Future City Trends – Part 1 Updated: Apr 26

Sidewalk Toronto. Image courtesy of Sidewalk Labs via JWT Intelligence


The annual ‘Future 100: Trends and Change to Watch in 2019’ report by The Innovation Group maps out the biggest trends affecting people and our planet this year. We handpick some of the trends involving cities and ask how they affect citymakers.


In their annual forecast report, The Innovation Group, a subsidiary of JWT Intelligence, gives us a snapshot of the year ahead and the most compelling trends to keep on the radar. Given that over half the world’s population are now living in cities, with close to 70% projected to be in urban areas by 2050, the stress of city life, and threats to our planet’s survival looming over our heads – it’s no wonder that wellbeing and the quest for comfort take centre stage, setting the direction for emerging trends.

“Wellbeing, stress management and health are all prompting a continued evolution of new products and services to help sooth unstable, constantly connected lifestyles,” states Lucie Greene – Worldwide Director of the Innovation Group, in introducing the report.

“Meanwhile the definition of wellbeing continues to expand, encompassing everything from spirituality to lighting design.”

According to Greene, the private sector is taking the lead with sustainability issues, as consumers increasingly expect them to be responsible and actively engaged.

“Brands are also evolving. They’re becoming civic leaders, advocates, even therapists. They’re also stepping in to solve world problems, leading material science innovation and creating new environmental policies at scale.

“It’s clear that brand sustainability, once viewed as ‘nice to have’ and limited, perhaps, to recycled packaging, is now a mandate and a base expectation for consumers.”

Here are some of the top trends affecting cities in 2019.

Future Tech Cities

Sidewalk Toronto. Image courtesy Sidewalk Labs via JWT Intelligence.


From improving healthcare to education and transportation with tech solutions, Silicon Valley and China’s tech industry have now turned to Urban Design, rethinking neighbourhoods and lifestyles in the context of a hyper-connected future.

Alibaba’s City Brain and Alphabet’s Sidewalk Labs are two technology companies weighing in on traffic congestion, liveability and safety in cities. Sidewalk Labs, a subsidiary of Google’s Alphabet, is designing a new neighbourhood from scratch by the waterfront southeast of downtown Toronto, the largest experiment in fusing technology with urban planning in North America. The neighbourhood promotes bike and pedestrian lanes and affordable mixed-use housing as opposed to cars and condos. A thermal grid will heat and cool buildings without fossil fuels, while a network of sensors gathers real-time data on the physical environment, and a personalised portal enables residents to access public and private services. Home financing with rental subsidies or partial home ownership form part of the proposal.

Alibaba’s City Brain, meanwhile, is developing an artificial intelligence layer for a new special economic zone, 60 miles southwest of Beijing. Tests are underway in Hangzhou where thousands of street cameras collect data for controlling traffic lights, optimising traffic flow and detecting accidents or deploying respondents. Kuala Lumpur, where traffic gridlock is a daily affair, is set to be the first city outside China to implement the programme.

Privacy advocates are waving red flags and sounding their whistles where potential surveillance abuse is concerned. In October 2018, privacy expert Ann Cavoukian quit as a consultant on Sidewalk Lab’s Toronto project, stating in her resignation letter: “I Imagined us creating a Smart City of privacy, as opposed to a Smart City of Surveillance,”. Her resignation came following news that third parties could potentially access identifiable information from the data collected through surveillance in the project, despite being told the opposite at the start of the project.

Kuala Lumpur, where traffic gridlock is a daily affair, is set to be the first city outside China to implement the programme.

The Innovation Group points out that ‘omnipresent surveillance and the data it generates continues to provoke extreme reactions – because of its capacity for both the greater good and personal invasion of privacy. As technology companies roll out their solutions to urban problems, these debates will only grow louder.’


Policymakers and urban leaders need to consider what regulation surrounding privacy could look like while checking in with urban citizens. Meanwhile, urban citizens need to get informed on the subject, and voice their concerns. On the bright side, developers and urban planners could learn plenty from watching how plans are implemented, noting what works and what doesn’t.

Immersive Public Landmarks

The London Mastaba, Serpentine Lake, Hyde Park, by Christo. Image courtesy JWT Intelligence


Large-scale interactive landmarks are being designed and built to create immersive experiences in cities around the world. In September 2018, a large-scale installation launched in London’s Hyde Park designed by the artist, Christo. Constructed from 7,506 oil barrels and set in the middle of the Serpentine lake, visitors to the park could swim and use pedalos around the striking red and purple installation that inspired imagined visions of otherworldly structures.

This spring, New York eagerly anticipates the honeycomb centrepiece to the brand new Hudson Yards development. A product of Thomas Heatherwick and Heatherwick Studio, the piece is described as the New York staircase – a “uniquely interactive experience, a monument meant to be climbed and explored.”


View of Hudson Yards public square and gardens, looking south from 33rd Street Image courtesy of Forbes Massie-Heatherwick Studio via JWT Intelligence.


Built like a hive, the structure features 154 intricately interconnecting flights of stairs—’with almost 2,500 individual steps and 80 landings’ to encourage exploration.

The New York staircase is one of the newest in a stream of large-scale monuments designed for interaction and immersive experiences. Also in n 2018, a red lion, built in massive proportions took over Trafalgar Square as part of the London Design Festival. As an interactive element, visitors were invited to type a word in an adjacent screen, which would prompt the broadcast of a poem emerging from the lion’s mouth. Titled, ‘Please Feed the Lions’, the installation was built by set designer Es Devlin as part of a collaboration with Google Arts & Culture.

The Innovation Group’s take on this is that large-scale monuments—despite being temporary—’are being made on an ambitious scale and are both interactive and playful, designed to be more engaging and therefore more democratic than previous monuments.’


Apart from encouraging the use of public spaces, large-scale monuments such as these have the ability to engage members of the community, possibly even with a cause or message at the heart of their function,and could potentially become architectural icons linked to the city’s branding and identity.


Top: The Volvo 360c self-driving concept car. Bottom: Space10’s Spaces on Wheels concept. Images courtesy JWT Intelligence.


As tech companies such as Uber and Google, and auto companies the likes of Volvo, Toyota and Audi rush into R&D for self-driving cars, brands are rethinking the concept of travel.

While pizzas and groceries are being delivered by driverless cars, Aprilli Design Studio has proposed a self-driving auto concept that can double as a hotel room, replete with bed, bathroom and mini kitchen to take guests from Point A to Point B. Volvo has released a self-driving office-concept car with desks, reclining seats and mini bars for socialising. Space10, Ikea’s innovation lab has concocted moving community centres that could take the feed the public with healthcare services, mobile hotels, entertainment, cafes, fresh produce delivery and pop-up shops.

Space10’s Simon Caspersen told Dezeen magazine, “The day fully autonomous vehicles hit our streets is the day cars are not cars anymore…The primary function of transportation disappears to give rise to other functions. It could be an extension of our homes or our offices or our local cafe, so we want to trigger a broader conversation on what we would like it to be.”

The Innovation Group cites the reimagining of multi-tasking travel as the death of the dreaded commute, quoting Kaeve Pour of Space10 as saying,”One day, in the not so distant future, fully autonomous vehicles could be a common occurence on our everyday streets. This would not only redefine how people and goods move around our cities, but also redefine the very fabric of our daily lives.”


With an influx of driverless cars on the roads, issues surrounding pollution, congestion and traffic flow, as well as parking may take on a new dimension. However, Fleetcarma predicts that there are benefits to the automated vehicle: “The obvious one is reduced labour cost as human drivers will no longer be required. Moreover, AVs will be able to operate 24/7, which will have implications for the space needed for parking. AVs will also be able to communicate with each other, meaning that route planning will be more efficient, which could lead to much less road congestion, and as a result, AVs will be able to serve the current transport demand with fewer vehicles. Finally, road safety. Although problems have been well publicised, the overwhelming consensus remains that AVs will be much safer than human drivers.” On the flip side, the opportunities are endless when it comes to new business concepts, and community building, in just about any industry we can think of. Even the possibility of motion sickness offers an opportunity for someone to solve a problem. On the flip-flip side, religious and police authorities may not be happy with the possibility of vice occurring in close proximity, in driverless vehicles, moving all over the city 24-7.

Keep a look out for Part II on trends affecting cities from The Innovation Group’s Future100 report.

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