"In 50 years' time, how do you see the evolution of cities?" the e-mail began. "Could I ask you to put on your horizon-scanning goggles or 3D immersion, five-sense lenses?"
With these bold questions, our editor at The Straits Times invited us to predict the future of Singapore. Her e-mail continued with more pointed inquiries about the intersection of technology and urban space - the so-called "smart cities" domain.
The questions (or provocations, rather) suggested profound transformations to the island nation, from renewable energies to drones, from transportation to politics. "Will there even be cities as we know it, or just biopolis cities within giant domes, with everything climate controlled? Or will cities polarised by inequality, be broken up into capsule climate-controlled biospheres?"
Important questions indeed, as we enter a new era of urban transformation based on digital technology. So, let's strap on our horizon-scanning goggles and tune them to 2065. By then, major revolutions at the convergence of the digital and physical world - revolutions that have already begun today - might be a reality.
This could drive transformations in everything from mobility to energy, water to waste management and civic engagement.
MOVING AHEAD IN DRIVERLESS CARS
Among the plethora of possibilities, we want to highlight three. The first is in the realm of mobility.
Singapore has a long history of innovation in the field of transportation. It was a pioneer in road pricing, when in the 1970s it imposed an area licensing fee on vehicles entering the city area. In 1998, it introduced Electronic Road Pricing (ERP), which uses advanced technology to scan cars and charge drivers a fee based on time and overall traffic demand.
ERP had a dramatic impact on road congestion, inspiring similar schemes around the world, from Stockholm to London to Milan.
Since then, Singapore has been focusing on the latest advances in mobility, especially in self-driving (or autonomous) cars. In 2014, the Government convened a high-level Committee for Autonomous Road Transport for Singapore, known as Carts - one thing we can predict with certainty is that the Singapore of 2065 will be no less inclined towards committees and acronyms.
As we write this in mid-2015, autonomous driving technology has already matured to a point where it can be tested and viably implemented in real urban spaces.
Over the next years, the use of driverless cars will transform the environment, making transport more efficient and sociable, as we will be able to travel together in shared autonomous vehicles, and not in solo-driven cars.
A system of shared autonomous cars might blur the distinction between public and private transport. "Your" car could drive you to work in the morning and then, rather than sit idle in a parking lot, drive someone else to run his errands.
Instead of being a "family" car, a vehicle might be shared among a neighbourhood, an office cluster or even a shared social-media community.
Two recent papers by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's (MIT's) Smart Future Mobility team sought to model and test this future of car sharing. They show that - in theory - the transportation demand of a large city such as London, New York or Singapore could be satisfied with just one-fifth of the number of cars in use today. Think of the possible savings in road and parking space if Singapore needs just 200,000 cars, not one million, and the reduced congestion and travel times. If shared driverless cars become a reality, by 2065, cities across the planet will be able to reclaim much of the space once used for parking. Streets might be lined with public spaces, mini-gardens or renewable energy farms.
Former parking garages may become co-working spaces or fabrication platforms, ushering in the impending "third industrial revolution" (when mass production is replaced by customisation and local production, something that could replace 45 per cent of the jobs we know today, according to researchers at Oxford University's Martin School).
Another area of transformation in cities might be that of waste and waste management.
Today, the global supply chain has become incredibly sophisticated - globalised manufacturing and assembly means that products and components zigzag across the face of the planet, often separately, before they are assembled and finally land in a consumer's hands.
While companies now track components before assembly, not much is known about what happens to our trash - what could be called the "removal chain".
Inspired by MIT's recent Trash Track project, we can imagine a near future when every object is tagged and tracked online. Products could be traced across their entire lifecycles. Think of your mobile phone - if its components are tagged, it can be taken apart after you upgrade to a new model, and each component could then be recycled or given a second life in a different gadget.
Recycling might become almost ubiquitous, as individual items are processed and reused separately.
Furthermore, digital-biological devices can give us great insight into the health of entire urban areas. Another MIT project called "Underworlds", for example, is testing the integration of smart monitors in an unexpected place - the sewers.
The "smart sewage platform" collects and analyses biochemical information from sewage water. A broad array of human activity is reflected in a city's waste water, and a whole host of applications can emerge from sampling and sequencing sewage.
One early application could be predicting infectious outbreaks before symptoms arise. Early warnings in urban centres can significantly reduce a community's medical costs, save lives and help prevent pandemics. Researchers can study the way non-communicable diseases develop, as biomarkers for diseases such as obesity and diabetes can be measured and tracked.
Even Singapore's architecture may begin to come alive in future. Buildings today operate by approximation, satisfying the peak demand rather than the actual need, whether with lighting or temperature or space.
For example, if one person is in a room, the whole thing will be lit and climate-controlled. A small class of nine students will use the same room as a class of 30. As our buildings become increasingly digital, they will be able to better respond to our behaviour.
To achieve this, architecture will be more physically flexible: Think of walls and ceilings and partitions that fold and unfold. If buildings are a kind of "third skin" - after our biological one and our clothing - it has been rigid for its entire history.
With better data, the built environment can adapt to us: A living, tailored architecture that is moulded by its inhabitants. Architecture could wrap itself around us, based on our needs. Future climate-control systems, for example, will sense people's location and create personal thermal zones of comfort.
Dynamic spaces could change in size and configuration to suit people's needs, becoming a cafe, an office or a movie theatre at different times of the day.
For a city with such limited space as Singapore, blurring the specific uses of architectural spaces will allow for more value to be derived from the same square footage.
Not only will built space be responsive, it will also gather data. This will be particularly relevant in Singapore where the population is quickly ageing.
With always-on monitors linked directly to a hospital, patients can be more free, living comfortably at home while a remote doctor is constantly on duty.
Shared, driverless cars. Trash that is tracked and reveals disease movement. Walls and buildings that wrap around our needs.
These are all visions of future urban life, but will they all come to pass? The honest answer is no, probably not. Our scenario of the future in this essay is not based on prediction, but on extrapolation - listening to the weak signals at the cutting edge of technology today and projecting how they might play out in the future, particularly as they interact with each other.
Driverless cars, for example, are being tested on Singapore's soil, as are trash sensors, and work is progressing on fluid architecture.
We take into account the direction of progress today, as an orienting vector for our ideas about Singapore in 50 years. This gives us some bearing, but it does not mean that these ideas will come to life.
In the year 1900, the Boston Globe newspaper ran a piece titled Boston At The End Of The 20th Century, a glistening portrait of the future city. Author Thomas Anderson imagined airships floating gently over moving sidewalks, and pneumatic delivery of everything from newspapers to food - none became a reality.
Horizon-scanning goggles are clouded by a simple fact: The most important innovations tend to happen by disruption - ideas so radical that they obscure the line of sight from trends and extrapolation. No one could have predicted the discovery of the Internet and its impact on our society, for example. No matter how we envision the city of the future, it will certainly look different.
To Singaporeans of 2065, reading through The Straits Times archives, will we seem as foolish as Thomas Anderson? Perhaps, but this endeavour is certainly not pointless. By extrapolating and imagining an urban future, we can engage collectively in a discussion about how our city should develop. A Smart Nation - to use the motto coined last year by the Government - is as smart as its residents.
Together, we can decide what is or is not desirable - exploring possible scenarios that will help us transform the present.
If Alan Kay's axiom is true - "the best way to predict the future is to invent it" - then it is important to involve as many perspectives and ideas and voices as we can. This article might be completely ridiculous, but some of the discussion prompted by The Straits Times could indeed be an important step towards inventing the Singapore of 2065.
- Carlo Ratti, an architect and engineer, is based in Cambridge, Turin, Singapore and London. He directs the Senseable City Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and heads the World Economic Forum's Global Agenda Council on Future Cities. Matthew Claudel, based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is a research fellow at the Senseable City Laboratory. For the past five years, they have been part of the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology research initiative, where they work within the Future of Urban Mobility group.