An optimistic tech future

The cities of the future could include driverless cars, trucks and drones operating within connected systems.

3D-printed houses, super-fast mass public transport, personalised medicine, and abundant water, food and energy are among the advances humanity can expect technology to support in the next 20 years.

This is according to a new Vodafone study, prepared by Futerra, called "An Insights Report On Optimism". The report looks at how grand technological shifts could provide opportunities for progress, rather than just the threats that most people fear.

"On behalf of Vodafone, Futerra invited a group of leading futurists to reflect on what could go right, rather than what might go wrong. And the findings reveal that although few things in the world are entirely positive, the opportunities for a better world are more numerous, intriguing and closer to reality than we might think," the report says.

The group of global futurists, including South African Pieter Geldenhuys, who is director of the Institute for Technology Strategy and Innovation at North-West University, came up with 10 trends to feel optimistic about.

Future cities

The report predicts that in 20 years, people will "thrive in green and clean cities, where we grow our food and visit parks in the same skyscrapers where we live and work", all without stepping into a car.

The new green cities will include "vertical forests" on the roofs of skyscrapers, which will help clean the air, and urban agriculture where fresh food will grow in city centres. It also predicts homes will be 3D-printed rather than built, "and filled with 4D furniture that can reconfigure itself to fit the changing needs of your home". This technology will also have a lifesaving application, providing fast temporary shelter in emergency situations.

"Cities are the source of change and energy of our civilization. However, the unfortunate reality of today is that the more prosperous a city gets, the unhappier it becomes," says futurist Santosh Desai, MD and CEO of brand consultancy Futurebrands.

"We need a new imagination of the city that is founded on bringing technology and people together. Thinking of cities as organisms powered by a new sensibility and connected by a layer of technology is the starting point for transforming the urban experience," Desai adds.

We can also expect a serious travel shift, and "by 2021, countries will start replacing current air and rail links with superfast mass public transport, such as hyperloops and intercity trains travelling at speeds of up to 965kmph."

The report forecasts that in 20 years or less "a new generation of driverless cars, trucks and drones, operating within connected systems, will make mobility a pleasure and offer more choices of where we can live, work and play".

Abundant resources, personalised medicine

Clean, cheap energy is a key focus, with futurists saying this could be made possible through better capture, storage and deployment of renewable energy. We could see solar panels not only on rooftops but built invisibly into windows, walls and even some highways. New advanced storage systems will provide steady, reliable power to people in the remotest parts of the world, they predict.

"An abundance of energy by 2040 will not only have a positive impact on disposable income, but will have a profound influence on water and food security. It will be a key building block in the establishment of a more resilient world economy," says Geldenhuys.

By the 2030s, we could enable access to plentiful clean water, through large-scale water capture projects, ranging from innovative precipitation harvesting techniques to groundwater replenishment and improved desalination.

"In the next 15 years, we are going to tackle the global water problem as desalinisation technologies will become vastly more affordable," says Gerd Leonhard, owner of Zurich-based The Futures Agency.

"The rise of innovative responses to sourcing water will make it more common in coastal, arid countries to grow vegetables in the middle of deserts using nothing but sunlight and seawater," the report predicts.

Food abundance will also be a reality and we "will enjoy a wide range of healthy and delicious sources of meat-free protein and realistic meat alternatives that don't come from animals".

"There are many game-changing trends we are seeing within food and agriculture but one we are seeing emerge quickly is 'clean meat' grown in labs; although this is very expensive today, it is becoming exponentially cheaper, as well," adds Leonhard.

Tailored medical advice and new treatments will in future take account of our lifestyles, physiology and even our genetics, improving life chances in both developed and developing countries.

Experts predict personalised physical repairs, made possible by the early 2020s through 3D bio-printing and "living drugs" designed to turn an individual's own immune system against disease, will end the era of one-size-fits-all healthcare. This will cut costs, reduce waiting times and potentially even end the need for donor lists.

"Increasingly affordable DNA analysis will not only assist us to remotely develop personalised medicine, it will also enable us to treat hereditary diseases decades before the symptoms start to appear," predicts Geldenhuys.

Intelligent assistance

Experts say that with breakthroughs in artificial intelligence (AI), machines will increasingly support human intelligence.

"AI will become the ultimate PA, anticipating our needs and allowing us to spend less time doing menial tasks. Our personal digital assistants will manage more complicated tasks too, such as protecting our time, monitoring our health, and even helping us stay safe."

Geldenhuys believes AI will on the one hand endlessly enrich our lives through deeper cognition, but will on the other force us to redefine our own intelligence.

"I look at the movement of technology from overcoming the limitations of the body, to now increasingly being used to multiply the powers of the mind, and nothing does that better than AI," adds Desai.

By the late 2030s, futurists believe the ethical and environmental values of the young will increase pressure on businesses to seek purpose beyond profit.

"As automation fulfils the 'dangerous, dirty and dull' roles, there will be a premium on human creativity. These trends of purpose and creativity will drive a second-wave sharing economy, with more direct transactions between individuals to share ownership.

"This will change how we make, buy and use 'things', such as an up to 80% reduction in individual car ownership in developed markets like the United States by 2030."

The report also forecasts a rise in the Internet of things, with more sensor technology incorporated into everything. Immersive living will be another trend that will see education and entertainment become more immersive, using virtual, augmented and mixed-reality technologies.

"This hyper-realistic experience will let you not only see, but also smell and touch your way through events, exotic destinations and even to learn about history by stepping into a simulation based in the past. Within 20 years, you will be able to dive into coral reefs or sit in the front row of the World Cup final, all from the comfort of your living room," the report predicts.

Read time 6min 20sec
Paula Gilbert
ITWeb telecoms editor.

Paula Gilbert is the Telecoms Editor at ITWeb. She is an award winning journalist covering telecoms, business, start-ups and new innovations in finance and mobile. She previously worked as a producer and reporter for business television channels Bloomberg TV Africa and CNBC Africa and started her careen in radio. She has an Honours degree in Journalism from Rhodes University. Travel is always on Paula's mind, she has visited 30 countries so far and is currently researching her next adventure.

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