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Vivek Wadha (left), noted futurist and vice president at Singularity University, spoke to a group of ULI Trustees and staff at a dinner at the Midwinter Meeting in Washington, D.C.

Dramatic advances affecting all aspects of people’s lives—from transportation to health care to education—will, in as little as ten years, have a significant impact on the built environment, compelling land use professionals to “accept and adapt to change or be left out,” according to Vivek Wadhwa, an internationally renowned futurist and entrepreneur. Wadhwa, who teaches at Stamford, Duke, and Emory universities, delivered the keynote presentation at ULI’s recent Midwinter Trustee Meeting in Washington, D.C., in January.

With so many technological breakthroughs on the brink of becoming mainstream, “We are entering the most innovative period in human history,” said Wadhwa, who serves as vice president of academics and innovation at Singularity University in Moffett Field, California. The lightning-quick speed with which smartphones, for example, provide access to information from around the globe is “just the beginning,” he said. “With entrepreneurs doing what only governments could do before, we can solve the grand challenges of humanity,” which he listed as access to high-quality education; adequate food, water, and shelter; improving health; and security.

The following are some of Wadhwa’s observations on what’s “in the works” that will affect how people live, work, learn, get around, and age:

  • Health care: The development of self-administered health tests such as echocardiograms; broad availability of localized medicine that affects only the area requiring treatment, causing no side effects; bionic enhancements, including “super-power” sight and hearing capability; and error-free robotic surgery will contribute to significantly longer life expectancies—well over 100 years—for both men and women.
  • Transportation: Driverless cars (now being made by Google and tested in the western United States), by eliminating human error, could help reduce traffic congestion and accidents. The prevalence of car ownership—already waning in urban areas with the rise of car sharing—will evolve further into a “use-as-needed” form of urban mobility, as driverless vehicles chauffeur humans from one place to another. Drones will be used to deliver packages to both businesses and consumers, expediting delivery times and reducing the need for street delivery vehicles.
  • Production of goods and materials: Manufacturing will once again be a major economic engine for the United States, with robots performing tasks ranging from clerical work to assembly. Three-dimensional printing of products ranging from dresses to building construction materials will become mainstream.
  • Energy: The cost of producing solar- and wind-powered energy is dropping quickly, making these energy sources a viable, reliable alternative to electricity generated by coal-fired power plants.
  • Water and food: Technology is being developed to cost-effectively purify saltwater, which will help greatly in eradicating water-borne diseases and increasing the supply of usable water in developing countries. Meat will be grown through in-vitro fertilization, eliminating the need to slaughter animals for food. Vertical farms will reduce the need for large amounts of acreage for agriculture.
  • Education: The rapidly increasing availability of inexpensive tablets is changing education around the world; courses from the world’s top professors will be accessible regardless of where people are located.

The trustees’ take on the changing times: the nature of built space must adapt—sooner rather than later—to the new needs of people who are living far longer; who are healthier, better educated, and driving less; and who have ample free time because they are working less.

Rising use of driverless cars will have one of the most significant impacts on city building, the trustees concluded, as the automated vehicles could significantly reduce the need for parking garages, parking lots, and on-street parking. “The question is how to convert the space that is no longer needed to another use. . . . This will impact every aspect of our cities,” said Harriet Tregoning, ULI trustee and director of the office of planning for the District of Columbia.

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Attendees discuss the implications of technology over dinner.

Other factors curbing traditional uses of space include the following: online purchasing and telecommuting, both of which are already changing retail and office development; and online education, which is starting to change the development of education institutions. However, as day-to-day activities become more automated, and more tasks are completed virtually, the desire for space in which to physically interact, share experiences, and collaborate will increase rather than decrease, the trustees predicted.

“In an increasingly impersonal world, there is a tremendous need for people to be physically connected to each other, to be part of a community,” said former ULI Chairman James Chaffin, chairman of Chaffin Light Management LLC in Okatie, South Carolina.

Noted A. Eugene Kohn, chairman, Kohn Pedersen Fox in New York City: “What all this boils down to is that in spite of the enormous societal and economic changes happening as a result of technology, it is still about the quality of what we build and how it affects people emotionally.”