Bikes in a city.

An educated guess

Written by Helena Paulsson
Future Cities Insight #16 - An educated guess
This is the preface of AFRY's new book Predicting the Unpredictable - A Nordic Approach to Shaping Future Cities by Helena Paulsson and Jonas Gustavsson.

We grew up in different parts of Sweden, in a country with enormous differences between the vibrant, yet cosy city centres, and the suburbs made of concrete. The Sweden we grew up in had a vision of overcoming the housing shortage of the 1960s and 70s. That vision was not built on dreams or ideas of how the city would improve the quality of life. It was not focusing on interactions between people, nor with creating a sense of calm within the cities nor with giving citizens the opportunity to enjoy the bustling aspects of for example outdoor cafés. It was a very different vision from the one we have for our cities.

Cities are built for future generations – but what do we know about the needs in fifty years’ time, let alone twenty or ten? We know that sustainability will be central; the city needs to be developed to a greater extent in symbiosis with its surroundings, and it will need to be designed and built more resilient to extreme weather and/or rising sea levels than ever before due to climate change.

However, this is where assessments start to differ. How should we think when planning a new building, or a new urban area? How should we think when we plan our cities? One thing is certain: without technological solutions based on a human-centric approach – development will stop.

Those of us who are professionals today might just be the last generation to need a driving licence. We will be the last to have experienced cassettes and VHS, petrol-driven cars, a world without the Internet and mobile phones, the last ones to have experienced real-time television, when everyone more or less watched the same programme at the same time.

We are the last generation in many aspects and this means that our children are the first generation of a new age. We have no idea yet what form it will take. How will 3D printing, AI and machine learning, deliveries by drone and electric aircraft change our lives, our needs and our cities? All we know is that it will demand a lot of future generations’ ability to adjust, just as mankind has always done. This new generation deserves a city that satisfies their needs and desires. It is up to us to create the conditions enabling it to emerge in a good way.

A worn concept is ‘smart cities’ – which many people take to mean a digitalised, connected city. We believe that it is only the tool. It is evident that digitalisation will influence the direction of development and the ability of cities to satisfy people’s needs and desires, but we would rather talk about the cities of the future. How can we build cities for the next generation to experience all that we cannot yet conceive of?


That is what this book is all about. About what we know, what we don’t know, and how we should approach tomorrow.

Part of the solution can be found in a Nordic approach to urban development, based on sustainability, digital solutions, industrial efficiency on a human scale and most important trust. It is no coincidence that the Nordic region’s capital cities take turns being voted the world’s greenest, smartest and ‘most liveable’ cities. The Nordic countries are at the forefront of transforming their energy systems and replacing fossil fuels with renewable fuels. In Norway, 99 per cent of electricity is produced using hydro power, and every other new car sold is electrically powered.

Oslo is in the process of removing all on-street parking places in the inner city and is planning a completely car-free city centre. Helsinki is instead expecting to render the private car unnecessary by working with mobility as a service, where you pay a monthly sum that enables you to travel by metro, bus, electric scooter, bike or taxi. Copenhagen has consciously invested in a bicycle-based infrastructure; 40 per cent of residents now cycle every day. The trend towards the green city of the future is moving fast, and in many respects it is moving at the highest pace in the Nordic region.

The actual term ‘sustainability’ was coined in 1987 in the so-called Brundtland Report, Our Common Future, which was adopted by the UN’s World Commission on Environment and Development under the leadership of Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland. The Brundtland Commission talked about sustainability in three dimensions: ecological, economic and social. Genuine sustainability requires all three. The UN Sustainable development goals for the year 2030 now serve as our guide into the future.

The Nordic perspective is also about inclusion and democracy. Urban development concerns all of us. Everyone who lives and works in the city has a responsibility and a right to be involved in shaping tomorrow’s living environment. It is through cross-fertilisation that interesting solutions emerge. The dialogue on the city of the future must include both architects and engineers, not to mention ethicists, parents, sustainability experts, behavioural scientists, urban planners, suburban residents, politicians, sound designers, computer scientists, ambulance drivers, entrepreneurs, economists, social workers and artists. Collaborations and shared visions have been successful for the Nordic countries. Collaborating with the good forces of society to reach visions - which requires compromises - is the essence of democracy.

At AFRY we have experience from nearby and all over the world, experience that has resulted in a number of insights and even more questions. We want to talk about how we should build the cities of the future together: sustainable, pleasant, lively, just as smart as they need to be and built entirely on the basis of their inhabitants’ needs without jeopardising future generations’ access to nature.

Cities have always interested, amused and inspired us. Cities contain so much love, fear, future, dirt, dreams and opportunities at the same time. With our personal and professional experience from the industrial sector and urban development, we want to share our ambition and reflections for future cities. We also wish to share insights from our colleagues and from our network.

This book is not the answer – it is an educated guess on how we, together as a society, should think when shaping future cities.

Looking back, we will probably smile at some of the arguments and predictions in this book – as soon as self-driving vehicles or AI is put into words, there is a timestamp on where we are. That said, the importance of cities’ essence will remain. But for now, let us look into the future!

Stockholm, November 2019

Jonas Gustavsson, CEO & Helena Paulsson, Head of Urban Development, AFRY

The book is available to order here.  


Helena Paulsson - VP and Head of Business Area Architecture and Design

Helena Paulsson

VP and Head of Business Area Architecture and Design

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