The Future Cities We Dream Of


Emerging Concepts That Could Transform Cities

Cities around the world are constantly evolving and adopting new technologies and ideas to improve infrastructure, sustainability, quality of life for residents, and more. As urban populations grow and pressures mount, city planners and governments are looking ahead to find innovative solutions to current and future problems. Several emerging concepts have the potential to truly transform modern cities in the coming years and decades.

Sustainable and Resilient Infrastructure

One major priority for cities moving forward is building infrastructure and systems that are environmentally sustainable and resilient against disasters and climate impacts. Some emerging ideas in this arena include:

Renewable Microgrids

Local renewable energy microgrids powered by solar, wind, geothermal, or hydropower could help cities reduce reliance on fossil fuels and provide resilient power even if the main electrical grid goes down during emergencies. Projects in Hoboken, NJ and San Diego, CA are testing out community-level microgrids. Widespread adoption could enable cities to be powered predominantly by clean energy.

Permeable and Cool Pavements

Traditional concrete and asphalt absorb heat and shed rainwater, exacerbating the urban heat island effect and stormwater runoff problems. New permeable pavements allow water to filter through to the soil below while cool pavements incorporate light-colored aggregates or new materials like photocatalytic cement to reflect sunlight and keep surface temperatures down. Using these on roads, sidewalks, and parking lots could help mitigate flooding and extreme heat.

Nature-Based Infrastructure

Integrating green infrastructure like bioswales, urban wetlands, green roofs and walls, and trees into cityscapes can help capture stormwater, reduce flooding risks, improve air quality, sequester carbon emissions, and more while providing habitat and recreational opportunities. Singapore’s underground stormwater canal, Copenhagen’s cloud burst tunnels, and Philadelphia’s green infrastructure incentives demonstrate how cities are beginning to embrace nature-based solutions.

Mobility Innovations

Urban transportation systems are facing pressure to provide sustainable and convenient mobility options as populations grow and densities rise. Emerging mobility concepts aim to balance these needs through shared services, electrification, and intelligent systems.


Shared micromobility services providing bikes, e-bikes, and e-scooters that users can pick up and drop off anywhere are becoming ubiquitous in cities worldwide. They enable short trips without personal auto use. Integrating these services with mass transit makes it easier to cover first/last mile connections. Cities are adopting policies and infrastructure to encourage micromobility and regulation to address issues like sidewalk clutter and improper parking.

Autonomous Transit

Though still in testing and development, self-driving technology applied to buses and shuttles could enable affordable, on-demand, door-to-door transit without extensive new infrastructure. Pilots are underway with driverless shuttles already carrying passengers in limited areas. As the technology matures, autonomous transit could change the landscape for public transportation.

Mobility as a Service

New apps are emerging that integrate planning, booking, and payments across various modes of transportation including public transit, ride-hailing, car-sharing, micromobility, and more. Mobility as a service (MaaS) gives users access to the full range of options in a city through a single platform and subscription plans. This could eliminate the need for personal car ownership. Helsinki’s Whim app and Los Angeles’ GoPass smartphone payment system are early examples of MaaS adoption.

Circular Resource Flows

Transitioning from the traditional linear “take, make, waste” economy to a circular model where resources are continually reused or repurposed is critical for long-term sustainability. Innovations in this area specifically for cities include:


Converting non-recyclable waste into usable heat, electricity, fuels or other byproducts through thermal, biological and chemical processes provides renewable energy from an abundant urban resource stream while diverting waste from landfills. Cities like Oslo, Copenhagen, Tokyo, and Bristol have implemented waste-to-energy systems and aim to maximize energy recovery.

Water Reuse

Most water used in cities becomes wastewater treated for contaminant removal before being discharged to waterways. But new decentralized systems allow reusable water to be captured and redirected to appropriate applications like irrigation or toilet flushing. Water recycling onsite in buildings or at the neighborhood-scale reduces potable water demand while “reclaiming” this abundant resource.

Urban Mining

Cities contain massive amounts of metal and mineral resources in infrastructure, buildings, vehicles, and waste streams. Urban mining involves reclaiming these materials through building redevelopment, deconstruction, recycling, landfill mining, and waste-to-energy ash processing. It presents opportunities to recover resources, reduce environmental impacts, and stimulate local circular economies. Initiatives are underway in countries like Belgium, Japan and Canada.

Smart City Technologies

Advanced sensors, digital connectivity, data analytics and artificial intelligence are unlocking new potential for cities to monitor infrastructure systems, manage resources more efficiently, coordinate traffic and transit, communicate with citizens, and automate functions.

Internet of Things Sensors

Expanding networks of internet-connected sensors mounted on roads, bridges, buildings, light poles, transit vehicles, and other assets allow cities to remotely track performance and conditions in real time. This enables quicker emergency response, predictive and preventative maintenance, and better operational decisions. Applications range from monitoring noise pollution and air quality to tracking parking availability.

Integrated Data Platforms

Pulling data streams from sensors and historical databases into centralized dashboards gives cities integrated visibility into current status and trends across infrastructure systems, public services, transportation networks, energy demands, and population metrics. Visualizing relationships and performance on these platforms enables more holistic, predictive, and responsive management.


Mobile apps and geospatial reporting tools empower everyday citizens to contribute data to their city’s operations and planning processes. Reporting issues like potholes or downed power lines extends the reach of city maintenance efforts. Meanwhile contributing inputs on resident priorities and firsthand experiences with city services allows governments to incorporate public sentiment into policy decisions.

Human-Centered Public Spaces

Well-designed physical spaces provide backdrops for healthy civic life. Some thought-provoking concepts reimagine public spaces in cities to better nurture local community, creativity, inclusion, and mental health.

Reclaiming Roads

Streets typically dominate cityscapes with space dedicated to vehicles often over pedestrians and community functions. Responding to issues like traffic deaths, barriers to walking/biking, social isolation, and air pollution, some cities are repurposing roadways into plazas, parks, bike paths and other people-oriented places. Barcelona’s “superblocks”, Paris’ 15-minute city plan, and Bloomberg’s Asphalt Art program demonstrate this concept.

Temporary Land Use

Rather than leave locations like vacant lots and dead spaces underutilized, municipal agencies and community leaders around the world are activating them with temporary installations like popup markets, performance venues, art exhibits, and parks. Tactical urbanism interventions reimagine dormant urban spaces while programming activates neighborhoods with local color and creativity.

Biophilic Design

Studies demonstrate people’s mental and physical wellbeing improve with greater access to natural elements. The growing field of “biophilic urbanism” promotes integrating nature through green infrastructure as well as natural shapes, materials, lighting, and ventilation in manmade environments from buildings to public spaces. Cities like Singapore and Wellington NZ are developing biophilic design standards and certifications to amplify livability.

More Livable Density

Making taller, more compactly developed cities pleasant and vibrant places for residents depends on effectively layering vertical infrastructure and services. Certain concepts can aid the transition towards 3D urbanism.

Supertall Green Buildings

Iconic skyscrapers like Singapore’s Pinnacle@Duxton and Shanghai Tower and urban developments like Toronto’s M City integrate vertical green spaces, renewable energy, rainwater harvesting, organic waste treatment, and other systems to concentrate density while minimizing environmental footprints. Advanced green buildings will be critical infrastructure as cities scale up.

Vertical Mobility

Getting people to offices, homes and amenities dispersed vertically throughout dense neighborhoods requires transport options beyond elevators. New vertical mobility technologies like exterior magnetic levitation elevators, cable-propelled gondolas and integrated aerial drone platforms could efficiently shuttle people and goods around 3D urban spaces. Already urban gondolas are proposed in Lagos, Mexico City, Austin and Los Angeles.

Underground Space Use

Expanding congested cities outward is limited, while going upward faces height restrictions, shadows, wind and density concerns. Underutilized space below ground presents opportunities to situate supplemental infrastructure from transit tunnels to commercial districts, libraries, even sports venues. Cities like Montreal, Helsinki, Singapore and Shanghai are developing underground masterplans valuing subsurface real estate.


Around the world, cities are incubators of innovation piloting projects and technologies to enhance sustainability, resilience, mobility, efficiency and livability. Not all new ideas prove feasible, but urban centers must continue striving towards the best possible future. The emerging concepts explored here and others on the horizon could truly transform modern cities if broadly embraced and implemented with sound supporting policies.

With thoughtful planning and design, the coming decades can see profound positive changes in the nature and function of cities. Exactly what shape that future takes depends significantly on the combined visions of both the public and private sectors. So as local governments develop strategic plans and technology companies promote their offerings, it is imperative they understand cities as complex living ecosystems where economic drivers, infrastructure networks, social bonds, environmental impacts and human wellbeing all interconnect.

While new technologies clearly enable progress, lasting positive transformation of cities relies on holistic thinking beyond technical capabilities towards deeper human-centered goals of community, health, equity and quality of life. And “smart cities” require engaged citizens collaborating on choices that resonate with local contexts and values. By discussing thought-provoking ideas together, urban change-makers and city residents have an unprecedented opportunity to co-create thriving urban spaces for generations to come.

Share This Article
Leave a comment