Meet the Architect Predicting the Future of Our Cities

  • Futurist urban designer Cindy Frewen says future cities are likely to be more livable, and women-friendly.
  • In the future, buildings will have physical and virtual layers, which will make them disposable, portable, recyclable and temporary.

London had experienced deadly outbreaks of cholera, typhoid and influenza in the 1830s. But it took a stinking River Thames, its stench reaching the British Parliament, for the city to finally build a modern sewer system in the 1850s. Architect and urban designer Cindy Frewen is hoping the COVID-19 pandemic will accelerate some of the changes she’s been forecasting for our cities and transform how we live in the future.

After working as an architect for more than two decades, she realized designing cities in terms of space was not enough. The key, she concluded, was to think about them in terms of time. That was in the late 1980s. Now, 30 years later, Frewen is part of a growing wave of female futurists who are reimagining what the world will look like in a decade, in a century . . . and even in 500 years, finding ways to prepare for the changes before they happen.

“The future . . . is going to be completely different,” Frewen tells OZY. “We live in industrial cities and we are living digital lives . . . the two don’t match.”


Past Imperfect, Future Proof

One of the most fascinating things about futurologists (believe me, I have spoken to many lately) is that they love talking about the past. They learn from it and find inspiration in it, picking out what worked from what didn’t while trying to figure out how new machines fit into the equation.

Imagining new technologies is, at least relatively, easy. Scientists can work on a blank canvas. They can dream and visualize without many boundaries. Urban design futurism is a lot more challenging because the canvas is packed with decades of often conflicting construction styles and visions of what a city should look like (more or less green spaces, for example). Building a new kind of city involves figuring out if and how to remove what was there before, and where to put the people.

So, what will our future cities look like? As digital technologies allow us to be in different places without having to physically move, older designs will once again make sense. “The benefit of the cities that are 100 years or older is that they were designed before we got cars and are now actually better for our modern lifestyles because everything is walkable,” Frewen says.

But if you’re imagining old cities like London or Vienna with some smart augmented reality as touch-up, think again. The real revolution will come in the way buildings — and the way we think of them — will radically change. They will have physical and virtual layers, with both modern construction materials and artificial intelligence as central building blocks. This will allow buildings to interact with us while making them disposable, portable, recyclable and temporary.

“We have to imagine the lives that we want, not just what we are given. People think that cities are untouchable, but they are really not.”

Cindy Frewen, architect, urban designer and futurist

“The buildings will become smarter, helping us connect — like phones but on a bigger scale,” the futurist explains. “They will know you are in the room, your height and weight, and whether you are hot or cold. They will respond to us.”

There’s another reason why our cities will look radically different in the future: The people designing them will no longer be white men of a “certain age.”

“I don’t think it’s an accident that walkability and liveability have risen so much since women have been an active part of the conversation on urban planning,” Frewen says.

A more livable and sustainable city of the future, she says, is likely to include more parks, green spaces and areas for community living for older women who are likely to continue to outnumber older men.

“We have to imagine the lives that we want, not just what we are given. People think that cities are untouchable, but they are really not. They have to be imagined and it’s rough because we build so much.”

Shara Evans, a technology futurologist, agrees that cities need to be reimagined, but she believes that cities of the future might not even be on planet Earth.

“If you start to think about humanity being a multiplanetary civilization, then you can start to take the pressure off good old mama Earth and start to spread, growing humanity among other stars,” she tells OZY. “To me, that is fundamental to the survival of humanity in the long term.”

A Tale of Two Cities

But back on Earth, there’s another side to this story. Technology, Frewen says, will inevitably grow. But she worries about how tech only seems to be exacerbating the gap between the haves and the have-nots. And nowhere is this more visible than in urban design. While tech drives richer cities, millions of people continue to live in informal settlements lacking even basic sanitation.

“Futurists are thinking about what the world will look like for 5% of the people. What about the other 95%, what about Afghanistan and Syria?” Frewen asks. “These people are still dealing with issues such as clean water and food. These are things we will really need to fix soon because there isn’t anywhere we can hide anymore.”

OZYThe New + the Next

Cutting-edge trends, rising stars and big ideas.