To many, the coronavirus pandemic of the early 2020s came out of the blue, although many commentators suggested that in fact, it didn’t. Futurists, among others, had warned of a future pandemic on many occasions in the past and governments had even held exercises to understand the potential implications. In the event, it was a case of experimenting and learning on the hoof to cope with the tension between political, economic, social, and technological drivers. But the pandemic also accelerated a number of drivers already in train; the decline in physical stores, the growth in on-line retail, the growth in home and remote working, the acceptance of on line meeting and collaboration tools, and the growth in automation.
This scenario looking back from 2035 explores a number of plausible developments that might change how we live our lives.
The gentle vibration of my Sleep-Easy mattress slowly entered my consciousness at the pre-set time. I open my eyes to see the dawn breaking; a piece of emerging daylight against the backdrop of the Lake District’s Langdale Pikes; the sound of Stickle Ghyll murmuring over nearby rocks and the more distant sound of the ghyll dropping down one of the numerous waterfalls filled the room with increasing volume.
The combination of visio-walls and audio projection usually put me in such a good frame of mind for the day ahead. Like much of the other technology installed in the apartment created in the old Selfridges store, refurbished for “contemporary living,” I thought the novelty would wear off; but not at all. I am able to choose the scene and sound combination in each room to suit my mood and the time of day.
When I first viewed the show apartment using the estate agent’s virtual reality experience system, I was still dubious about choosing a living space in the middle of the building, without windows, and with a bio-access system. Direct natural light and a real view of the outside world came at a premium that was a little out of my price range. But the visio-walls and audio projection system throughout the apartment gives me access to an almost limitless range of outlooks. As it turned out, it was a gamble worth taking; I love my apartment, and the iconic building I live in.
The building has nine storeys: two levels below ground hosting services, utilities, recycling, energy storage, and data services; the ground floor providing resident reception, building security, a number of communal and private meetings spaces; five residential levels; and the communal roof terrace and garden.
Inside the building the hallways and landings are provided with both powered and natural light. During the day, specially designed sunlight tubes draw light into the heart of the building; each one topped with a funnel shaped mirror that tracks the sun across the sky during the day to maximise access to natural light. The inner surfaces of the tubes are in effect projection surfaces and automatically project artificial light into the building when needed.
The building is mostly self-sufficient when it comes to energy generation. Electrical power is provided through a mixed portfolio of technologies with solar, wind, and by harnessing the piezoelectric effect from surfaces inside and around the building. Excess energy is stored in the battery bank in the basement and redeployed when required. Artificial intelligence (AI) manages the energy generation and distribution process; matching production with demand.
Starting My Day
Making my way through to the kitchen-diner, Martin—my at home personal digital assistant—greets me, using exactly the right words, phrases, and tone of voice that matches my demeanour. Having switched the kettle on for my morning cup of tea—some things just don't need to change—Martin reads my messages to me. He prioritises my business and personal messages based on my completed and planned work activities and my recent personal conversations with family and friends. Using the same information, he tells me about relevant social media activity across the platforms I subscribe to. Martin knows my work and personal interests and so also filters the news feeds, providing me with a personalised morning news and sports compendium.
I move into the living room and asked Martin for the office visual configuration. I am no techno-geek but the ability of my room to reconfigure the visio-walls and my desk for work; the lighting, computer configuration, wall projector, work related news and information feeds still make me smile.
I started my work by reviewing my prioritised activities. Reviewing questions from the presentation on asteroid mining I gave the day before was top of the list. Having indicated my responses to each question, Martin set about contacting each person with my reply. There were also additional materials from the underlying research that needed to be integrated with the slides, a task to which Martin is again well suited. The system held all the information needed to meet my client’s requirements and that being the case, he could distribute the materials in line with the brief.
In addition, 12 of the people attending my presentation were seeking to connect with me. I asked Martin to go ahead with all those in relevant business sectors who also have more than 500 of their own connections on social media. I enjoyed giving the presentation very much—not just for the content—but the fact that it was the first time I had appeared as a hologram at the event venue, without leaving my living room/office. Twenty-three percent of the attendees were also represented by their holograms; the remainder were present in person. The ability for speakers and delegates to interact as if we were all at the event in person, was incredibly useful. I can see this style of event changing the events sector significantly and rapidly.
A City Transformed
The changes to the historical retail heart of the city seemed irreversibly permanent. Increasing automation across the white collar jobs sector and new working practices through the 2020s had rendered many city-centre based service jobs redundant. And yet, the re-emergence of residential communities in the heart of the city seemed to create a much more human place to live. The pace of change has been astonishing; an explosion of science and technology developments on the back of the Covid-19 pandemic has driven business and social change. But thankfully—and arguably just in the nick of time—government and local authorities had for once, harnessed the opportunities.
Owners and developers of a significant number of the taller buildings across the city gave the south facing facades over to vertical farming, providing fresh produce often to those people living and working in the buildings concerned and across the immediate locale. There are also operational synergies in the agricultural process and work and living spaces within the buildings. Automated irrigation systems and climate control technologies monitor and adjust humidity, temperature, and airflow so that the building environment is optimized both for human occupants by day and plants by night, to satisfy workers and optimize yields, respectively.
A similar contemporary cottage industry feeling was emerging as the cultured meat / in vitro meat sector began to grow. Time will tell if manufactured meat will really take over from the real thing, but slowly and surely the new products are gaining ground on traditional and increasingly expensive natural meat.
The introduction of autonomous electronically powered transport in the centre of the city was game changing. Five short years separated the banning of petrol and diesel vehicles and the banning of manually driven cars, vans, buses, and trucks in 2030. Many streets were designed with wider pavements and sidewalks, taking advantage of virtual trackways which were introduced into the road surface allowing pedestrians and traffic to occupy the same space. The transformation of Oxford Street and Regent Street into garden avenues with autonomous traffic making its way alongside social green spaces was extraordinary. And of course air quality was measurably improved.
My Half Day
With my work commitments complete by midday, I decided to head for the Trafalgar Square Courtyard. The square really isn't that far from my apartment but I thought I would take a ride share-pod there and stroll back. As I made my way out of the building, Maggie, building receptionist / security AI robot greeted me cheerily. I waited 30 seconds for the Local Motors 3D printed ride share-pod to arrive. Already aboard were two other passengers. I recognised one of them and we exchange pleasantries; sharing perspectives on sports, the weather, and work. Some things—the human things—really don't change.
The retail courtyard at the redeveloped Trafalgar Square is a popular draw in the city. It provides retail and entertainment experiences for those that still favour going out. One of the truly innovative features is the 4D printed sky canopy which is suspended from a series of eight towers above Nelson's Column. Completely covering the square, the canopy changes shape, form, colour, and transparency depending on how the space beneath is being used.
The redeveloped space is as much a draw for residents as it is for visitors, just as it had always been. New technologies had helped to create a range of retail experiences with “pick up and walk out” (the Amazon-Go concept from the 2000’s that many retailers subsequently adopted), permanent digital wall stores, and space for 3D printed “Pop Up” stores.
Increasingly, experience was crucial in the new world of retailing with virtual reality and augmented reality immersive opportunities to try before you buy—including the ability to touch, taste, and smell products—a standard feature of the customer experience. Many retailers provide delivery by autonomous vehicle or drone. Dedicated drone delivery areas and personal drone drop off areas are common place. The vehicles and drones themselves are connected with others in the vicinity with ground and building sensors to ensure safe and efficient traffic management.
Having placed two orders, I headed home, reflecting on the changes I had seen between 2020 and 2035.
The transition between the analogue world of the 2010s to today’s digital world had been difficult as many had predicted. But the potential implications of accelerating automation, changing work practices, and new technologies brought government, academics, pressure groups, business, and futurists together to craft vision, policy, and strategy for a very human future.
The retail failures of the late 2010s accelerated through the pandemic period and consumed some of the biggest names in the sector. They were just one symptom of wider economic and social change gathering pace in the post pandemic period. As a result, it was a matter of some urgency that local authorities looked at new ways of invigorating town and city centres.
As retail businesses reduced their physical store space or left the shopping areas of towns and cities all together, developers took over the many historic buildings and with a favourable planning landscape and a raft of new building technologies (robotics, 3D printing, new materials for example) set about converting some of the most prominent historic buildings to residential use. This action helped preserve the city’s architectural heritage by preserving the exterior facades of the buildings but giving a new lease of life to the interior.
The rapid and significant investment in technology infrastructure including connectivity, information integration, AI, the development of a truly smart city, but most importantly, adopting new mind-sets and new ideas of leadership across government and business have been critical in avoiding what could have been a social disaster, and have instead led us towards a more human future.
Human City: Mabel Amber /
Autonomous Mobility: Mystic Art Design / https://pixabay.com/photos/auto-vehicle-forward-future-2651594/
City Transformation: jplenio / https://pixabay.com/photos/london-skyscraper-the-scalpel-sky-3833039/
Reflection: Michael Gaida / https://pixabay.com/photos/architecture-skyscraper-1727807/