How Business Is Shaping the City of Tomorrow

September 6, 2012

[This post is the introduction to BCLC's latest in the Role of Business series - The Role of Business in Shaping the City of Tomorrow. Read contributions by ARAMARK, Ritz Carlton, Groupon, car2go, Siemens and others here.]

The Business Civic Leadership Center (BCLC) is undertaking a series of reports on how business intersects with key social and environmental issues. This report on the role of business in shaping the city of tomorrow reflects a baseline of BCLC’s research on business practices in this space. This report focuses on seven topics related to reimagining urban environments: mobility, built environment, energy, sanitation, housing, poverty, and working with public and nonprofit partners. Throughout the report you will read business case studies on these indicators.

The City of Tomorrow

Cities are rapidly evolving. According to the United Nations, between 1900 and 2008, the proportion of urban residents increased from a mere 13% to more than 50% around the globe. Also according to the United Nations, 92% of the world’s urban growth in the next two decades will be absorbed by cities of the developing world. In Africa and Asia, the urban population will double between 2000 and 2030.

These rapid changes are going to continue. Consider some of the ways the world will be different in our near future:

  • By 2025—Access to primary education among youth is projected to be nearly universal in the major developing countries of Latin America, most of Asia, and well over half of the countries in Africa.
  • By 2025—One hundred thirty-six new cities are expected to enter the top 600 gross domestic product-producing urban centers, all of them from the developing world, and overwhelmingly—100 new cities—from China.
  • By 2030—The number of overweight and obese adults globally is projected to be 1.35 billion and 573 million, respectively.
  • By 2030—China and India’s demand for energy is projected to nearly double, while demand in the rest of the world will increase by 30%.
  • By 2030—Air freight might triple, and port handing of maritime containers worldwide might quadruple.

These are just some of the changes we can expect. Urban environments are likely going to be larger, more diverse, and more stressed by above-average demographic shifts and migrations. Rome, Paris, London, New York, and Chicago are examples of cities that have adapted to urban dynamism over the years. Many of these changes are due to public sector decisions, but an often overlooked factor is the significant role that businesses play in helping cities adapt to their changing circumstances.

Businesses are contributing to adaptation through their operating activities and investments, and in particular through commercializing innovations and technology. Here is just a sample of how business may shape our urban communities:

  • Traditional modes of transportation will be joined by hybrid solutions like zipcars, car2go, self-driving cars, and more customized mass transit solutions.
  • Highways will become smarter, while traffic congestion will be priced more efficiently.
  • Buildings will be interactive, modulating ambient temperatures in different rooms in a more customized fashion and conserving energy more efficiently.
  • There are a number of companies working on solutions to bridge the “digital divide,” expanding internet access globally.
  • Cities will develop multiple layers of commerce by supporting a “buy local” sentiment while hosting many national brands; examples include Atlanta, New Orleans, and San Francisco.
  • The virtual office will become more omnipresent, with home office solutions becoming widespread.
  • Cities like Abu Dhabi, Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta, Shanghai, and Hong Kong are investing in vertical development, with new building materials and engineering solutions enabling urban designs that were not feasible even a decade ago.


Imagining the urban future, businesses are driven to design products and services that work on a human scale and that are easy to adopt and maintain. Some cities are already integrating technology into every aspect of the community to meet the needs of their residents and workers. Examples include Songdo, South Korea (which you will read about in this report) and Masdar City, UAE.

This report shows that the impact of business on the future of cities will be rich and varied. It includes —

  • The products and solutions that Siemens is offering as a technology pioneer and how mayors and urban planners partner with the company.
  • How Air Products and Chemicals, Inc., is demonstrating a low-cost hydrogen fueling delivery/station concept that reduces the capital and operating cost at the point of use of the fuel and provides hydrogen at pricing that is attractive for a number of fuel cell-based transportation applications, starting with light-duty vehicles.
  • How Veolia Water has developed a tool to help city decision makers evaluate the relative water resource impacts of their decisions.
  • PNC’s philanthropic focus on education, a key driver to maintaining a competitive economy.
  • A program developed by The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company to develop skilled workers to fill essential roles in manufacturing and other industries.

Urbanization is an unstoppable phenomenon. Globally, communities will need to prepare for the challenges and opportunities that it generates. We hope that you will come away from this report, as we have, with a much richer understanding of the complex interaction between business and environmental factors, and an appreciation for the thousands of business-driven professionals who are at the leading edge of win-win solutions.

[Editor's note: This article is part of The Role of Business in Shaping the City of Tomorrow report.]