Published: Written By: William D. Eggers

communityIt’s been more than five years since the world’s population shifted enough that more than half of all people now live in cities. This concentration of people in urban areas requires that we develop strategies for making cities more sustainable, resilient and innovative, and that’s what we see happening between now and 2020.

For many years, cities have had a bad rap as dirty, crowded, inefficient places. If you wanted a clean and healthy environment, you went to a small town. But the reality is changing rapidly.

By concentrating large numbers of people within a relatively small geographic area, it is possible to use both energy and resources in a much more efficient manner. Instead of driving, say, 50 miles back and forth between work and home, citizens cab commute a total of perhaps five or ten miles or less. You can walk a few blocks down the street to have a meeting. You can find a stunning concentration of brainpower within a five-mile radius.

Growing numbers of city leaders recognize the necessity of staking their growth and economy on innovation. In 2011, New York City launched the Applied Sciences NYC initiative that attracted Cornell University and the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology. Cornell Tech, a partnership between the two schools, will establish two million square feet of buildings in New York. The city supplied the land and a seed investment of capital, with the idea that bringing a leading science and engineering university to town would spur innovation and boost the economy.

Perhaps more importantly, by locating students and faculty within city boundaries, initiatives like this immerse our best talent in urban environments, where they can spot both the problems and opportunities inherent in city living.

Innovative thinking can transform the very nature of a city. Urban farmers are turning the roofs of warehouses and other commercial buildings into farmland, and the concept of vertical farming has the potential to expand urban crops dramatically. In this approach, indoor farms leverage a limited amount of land with crops stacked many stories high; they use natural and/or LED lighting to grow crops year-round.

Speaking of food, a new generation of social entrepreneurs is developing new business models that scale to address the massive inefficiency and waste in our food system from all angles, including food waste prevention and food rescue. For example, the software Lean Path allows food workers to regularly record photos and weights of food waste, and then provides analytic results of patterns that they might fix. Some urban kitchens that use it have cut waste by as much as 80 percent.

In a similar manner, imaginative reuse can transform cities. From repurposing buildings to recycling materials, reuse minimizes waste and maximizes the value of every manufactured item. In the 1960s, adaptive reuse transformed San Francisco’s Ghirardelli Square from a chocolate factory into a vibrant gathering spot and tourist attraction. Increasingly, business and civic leaders are thinking even bigger, challenging conventions regarding what happens within city limits.

Ultimately, the quest is about making cities more liveable and sustainable. It’s about making them resilient enough to withstand not only Mother Nature (i.e. the threat of fiercer storms caused by climate change) but also cyclical economic changes. These two are related; the less pollution generated and energy consumed, the lower the cost of doing business.

Some urban areas pose tougher challenges than others. In many cities, slums continue to proliferate at a startling pace and not even basic human needs are being met. In others, urban life has improved dramatically, and such cities offer nearly unprecedented opportunities for human growth and fulfillment. The great challenge is figuring out ways to move all cities in a positive direction.


To learn about other future trends in government, energy and environment, explore Deloitte Research’s look at the future of government here


William D. Eggers leads Deloitte’s public sector research and is the author of 8 books, including his newest, The Solution Revolution: How Business, Government, and Social Enterprises are Teaming up to Solve Society’s Toughest Problems (Harvard Business Press 2013).