BMW i Future Thought Series - Future Cities BMW i Future Thought Series - Future Cities



“The future is here, it's just unevenly distributed,” wrote William Gibson in 2003. This statement is becoming more and more prescient in our complex, globalised and increasingly digital lives. Our ability to decode the signs and shifts that are occurring around us is key to understanding business and society as we negotiate the uncertain waters of the 21st century. 

With this in mind, BMW i's Future Thought series is designed to ask questions around the biggest trends re-shaping our lives in the coming years.


Tomorrow's urban world will have to be systemically robust, but retain areas of human culture and empathy. How will we strike the right balance in the future city? 

Earlier this decade, human kind was officially declared in a United Nations (UN) report to be an urban species. In the same report the UN predicted that 66% of all people on Earth will live in cities by 2050. Urbanisation has been called the most significant social shift in modern society and throws up a myriad of obstacles, from reduced air quality to increased levels of crime.

“As planners and architects we are trained to be optimistic, but the early signs of how cities are changing worldwide are alarming,” says Eran Ben-Joseph, professor and head of the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at MIT.

“There is a coming problem with overpopulation and with migration to cities throughout the world. Infrastructure, resources, housing, food, clean air - these issues are urgent, especially in emerging economies.”

Future City


Popular visions of the megalopolis usually fall into two camps. They are either represented as gleaming cityscapes with impeccable towers and pristine streets - think Minority Report, Metropolis or Logan’s Run - or dystopias riddled with crime, pollution and vice - think Blade Runner, Akira or Escape from New York. In reality, the success of the future city depends on our ability to combine elements of both sci-fi archetypes. “If a city is too immaculate it can feel empty and devoid of culture, and its inhabitants don’t feel like they have any agency to shape their lives or surroundings themselves,” says Anthony Engi-Meacock, co-founder of Turner Prize-winning design studio Assemble.

“This is why the less affluent areas in cities are often more culturally interesting. These areas enable people to feel like they have scope, output and freedom.”

Ownable City


Engi-Meacock makes the point that the more citizens are free to shape the city they live in, the more connection and ownershop they feel towards it. In this sense, inviting individuals to participate in civic projects is empowering and effective.

This is a central premise of Mexico City’s Laboratorio para la Ciudad, a think tank and innovation collective. Since it was founded in 2013, the group has instigated an array of public-powered projects, such as Mapatón CDMX, an app that encouraged users to map the origins and destinations of the city’s unofficial busses or ‘peseros’. Users scored points by travelling on the buses and used geo-location technology to chart their routes. Users were incentivised to take part, as the highest scorers won electronic gadgets. In this playful and human way, a digital route map was collated.

The Pilcrow in Manchester by Capco

In Manchester, real estate company Capco made this sense of participation central to its redevelopment of Sadler’s Yard, working with the local community to co-create a local pub called The Pilcrow. Ben Young, who led the project, explains the importance of community co-creation: “What we are actually doing is building a community through the process of designing and building a pub. We are bringing the public into the process of building a new place because we believe that places work better when everybody is involved.”


Creating ownable cities is one way of creating empathy and connection within districts, but instigating large-scale change in urban areas is still a challenge. MIT’s Ben-Joseph believes that one way of changing the way a city works is to create pilot projects that test the efficacy of new technologies or civil designs.

MIT is currently experimenting with a new template for urbanity with its Fab City initiative in the Poblenou district in Barcelona. This undertaking takes a network of Fab Labs - free-to-use workshops with 3D printers and digital fabrication tools - and encourages people to use them to overcome simple problems that occur in the city. Currently, the pilot programme is encouraging people to create the products they use, grow, rather than purchase food, and develop DIY solutions for energy production using solar panels and domestic batteries. The goal of the pilot programme is to create a more sustainable and empowering urban world. The Fab City has pledged to help cities to achieve the Fab City Pledge of 50% self-sufficiency by 2054. 

“The systems that we have to work with are so entrenched with a particular mode of operation, changing or disrupting that is difficult,” says Ben-Joseph. “Creating pilot projects can alter the way that the public think and show governments that there are alternatives to how we have always done things.”

For Engi Meacock, economics has much to do with how we create the future city: “Cities are always an outward manifestation of the economics that create them,” he says. “We need to be mindful in the future that they are run like communities rather than corporations.”

New Addington Central Parade


It is clear that as we become an increasingly urban species, there will be greater tension between how cities work and how they make their inhabitants feel. Empowering citizens to participate in the creation of their local communities and the built environment is key to striking the right balance in the future city. In this world, the most vibrant areas will contain the right mix of government facilitation and public action.


The best way to experience The Ultimate Driving Machine is from the driver's seat. Book a test drive today.

Book a test drive

Find a BMW Centre