Future World: 10 Predictions for the Next 90 Years of Human Progress

May 4, 2017

We’ve come a long way in the last 90 years — from party lines to mobile phones, horses to autonomous vehicles. What’s in store for the next 90? 

On the occasion of SEH’s 90th anniversary, we connected with engineers, architects, planners and scientists who predict how major forces like population growth and generational shifts will intersect with game-changing trends like artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things, social media, and autonomous vehicles to shape the near and distant future.

Smart infrastructure grades itself

Smart infrastructure grades itself

The state of our infrastructure is a point of ongoing debate. What needs to be fixed and when. Who needs to pay for it and how. The American Society of Civil Engineers recently updated its Infrastructure Report Card, upgrading the America’s infrastructure from a D- in 2013 to a D+ in 2017.

“Infrastructure will improve — it has to,” says Julie Hoppe, SEH regional civil engineering leader. “But it needs more than band-aids.”

Barring a significant flux in infrastructure investment, Hoppe says sensible asset management will continue to play a vital role in extending the life of infrastructure in the coming years. 

“I think we’ll keep seeing more clients strategically extending the life of infrastructure through things such as pavement management strategies, which can add another ten years life, and road diets, which can save millions of dollars compared to traditional road reconstructions,” says Hoppe.

90 years from now?

As technology continues to be more cost-efficient, it’s easy to imagine a world where infrastructure comes with artificial intelligence and is connected to computers via the Internet of Things, says Hoppe. 

“Rather than humans needing to physically inspect and evaluate assets, like a bridge for example, those assets are digitally connected and tell us when they should be rehabilitated, repaired or replaced,” Hoppe suggests.

“When you look at current GIS capabilities, and add to it the advancements in artificial intelligence or machine learning, this stuff is not really science fiction anymore,” adds Hoppe.

Return to hydropower for renewable energy

Historically, cities were built on waterfronts because the water provided both means of power and significantly faster ways to move goods and people. However, many waterfront communities in the U.S. are seeing a rise in the occurrence of heavy precipitation events as a growing cause for concern.

“Now, with an increase in severe weather and more extreme rainfall-based, summer/fall flood events (as opposed to snowmelt based, spring events), water levels along waterways have become less predictable and manageable,” says Brad Woznak, SEH senior hydraulic engineer.

Because communities rely on their waterfront locations for vital functions, relocating is often not possible. In the coming years, Woznak predicts more waterfront cities will “pull back” from the water’s edges rather than to try to control it with gray infrastructure like dams and levees. “Sometimes it’s best to acknowledge the power of water, and let the river be itself,” adds Woznak.

90 years from now? 

“Everything is cyclical,” says Woznak. “Though the use of dams for hydroelectric power has decreased as many dams are removed, I can see much more widespread implementation of green renewable energy solutions, such as turbines that capture energy from waves or river flowage.”

Genetic innovations protect natural resources

Genetic innovations protect natural resources 

Over the next few decades, Heidi Kennedy, SEH natural resources scientist, sees the continuation of a recent trend toward bringing natural resources closer to home. 

“Something we’re already seeing is a better incorporation of natural resources into the design of new infrastructure,” says Kennedy. “With more open and recreational uses designed into urban development, you don’t always need to take a trip to a distant park to get closer to nature.”

Kennedy also predicts increased development will demand more efficient uses of water through concepts like vertical agriculture and gray water reuse. 

90 years from now?

The hypermobility of wildlife species throughout the world has led to non-native and invasive species disrupting native ecosystems. We may not be able to turn back the clock on this phenomenon, but, according to Kennedy, genetic innovations may provide a line of defense. 

“Right now, we have approximately 4,000 invasive species in the U.S, some of which, like the Asian carp, are particularly harmful,” says Kennedy. “I can imagine 90 years from now, we have innovations that, on the one hand, keep species like the Asian carp from expanding into non-native environments and, on the other hand, make native species more resilient to disease. Perhaps we would no longer see the loss of elm trees to Dutch elm disease.”  

Water systems split ways for efficiency

If world population increases by 38 percent to 9.6 billion in 2050, as has been predicted, how do we make sure there’s enough water? 

We’ll have to continue finding ways to squeeze potable water out of the current system, says Ron LeBlanc, SEH water/wastewater engineer.

LeBlanc, who has built a career working in the Western United States (an area known for periodic drought and water scarcity), predicts increased water reclamation will be essential in meeting increased water demand.

When we look at the past century of innovation, there’s always been a game changer that collapsed linear predictions.

“I expect more and better efforts of indirect reuse, where effluent wastewater is discharged, recharged then pulled back in after a period of time, as well as direct reuse,” says LeBlanc.

Direct reuse, which put Bill Gates in the headlines, is one way to shorten the water lifecycle and make more of the planet’s water available for consumption. 

90 years from now?

While LeBlanc admits that extrapolating 90 years into the future is nearly impossible, he’s cautiously optimistic. 

“I can predict with certainty that new issues, not foreseen today, will arise,” adds LeBlanc, pointing to one new area of concern: nanotechnology. Nanotechnology has made its way into most households through materials, makeup and pharmaceuticals. And it’s already being considered due to possible health effects in reclaimed wastewater. 

“Yet, when we look at the past century of innovation, there’s always been a game changer that collapsed linear predictions,” he says. 

LeBlanc suggests that, 90 years from today, we may be managing water through separate systems for potable and non-potable use. With treated drinking water becoming more regulated (“drinking water then becomes treated more like a pharmaceutical”) while non-potable water systems get used more efficiently, for functions like crop irrigation. Gray water — domestic wastewater without toilet contribution — will also likely be recycled for non-potable use, he says.

Science helps bring home the bacon

How do we feed everyone on Earth? That’s the question those in the food and beverage industry are tasked with solving in both the near and distant future, says Rick Viviani, food and beverage industry specialist. 

“Our population is growing at such a rapid rate — we will have more mouths to feed,” says Viviani, “I see food production doubling in comparison to today’s production.” 

How? Science.

“Food and beverage companies are going to have to produce more, waste less, and be more creative with ingredients. Research and development and food science will play an increasingly large role in solving that,” says Viviani.

90 years from now? 

“Technology continues to impress me,” says Viviani. “I think 90 years from now new technologies will help food plants become very sustainable from air, water, animal care. The focus of sustainability and humane practices are already very important, and in 90 years I think plants will be clean and efficient.” 

Batteries charge economic development

Batteries charge economic development 

As technology and globalization continue to shape our world, we’ll continue to see them impact local economies. Look no further than the electric car, says Dan Botich, SEH economic development specialist. 

Botich says companies like Tesla will significantly impact economic development — on both local and global stages. 

“So much of our economy is built around products manufactured for vehicles running on internal combustion engines — gas stations, oil, auto repair, vehicle parts and accessories. Now, think about this: what happens if the motor vehicle as we know it becomes obsolete? Would you be ready?” asks Botich. 

According to Botich, reorienting economic focus toward other opportunities and designing infrastructure to accommodate the battery-powered vehicle (charging stations for example) will be important for economic development in the next few decades. 

90 years from now? 

While Botich sees the electric car battery as a defining influence in economic development over the next few decades, 90 years from now he looks to major tech companies and their thirst for cool freshwater. 

Major tech companies produce a lot of heat, whether in their massive data centers or through the chip manufacturing process. As our water supply becomes less abundant, these companies are going to follow their coolant.

“I can see major tech companies, in need of freshwater, relocating from Silicon Valley to the Great Lakes basin,” Botich adds. "Bringing massive economic development opportunities to the Midwest."

Streets keep multitasking

Increased urban density, which brings more pedestrians and other modes to the streets, will continue to have a major impact on corridor development, says Rick Coldsnow, SEH civil engineer. 

“What we’re seeing are formerly industrial streets becoming multi-family, multi-use streets. What were once rural streets will take on an urban character,” he says. 

According to Coldsnow, this will only become more common in the future. More people, combined with less land for water quality, also mean more need for sustainable water quality features. 

“We’ll need to keep making better use of the limited space we have on these urban retrofit projects,” says Coldsnow. “That translates to green infrastructure, like use of permeable pavers.”

Coldsnow also points to increased use of sustainable materials:  "Recycled asphalt is becoming more common, as well as crushed concrete for base materials."

[RELATED CONTENT: 3 WAYS TO IMPROVE WATER QUALITY ON A STREET RECONSTRUCTION]

90 years from now? 

Coldsnow admits it’s difficult to look ahead nearly a century, but hypothesizes that streets of the future may be able to do more than provide safe multimodal transportation and improve water quality. 

“Streets may be multitasking even more than they already are. Will pavement be able to trap solar energy to power the autonomous vehicles that drive on it? Or, rather than diverting stormwater, will streets be capturing water for irrigation of crops?” he asks.

Technology augments, not eradicates, the workplace

When it comes to the workplace, recent developments will write the roadmap for the next few decades, says Trevor Frank, SEH regional architecture leader. 

“We’re at the most pivotal period in workplace history,” Franks says. “So many things are coming together: lowered communication barriers, changes in workplace attitudes caused by a generational shift in the workforce, and a hyper-connected world economy.” 

We’re at the most pivotal period in workplace history. So many things are coming together.

What this means is that the workplace is a new epicenter for increased collaboration. As Baby Boomers age out of the workforce, a wave of digital natives will remake work in their image. 

Frank predicts that over the next few years, workplace design, which has trended toward more open concept spaces, will start to balance out with more private spaces. 

What Frank calls “quiet cars” are one example. These three to five person pods with pre-established rules (no taking phone calls, for example) provide a place for quiet worktime. 

Beyond that, Frank sees more social amenities designed into workplaces: small food markets and resting rooms, which are similar to traditional break rooms except they function as a private place to rest. 

“These kinds of features will be important in a global economy when an employee, who might work in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, needs to attend a video conference meeting held in Tokyo, Japan. It’s 11 a.m. there, but 9 p.m. in Milwaukee. That employee is going to need a bite to eat and a place to refresh before joining the meeting,” says Frank.

90 years from now?

While Frank sees technology like robotic automation and artificial intelligence combining to do some work traditionally undertaken by humans, and video conferencing capabilities creating opportunities for more work-from-home scenarios, he doesn’t predict the Death of the Workplace as we know it today.

“I can see companies perhaps downsizing facilities, but we’ll still need places for people to come together and work,” says Frank. “There’s just too much value in physically sharing space with others.”

Urban mobility goes autonomous

Widely anticipated, if not yet widely planned for, the autonomous vehicle is expected to recalibrate mobility. In the meantime, we can expect public transit to continue to support movement throughout increasingly populated cities and suburbs, says Greg Finstad, SEH transit engineer.  

“I see more arterial and Bus Rapid Transit lines connecting suburb to city and city to city to keep us moving,” says Greg Finstad, SEH transit engineer. “As well as more transit-oriented development and a better multimodal interface among bicycles, shuttles and electric cars.”

His views are shared by Patrick Bougie, SEH transit architect, who also sees outstate growth of transit infrastructure.

“There’s been a lot of transit development in metro areas,” says Bougie. “But we’re already witnessing more outward growth toward suburbs and outstate communities.” 

90 years from now?

“Universal transit will be made possible by autonomous vehicles,” says Bougie. “In this scenario, all people will have access to a shared mode of transportation, serving hubs connected to a broad network and taking people wherever they need to go.” 

[RELATED CONTENT: WHAT DO DRIVERLESS CARS MEAN FOR ROAD DESIGN?]

Apps tap the potential of public participation

Apps tap the potential of public participation

Awareness of the power of public participation on infrastructure projects has grown in the past few decades. We can imagine it will only increase in the years ahead.

As projects demand more effective, more accessible public participation now and into the future, technology will play an elevated role in serving the needs of community stakeholders and public officials, says Kristin Petersen, SEH senior planner.

"3-D printing technology, online surveys and real-time response applications, like Mentimeter, will all help break language and communication barriers,” says Petersen.

At the same time technology will help elicit more meaningful engagement, it will also accelerate the participation process.  

[RELATED CONTENT: HOW TO GET MORE OF THE RIGHT STAKEHOLDERS TO A PUBLIC MEETING]

“Already, we can walk into a public meeting with an interactive model of the possible changes being proposed, receive immediate feedback from attendees during the meeting, and then present the results back to them,” says Petersen. “A process that used to take several meetings and a lot of back and forth gets covered in one meeting.”

90 years from now?

Ninety years from now, Petersen still sees face-to-face communication as integral to the planning process. 

“It is much easier to convince someone of the value of a change, or explain the reasoning behind it, when you're able to have a back and forth exchange that lets you address evolving concerns as they come up,” she says. 

Still, she foresees the potential for mobile devices to cast a wider net, and expand participation into the realm of casual community members who may not make it to a typical meeting. 

Says Petersen, “I can imagine a time in the future when you will be able to look at your mobile device at night to check on dozens of projects happening in your community, and be able to weigh in on each one without getting out of bed. All with the tap of a screen.”

Let’s keep asking the big questions

What will the world bring in the next 90 years? As these experts illustrate, the field of possibilities is as endless as the human imagination. The evolution of technology is one great unknown. But if the past is any indicator, yet-undiscovered breakthroughs will push open new doors. At the least, we know, with growing populations and finite resources, that we’ll need to keep working together while asking big questions. Because the answers are out there.

About the Experts

Dan Botich

Dan Botich is a senior project planner dedicated to strategic community and economic development. 

Patrick Bougie, AIA

Patrick Bougie, AIA, is a senior transit architect committed to safe and useful transit facilities.

Greg Finstad, PE

Greg Finstad, PE, is a transit engineer who designs sustainable urban mobility solutions.

Trevor Frank, AIA, LEED AP®, PMP, NCARB

Trevor Frank, AIA, LEED AP®, PMP, NCARB, is a senior architect and senior project manager helping clients build better workplaces.

Julie Hoppe, PE

Julie Hoppe, PE, is a regional civil engineering leader building smart partnerships and better infrastructure.

Heidi Kennedy

Heidi Kennedy is a scientist committed to preserving our natural resources.

Ron LeBlanc, PE

Ron LeBlanc, PE, is a senior water/wastewater engineer helping clients simplify complex water-related challenges.

Kristin Petersen, AICP, NCI, LEED AP®

Kristin Petersen, AICP, NCI, LEED AP®, is a senior planner and engagement specialist dedicated to helping clients build projects the community loves. 

Rick Viviani

Rick Viviani is a food and beverage specialist and senior project manager connecting food and beverage clients to solutions that work.

Brad Woznak, PE

Brad Woznak, PE, is a senior water resources engineer who helps communities become more resilient.

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