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The Futurist: 63 Looming Urban Issues

Turbulent times are ahead for cities

Thomas Frey //May 31, 2019//

The Futurist: 63 Looming Urban Issues

Turbulent times are ahead for cities

Thomas Frey //May 31, 2019//

Cities are in trouble.

Never before have we seen such a massive convergence of technologies affecting cities as profoundly as we see today. Very few have looked at tech adoption rates as something to monitor.

The current retail apocalypse is just the tip of the iceberg as many cities in the U.S. are set to lose more than 50 percent of their current revenue streams throughout the next couple decades.

At the heart of the problem is an overly complicated sales tax system, ill equipped to bend, flex or morph with the demands of our emerging culture. But it’s far more than just sales tax revenue that’s at stake.

Cities will soon be tasked with new responsibilities that require dismantling old systems, while simultaneously creating entirely new structures, requiring new policies, talent and methodologies.

Infrastructure will also change. Parking lots will give way to queuing stations, HOV lanes will give way to driverless-only lanes and drone-landing pads will spring up around every neighborhood.

Traffic cops will give way to drone command centers and zoning laws will have to be completely reworked.

Surely, urban centers have most certainly been through large-scale transitions in the past.

  • From horse and buggy to cars
  • From ground-based transportation to airplanes
  • From cumbersome film-based photography to cameras everywhere
  • From wired phones to anywhere anytime wireless communications
  • From paper maps to GPS

Yes, cities have tools at their disposal to make the necessary alterations, but most will need help, as they’ve never faced declining revenues like this before.

Cities tend to be strongly separated by function. Each area (fire, police, utilities, etc.) has its own budget and change tends to trigger fear, defensiveness and often, interdepartmental turf wars.

Some will view this as the opportunity that it truly is, tackling those problems before they occur. Others, best described as the change-resistant majority, will be left far behind.

History will show this to be a great turning point with well-run cities not only rising to the occasion, but also tackling mega-projects that will define their place on the global stage.


After traveling to dozens of countries, it has become clear that cities will need to establish their own priorities and plan their own approaches, prided on their differences.

Indeed, many will settle on similar best practices and find a number of common solutions, but each city will have make those determinations on their own.

The following questions are currently unanswerable, but will serve as a way to understand the scope of changes on the horizon.


With hundreds of companies staking their futures on driverless technology, it seems inevitable that we are moving into an era of fully autonomous vehicles:

  1. What percentage of the population will relinquish ownership of their vehicle in five, 10, 15, 20 years?
  2. What percentage of road traffic will be fully autonomous in that same time?
  3. How long before we see driverless lanes and entire highways dedicated to driverless vehicles?
  4. What provisions will be necessary to accommodate bicycles, motorcycles, skateboards, joggers and other physically active people?
  5. How long before we see the removal of traffic signs, stoplights, lane markers, etc.?
  6. How many parking lots will disappear looking ahead?
  7. What forms of transportation will always have drivers?
  8. How will all these changes affect sales tax collection in your city?

It’s important to begin thinking about how many industries are affected by driverless technology and their long-range implications.

  1. At what age is it OK for a child to ride solo in an autonomous car?
  2. How many car-related businesses (auto part stores, tire shops, brake shops, car washes, etc.) will disappear?
  3. How many car dealerships will disappear in the years ahead?
  4. What will happen to the price and collection of gas when consumers switch to electric vehicles?
  5. With the transition to electric vehicles, all requiring frequent recharging, what addition loads will this place on our electric systems?
  6. What changes will be made to highway infrastructures as we become increasingly dependent on driverless systems?
  7. How long until the last emissions testing center disappears?
  8. How will Hollywood deal with chase scenes in the driverless car era?


Since a high percentage of every police force is dedicated to traffic control – as much as 80 percent – we need to consider how this will affect staffing and revenue models for the future.

  1. How will the number of traffic cops change?
  2. How will these changes affect the number of lawyers, judges and ancillary actors associated with traffic court?
  3. How will a decreasing number of traffic violations affect city revenue?
  4. What new kinds of vehicles will spring to life in the driverless era and how will cities manage them?


As e-commerce grows, and our frequency of online purchases climbs from once-a-week to dozens of times per day services will increase exponentially.

Rest assured, we’re only scratching the surface.

Each question is designed to be a conversation-starter. Even they, for the most part, are unanswerable, every conversation will create a growing level of awareness, and appropriate action will not be far behind.

The role of the city is changing. While many are heavily invested in the near-term race to label themselves smart cities, far greater challenges lie ahead.

With automation, the role of people is changing. In the future, relationships will still matter, but they will matter differently. Skills and talent will still matter, but they will matter in a new way. And our drive and purpose will still matter, but that, too will transform.

Even though much of today’s technology is giving us super-human abilities and virtually everyone can now think-faster, know-faster, and do-faster than ever before, every new technology requires skills, talents, and understandings that are hard to quantify.

The people of the world have an “unfinishable mandate” to continually stretch, grow, propagate and master not only the world around us, but also the entire universe. And it all begins with rethinking our cities.

21. How will driverless trucks change the transport industry?

22. What segments of the trucking industry will be the first to make the transition to driverless?

23. What percentage of the trucking industry will employ driverless technology?

24. With fewer, possibly no drivers, will the trucking industry become a cheaper form of transport than freight?

25. How long before we see conductor-less trains?

26. How long before we see fully automated mail delivery?

27. How long before we see fully automated transfer of cargo between trains, ships, planes and trucks?

28. Will driverless technology ever be as safe as the airline industry?


If we start with the scenario that sometime in the future every major city will have 50,000 drones flying overhead on a daily basis, many questions come to mind.

29. What will the city’s responsibility be for managing these drones?

30. When it comes to privacy, how close can drones fly to a home, business or individual?

31. How will the city handle drone-related complaints such as noise, snooping, menacing, etc.?

32. What criteria will be used to determine if a drone is menacing?

33. At what point will people/authorities have the right to shoot a drone out of the air?

34. At what point will people/authorities have the obligation to shoot a drone out of the air?

35. How long before most cities have their own fleet of drones?

36. How long before most police departments have their own fleet of drones?


Recent improvements in scanning and sensory technology has given us the ability to create digital models of the physical world. As we expand surveillance capabilities with fleets of scanning drones used to both image and analyze data on a near-real-time basis, we can begin to imagine a new kind of search technology, designed around searching the physical world.

37. What type of scans would instantly be viewed as an invasion of privacy?

38. How long before we can scan and find a specific person, car or drone with this type of search engine?

39. How long before we can track a person in real time?

40. Who will have access to this technology and resulting data?

41. What are the privacy/security issues that will arise?

42. If police departments become tasked with completing stalker reports, does this become a new responsibility for cities?

43. If search engines can spot key vulnerabilities, such as system flaws and infrastructure failure points, who will have access to this information?

44. What are some of the unintended consequences of this technology?


The mobile food truck industry is paving the way for a much greater possibility. Driverless mobile businesses, built on the frames of RVs, trucks, vans and other large vehicles, will be reborn as traveling dental offices, tax preparation centers, hair salons, dog grooming parlors, chiropractic clinics and other retail storefronts. One of the greatest challenges of traditional retail has always been driving customers to the store. As we move into a highly mobile marketplace, businesses can drive to where customers already are.

45. With many overlaying and confusing tax districts, how will merchants know the sales tax to charge for each new location?

46. Where will driverless mobile businesses be allowed to set up shop in each city?

47. Will there need to be a new type of business/vehicle classification system developed to regulate these businesses?

48. How long before online sales reach 50 percent of all purchases in a city?

49. How long before sales from mobile businesses reach 10 percent, 15 percent, 20 percent of all purchases in your city?

50. Will mobile businesses increase or decrease traffic on the roads in 5, 10, 15, and 20 years?


Emerging technology will take its toll on many existing businesses. Often, when a major business failure occurs, a city will be tasked with picking up the pieces.

Over the coming years we will see a number of extraordinary failures with complicated ownership issues in the background stalling redevelopment for decades. What provisions does your city have for managing the following kind of failures?

51. Hospitals

52. Colleges

53. Golf courses

54. Theme parks

55. Power plants

56. Airports

57. Shopping malls

58. Stadiums


More than 50 percent of the world’s population currently lives in urban areas, and that number will grow to 70 percent by 2050, according to the United Nations.

Today, there are 31 mega-cities– metropolitan areas with more than 10 million people – including Tokyo, Seoul, Delhi, Mexico City, Istanbul, Los Angeles, etc. By 2030, the UN predicts, there will be 41.

As the number of city dwellers rises, so do problems such as overcrowding, pollution, housing shortages and aging infrastructure. But with problems come opportunity and many cities will use this as an opportunity to leapfrog forward.

Gone are the days where people were impressed by projects costing $10 million to $50 million or even $100 million. We are witnessing an explosion in the number of $1 billion(+) projects with many now exceeding $100 billion. Megaprojects are set to triple over the coming decades.

59. What are some of the mega-projects that will define the truly great cities of the future?

60. Is further urbanization a good thing?

61 What are the key components of urbanization that will demand the most attention?

62. What percentage of city workers will find their jobs disappearing in 5, 10, 15, 20 years?

63. Will it be possible to retain current city employees and retrain them for new positions? What type of retraining will be necessary to make this happen?