The following short essay about the possible future of London was prompted by some questions posed to me by Nicolas Bérubé, a journalist based in Montreal.
Futurists seek, not to give cast-iron predictions about what is most likely to happen in the future, but, instead, to highlight potential scenarios that deserve fuller study – threats and opportunities that need addressing in advance, before the threats become too severe, or the opportunities slip outside our grasp.
Given this framework, which trends are the most significant for the future of London, by, say, 2025?
London has a great deal going for it: an entrepreneurial spirit, a cosmopolitan mix of people of all ages, fine universities (both in the city and nearby), a strong financial hub, the “mother of parliaments”, a fascinating history, and rich traditions in entertainment, the arts, the sciences, and commerce. London’s successful hosting of the 2012 Olympics shows what the city can accomplish. It’s no surprise that London is ranked as one of only two “Alpha++ cities” in the world.
Other things being equal, the ongoing trend of major cities becoming even more dominant is going to benefit London. There are many economies of scale with large cities that have good infrastructure. Success attracts success.
However, there are potential counter-trends. One is the risk of greater inequality and societal alienation. Even as mean income continues to rise, median income falls. Work that previously required skilled humans will increasingly become capable of being done by smart automatons – robots, AIs, or other algorithms. The “technological unemployment” predicted by John Maynard Keynes as long ago as the 1930s is finally becoming a significant factor. The book “The second machine age” by MIT professors Brynjolfsson and McAfee, gives us reasons to think this trend will intensify. So whilst a smaller proportion of London citizens may become increasingly wealthy, the majority of its inhabitants may become poorer. That in turn could threaten the social cohesion, well before 2025, making London a much less pleasant place to live.
One reaction to the perception of loss of work opportunity is to blame outsiders, especially immigrants. The present populist trend against free movement of people from the EU into the UK, typified by the rise of UKIP, could accelerate, and then backfire, as young Europeans decamp en masse to more open, welcoming cities.
A similar trend towards social unpleasantness could happen if, as seems likely, there is further turmoil in the financial markets. The “great crash of 2008” may come to be seen as a small tremor, compared to the potential cataclysmic devastation that lies ahead, with the failures of trading systems that are poorly understood, overly complex, overly connected, poorly regulated, and subject to many perverse incentives. Many people whose livelihoods depends, directly or indirectly, on the financial city of London, could find themselves thrown into jeopardy. One way London can hedge against this risk is to ensure that alternative commercial sectors are thriving. What’s needed is wise investment in next generation technology areas, such as stem cells, nanotechnology, green energy, artificial intelligence, synthetic biology, neuro enhancement, and driverless cars. Another response is to urgently improve our collective understanding and oversight of the pervasive interconnections in our monetary systems.
The fact that, with modern medical treatments, people are living longer and longer, increases the pressures on social welfare systems. Ailments that previously would (sadly) have killed sufferers fairly quickly, can now linger on for years and even decades, in chronic sickness. This demographic change poses all sorts of challenge, including the need to plan much longer periods of time when people will be dependent on their pension plans. One important counter-measure is accelerated development of rejuvenation biotechnology, that gives people new leases of life (and renewed potential for productive employment) before they are afflicted with the diseases of middle-age and old-age.
Cities depend in major ways on their transport infrastructure. By 2025, there will be huge strides in the capabilities of driverless cars. This could usher in an era of transport that is much safer, less expensive, and greener (in part because cars that don’t crash can be built with much lighter materials). Cities that are quick to adopt this new technological infrastructure, and who do it well, could quickly gain in comparative popularity. It’s encouraging that Oxford, near to London, is conducting state-of-the-art research and development of low-cost driverless cars. And alongside driverless surface vehicles, there’s far-reaching potential for positive adoption of a vast network of autonomous flying drones (sometimes dubbed the “Matternet” by analogy with the “Internet”). But unless London acts smartly, these opportunities could pass it by.
Three other trends are harder to predict, but are worth bearing in mind.
- First, the wider distribution of complex technology – aided by the Internet and by the rise of 3D printing, among other things – potentially puts much more destructive capability in the hands of angry young men (and angry middle-aged men). People who feel themselves dispossessed and alienated might react in ways that far outscale previous terrorist outrages (even the horrors of 9-11). Some of these potential next-generation mega-terrorists are home-grown in London, but others come from troublespots around the world where they have imbibed fantasy fundamentalist ideologies. Some of these people might imagine it as their holy destiny, in some perverted thinking, to cause huge damage to “the great Satan” of London. Their actions – as well as the intense reactions of the authorities to prevent future misdeeds – could drastically change the culture of London.
- Second, fuller use of telecommuting, virtual presence, and remote video conferencing, coupled with advanced augmented reality, could lessen people’s needs to be living close together. The millennia-long trend towards greater centralisation and greater cosmopolitanism may reverse, quicker than we imagine. This fits with the emerging trend towards localism, self-sufficiency, and autonomous structures. London’s population could therefore shrink, abetted by faster broadband connectivity, and the growth of 3D printing for improved local manufacturing.
- Finally, the floods and storms experienced in the south of England over the last few months might be a harbinger of worse to come. No one can be sure how the increases in global temperature are restructuring atmospheric and ocean heat distribution patterns. London’s long dependence on the mighty river Thames might prove, in a new world of unpredictable nastier weather, to be a curse rather than a blessing. It’s another reason, in addition to those listed earlier, for investment in next-generation technology, so we can re-establish good relations between man and nature (and between city and environs).
What’s the most important aspect missing from this vision?