Lagos, Nigeria

Three cities

“Urban Living – City of the Future” is this year’s theme for the Techtextil 2019 Special Event. Together with “Creative Holland” the leading international trade fair for technical textiles and nonwovens, it will showcase the opportunities technology offers to overcome the challenge of future megacities. So what exactly will those challenges be? We asked one of the most renowned German experts on architecture and urbanism, Director of Deutsches Architekturmuseum Peter Cachola Schmal, to forecast developments in and the impacts of global urbanization. Here is his essay.

Wherever you look, the impact of global urbanization is currently the subject of debate. However, what “City of the Future” are we actually talking about? As essentially there will be three different cities of the future, namely the cities of the Global North, the South and the East, and they will mutually influence but also mutually contradict one another – and needless to say among those three poles there will be any number of solutions in-between. 

The Big Question is: What does the demographic say? In detail, and for each region: Will fertility rates rise or fall, will infant mortality be combated, to what extent is medical care available, what is the average life expectancy, how different are the development trends from one society to another?

Dystopia - the Southern City of the Future

In future, the situation in the steadily growing regions will be especially problematic. These are primarily the Indian subcontinent and Sub-Saharan Africa (excluding South Africa). There, population growth is going unchecked and will dash any hopes of these societies stabilizing and there being a more just distribution of land, property and resources. By the end of this century (in other words in only 80 years’ time) the 10 largest megacity agglomerationsin the world will most probably be the following cities, whose names we in part do not really know today: Lagos (Nigeria), Dar es Salaam (Tanzania), Luanda (Angola), Karachi (Pakistan), Mumbai (India), Kinshasa (Congo), Mexico City (Mexico), Dhaka (Bangladesh), Delhi (India) and Lusaka (Zambia). The tenth largest city will be Lusaka and could then be home to about 40 million inhabitants, Lagos would actually have as many as 100 million citizens. Such agglomerations, sprawling across thousands of square kilometers, will be very hard to govern, control or manage. Moreover, the consequences of global warming in these regions are largely unforeseeable at present. Dystopias rather than utopias offer a realistic outlook on such inhuman structures. 

It goes without saying that the economically stronger and more educated strata of the population of these and all subsequent urban aggregations will seek to escape such conditions – in other words, the pressure from the South on North Africa and finally on Europe will increase massively. We in Europe will not bow down to that pressure and, quite the contrary, will further expand Fortress Europe. In order to avoid having to endure the resulting moral dilemma (because of course we will try and uphold the basic human right to political asylum), we will make certain that migrants no longer drown in the Mediterranean before our eyes – by moving the effective border further southwards – into the Sahara behind the first line of North African countries. In fact, we will shift it far enough south that we no longer have to see it and no longer have to assume responsibility for the consequences.

In the midst of these over-populated and over-stretched agglomerations, the Southern City of the Future will be a chaotic mixture that we inhabitants of the North will not want to visit and which we will therefore repress in our minds. News from these parts of the world will be carefully filtered out, so that we also no longer need to perceive them. How people even survive in such cities will be astonishingly puzzling, but not one we will want to know anything about. We will simply ignore the fact that perhaps half of the entire global population will be living in such conditions. They will not have a share of half of the global resources and blessings, not that they do today either. Their possible opposition to such an unjust distribution of the globe will be suppressed. We will make our financial indulgences to those who will keep the rebellious under control, meaning the political elite in those countries, who will use it to pay for a parallel life in affluence (and a visa for travel to the North). In this context, digital support from China will be a great help.

Brave new world – ubiquitously digital surveillance

Future digital surveillance will without doubt be one of the stages of our urban development with the most consequences – and it will, as a matter of course and with a time-lag, spread from urban to rural spaces. In coming years, the relevant technological advances, driven by China and (in the final instance) supported by the Californian high-tech titans GAFA (Google Amazon Facebook Apple), will have been perfected and applied globally. Anyone who even today can to a greater or lesser extent identify 1.5 billion inhabitants with relatively few errors, using facial recognition systems combined with other biometric recognition techniques (voice recognition, iris scan, DNA) and smart phone tracking via WeChat, already holds a system in their hands that can be expanded to include the entire population of the globe. WeChat is an all-embracing app already indispensable in today’s China manufactured by TenCent (whose name we should take note of) and which covers payments, identification, SMS, audio and video communications and substitutes a single app for a lot more than just WhatsApp and Facebook. WeChat is therefore in general regarded by the Chinese population as a liberating and facilitating improvement to their lives. China is a society that is completely networked by smartphones, where the laptop and PC stage was simply leapfrogged in technological terms. Africa is already being digitally colonized by China, with the foundations currently being laid; China is making direct investments in smartphone expansion and in general telecommunication infrastructure there. The GAFA Big Four will take over the non-Chinese influenced part of the world, assuming they do not enter the fray too late in the day. Since in China all financial transactions will soon be made using WeChat and Alibaba’s Alipay, (unless they rest on barter) financial flows will be completely transparent, at any rate for those who can monitor them, meaning the authorities, along with the tax offices and the police. For those with reading authorization, such insights will of course be inconceivably valuable and the rest of the world will no doubt be (or become) incredibly jealous, for all the claims to the opposite by governments. Could it even be that the US secret services are already on the digital back foot given the power already amassed in China? The entire black market, the Mafia, the drug cartels, in fact all criminal parallel worlds would in future be transparent and could be effectively combatted. And, of course, the other parallel worlds will also be transparent – be they political or rooted in sub-cultures. Are we enlightened and democratic Europeans and Americans really so different that we will then prevent such a development? Great is our enthusiasm for our digital assistants. Who wants back to the age of cash, of communication by letter, and of analog work? If facial and location recognition is combined and perfected worldwide, then this will fundamentally change our lives. We will change our behavior, travel differently, communicate differently, exercise caution differently, and discipline ourselves differently. In fact, we will be forced to do so as otherwise our “social score”, as can already be observed in China, might fall and this would be to the disadvantage of our future path through life. Whether the North does in fact develop in such a totalitarian direction will possibly at some point no longer be ours to decide freely, but the result of a fateful chain of technological advances. Once something is in the world it gets used.

Lagos from the air

Museum Paradises – the Northern City of the Future

The Northern City of the Future (in Europe, North America, Australia, South Africa, Argentina and Chile, the Middle East) will definitely be able to develop into a paradise. In the eyes of the majority of the population, the advantages of all-embracing security and the elimination of trivial criminality could outweigh the disadvantages of the ostensibly caring surveillance. The Northern City will be greener, more eco-friendly, older and quieter than today. The arts will be promoted, parks nurtured; the education of the few children will be carefully thought through. Transport will primarily rely on AVs – autonomous vehicles – and former parking spaces and underground carparks will be available for eco-friendly purposes. The cities will truly be oases, with a plethora of forms of housing and even downtown food production in vertical natural factories. The air will therefore be far better and healthier than it is today. The lines dividing the city from the countryside will become more fluid. In what environment we choose to live will be a question of our personal life style, as digitized work stations will be available everywhere. We will work less than today, be healthier, and live even longer. Body care, bodily modifications and the cult of the body will play an even greater role than they already do. The European population will be smaller than today, but the average age far higher. We will constitute a kind of museum-based paradise and produce mainly luxury goods in workshops with long-standing names replete in history, often making the products by hand. Our museums and historical sites will be considered symbolically important and worthy of a visit. Our main source of income will therefore be higher-end tourism. The main activity of our inhabitants will be realizing their personal life styles, be these cultural, religious or ecological in orientation. We can’t expect to see fireworks in spatial or architectural terms, and the “European city” will continue to be planned and refined down to the smallest detail, because that is what the affluent tourists from the economically dynamic parts of the Eastern Citieswill expect, because in their world there will be no space for such things. This or that metropolis will boast a district that can celebrate being up to par globally, but the cities will on the whole be sedately European, relatively low in density, and surprisingly quiet, as there will be no noise from traffic. Noise will be considered a general irritation to be prevented, and not unlike dirt or disease. By contrast, things will be tough for the small and disenfranchised group of young Europeans. Not just among them, but also among the adults, the nascent boredom and an ever stronger wish for adventure and existential experiences as well as meaningful spirituality will need to be compensated for – possibly outside their safe environment.

Between the worlds – the Border Zones

One growing problem will be the Border Zone between the two extreme worlds, the cities of the North and those of the South, and not just between Europe and Sub-Saharan Africa, but also between North America and Central America. The zone’s countries (in North Africa) will need to be strongly subsidized and will in exchange have to do the dirty work of keeping the borders secure. Any illegal crossing of this border will be rendered (almost) impossible. The globally standardized identification of each and every person will make effective controls possible and thus prevent larger migratory movement. Anonymity will have ceased to exist other than in the underground criminal or secret-service worlds. Of course, sidestepping and undermining the omnipresent controls and technological systems will be one great challenge the young adventurers take on. But we, the vast majority, won’t notice any of that.

Highly dense - the Eastern City of the Future

The third city typology will be the Eastern City of the Future – located mainly in China, Japan and Southeast Asia. On the one hand, they will boast all the technological achievements, but unlike the Northern world will have far higher densities and possibly contracting populations. High-rises will be the prevailing form of building, irrespective of their use. Lower built densities such as individual houses or terraced houses will be forbidden except in the case of historical monuments (and villas for a few privileged people). Transport by autonomous vehicles will be mature and available to all. Food will be carefully and strategically grown, very large corporations will secure supplies, and this will include palatable groundwater. Such megacities will be safe and under control thanks to smart technologies. Whether a country belongs to this group or to the Global South will depend on its policies on population control, which will in term often have religious roots. In the Philippines and Indonesia, for example, this will spell a real challenge. And we cannot today predict which way the destiny of some countries in South America (such as Brazil) will tip. 

Messegelände Frankfurt/Main
May 14 to 17, 2019

Opening hours:
May 14 to 16, 2019: 9 AM – 6 PM
May 17, 2019: 9 AM – 5 PM

Peter Cachola Schmal, born in 1960, has been director of the German Architecture Museum DAM in Frankfurt am Main since 2006.