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Way of life in future cities

Up to 2026, the number of Swedes is expected to grow by one million. During the same period, a greater proportion of the population will concentrate in cities. How can we design our cities to be sustainable, safe and with room for everyone to thrive? And how do we build such a city? We asked Kristina Mjörnell to forecast a future for our cities.

Kristina Mjörnell
Kristina Mjörnell är affärs- och innovationsområdeschef inom området Hållbara städer och samhällen på RISE.

In the cities of the future, we will need to create sustainable and viable neighbourhoods where residents can live without negatively impacting the environment or compromising the quality of life of other people. To achieve such a city, a number of challenges need to be resolved, but novel technologies also provide us with new tools such as digitisation, sharing services, changes to the ways we live and occupy, and more efficient housing.  We look at some of the challenges and opportunities of a future dream city.

More people in the same space means we have to share

More people occupying the same surface demands new solutions and we already see many of these gaining ground, the expanding sharing economy is just one example. In a future city, we won't have to own everything ourselves, we can rent, borrow and share. And this doesn’t just apply to gadgets.

“In the construction sector today we talk a lot about whether we can share surfaces, and keep returning to the realisation that not everyone needs an apartment with everything included: kitchen, laundry, social areas, dining room, terrace. It may be possible to imagine a private zone and a semi-private zone, where you share only a few elements, says Kristina Mjörnell, business and innovation area manager in sustainable cities and communities at RISE.

Solutions such as these, with private, semi-private and public zones, where more space is shared, are already tested today on campuses and in accommodation solutions for the elderly. It might not be a suitable solution for everyone at all stages of life, but if you’re going to live in a city in the future, you must expect to compromise in regard to space.

“If we are going to have a decent, functional everyday life in the city, we might have to sacrifice some things. We may be forced to occupy less space, not own as much stuff ourselves, not own our own car or dining room with space for twenty people or have our own laundry room and guest room. In the city we’ll share such surfaces much more, says Kristina Mjörnell, who believes that feelings in regard to sharing vary over time. 

“Different generations accepted different things as normal. In the past, a laundry room was always shared, it was quite natural and everyone accepted it. But for some time now we’ve had washing machines in every apartment.

Mobility is a key difference

Owning less and sharing more will apply to our vehicles in particular. Today, self-driving cars are already rolling along certain city routes, and it’s probable that in the future we will subscribe to a smart mobility service rather than own our own cars. Such a development would also free up lots of space in our inner cities, where wide roads and parking spaces will become superfluous.

“I believe this development with cars will be one of the most noticeable differences in the cities of the future, that we will remove cars from the inner city. Imagine if we can get more car-free inner cities, where other types of vehicles are utilised for transport. Around the world there are examples of other forms of transport being used, and today we have, for example, electric scooters that weren’t around a few years ago, says Kristina Mjörnell. She thinks people might still need to drive their own cars in the countryside, but in the city it will soon not be sustainable.

“There are so many downsides that young people would rather choose something else. Owning your own car as a priority is very much a generational issue.

How will the city of the future be built?

How do we build the city of the future, literally? The construction sector has a major environmental impact, and on many levels, has not progressed as far as other sectors in recycling and reuse.

“There will be more stringent demands in the future. Today, metal is of course recycled because it’s worth a lot, but currently there’s also a lot of research on how to deal with concrete, plaster and wood, says Kristina Mjörnell. 

Some materials may also be used in a more efficient way, there’s an ongoing discussion whether we can replace concrete with wood. But solutions are rarely black or white.

“The discussion of wood versus concrete is actually misguided, both materials are needed. For example, concrete is better suited for foundations and elevator shafts, but today it’s feasible to construct multi-storey houses even from wood.

If, in the future, we own fewer gadgets and share space to a greater extent, we won’t need as much space for storage, for example, which opens up the possibility of smaller apartments. However, this doesn’t mean every few square meters demands optimal surface exploitation, there should also be room for flexibility and the ability to rebuild as needed. A slightly larger three room dwelling that can be rebuilt into a four room is perhaps more functional than a very compact three room. 

“It’s not unthinkable to design apartments so that spaces can be apportioned according to the needs of those who live there. Constructing a sturdy shell, but with more flexibility inside. This may also apply to educational and retail localities. As our way of life changes, our needs will also change.

We will also face major challenges in future Swedish cities because the existing infrastructure is in need of reinvestment. Roads, railways, bridges, cables and pipes need to be refurbished. When infrastructure is not fully operational, it engenders major social costs, causing everything from delays on the rail network to problems with water supply due to inefficient drinking water pipes.

“The challenge we face is that we don’t have the capacity to do this, we don’t have the workforce, the materials, the machines or the money," says Kristina Mjörnell.

Resilient Cities – what are they?

In addition to challenges such as overcrowding and how to move around the city, cities of the future will probably have to function in increasingly varied situations. One example is the consequences we see from climate change, such as floods and fires, but also other types of threat such as terrorism or the increasing dependence of cities on electricity. We are talking about building more resilient cities, which means cities that have the ability to operate under varying conditions – even if there is a water shortage or if part of the energy system is down.

“In the future, we need to think about building cities which are not dependent on one type of energy supply, for example. We will see a number of threats and impending catastrophes, so we cannot be so dependent on electricity.

Important that everyone in the city is involved

But irrespective of how car-free, well-planned or resilient cities become, we come back to one persistent point: to be able to build a sustainable city you have to deal with those who live there, you cannot plan a city without listening to what residents want.

“Where things often go awry, I’ve noticed, is in places where it seems they did not involve residents. There needs to be a co-creating process right from the start when you build. That’s the mistake I think we make most often, that we build without having a clear notion whether it will work, whether someone wants these houses?

In a world marked by heightened social unrest, political instability, climate threats and widening economic gaps, it is more important than ever to create a society that has faith in the institutions of society. Several national efforts have been made to increase the focus on the citizen as co-creator and participant in the development of society. Many cities have trialled citizens’ initiatives, for example, something that Kristina Mjörnell believes is positive.

“If people feel engaged and willing to do something together, then we should support this. We must always maintain a user’s perspective, and work in dialogue with those who will administer the city. We need everyone on board. If you build something that no one wants to use, it will be both terribly expensive and complicated to administer.

Learning from old mistakes

Very tall highrises and an all-too-dense city without open spaces and green areas is the type of development that Kristina Mjörnell thinks we will want to avoid.

“Highrises are not especially humane. And if there is anything I think we will regret in the future city, then it is if we build over green areas and other open places such as squares. These are valuable in several ways, partly because we need green areas to absorb cloudbursts and pollution, and partly because we know people feel good when surrounded by greenness.

You only have to see which cities attract visitors, and which ones are popular to stay in. Often what they have in common is that many older buildings have been preserved and new parts are well thought out in their planning, where there’s a scale that is human, where you can feel good and everything works. I think this is how to think when you construct new buildings and rebuild old ones, that you are creating environments that have qualities you will appreciate in the future.


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Kristina Mjörnell

Affärs- och innovationsområdeschef

+46 10 516 57 45

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