Futuristic structures tower over the landscape. Giant, alien-looking trees light up with dazzling colours amid the hundreds of plant species that grow up their trunks. Cosmetic stores sell their wares via public touchscreens, with products delivered instantly in drawers below the screens.
This is not a vision of the future. It is a sample of Singapore today. But it is also an inkling of the world we may all experience in the future.
Singapore was the venue last week of the World Cities Summit where engineers, politicians, investors, and visionaries rubbed shoulders as they talked about the strategies and policies that would enhance urban living in the future.
As part of the summit, payment technologies leader Mastercard hosted a small media briefing by one of Singapore’s leading thinkers, Dr Damian Tan, managing director of Vickers Venture Partners. The company’s slogan “We invest in the extraordinary”, offers a small clue to Tan’s perspective.
“We look as far forward as 2099 because, as a venture capital firm, we invest in the long term,” he tells journalists from Africa and the Middle East.
“Companies explode in growth because there is value in the future. If there is no growth, they won’t explode.”
The big question that the Smart Cities Summit and Mastercard are trying to help answer is: what will cities look like in the year 2099? Tan can’t give an exact answer, but he offers a framework that helps one approach the question.
“If you want to look at 81 years into the future and understand the change that will come, you need to double that amount and look into the past,” he said. “That takes us to 1856. The difference between then and now is the difference you can expect between now and 2099.”
Soldiers in 2099
One of the key historical events of that time was the American Civil War, fought from 1861 to 1865. It was fought with muskets, cannons, and horses. The US military today uses nuclear weapons, GPS, drones, and even brainwave technology.
“Take these two in battle: who will win? How long would the battle last? If you were a civil war soldier with a musket and you see this helicopter gunship coming at you, what is going through your mind? You may be dead before you see it. It will seem to you like Armageddon, judgment day,” he said.
“In the same way, if soldiers from 2099 visit us today, it will seem like an alien invasion. You won’t recognise it. You will be gone before you even know.
“That’s the baseline of technology that’s going to change. You can’t see it happening but it will be drastic. I can tell you it’s going to be magic and it’s something you can’t predict.”
The reality is that much of the technology that will change the world of 2099 already exists in a basic form today. From health to energy to transport, we are already at the early stages of that future. However, some of what is being planned now is still inconceivable to most of us.
Health in 2099
“How long should humans live in 2099? In 1850, people were living to an average of less than 40. Now it is normal to live to over 90. Malaysia has just elected a new prime minister who is 93. The World Health Organisation just categorised “youth” as people from 18 to 65.
Tan said: “How long do you think people will live? Based on these trends, by 2099 people will live to 160 years.
“You may not be 100% human, you may have a 3D-printed heart and lungs. You will be partly synthetic. But not altogether. We can 3D-print anything, but we can’t print the brain. If we can print a brain, we will be immortal.”
The problem with health technology in the early 21st century, he says, is that people are still treated like cars. Instead, they should be treated like airplanes.
“Today, if you’re driving and your car breaks down, you’re stuck at the side of the road until someone fixes it. If you’re in an airplane and something goes wrong, you die, so they go to great lengths to prevent something from going wrong.
“Health technology is sick. When you’re sick, you go to a doctor, but there should actually be a pill at home that fixes you automatically. If you have a heart attack today, if I knew one minute before the event, I could save you, instead of you being a burden on the economy.
“We have to move from reactive health to proactive health. We don’t die from flu, virus, and bacteria. We die because we are killing ourselves, we live the good life. If we increase health, we increase lifespan.”
Energy in 2099
As controversial as that view may be today, Tan’s prediction for the future of energy is likely to be as hotly debated.
“By 2099, energy is free. There is so much energy falling on Earth from the sun: in one second, the energy falling from the sun is more than has ever been produced on Earth.
“In this glass of water, there is more than enough energy to send you to Mars and back.
“We’ll move from chemical energy to fission, fusion, solar, wind, and a lot of others. We will use the energy falling on Earth to produce energy.”
Transport of 2099
The transport of the future is already being developed today. Elon Musk’s Hyperloop, intended to move passengers at airline speeds but at a fraction of the cost, will be an everyday reality. Vacuum tube trains, says Tan, will run at 5 000km per hour.
“With transcontinental vacuum trains, you will go from Singapore to New York in four hours. Vacuum trains require low energy because there is no resistance. The technology to drill holes in the ground is going to come down. To build a tube on top of the ground is easy. The train just needs to fit, it doesn’t need to be a tunnel.
“We already have the technology. The problem is not the technology. The problem is getting there from here. Maybe it won’t go 5 000km/h, maybe only 700km/h, but we can get to 5 000km/h if we want it.”
Personal transport will also undergo a revolution, and it’s not only about self-driving vehicles. It’s about rethinking the very shape of the vehicle.
“How much horsepower (hp) is your most powerful car? Maybe 600hp (447kw)? How much does a human need to travel? Only one, because we used to have one horse. You can’t sit on two horses. Why do we have 600hp when we only need one? Because it’s sexy and it’s safe, because we need a cage to protect us. That 600hp is to carry that cage, not the people.”
The personal vehicle of 2099, Tan believes, will be unlike anything we have today.
“You will have something like a bicycle on four wheels, but that will be like sitting in a lounge. They will be light because the materials are light, and they won’t bang into each other because they can detect each other. Your vehicle knows where you are going, it takes you there, and when you step out it disappears.
“If you are with a partner, it will have two seats. If with two kids, it will have four seats. It will change from one seat to five seats to 20 seats because it is made of flexible material.”
Tan leaves journalists with a message that is a promise and a warning: “You want to know what’s the future of cities? You will decide. Whatever you wish for in 2099, will come true.
Arthur Goldstuck is founder of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Gadget.co.za. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @art2gee and on YouTube.