Half of the world’s population lives in cities now. Cities are at the heart of humanity’s exponential progress throughout the last century.

The increasing concentration of people and GDP in urban metropolis – from 746 million people living in cities in 1950 to 3.9 billion in 2014_ and up to 67% of EU’s GDP generated in metropolitan areas – has allowed, among other factors, for an exponential growth in the exchange of information, data, ideas, knowledge and developments. And these, in turn, are key in explaining the most astonishing period of progress in human history: between 1913 and 2013 the average human lifespan doubled, the average per capita income triples and the childhood mortality rate decreased by 10x.

The cost of food has gone down by another 10x, the cost of electricity by 20x, that of transportation by 100x and the cost of communications by 1000x. Also, between 1981 and 2013 the amount of people living in absolute poverty was divided by four, bringing the percent down from 44 to as little as 11%-.  

But on the other hand, this progress has led to new challenges for those living at the heart of such developments. And problems will only increase as people live longer and yet another 2.5 billion individuals are added to urban concentrations, raising the percentage of the world’s population living in cities from the current 54% to a 66% in 2050.

According to the Cities of Tomorrow report by the EU Commission there are five key challenges arising from urban life that need to be addressed if we want to avoid a halting or perhaps even a reversing of the progress enjoyed throughout the previous century.

The first such challenge is mobility. There are three key factors that are generally directly proportional to a city’s size: the time spent to move any people or goods from any point A to B, the average amount of incidences per trip and, still today, the total amount of pollution emitted. These all have a direct negative impact on both people’s quality of life, security, productivity and health.

The second challenge is health and wellness. Given the aforementioned pollution, the stress and pressure that modern life puts on individuals and, particularly, the fact that people’s lifespan continues to increase, urban populations have started to suffer from an increasing number of ailments which used to be marginal: dementia, anxiety and all problems related to obesity are just a few examples which are already negatively impacting life today.

The third is in relationship to utilities, mainly electricity and water sanitation. Despite the fact that in developed countries the vast majority of the population have access to electricity and water, the challenge will come from the need to achieve the sustainability and efficiency required to serve ever-increasing population densities.

The fourth challenge is housing. As GDP increasingly concentrates in cities, young individuals will keep on moving in to look for opportunities. In many cases, particularly in concentrations which’s growth is geographically limited, this leads to an ever decreasing size and quality of housing and an ever increasing of its price. This again, can hugely deter people’s quality of living.

And the fifth is social justice. As cities acquire massive proportions and demand for housing and other services shoots up the cost of living, there is a risk that certain collectives or habitants will fall into poverty, discrimination or even social exclusion. If cities have to stay at the heart of humanity’s exponential progress they will need to leverage all of the human potential within them and this will be ensured by delivering opportunity to everyone seeking it.

All of these challenges, unless soon addressed, will only be increasingly threatening. But then again, it is in cities mostly, that some of the key technologies that will help mankind to solve these challenges are being developed. Internet of Things, Artificial Intelligence and Virtual or Augmented Reality will surely help tackling the aforementioned challenges.

In conclusion, mankind’s phenomenal progress throughout the last century has been deeply rooted in the connections and opportunities created by urban life.

In the coming years, if humanity is to avoid an inverse “U” shape in the returns of this model, the challenges threatening the sustainability of metropolitan areas – mobility, health & wellness, utilities sustainability, housing and social justice – will need to be addressed today.

In fact, in our present time and given the context described, this may be the only – and perhaps even the last – opportunity delivered by our cities to sustain this model. Only by starting today can we ensure that the challenges of today will be the virtues of the cities of tomorrow.