Future cities


Duration:13 years


Country: Songdo, South Korea

What did this project achieve?

Design and build cities that really meet the needs of growing urban populations

Most of the world’s cities have 3 things in common. They were built in places that were easy to defend, had access to fresh water and were convenient for trading.

As cities have evolved what they need to flourish has also changed – both in scale and complexity. Modern cities need reliable energy sources, efficient transport and effective sewerage and communications networks.

The challenge for civil engineers and planners for the future is to provide the infrastructure and services modern cities need while still providing a pleasant place to live.

The world’s population is predicted to reach 8 billion by 2023 with most growth in developing countries such as Brazil, India and Pakistan. It’s estimated that 70% of people will live in cities by 2050.

One way of meeting this predicted growth is to build cities from scratch. This is already happening in South Korea with the construction of Songdo – the world’s first ‘smart’ city. The project has been designed around new technologies.

Like Songdo, urban planning from the foundations up isn’t always possible. A major future challenge for civil engineers will be finding ways to retrofit existing infrastructures to meet the needs of city residents.

Any city that wants to thrive in the 21st century and beyond will need to adapt.

Difference a future city will make

Work on technologies that could be used in future cities has already seen innovations and an idea of how some of tomorrow’s urban infrastructures could look.

Examples include vacuum waste disposal. These are systems which transport waste along pneumatic tubes to collection stations where it’s compacted and sealed in containers. This helps separation and recycling of waste.

Vacuum systems are already in use in China, South Korea and the US. Planned schemes include one for the city centre of Bergen in Norway.

How the work could be done

Although building new smart cities from scratch may be one way of dealing with growing urban populations in the future, the approach has attracted some criticism.

Songdo in South Korea is generally credited as the world’s first future city. Buildings have automatic climate control and computerised access. Water, waste and electricity systems track and respond to the movement of residents.

But some critics have voiced fears that a computerised city like Songdo could also develop into a ‘Big Brother’ environment where everyone is under surveillance.

The challenge for engineers and planners will be to remember that cities are much more than nuts, bolts and hi tech innovation. Urban infrastructure should serve the needs of citizens and communities – helping them to prosper.

An alternative for cities of the future may be using new technologies to integrate with existing systems, as well as putting the needs of citizens first when upgrading their environment.

Examples of this approach could include using smart sensors to measure water leaks in real time, control traffic flow (smart motorways) or dim street lights when no-one is around.

While the 20th century has seen engineers get to grips with the technical needs of the environment, the challenge of the 21st century will be on the more complex areas of social justice and inclusion.


What is the city but the people?

William Shakespeare

‘Coriolanus’ Act 3 scene 1.

Fascinating facts

India’s first smart city is Gujarat International Finance Tec-City (GIFT City). It’s on the bank of the Sabarmati river in Gujarat state.

Currently under construction, the project includes a district cooling system and automated vacuum waste collection.

The pedestrian-friendly city is being developed as an international finance centre.

More about this project

Explore more civil engineering projects

I want to become a civil engineer.

See how your studies lead to a civil engineering career

The job you end up with in civil engineering is likely to link back to what you studied at school, college or university. Here you can see your options at any age.

Studying at school

Up to 16 years

School / college

15-18 years

College / university

18 years +

Change career

Any age