Masdar 2015: The Sustainably Complexing City

Published by Chris Oestereich on

I had a lot of fun writing my entry for last year’s Masdar Engage Blogging Contest, so I when I got the call, I was happy to throw my hat in the ring again.  This year they’re asking us to look into our crystal ball and forecast what the sustainable city of the future might look like.

The assignment:

Describe your city in 2030: what will occur due to changes in energy, transportation and water technologies, and how will they transform how you live?

Flickr/EOI Escuela de Organización Industrial

Flickr/EOI Escuela de Organización Industrial

The Sustainably Complexing Cities of 2030

I recently visited Holland for a conference on Intrapreneurship.  I scheduled a couple of days to take in Amsterdam at the start of the trip, and I spent that time walking the city, observing the culture and the ways in which people interacted.

I had heard a lot about Dutch bicycle culture, but I was unprepared for the experience.  Bicycles are everywhere. Most racks overflow with them. Sidewalks are filled with orderly rows.

Cyclists are ever zooming by.  They have their own lanes in most of the areas I visited, and where they share space with vehicles, motorists are abundantly cautious.  I inquired about this and learned that Dutch laws favor cyclists, which helps keep the roads safe for all.  Pedestrians also tend to have their own walkways, or at least a clearly marked portion of the wide paths which they share with bikes.

Sitting back to watch life complex on itself in heavily trafficked intersections is truly a marvel. Pedestrians enter. Cars slow to a stop. Bikes zing past. Street cars pull up, add and subtract passengers, and move on.

It felt a bit like watching a model of a heart alternately pumping blood into so many intricately linked blood vessels. Except these weren’t vessels, but only the suggestion of such. So the people who flow through are not blood which is forced to behave in any certain way, but autonomous actors who independently choose to make the system work. If one should choose to behave counter to the system, the results could be catastrophic.

This is the lens through which I view the city of the future. We already have the technology we need to transition to sustainable cities. What we lack thus far is the collective will, the resolve, necessary to act purposefully.

[bctt tweet=”We already have the technology we need to transition to sustainable cities.”]

What we need now is a shift in mindset. We myopically look to loss in terms of less energy leading to less comfortable lives, and fewer material possessions. So we continue down the path of more — with coal plants popping up like mushrooms as we fight over the right to build more pipelines.  The paradigm we need to move to is the one which rapidly “decarbonizes” the atmosphere. Once we’re headed in that direction, we can start to work back towards relative comfort as we devise ever more creative solutions to our human needs.

[bctt tweet=”The paradigm we need to move to is the one which rapidly ‘decarbonizes’ the atmosphere.”]

So we were asked to describe the city of the future, and I haven’t really done that, because I think they’ll all be different.  Each city will complex in unique and interesting ways depending on its circumstances.  The technology and choices necessary to live sustainably in a hot, dry climate will be different from those needed in a cool, wet one.  Culture and access to resources will obviously play a role, as will a multitude of other factors.

Speculating about what specific technologies will be prominent in the future is a fun mental exercise, but I don’t think that divining the specific technologies which will be employed matters that much.  They’ll naturally surface and be adapted once we shift our collective outlook to foster empathy towards all of humanity.  My sustainable city of the future will surely be a glistening city filled with amazing technical achievements, but the real differentiator from today is that it will be inhabited by those who choose to live in a way which acknowledges, and actively supports, the rights of others, including future generations, the opportunity to exist.

[bctt tweet=”Until we agree to use it wisely, no manner of technology will solve our problems.”]

Technology is a tool which can be used for ill or benefit.  It is not a cure all which can paper over our collective shortcomings.  Until we agree to use it wisely, no manner of technology will solve our problems.  We are the problem.  Once we realize that, and resolve to change, we’ll figure it out.



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