According to a number of serious and well-intentioned articles written in the last century (not to mention the Jetsons), by 2010 we were all supposed to live in giant cities with mile-high sky-scrapers, flying cars, pneumatic tube transit, and robot servants. Admittedly, this view gave way to a somewhat more dystopian version around 1980 or so - think Blade Runner, for instance - in which overpopulation, over-urbanization and technology gone wild created a dark and threatening world.
Perhaps one of the biggest exponent of the power of technology to change the world for the better is Ray Kurzweil. Inventor, author, visionary, Kurzweil's central thesis has been that as Moore's law continues in its seemingly unrelenting progression, humanity and the machine will become ever more indistinguishable, and that ultimately there will be no problem that can't be solved with the suitable application of intellect.
At the other end of the spectrum for Kurzweil is James Howard Kunstler. Kunstler has been writing about the relentless spread of urbanization and the problems that will occur as systemic shocks - peak oil, peak water, climate change, aging populations and so forth - cause profound changes to the way that we build our cities, ultimately resulting in the destruction of the suburbs and the end of technological society as we know it. His vision of late 21st century life looks a lot more like the mid-19th century, and it is, curiously, surprisingly appealing even in its starkness.
I've dubbed these scenarios Kurzweil Cities and Kunstlervilles - views of optimism and pessimism that, when looked at through somewhat different lenses, could just as readily be interchangeable in terms of their values as utopias vs. dystopias.
As many people have noted, cities are organic over a large enough period of time. They exhibit emergent behaviors that seem eerily similar to the way that lower order life-forms act. They grow in response to available energy sources, expanding outward as energy enters the system, contracting back in on itself as energy leaves. Highways and streets are the arteries, carrying car and truck corpuscles from one part of the city to another. The nerves are the power and information conduits within the city. When cities collide, they either form systemic cells or absorb one another, the older former towns slowly losing their distinct identity over time.
This metaphor, or abstraction, is an important thing to keep in mind when looking at the future of cities. Cities grow in response to increases in population. This may seem obvious, but I'd contend that its actually a very subtle point - the larger the population, the more likely that the necessary number of interactions can take place to push the city to a new level of abstraction, while at the same time the greater the drain on the energy resources available to that city. In a city where the energy drain is higher than the energy sources (where energy can be physical energy such as electricity or the abstraction of energy in the form of money) the quality of life in the city drops - there are fewer job opportunities, the standard of living goes down, the government becomes more authoritarian, the ability to support urban services decline.
Technology cannot create new energy - it can only make it possible to use existing energy more efficiently, and always at the cost of powering the technology itself. This has always been the fundamental flaw of Kurzweil's vision - Moore's law does not come for free. Every generational doubling in processing power occurs because more energy goes into the technologies to make it happen. Costs for fabrication plants for creating new microprocessors increase geometrically as well - the cost to create a typical fab is now well into the billion dollars category.
The problem that's led to the current crisis is that the energy costs here are borrowed. Intel or AMD generally doesn't have anywhere near the amount of cash on hand to build new fabs. Instead, it borrows the money against future earnings - it is in essence borrowing energy that hasn't been created yet.
This future borrowing has been endemic in US culture for a long time. Cities (and larger geopolitical structures) generate their revenues in one of a few ways - they either take possession of a power or resource source and sell from that, they receive revenues from the state (which simply pushes the problem up a level of abstraction), they place a tax on the current revenues of its citizenry and associated companies, or they create bonds to borrow from the future earnings that the project in question will produce, adding in a premium in order to compensate the bond holders for the potential risk of the bond defaulting.
When the weight of such credit exceeds the potential of the system (as it exists) to pay back those loans, the system collapses. That's what is happening now. The system is becoming less energetic, and as such, the ability of the system to support its abstractions is diminishing. The US government is working diligently to prop up the system, but it's constrained by the same problems - any money that it creates is a promissory note on new energy production, despite the fact that energy production in the US has been declining since the early 1970s. It may be able to sustain the status quo for a while longer - but the next crash will likely be harder.
So is Kunstler in our future then? Not necessarily. Kunstler's central thesis is that an oil-dependent economy will eventually lead to collapse as the supply of oil continues to diminish relative to demand. Oil is important, both as a fuel source and as a resource for production of goods, but its important to differentiate these two use cases. The principle use of oil today is for transportation, moving things from point A to point B. If you can switch cars over to electric or electric-hybrid use this will significantly reduce demand on oil - perhaps even to the point where US production can easily accommodate all other uses of oil. Flywheel systems, and shock kinetics also add potential power, especially for larger vehicles that have more intrinsic momentum).
To do so, however, other changes become important. Electricity production needs to become more distributed. Efficiencies in solar power production are raising the possibility that cities can actually become net power producers - both with regional power "farms" and solar enabled houses and businesses. Beamed power - in which solar power collectors in space are used to create coherent microwave beams that can provide power to collectors even in cloudy areas, could dramatically increase capabilities. Geothermal taps, wind power, wave power and more efficient super capacitors make energy production in coastal areas more feasible. More efficient monitoring and routing of power (smart grid) can also insure that energy is made available to those places that have the largest demand, rather than getting wasted.
There are even places for such technologies as nuclear fission plants, which, despite the publicity of both Four Mile Island and Chernobyl, are generally much safer today. The principle problem here comes in taking care of the high upfront costs and the still troublesome waste disposal issues.
What this implies however is that the future will likely be neither Kurzweil cities nor Kunstlervilles. Instead, for a while it will be a mix of both - cities that can most effectively harness net energy production will thrive and grow, and the standard of living there will improve. Cities that can't will sink into slums and abandoned neighborhoods, crime will rise and people who can afford to leave will for those places that offer better standards of living. The dominant cities of the twenty-first century will be the ones that make the transition first, and it is likely that these cities will also end up creating stronger regional trading blocs that circumvent political boundaries (a case in point would be the Vancouver/Seattle/Portland corridor, which has the potential to become a cohesive political entity as energy and resource systems merge, despite crossing both state and national boundaries).
Indeed, this last point is worth reiterating - political boundaries may be conservative, but they also eventually snap in the face of energy flow structures. Regional trade and energy blocs are comparatively new abstractions, eddies along the older nationalistic boundaries. They will gain in cohesiveness over time, eventually overshadowing older nationalistic boundaries altogether. This means that, again taking the case of "Cascadia", while inhabitants of Portland, Seattle and Vancouver will continue being citizens of their respective states, provinces and countries, they will increasingly think of themselves as being Cascadians as trade and energy alliances build.
Ultimately, the cities of 2020 or even 2050 will likely end up being not that different from today, at least on the surface, though individually they may look quite different. Some places, like Detroit, may not even exist - it was conveniently placed in the 1920s through the 1960s to bring together the raw materials, energy sources (from Pennsylvania oil) and cheap labor to mass produce cars, as well as conveniently placed to distribute them. None of these factors are in play anymore, so the city is dying.
On the other hand, when a city enters into this mode, it is also, ironically, at its most fluid - investment terms are favorable, it's easier to raze dead neighborhoods, townships that are tethered to the city are able to break free and make more effective decisions at lower levels of abstraction, Detroit in 2050 may very well be a network of independent towns, each powering their own subgrids, each producing its own own products and services. Education and the arts may may very well be growth industries by that point, with energy production subsidizing the initial costs, and this is perhaps the real lesson to be gained from Kurzweil and Kunstler both - by moving off the oil grid, by moving away from a caustic and self-defeating consumerist culture, it may be possible that both scenarios come true; the future is a region full of universities towns and centers of learning and the arts - urban enough to bring together the necessary confluence of people but rural enough to sustain the agriculture basis of the region. I could live with that.