7 things we learned from Jean Christophe Victor's "future" speech at UITP

© Angelo Amboldi - New York City

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Why would a public transport association invite a futurist to give a keynote speech to a bunch of mobility professionals? 

Decisions about public transport can have repercussions that last for decades, so the public transport sector has to be more forward-thinking than most. Here are seven predictions from Jean Christophe Victor’s presentation that made us think…

1. The middle classes are growing. That's good news - but what does it mean for mobility habits in general (…and trends like the sharing economy in particular?)

The good times that OECD countries experienced in the thirty-odd years between the end of the Second World War and 1980s are not over - they are just beginning… somewhere else.

20 years ago, 80% of the world's middle classes lived in OECD countries. In ten years, 80 % will live in cities in Africa, China, India and a handful of other Asian and Latin American countries. And as income rises, people will perhaps do exactly what developed countries did in the fifties: they will buy cars.

Or have those who are currently experiencing this middle class growth learned from the mistakes made by developed countries? How will this new demographic feel about car ownership and use? Also, will trends that we currently envision as a large part of our future – such as the sharing economy - be completely sidelined by this growth?

Modal choice, mobility and the rise of the middle classes will present a future landscape that's all but impossible to predict right now. However, we need to act now before bad habits settle in…

2. Global population growth is slowing down (but the rate of growth in cities will continue to grow at a faster rate than other areas...)

Population is growing, yes, but that growth is set to slow down. In 1950 there were one and a half billion people in the world; now there are just over seven billion. That’s quite a big jump, but the speed of growth will be much slower. We are set to reach a plateau in 2050 when there will be about nine or 10 billion people.

The reason? Demographic transition. Some countries have not yet begun this shift (examples include Egypt, Pakistan and Nigeria), but most countries in the world are well on their way. This is thanks to a number of factors, most notably education; the more educated we are, the fewer babies we have - and this is happening in almost every part of the world right now.

This effects of this demographic transition will not be so dramatic in cities, however, because the growth rate in urban areas will grow faster than the total population. Billions of people will still need to live, work and move around, and all evidence suggests that they'll be doing it in cities. If we're clever, we will make adequate plans for this growth.

3. The 'winning cities' of the future are not what we expected

Panama City, Montevideo, Accra, Curitiba and Chengdu? These cities were all listed by Mr. Victor as the ‘ones to watch’, based on rankings that rate things like business activity, human capital, information exchange, cultural experience and political engagement. They are also based on mobility: but what decisions are being made in these cities today that will affect how people move around in the future? The urban up-and-comers that we’ve touted for the past twenty years as ‘the ones to watch’ – think Singapore, Munich, Stockholm and Beijing - placed a lot of focus on building robust mobility systems, which contributed considerably to their success. Will these ‘new’ winning cities learn from their example? 

4. The total number of cars on the road will keep growing (but it looks like the infrastructure might not be able to keep up)

In 1980 there were 360 million cars on the world's roads. In 20 years there will be that many in China alone. But what’s also interesting is motorisation rate (the number of cars per inhabitant), and not only the number of cars themselves.

In Europe today there are 500 cars for every 1,000 people, while in China that figure is only 81 for every 1,000 people. In Lagos, where the streets are famously overcrowded, there are 75 cars for every 1,000 people. Everything is growing faster than the roads can support it and this will continue to be a problem if future mobility is car-based. And this is not a dystopian vision of the future; the problem is already here. Developing countries are not yet as car-dependent as populations in the developing world, and they should start putting in place adequate mobility networks that take the emphasis off private car use and place it on public transport – before the problem gets too out of control.

5. Mobile technology might allow developing economies to jump directly to efficient mobility management

The global peak for fixed telephone lines was achieved about ten years ago; and this trend largely skipped the developing world. However, there are currently about seven billion mobile phones in a world of about seven billion people. For many in Africa, this amounts to a revolution. That's because people in developing regions like Africa and India can do things like transfer money, get information on crops and conduct business, all on a mobile device. They also have the potential to use it for real-time info and improving mobility, leapfrogging the processes the rest of the world went through on our way to achieving our mobility management goals.

6. Predictions of peak oil shift so much to be meaningless – but why don't we take advantage of price 'dips' to invest in clean mobility?

By 2030, even though the production of renewable fuels for transport will have increased significantly, the world will still be largely dependent on fossil fuels. Our demand for coal, oil and gas will not have been satiated. Maximum production of oil is set to be reached sometime in the coming years (predictions vary wildly), but reserves are far from exhausted. The suggestion keeps coming back, but that's because it's a good one: every time the price of oil dips, why not use the savings from cutting subsidies to invest in clean fuel for mobility? Failing to do something means we will be dramatically unprepared when the oil really does run out – whenever that may be.

7. These big changes will have consequences for every sector of society. But few sectors are as long-term as public transport

Why would a public transport association invite a futurist – with no ties to the sector - to give its keynote speech? Decisions about public transport can have repercussions that last for decades, so predicting mobility habits is vital for our success. In many other businesses, decision-makers can change course every few years - but this is a luxury public transport cannot afford. The infrastructure that can take a long time to build will also probably be responsible for affecting the development of a city for a long time to come - because cities are shaped by their transport systems. Big metropolises like Paris and London are still based on decisions regarding models of growth that were made at the end of the 19th century. We need to try to predict what kind of environment we will be working in in twenty, thirty, forty years from now. Failure to reflect – and to make the right decisions - could leave us in very big trouble.

  • Jean Christophe Victor is a futurologist and founder of think tank LEPAC. You can see the full video of his presentation to UITP in February 2015 here


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