If you ask demographers, they’ll tell you we’re at an exciting tipping point. For the first time ever, more people live in cities than not. In the last century, cities’ populations grew ten-fold, from about 250 million to more than 2.8 billion. By 2050, when the world’s population is expected to exceed 9 billion, more than 6 billion of those people will live in cities. Think about that: in the next 30 years, two of every three people born will live in cities.
Demographic shifts of this proportion are notable because they carry enormous opportunities and potential problems. Will infrastructure be able to handle the influx? Where will all these new residents live? Work? How will we feed them? Power their homes and offices? Where will clean water come from? How will they get from point A to point B?
Already, we know that urban residents have smaller carbon footprints than their suburban and rural friends. We know that cities have long been hubs for wealth, education and innovation. And we suspect that, as one expert noted, “urbanization may ultimately remain the most sustainable solution to our planet’s environmental challenges.”
Across the globe, cities are reinventing themselves. Mayors are taking the lead on fighting climate change with everything from stricter building codes to mandatory composting. Entirely new experimental cities are being imagined and built from the ground up. Cities are the new laboratory and playgrounds for sustainable thinking.
Cities are “an expression of our collective will, a potent mix of economics and environment, private visions and public dreams. Boosting their ability to provide clean energy, transportation, food, water and waste disposal will be key strategies to ensuring a brighter future for humankind,” writes David Biello, in a special edition of Scientific American focused on cities.
So why should marketers care? Because where there’s reinvention, there’s money. IBM estimates the “smart city” market to explode to more than $10 billion in the next four years. Think beyond the obvious in terms of opportunities. Retrofitting? Already a huge market. Vertical farms? They’re under development. Using people as roving monitors, tracking traffic patterns and air quality? It’s happening in Stockholm and Paris. Electronic trash trackers that follow garbage through the “removal chain” (instead of the “supply chain”), making sure that recyclables wind up where they’re supposed to be and not in landfills? Seattle’s doing it.
Here are some other ways cities are reinventing themselves:
- Solar film on exterior windows that generates energy (Berlin)
- Three bin recycling – trash, recyclables, compostables (San Francisco)
- LEED neighborhoods (Rockville, MD)
- Satellite irrigation (Los Angeles)
- Smart parking – digital parking meters tell apps when a space opens up, reducing traffic from drivers hunting for spaces (San Francisco)
- Congestion pricing (Stockholm and Singapore)
Each of these ideas opens up new doors and new opportunities for innovation, revenue streams, and sustainability. It’s time to think about cities as a product that’s overdue for an overhaul. New design, new uses, new benefits, new experience. It’s time to take a new look at cities.