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We tend to think of the future as being more of the same – bigger, faster, denser, more competititive. But maybe, just maybe, it’ll be more textured, more plural, more open and accepting. Maybe we’ll be just. tad wiser….here is a piece I wrote for Virgin mag a couple of years ago (now defunct). Someone messaged me just now to say it changed her life direction, so I thought maybe it was worth dusting off and spreading out on the desk for another look…

SELL: Ever considered what life will be like in the future? Social commentator Elizabeth Farrelly has written extensively on urban affairs, design, cities and architecture and here describes Australia in the year 2055.

It’s Wednesday, the year 2055. You’ve woken late for work. Still half asleep, you’re about to hop on your bike when you realise it’s raining. Perhaps you could take the car, only now it seems you forgot to plug it in last night. So you message up a ‘deek’ – the common slang for driverless cars. It’s at your door in 90 seconds, which gives you just long enough to pluck a couple of apples from the roof-tree outside the window and 3-D print a tube-chicken sandwich in the shape of your boss’s face. Tube (or in vitro, or laboratory) meat is nicknamed ‘churchmeat’ after Winston Churchill, who famously predicted back in 1931, more than a century ago, that “we shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing, by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium.” As a rule you avoid churchmeat, finding it textureless and (although no genetic modification is involved) perhaps suspect. But it’s easy and it’s quick, and you’re late.

The deek is small and bubble-shaped. It slides through bumper-to-bumper traffic with reptilian EASE; your apartment, on a once-despised main road, is now in a location prized for its easy access, since cars on the road emit no fumes and make just a gentle swooshing noise. Inside, the deek is luxuriously appointed and pre-programmed with your favourite routes. It smells of leather, beeswax and fresh jonquils that sit in a vase above the dashboard. A large screen is programmed with your preferred sound sources and e-reads; the coffee machine has your coffee on a tray. You select the local paper and your favourite columnist from the Miami Herald or Reykjavic Grapevine and relax, reading while you breakfast. The deek slips along, programmed to avoid collision. The streets, narrower now that vehicles need so much less space, are roofed with deciduous vines and lined with broad cycle lanes, linear orchards and dozens of tiny market stalls selling local produce. You stop the deek to buy some of your neighbour’s to-die-for home-grown marmalade for your toast.

Then, minutes before arrival, your office team-bot – by which almost all secretaries have been replaced – advises that your meeting is rescheduled, so if you wish you can ‘give energy’ (see Utilities, page XX) now, instead of later. Grateful, because it frees up your evening, you reroute the deek to the local cycle-centre and press a button to darken its windows while you change into sport garb. You smile to yourself. A morning rescued.


Forty years from now, just over halfway through the 21st century, some things will be very different, and others surprisingly the same. Some current trends will have intensified, while others will have swung back.  

This makes prediction notoriously unreliable. But there are some things we can be pretty certain about. One, climate-change will have kicked in. In Australia, things will be up to five degrees hotter and much dryer, with loss of coastal land and worsening weather extremes. Fossil fuels will be either prohibitively expensive or banned outright. Already, in 2015, the IPCC’s 2500  scientists report a 26% increase in the acidity of the oceans and atmospheric carbon levels that, unless we reduce GHG emissions by 40-70% (on 2010 levels) by 2050 and reach zero or negative emissions by 2100,  catastrophic famine, land loss, disease and migration will be almost unavoidable[1]. Therefore, and because an increasing majority of us will live in cities, the way we plan and strategise our cities now will to a large extent determine the survival of our ecosystem, and of our species.

The real surprise, though, about this grim-sounding scenario, is how many ways in which it could end up being good for us.


In 2055, food has become important, like, really important. Food is now legally required to be organic and local. Pesticides, herbicides and chemical fertilisers are banned, and transport over 100 kilometres is heavily taxed. So nearly all food, even in restaurants, is seasonal – berry fruit and sweet corn in summer, citrus and brussel sprouts in winter. Summer pudding and orange juice are once again things people yearn for, then delight in for a few brief weeks.

Organic fertiliser is encouraged, including compost waste and the sludge from sewage mining. But because growing food without chemical intervention requires more skill, those with intimate knowledge of methods like high-yield permaculture are esteemed as doctors and judges once were.

Fertile soils are prized, and protected by law against incursion, mining, development or sale to foreign interests. Long-distance exports of food have largely stopped, since the fuel requirements made them so expensive. By 2030, when famines became widespread across the world, it was clear that Japan and China already owned so much Australian grazing land that the country could have difficulty feeding itself. Some of it was bought back by the government; some remains as a sad reminder. In terms of world famine, the commercialisation of lab-grown meat, ‘churchmeat’, saved the day, but in Australia many people still prefer real meat.

So animals are still raised for meat, but always on open pasture and without chemical intervention. This, and the high labour-demand of new farming, make meat very expensive, so most people eat it in small amounts, more a condiment than a staple.

But not all food is grown outside the city. Neighbourhood and urban agriculture have become profitable businesses, and almost everyone grows at least some of their own vegetables – a fact that psychiatrists credit with the virtual disappearance of both obesity and depression. A new law requires all horizontal surfaces other than parks to be covered in greenery or energy generation devices. Rooftop gardens have become elaborate and luxuriant and even road surfaces are shaded by grapevines, bringing summer temperatures down by three-four degrees. Young restaurateurs vie to create the most interesting dishes exclusively from neighbourhood-origin ingredients.


Our dwellings are smaller than before and our use of space hugely more efficient. This is driven by necessity and cost, but also by aesthetics. Few people can afford to live alone any more; most young people and a growing number of families live in share houses or extended family situations. People have also become very conscious of the moral implications of waste. This has impacted etiquette, aesthetics, public space and the creative life of the city, mostly in ways that are good.

Even apartments that were considered modest 40 years ago – say 90 square metre – now look, to most people’s eyes as flabby and wasteful, while the McMansions that filled Australia’s suburbs are now despised as ugly and gluttonous. Mostly they have been taken apart and rebuilt into four or more compact dwellings, often in slender, medium rise buildings shot through with light and greenery. 

These are the lower density city outskirts. Beyond them, a statutory ban on sprawl preserves precious fertile soils for food growing and forests for oxygen generation. This makes our cities effectively walled. Without, the countryside is a picture of pastoral serenity, but within the city ‘walls’ everything hums with energy. 

At its heart, the city is dominated by high-rise towers, most of them a mix of office and residential space. It has become common for these units to be sold as empty shells, which people buy and fit out however they choose, often 3-D printing a customised interior for themselves.

These interiors, like the deeks, are small but intensely serviced, minutely personalised, visually and aurally delightful and luxurious in feel. Moving in, most people fit their apartment with a downloadable app that gives control of lighting, energy supplier, security, rubbish (taken by reticulated underground chute to a trigeneration plant) and nano-films that allow every surface to become mirror, transparent, air-porous or louvered, according to your whim.

When new people move in, the old interior is easily demounted, re-melted and reprinted, so that a two-bedroom apartment becomes, say, a seven-person office, a small cafe or a childcare centre.

Externally, every horizontal building surface is covered with greenery or energy generation; sometimes both. For reasons of insulation, marketing and food production, many developers choose to clad their buildings with vertical gardens so that from a distance, the city looks entirely green, like an ultra-complex exercise in the old art of topiary.

This (it has been found) enhances people’s sense of wellbeing, so reducing healthcare costs while endowing the entire inner-city, once dubbed the concrete jungle, with a sense of softness. It also helps supply food – herbs, strawberries, lemons, asparagus and root ginger can all be picked from vertical gardens.

Further, because the flora varies between countries and climates, and because building design itself – no longer able to rely on endless cheap energy – must now respond creatively to the nuances of place, 21st century cities have become much more individualised. A city in hot dry Queensland now looks entirely different from a city in cool, wet Tasmania.

Back in the early part of the century, such diversity had been predicted by young Danish architect Bjarke Ingels of architectural firm BIG: “This pursuit of local climate-centred architecture could be a way of massively enriching the vocabulary of architecture. Cities are going to look very different, depending on where they are.”[2]

Even so, most people rent, rather than own. This has freed up immense pools of money for investment in public and creative enterprises, including the small local markets that have sprung up on every street corner.


Few city buildings provide car-parking these days, because so few people bother with the expense and inconvenience of owning a car. The old parking-lanes on roads now accommodate the ubiquitous tram-lines broad cycle ways that are (literally) the city’s life-blood.

The decline in car-driving was long predicted. Back in 2015, although governments across Australia were still spreading congestion-fear and building ever-wider motorways, Perth environmental scientist Professor Peter Newman long argued this way.

“The congestion trends being used to scare us are not based on actual data but on projections,” Newman regularly insisted. “They come from a model that is now discredited. In reality, Australian cities peaked in car use per person in 2004, like all developed cities across the globe.”[3]

Eventually it became undeniable. Some, attributing the drop in vehicle-use to exorbitant fuel prices, expect the advent of the cheap electric vehicle (when the holy grail of lightweight affordable batteries was achieved in 2020) to reverse the trend.  But no. The walking lifestyle had caught on, and the idea of doing rather than owning enchanted people. These factors, along with the health improvements and enrichment of the city’s public spaces, mean that car use continues to decline.

Again, Newman had anticipated this. “Around the world there is a new dynamic in our cities as the young and wealthy are moving back into cities where they do not need to use a car and they are preferring fast trains and buses over traffic wherever they can.”

By 2030, when driving levels first fell below half their 2004 levels, governments had sheepishly begun demolishing part-built motorways (such as Sydney’s massive WestConnex project), replacing them with housing or gardens or cycleways. Elsewhere, existing roads were narrowed. Those private vehicles that remain – being required by law to be zero-emissions – are either solar-evs, or hydrogen-fuelled, since solar water-splitting became commercially viable in the mid-2020s.

This in turn has changed the property map, since once-filthy main roads – being now as clean and calming as a river – have morphed into prime real estate, with many people redeveloping their houses into dual and triple-occupancy dwellings.   

Most long-distance road trips are now made by train, electric vehicle, deek or solar-assisted bicycle. Freight, which is so much less due to transport restrictions and locavore regulations, is transported by rail for much of the journey, and otherwise by deek.

At first, the proliferation of deeks made politicians anxious about the loss of driving jobs. In 2015 futurist and tech entrepreneur Zack Kanter, for example, predicted that by 2030 autonomous cars would be ubiquitous, bringing unprecedented change that would “eclipse every other innovation our society has experienced” and erase 10 million US jobs[4]. But in fact, most of those rendered unemployed by deeks have found more satisfying jobs on the land, becoming engaged in the sacred rites of growing food.


Tax incentives to decentralise energy, water and sewage mean that every city block or major building has its own energy source, underground water tanks and sewerage-mining or water-recycling plants.

Most electricity is produced by solar photovoltaics (a method of converting solar energy into electricity) – often incorporated into the building cladding or glass coating – or wind turbines. This is significantly supplemented, however, by algae farming, often within the thickness of double-glazing, and the people-power requirement that all able-bodied citizens spend an hour a week at a fitness centre cycling their energy into the local grid. They call it ‘giving energy’. 

Together, these sources have meant that energy is plentiful, but efficiency is still valued. New uses, such as the splitting of water for hydrogen fuel, the powering of all vehicles and the extraction of potable water from both sewage and seawater, means demand is ever-increasing.   

Throughout the city, all rainwater not needed to sustain in-ground planting is captured, cleaned and stored in vast underground reservoirs. Even so, because all of the planting covering buildings are fed by a specialised drip-feed hydroponic system called ‘fertigation’, the demand for fresh water is considerable.

In turn, though, the greenery helps insulate the buildings and shade the streets, reducing inner-city temperatures by four or five degrees, and reducing energy requirements accordingly. All buildings are fitted with smart metres and feed-back capacity so that energy use can be minutely nuanced and excess generation can be easily shared with others, or stored in small, cupboard-sized batteries.


At the dark start of the century, many people predicted that the growing work-from-home trend would isolate people from their colleagues and end the need for cities. In fact, the opposite has happened. Cities are more vital than ever and although people do often choose to work remotely, this shift, combined with the shrinkage of personal space, has produced two surprising changes. One is the huge enrichment of the public realm, via a proliferation of bars, cafes and downscale restaurants that people treat as their own living spaces, enlivening streets and economy alike. And two – which is arguably an extension of this same thinking – the immense flowering of the share economy.

Once limited to companies like Uber, GoGet and AirBnB, the share economy now covers many aspects of people’s lives; work space, energy-generation, household duties, gardens and storage space are now commonly shared. One effect of that is most people are now self-employed, with many streams of income and many different sets of colleagues – the people they market-garden with, the people who rent the front room and the co-owners of the neighbourhood solar-power station, as well as those with whom they have a boss in common.

This has given many people a greater sense of both freedom and security, once again enhancing wellbeing, reducing alcohol and drug intake and diminishing healthcare costs. Further, because money that was once invested in property is now available for creative enterprise, entrepreneurial start-ups are flourishing. Creative businesses such as local TV and neighbourhood theatres are once again flourishing and social entrepreneurs – dedicated to ethical social enterprise businesses that attempt to spread wealth – have become intensely fashionable among the young.

Organic farming methods are more labour intensive, as well as more mind-intensive, and this is heightened by the hugely reduced availability of heavy machinery. Numbers of farm-workers have therefore risen dramatically, with many people regarding farm-work as a vocation. Inverting the old pattern of people commuting into the city to work, each morning the out-of-town cycle routes fill with field-bound cyclists, who tend to sing as they ride like great flocks of migrating birds.


Professor Vishnaan Chakrabati (Columbia):

“Because hyperdensity — defined as density sufficient to support subways — contributes to the health, prosperity and sustainability of cities, the densification of our built and social environments will, to a large extent, determine our strength as a nation.” [5]

Associate Professor Alistair Sproul, Photovoltaics and Renewable Energy Engineering,  UNSW:

“We’re on a very steep learning curve here and I guess my concern is we need to learn very fast because we need to get these developments more and more sustainable so we can basically look our kids and grandkids in the eye and say we did the very best that we could to try and make a difference with regard to climate change… If we really want to address climate change we need to address efficiency first, then photovoltaics, then storage…In cities, the big challenge is high-rise: and here you’d look at making your building as energy-efficient as possible: which means, shading.”[6]

Professor Richard Florida, University of Toronto:

“America’s leading energy hubs prosper not just because of the stuff they pump out of the ground, but because of their ability to combine resources with technology and knowledge.”[7]

Professor Edward Glaeser, Fred and Eleanor Gilmp Professor Economics, Harvard University:

“If the environmental footprint of the average suburban home is a size 15 hiking boot, the environmental footprint of a New York apartment is a stiletto-heel size 6 Jimmy Choo.”[8]

Dr Debra Roberts et al IPCC:

“Adaptation to climate change depends centrally on what is done in urban areas, which now house more than half of the world’s population and concentrate most of its assets and economic activities.” [9]

[1] IPCC Vice-President Jean-Pascal van Ypersele;The Challenges and Opportunities of Climate Change An Overview Based on the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) ; address in NSW Parliament House 13 August 2015

[2] Bjarke Ingels, TedX Amsterdam


[4] Zack Kanter How Uber’s Autonomous Cars Will Destroy 10 Million Jobs And Reshape The Economy by 2025 27 January 2015

[5] Building Hyperdensity and Civic Delight Vishnaan Chakrabati , director of Columbia University’s Center for Urban Real Estate (CURE) and a partner at SHoP Architects.

[6] in interview February 2015


[8] Edward Glaeser, Triumph of the City, How our greatest invention makes us richer, smarter, greener, healthier and happier  (Macmillan 2011) p.14

[9] IPCC 2014 Report on Climate Change Chapter 8 Urban Areas

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