A tale of two cities, 2030 edition

Obvious Ventures

It’s 2030, and North American cities are choking on poorly planned, uneven growth. The construction industry continues to be plagued by decreasing productivity, rising costs and an aging labor force. The housing crisis endures; living in cars and on the street is not only tolerated morally, but tacitly approved. Traffic is even more debilitating, with single occupancy vehicles creeping along everywhere. Scooter and bike riders, attempting to skirt the traffic, are injured at unprecedented rates. Charging electric vehicles remains a challenge, proving to be a near immovable barrier to mass adoption of EVs.

The creative classes have been forced out, and monoculture has moved in. The citizenry is apathetic, with friction for civic engagement  —  from voting to organizing  —  as high as ever. People live in their own worlds, from sunrise to sundown, staring at screens and adorned with AR headsets for 95 percent of their waking hours. Loneliness, depression and other social isolation-induced physical ailments are at all-time highs.

That’s one path. But we know there’s a better way, with a better outcome.

It’s 2030, and an urban renaissance is in full swing across global metropolises. The affordable housing crisis is in U.S. cities’ collective rear view mirror. Construction, specifically urban infill fueled by prefab solutions and tech-enabled-yet-thoughtfully-streamlined permitting processes, is moving at a clip never before seen  —  delivering more options, without the disruption and waste, and with the dull/dirty/dangerous construction jobs of the past converting to higher-paying, higher-skilled roles. Commuting time has shrunk, with less than 50 percent of cars filled to capacity, affordable electric air taxi options taking off, and public transportation  —  powered by an electric drive revolution, EV charging infrastructure and effective traffic management policies  —  on the upswing.

The air is cleaner. The creative classes are thriving. The citizenry is organizing, voting and engaging with one another more deeply since before the advent of smartphones. More production of food, goods and services is local. We are increasingly fulfilled, living with less friction in all that we do, than ever before.

The choice about these future cities could not be starker. And we stand at a fork in the road leading to these cities right now.

So which is it going to be?

The urban upgrade

It’s safe to say that urban-dwellers want their cities to be less dirty, disconnected and dangerous, and instead more clean, connected and communal (note: policymakers are also eager to make it happen). From the perspective of entrepreneurs and investors, this shift necessarily begins with elemental building blocks of our municipalities at the fore: physical structures; how we get from points A to B to C; and the digital systems connecting us.

Irrespective of people’s needs and policymakers’ ambitions, one thing is universally transforming cities daily: more humans.

Over half of us live in cities, and by 2050 two out of every three people on the planet will reside in an urban area. The impact is difficult to observe in scale and scope given its relatively slow movement, naturally opaque due to this timescale. The question for entrepreneurs is what role they want to play today in driving this massive scale economic, environmental and social transformation.

Better buildings

To make our cities not only livable, but places where people thrive at work and leisure, we need to revisit what we build, how we do it and where  —  recognizing a set of emergent table stakes along the way.

Millennials and Gen Z are driving a generational shift in living and working modalities, as both consumers and business professionals. Their desire for more fluid, flexible arrangements has led to wholesale transformation of certain sectors (Airbnb in hospitality, The Collective and Common in co-living) with others starting to emerge (Lyric is redefining business travel to meet this generational shift).

The growth of distributed teams is also changing how operations work across multiple, physical "office" spaces. With two-thirds of companies offering employees telecommuting opportunities, a threefold increase from 20 years ago, we should be reimagining the future of workspace from the ground up  —  far beyond what we’re seeing from today’s co-working spaces.

Regardless of space and function, the building business is booming. The construction industry, however, is facing a moment of reckoning due to one primary factor: labor. An aging workforce, skyrocketing costs and decreasing productivity are creating a perfect storm into which startups are entering. With industry standards that have remained largely unchanged for 50 years, it is painfully clear that we must change how we build in order to bridge the pervasive affordability gap. Here we can look to companies realizing manufacturing-level efficiencies that simultaneously reduce street-level disruptions (Plant Prefab), developing human-robotics cooperative tools (Canvas or Quartz) and creating collaborative technologies (Helix) that, in aggregate, increase productivity, create safer work environments and drive down costs. We can step even further back into materials, reconsidering techniques such as bioconstruction that redefine our relationship with buildings, surroundings and to one another.

The question of where to build is more amorphous, given widely varying policies in place across North American cities, and other regional factors. Some trends, being driven by high living costs in city centers and suburbs coupled with low gas prices, are surprising and likely more fragile (the exurbs, long thought to be a fatality of the 2008 housing crisis, are back and going strong). Others, such as smaller living units and ADUs making more efficient use of limited space, are more obvious; inside and out, these markets remain vastly underdeveloped, and are ripe for more startup activity.

Regardless of location, at a higher level we know that the age of a more fluid lifestyle, fully flexible with where one works and lives, is here  —  and it’s challenging our collective conventions of what "community" means.

Finding ways to create a deeper sense of community while simultaneously designing for new generational expectations isn’t an easy challenge, but extraordinary market opportunities abound in both the makeup of physical space and how it’s programmed.

Moving forward, the table stakes for all structures are already changing. By 2030 we will reflexively demand that every building in which we live and work generates more energy than it consumes. These structures should also have the ability to capture, filter and reuse water like never before (for a peek into the near future, check out Orbital Systems). In fact, we will look back and wonder why this wasn’t always the case. Never have there been more opportunities for capital-light software and financial services to rapidly accelerate the ramp of clean, renewable technologies and energy efficiency for homes and businesses. SightenMosaic and Inspire are all great examples of players here.

We are already expecting more from our buildings  —  from roof tops (where we will see an increase in electric VTOL vertiports) to curbsides (make way for new modes of micro-mobility, electric vehicle charging and potentially autonomous fleet activity)  —  that tie directly into how we all get around.

Transportation transformation

At the moment, services such as ride hailing, food delivery and micro-mobility that promised efficiency and convenience have concurrently delivered congestion, dangerous roadways and pollution. Housing unaffordability has driven a surge in mega-commuting. Public and other forms of infrastructure haven’t kept up, and looking ahead over the next 10 years it’s clear the entire transportation paradigm will have to change.

The good news: it already is.

Our transportation systems and people’s expectations thereof are undergoing a massive shift. New terrestrial and aerial forms of transportation are creating better ways to move humans and cargo, with electric transport demonstrably faster, cheaper and more sustainable than internal combustion  —  especially in urban settings.

The knock-on effects of transformed transportation systems will be massive, helping connect decentralized production and distribution systems for everything from food to consumer goods. The simultaneous proliferation of localized production technologies, from 3D printing to vertical farming, will be drivers of "local everything" economies. More specifically, models such as Good Eggs, delivering farmers’ produce and local products directly to consumers via their own fleet in California, will spread nationally as vertical farming economics come into line.

This all necessarily begins with the electrification of everything. Whether you’re building buses for public transit, an autonomous fleet of on-demand air taxis or just someone with a car, your future is cleaner, quieter and less expensive when electric (note: technologies like autonomy can scale only with electrification). A rapidly shifting regulatory environment is doing so in favor of forward-looking entrepreneurs, too: California, always a policy leader, will require every single new bus to be electric by 2029.

With cities already at war with cars, it’s not hard to imagine a near future where pollution-emitting vehicles are banned entirely from city centers in favor of ACES (autonomous, connected, electric and shared), which are just getting going.

This won’t come without its share of challenges. Thoughtfully incorporating more diverse modes of transport, such as electric on-demand VTOL air taxis, will take a collaborative effort between regulators, citizens and OEMs such as Lilium to ensure that we have shared skies, open infrastructure and common protocols. Bus depots, currently awash in gasoline pumps, will need a refresh. As EV charging times come down, traditional gas stations in and around cities  —  including fully decentralized systems (people’s homes and apartment buildings)  —  will ramp up their adoption. A multitude of other fleet operators from FedEx to UPS are in the midst of rethinking not only how to reboot their vehicle fleets, but how to manage their energy needs in this new world order. Huge market opportunities exist in an electrified infrastructure, with players such as Amply Power already stepping up.

Lastly, the combination of advanced GPS technology with consumer software applications (Google Maps) has changed travel patterns for us all while throwing off an extraordinary amount of data. It’s safe to say that our ability to access, ingest, process and make actionable these data remain largely untapped  —  especially doing so in ways that respect people’s privacy while opening data sets to developers with the public interest in mind. The jury is out, but we are optimistic: Rio de Janeiro and Waze’s mobility project reduced traffic congestion by 27 percent by using data in novel ways, and similar projects have taken place in Los Angeles.

It’s also worth noting that this technology has done more than change travel patterns. With Waze specifically, it has enabled a new type of community building via crowdsourcing while giving purpose to reams of data through its Connected Citizens Program. How we build community with meaning in our constantly evolving urban landscapes with digital-native city-dwellers may be one of the most pressing challenges we face.

A connected citizenry

We’ve all seen the comparisons of commuters today (heads down looking at phones with ear buds firmly in place) with those from 50 years ago (faces buried in newspapers). While interpretations of "what it all means for us" differ, some stats are universal: Social media use is linked with depression and anxiety, and especially pronounced in younger Americans. Regrettable norms also have emerged from the digital-native, post-financial crisis generations (anyone under 40): saddled with student debt and reluctant to get a credit card, many aren’t building credit scores and therefore less able to access credit. For older Americans, especially in urban areas with rising costs of living, "downward mobility" is rising. Despite a host of challenges all generations are facing, voter turnout in urban areas is demonstrably lower than suburban and rural.

The road to bridging this disconnect between people, their city and their fellow citizens begins with frictionless products, services and experiences.

We have grown so accustomed to seamless transactions in the private sector  —  from photo sharing to Amazon shopping  —  that we expect this level of ease with all interactions. This is a fair expectation given the technology available today.

Identity solutions that are able to lower barriers to value-creating activities in an urban setting stand much to gain. Why can’t registering to vote and voting itself be done with the same ease and security as buying concert tickets? Why can’t providing actionable feedback on city services be as simple as navigating with Waze?

Take Keyo, which uses on-time rental payments to help tenants build their credit scores while hosting events that bring their communities together. Or Tentrr, expanding the supply of camping close to urban environments (note: accessing green spaces makes us healthier and happier), supplementing a strained state and national park supply. And platforms such as Change.org, which enable citizens to engage with policymakers and private companies. Entrepreneurs that find ways to connect with both citizens and cities, especially as they begin to adopt technologies such as blockchain that boost transparency and trust with constituents (it’s already happening), should see blue ocean territory that cuts across industries.

Defining the urban upgrade

As we reflect on this better version of cities in 2030, one thing that stands out is a focus on creating a complete ecosystem, a Full-Stack City. In this community, people are net producers  —  from their own energy to food  —  while enabling creative content and products to flourish locally. They’ll still be part of a global economy, but we’ll see a community that is more clean, connected and communal. And that’s an upgrade.

There’s obviously much we’ve left out of this discussion, and are hoping to hear from readers on the areas we should dive into more deeply.

What’s clear, though, is the abundance of opportunities to build companies with inspiring purposes  —  ones that address deep, human needs and massive market opportunities —  that lead us toward the better vision of 2030. These are the entrepreneurs we want to partner with.

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