autonomous car it will not feel like a waste of time because you can work and do other productive stuff while you are in the car,” Jonasson adds.

As we wind down the conversation, both futurists are hesitant to give any definitive closing absolute statements about what shape or form we can realistically expect cities to take in the coming years. It's not that Batty and Jonasson don't believe thinking about the future is a worthwhile endeavour. Indeed, you might say they think of almost nothing else. But they take a somewhat skeptical approach: pointing out how there may well be a hard ceiling of limitless possibilities for the future of urban form.

Besides, both Batty and Jonasson agree on the basic principles connected to the formation of cities. First, they are rarely planned and tend to emerge sporadically like organisms rather than ma- chines, and second, top down visions of urban planning are essentially thought experiments, and if implemented, will work out very differently from what their progenitors expect.

But even if the future of cities appears to become more complex than it has ever been, Batty concedes that this shouldn't stop us from thinking about the major challenges that lay clearly before us: “Inequality is the biggest challenge that cities face in the near to medium future,” he says. “We also have climate change, age- ing, and energy as huge issues to consider.”

Jonasson believes that a lack of consistency between how different cities across the globe develop will prove to be the biggest challenge we face in the future: “Many western cities are becoming eco- friendlier,” he says. “But in some of the African and Asian cities that are still developing there is such a massive pressure on the infrastructure that those environmental concerns are not as high up on the list of needs. Instead, basic necessities, such as clean water and toilets are what’s being focused on.”

Perhaps it's best to leave the last word to Alan Turing, the visionary English mathematician computer scientist, logician and futurist thinker, who once wrote that :“We can only see a short distance ahead, but we can see there that plenty needs to be done.”

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