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The future of cities

May 24, 2017

I recently ran a webinar with Cat Tully of the School of International Futures ( ) on the Future of Cities. It can be found at for Gill's blog on cities

Why did we single this issue out? The reasons are simple. Never before has the world supported over 7bn people, anticipated to add an extra 2bn in due course, and never before has the majority of the population lived in cities. So it is uncharted territory, and demands scenario thinking in addition to forecasting. How can we meet the ambitions of people, in this world?

As General Dwight Eisenhower famously said, “In preparing for battle, I have always found that plans are useless …

……but planning is indispensable.”

So what planning should we be doing for cities in 2040 and beyond? We used for our analysis some scenarios which have stood the test of time, first developed for long term thinking about the future of financial services by the L3F (Long Finance Forum of Futurists) and published as “In Safe Hands? The Future of Financial Services” report, find it at

The report is the result of a scenario planning exercise conducted by internationally recognised futurists and key figures from the global financial services industry. The report plots a series of possible future scenarios for the global financial services market, and considers the future of financial services over the next decades. The report identifies a number of surprises which come out of the analysis. These range from a question mark over the future of insurance, to the change in the nature of assets which will be valued.

The project brought together experts across the industry. Our consensus is that as the UK and United States lose influence and power as we head into a world dominated by today’s emerging markets, there is a long term risk to London’s financial services leadership. However, one scenario brought out the potential to leverage its multicultural workforce of over 270 nations and consolidate its position as the melting pot for global financial services.

The team built on the work in Beyond Crisis to identify macro global factors affecting the world by 2050:

  • The global population will grow to nine billion and get older, with most of the additional people in Africa and Asia. This will cause major shifts of economic power, causing turbulence as political shifts follow.
  • The new centres of power may not share the value systems of the west, or the Washington consensus.
  • Technology (info, cogno, bio, nano) will continue to introduce changes in personal capacity and lifestyles, while ICT will underpin much of society as well as commerce.
  • Ecological, energy and environmental limits will be tested or breached as the population increases, the percentage of the population living in cities approaches 70 percent and the new middle class eats meat, uses cars, refrigerators and electronic goods and travels for pleasure.

Within this world, the team developed four possible futures for the global financial services industry;

  • Second Hand – the world and financial services are recognisable from today, though most financial services will be largely automated, the current players will have largely disappeared, and many of the new players will be based outside the OECD countries. Land based assets and permits for citizenship or reproduction are highly valued.
  • Visible Hand/Globalisation – the world attempts to tackle global financial systemic risks through Washington consensus methods and faces increased volatility. The homogeneous global culture is short-term, consumer-light and carries the seeds of its destruction before 2050. Gold is thought to protect best against volatility.
  • Long Hand/Affinity Groups – financial services are mostly organised around communities of affinity, spanning countries and regions. Assets are allocated by the market within a community and intermediated by technology. The most highly valued asset classes vary with the community: they may be intellectual property and permit’s to reduce the effect of population pressure; or land-based assets.
  • Many Hands/City Societies – financial services are mostly organised within city states, which differ wildly in their brand and values. Permits to live or operate in desirable city states are highly valuable assets. This could of course be implemented through high property prices rather than a state system.

scenarios for Gill cities blogToday, the financial services industry manage capital and debt, but we could envisage that by 2050, a primary role of the industry could be to manage ecological, environmental and energy resources. As the population of the globe hits 9 billion people, the assets people value today could have been replaced by a permit to live in a city state or to reproduce. The macro global shifts lead us to believe that The City of London may have to transform from a financial centre that trades stocks and bonds to one that manages the availability of water and other permits.

This may seem an extreme leap from today’s world, but, what the last years should have taught our political leaders and financial services CEO’s, is that we cannot predict the future by looking backwards. This should be the context for thinking about the future of cities.

Written by Gill Ringland, SAMI Fellow and CEO.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily of SAMI Consulting.

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