Kitchen of the future (source: Smashing Magazine)

The Huffington Post recently invited 10 science fiction writers to predict how our world will change in the next ten years and published the results last month. That’s a pretty short period for science fiction so it’s perhaps no surprise the writers tended to take a longer term view.

Their prognostications include a shift of service industries from developed to developing countries; higher water levels due to climate change; rising socio-economic inequality; and expansion of home automation, the sharing economy, use of drones, and embedded chips in bodies.

Yet change does occur over relatively short periods. News Corp must’ve felt its commuter newspaper, MX, was a fair bet when it was launched in Melbourne in 2001. It probably didn’t anticipate it then but it nevertheless got the benefit of a sharp increase in train patronage from around 2004 to 2008.

It’s doubtful it foresaw the rate at which smartphones would be adopted either. Last week it was announced MX will close shortly after a run of just 14 years. A lot of the growth in train patronage was among the younger demographic who prefers a smartphone over a tabloid.

It’s sobering to think that even as recently as 2005 there were many now-familiar technologies that weren’t known outside their host companies or a coterie of leading edge users e.g. iPads, iPhones, home wi-fi, e-books, netbooks, drones, Google Maps.

Some of the ways new tech is being used are even more recent e.g. iPads in schools and Cabinet meetings, borrowing library books electronically. In terms of social issues, neither the growth of the 1% or gay marriage were on the popular radar ten years ago.

There’ve been some big changes in cities over the last decade too. For example, the big increase and subsequent stabilisation in public transport use in some cities (Melbourne and Perth); growth in car ownership; decline in the number of kilometres of car travel per capita; and the explosion in high-rise apartment living in the city centre (again, in some cities).

It’s a good excuse to think about what might happen over roughly the next decade in Australian cities.

One set of clues comes from US transportation researcher David M Levinson. In 2013 he compiled a list of possible future changes in transport. He doesn’t give a time-frame but since his predictions are based on existing trends, the implication is he thinks some could show real change within 10 years.

Professor Levinson’s list includes lower workforce participation, greater uptake of electric cars with the concomitant need to find substitute revenue sources for fuel taxes; improved traffic management because of wider use of embedded sensors and crowd sourced information; and fewer trips by car leading to a continuing and sharp decline in per capita car travel.

He also foresees fewer local trips but more longer trips; increasing replacement of “fetching” from the shops with home delivery; increased (but not explosive) growth in car-sharing; more “big box shopping”; and growth in driverless cars (I commented at the time on Professor Levinson’s predictions; see What are the big trends shaping transport?).

There’s some overlap here with forecasts by the US Public Interest Research Group also published in 2013 although PIRG doesn’t give a time frame either. PIRG’s predictions include declining labour force participation; stable or slowing average traffic speeds; greater use of transit; and low growth in car ownership, driver licensing and the share of population who drives.

Short-term prediction seems easier than the long view, at least for cities, because we know a lot of what’s already in the infrastructure pipeline. We also have a sense of how long it takes to build new stuff or to change attitudes and laws on big issues like congestion pricing. On the other hand, cyclical macroeconomic changes have a big impact in the shorter term and are hard to foresee.

Some things I expect will increase by 2025 but not by a lot are the uptake of driverless cars; the mode share of public transport and cycling; car-sharing; and the proportion of metropolitan jobs in the city centre. I think there’ll be no shortage of visible projects in these areas, but I don’t see outcomes changing much over this time frame.

The per capita rate of driving should continue to decline modestly (although not in absolute terms). I don’t anticipate any Australian city will introduce congestion pricing over the next ten years but I think there’s at least some chance the fuel excise will be increased in real terms. The biggest change I expect to see is in a range of small improvements that exploit embedded sensors and crowd sourcing to improve the capacity and level of service of all forms of transport.

I think it’s more likely than not that the construction of high-rise housing in the city centre and in suburban brownfields will keep pace with demand (although the latter is bound to fluctuate) over the coming decade. However I’ll be surprised if the share of new medium density housing being constructed in the streets of established suburbs doesn’t decline in most capital cities. I expect regional areas near the capitals will win a bigger share of new housing construction at the expense of the fringe.

Prediction is more satisfying from the perspective of the traditional strategic planning time scale (say to 2050) because there’s more room to imagine the impact of a major potential change e.g.driverless cars. Looking forward 10 years is easier at the level of projects but harder when it comes to discerning significant outcomes. Prediction is also hard; mine will likely be way off the mark, probably blind-sided by something hardly anyone foresaw e.g. in 2013 PIRG predicted the oil price would stay high.