The history and future of cities and innovation

We spend the vast amount of time thinking about the future of our urban environment and the technologies that can help make our cities sustainable to benefit current and future citizens.

Over the holiday, the 2150 team picked up a copy of Ben Wilson’s Metropolis to stop and dive back into the history of cities and understand what technologies allowed them to grow and what innovations they sparked. It is a brilliant book tracing humanity’s history through the evolution of cities starting with Uruk in 1900BC through to modern day Lagos, which is set to double in population by 2050 to over 30 million inhabitants.

The opening paragraphs of the book set the tone of both admiration for “humankind’s greatest invention” and stark reminder that humanity has not truly been an urban creature until very recently. In 1800 no more than 3–5% of the world’s population lived in cities. Urban populations did not surpass rural until 2007, but the rate of urbanization is accelerating and 2/3 of humans will inhabit a city by 2050!

Opening parragraphs of Metropolis

So how did cities adapt to rapid growth in the past? What technologies evolved to support them? How did some technologies evolve, die and then come back to life centuries later?

An amazing story goes back to the second half of the bronze age (±3000BC) and the Indus Valley inhabited by the Harrapan civilization, one of the world’s earliest known urban cultures. What makes their cities so amazing was the strictly laid out urban planning and advanced city sewage system. “Every household had a flush toilet…more than could be said for the industrial city of 19th century Europe.” Public wastebins, central water reservoirs, city-wide sewage systems, for the Harrapan’s cleanliness “was godliness.” Bringing the past back to the present, it was climate change that made this civilization’s technologies thrive. With changing weather patterns, erratic rain patterns and dwindling river levels, the Harrapan cities developed water capture and conservation techniques, hydraulic systems and irrigation to support new crops. But it was also climate change that made this amazing civilization abandon their cities as the monsoon patterns shifted and large cities became unsistainable. As Wilson explains, around 1900BC the inhabitants of these cities dissipated into smaller farming tribes and until the 20th century their cities and technologies lay buried under the desert sand.

Jumping forward a few thousand years, Wilson recounts the story of Alexandria (one of many cities built and named after Alexander the Great). After his conquest of Egypt in 332BC Alexander, the story goes, stood on a rock on the island of Pharos and pointed to where he wanted the city to be built. The mission to build it fell to his “urban planner” Dinocrates of Rhodes who set about designing a grid-shaped city with standard sized roads to enable commerce and people to move seamlessly, which then flowed out straight into the sea. As The Guardian writes “Dinocrates’ genius was to extend the lines of his gridiron right out over the water, building a 600ft wide land bridg.. out from the mainland to the island of Pharos and creating two immense harbours either side of the causeway.” Alexandria’s greatest legacy, however, was its ability to become, in a very short time, the center of knowledge for the known world. As historians Pollard and Reed state in their book “Alexandria was the greatest mental crucible the world has ever known…In these halls the true foundations of the modern world were laid — not in stone, but in ideas.” The city, at the cross section of trade routes and trade winds attracted brawn, gold and brains. The brains came because the famous library was “the only depository of all written work.” The rulers of Alexandria purposely sought to make knowledge creation what we would now call a competitive advantage of the city. Trade and knowledge made its population explode to over half a million… Julius Ceasar famously came to the city and met Cleopatra, followed by Antony…and Cleopatra, followed by the Roman empire almost collapsing due in part to Alexandria. The city then floundered, its library and manuscripts eroded and in 365AD a tsunami flattened the city, its perfectly laid out streets, its lighthouse and library and history’s earliest center of knowledge.

Many of us in the West learnt about the “Middle Ages” in our history class, when apparently the world stepped backwards and humanity went dark… but the rest of the world’s cities were thriving. Through the Middle Ages “nineteen of the world’s twenty largest cities were Muslim or in the Chinese empire” with only Constantinople joining the list in the top 20. In modern-day Mexico, for example, the Aztec empire built its capital city Tenochtitlan in the middle of a lake. When the Spanish conquistadores arrived in 1519 its population surpassed 200,000 while “the largest city in Europe, Paris, housed 185,000.” Surrounded by water the Aztecs had developed their own version of urban farming with floating hydroponic gardens feeding the city. The Aztecs took their cities seriously, to the point where their urban planner, the calmimilocatl, was a religious post, meant to enforce building appearance and standards. The city, fed by clean water aqueducts and with public toilets for its vast population, was “hyperadvanced in terms of technology and sanitation”. It is a pity that the city and its inhabitants was destroyed, first by smallpox and soon after by Spanish gunpowder.

There are a number of financial innovations that many of us know about brought about within and for the benefit of cities and city-states. The corporation and banking developed in the canals of Amsterdam in the early 1600s. Insurance from the London coffeehouses (Lloyd’s coffeehouse still meaning innovation in insurance to this day) in the late 17th century and the need for a central bank. In more recent times, payment innovations for the millions of micro-transactions that happen in mega-cities every day along with the proliferation of cellphones lead to innovations like M-Pesa.

Lagos, Nigeria which will see one of the largest urban expansions in the world

As Wilson weaves through cities on more modern times in the final chapters, it is the last chapter of the book that struck us the most. Having just spent 352 pages celebrating the accomplishments of cities and its inhabitants spanning thousands of years, he ends the book on a cautionary note.

“Cities consumed 58,000 square kilometers of the planet between 1970 and 2000; they will gobble up another 1.2 million square kilometers by 2030…By 2030, 65% of the world’s built environment will have been constructed since 2000.”

And cities, he notes, not only impact the land they are built upon but vast ecosystems disrupted in order to feed them and power them. For context, greater London with its 8 million inhabitants requires land 125 times the city’s footprint to sustain its inhabitants.

We at 2150 are proud adherents to Wilson’s admiration for cities. We consider them to be “physical cathedrals to humanity’s ingenuity”. Through the centuries cities have been good for humans, but the increasing rate of urbanisation has the likely potential of being bad for humanity. We face a unique opportunity in this decade to develop and deploy new materials, new technologies, new ways of bringing nature back into our urban jungles to make those 1.2 million square kilometers of new urban landscape sustainable for the inhabitants of not only the city, but also the planet. Motivated by our common urban history — and by Wilson’s recounting of it — we are inspired to take action in our mission.

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2150 is a venture capital firm investing in technology companies that seek to sustainably reimagine and reshape the urban environment. 2150’s investment thesis focuses on major unsolved problems across what it calls the ‘Urban Stack’, which comprises every element of the built environment, from the way our cities are designed, constructed and powered, to the way people live, work and are cared for. Find out more at www.2150.vc

We provide Constructive Capital to technology entrepreneurs that seek to make our urban environment more efficient and sustainable