How can we make our future cities less resource-hungry, more sustainable, and more resilient to the ever changing global conditions?

This is probably one of the most significant questions we face as the global population is expected to rise to 9.3 billion by 2050, with urban dwellers likely to make up two-thirds of that number.

Of course we want to lift people out of poverty, as the Millennium Development Goals state, but the desire to own and consume is often at odds with the carrying capacity of the planet and the local capacity to deal with the implications is often not present in local government.

We need our urban communities to become more resilient in the context of decreasing resources of all kinds. We need citizens to be empowered to develop their own sustainable solutions. We need new infrastructures that can encourage, enable and empower innovation at every level.

There are other challenges. Who should govern our growing urban metropolises? How we can reconcile our short-term democratic cycles with the long-term timescales required for systemic urban change? Are 20th-century institutions still fit for purpose in the 21st century?

The good news is that we are already beginning to find answers to some of these pressing questions.

The trend towards elected city mayors, who can implement long-term, sustainable investment plans, has to be welcome. During the 1990s, London, Tokyo and Seoul all elected mayors for the first time in modern history. In 2007 New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his team launched PlaNYC2030, an exemplar of a strategic and tactical future roadmap. Similar initiatives are happening around the world.

Mobility is fundamentally about access to opportunity – it is crucial to the health and well-being of all urban citizens. In Colombia, Bogotá has been a pioneer of bus rapid transit (BRT) and has inspired other cities (such as Istanbul) to implement similar systems. The city’s CicloRuta is one of the most extensive cycle-path networks in the world. It connects major BRT routes, parks and community centres, helping to provide a means of transport for all citizens and recover public space.

People are now swapping, sharing, bartering, trading and renting assets of all kinds – an activity enabled by mobile phone and app-based peer-to-peer marketplaces. For example, car-sharing clubs, such as ZipCar, or Carsharing-Berlin, now exist in more than 600 cities in over 20 countries, helping to reduce car use, vehicle miles travelled, congestion and carbon emissions.

Hundreds of cities, including Zhuzhou, Hunan province in China, have implemented cycle hire schemes to encourage residents and visitors to make short journeys by bike rather than car or overcrowded public transport. It is already a huge success.

Every citizen should have a voice in what is happening to them and their community, so it is vital that leaders and citizens feel empowered to work together. Each mayor or city leader should develop a long-term strategic vision for their cities in partnership with all stakeholders, be they citizens, politicians, technicians, industries, local businesses or global investors.

We also need regional plans for growth, with financing to support them, and a commitment to the gathering and sharing of urban data so that we can spread best-practice around the world.

Our future cities can be places where people can, and will, thrive, not just survive.

Author: Chris Luebkeman is director, Global Foresight and Innovation, Arup Group, and Member of the World Economic Forum Global Agenda Council on Design Innovation.

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