What are the innovations – the technologies, processes, digital tools and advancements – that will change the way we occupy and build cities 50 years into the future?

Words Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat

50 YEARS Forward Innovations and urban interventions


Biological urban lighting
Light pollution will only increase as cities grow and densify, but it can have deleterious effects on surrounding wildlife, disrupting migratory patterns and creating ripple effects through ecosystems that have not yet been fully understood. Pervasive, 24-hour-a-day lighting can have negative effects on the health of humans too, such as reduced sleep quality. Another environmental issue of continuous lighting has been its electricity-dependence and resultant carbon dioxide emissions. The current solution for this has been to transition most high-pressure sodium (HPS) streetlights to light-emitting diodes (LEDs), which are more energy-efficient, but emit a brilliant (and disruptive) bluish-white light.

Researchers are currently looking into the application of bioluminescence to tackle light pollution with both these objectives: creating a more wildlife- (and human-) compatible source of continuous public lighting and increasing the energy efficiency of citywide lighting in general. Bioluminescent lighting, while still in the research phase, has the potential to harness the glow of bioluminescent algae and fungi for use in daily civic life. The natural phenomenon of bioluminescence is a solar-powered, enzymatic reaction and is activated by agitating the organisms. Researchers are currently examining how to increase the lifespan of the reaction, potentially by splicing bioluminescent genes with existing natural features, such as trees.

Ubiquitous, vegetated buildings

There is increasing momentum toward using vegetation as part of the façade strategy of tall buildings, as well as an enhancement of interior and semi-enclosed spaces. This is about far more than aesthetics. If cities are to make more than a superficial impact on reducing the urban heat island effect, we will need to make sure that more of the new built surfaces we create are not hard, “mineralised” reflective materials, as they are today.

While progress to date is laudable, future cities will become noticeably greener – and quieter – as the environmental, mental and physical health benefits of vegetated skyscrapers become more evident, and more convincingly incorporated into pro-formas and other calculations of return on investment.

Now is the time to rethink the way cities are planned, built, lived in and maintained.


Printed buildings
Nearly all 3D-printed buildings are printed off-site in factories, transported and assembled as concrete sections. This process addresses neither the material resources nor supply chain issues that impact the embodied energy of buildings. Concrete and steel, the building blocks of cities, are hugely energy-intensive to manufacture, transport and build – contributing almost 10% of global carbon emissions.
Fifty years forward, buildings will be autonomously 3D printed from renewable and recyclable resources gathered from around a site and layered into any shape, size and height. Biopolymer-fibre composites are vastly more energy- and material-efficient than concrete, are equivalent in performance, and are recyclable and biodegradable. Advancement of 3D printed in-situ resources utilisation (ISRU) technology will move us from a linear mindset of “take, make, waste” to the circular recovery and renewal of buildings – harvested from and returned to the earth.

Drone-based automated façade inspections
Using drones for construction and building inspections will increase safety and efficiency and decrease the cost required to maintain tall building façades. Drone-based construction monitoring and façade inspection services utilise industry-leading automated flight planning software to vertically scan high-rise buildings faster and safer than via traditional methods. The images and video collected can be used during quality assurance closeout or during ongoing inspections and maintenance sessions, to identify areas of interest.

New products, construction methods, technologies and innovations are vital to sustaining urban growth.

Mass timber
Seemingly, not a day goes by without a new, spectacular mass-timber building project being announced. The world’s tallest all-timber building, Mjøstårnet in Norway, was completed in early 2019 at 85 metres. There are proposals for structures as high as 350 metres on the boards, but more importantly, hundreds of “average” multi-storey buildings that would, in the past, have been conventionally constructed with concrete and steel are now being planned with mass timber. This is for a very good reason. United Nations statistics show that there are one-million people moving into cities every week across the globe. Now is the time to rethink the way cities are planned, built, lived in and maintained. New products, construction methods, technologies and innovations are vital to sustaining this growth. These innovations must also meet the growing demand for wellness, a high quality of life, connection to nature and the environment around us.

The cities we build today urgently need to achieve net-zero carbon emissions wherever possible, at both the building and urban scale.

At the same time, the planet is rapidly experiencing climate change, and every indication is that there is an urgent need to slow the rate of planetary warming within less than a decade to avert catastrophic consequences, especially as concerns coastal cities (IPCC 2018). The cities we build today urgently need to achieve net-zero carbon emissions wherever possible, at both the building and urban scale. Both operational and embodied carbon emission reductions need to be a part of this equation. Timber is an excellent store of embodied carbon, and its production process is less environmentally harmful than that of concrete or steel. In the next few decades, the aesthetic and positive health benefits of wood as a material, the ease of construction, its versatility as a structural and finished interior material and its lower carbon footprint are likely to overcome current obstacles, mostly based around fire codes predicated on “stick-framed” dimensional lumber construction. For many ecologists, architects and developers, that obstacle cannot be overcome too soon.

Smart-tinting glass
Glass windows were invented to give people more natural light and a connection to the outdoors. Shades were invented to block that light. A 1 000-year struggle of having too much or not enough light ensued. With smart-tinting glass, the struggle may finally come to an end. Think of it as sunglasses for your buildings. A new type of glass automatically tints when the sun gets a little too hot or a little too bright – letting in plenty of natural light, while keeping people comfortable and making buildings more energy-efficient.

Smart-tinting glass blocks solar heat, eliminates glare, provides privacy and reduces energy consumption by up to 20%. Every 30 seconds, the panes, inlaid with invisible intelligence, conducts a daylight analysis to determine whether to tint, and by how much. It even factors room occupancy status into its decision-making, choosing the most energy-saving tint level accordingly. Fifty years from now, we won’t remember when windows didn’t self-tint.


The net carbon-negative tall building
There is great potential for the built environment to move from being a major source of carbon pollution, to becoming net-carbon-neutral at minimum, and a step further, a “carbon sink.” As the architecture, engineering and construction industry embraces this challenge, new material and design innovations will fundamentally change our current thought processes on how we design, build and operate. “Skyscraper 2069,” the figural carbon-negative tall building of 50 years in the future, will be a showcase of these net-zero to carbon-positive innovations, brought together within one project, and providing a road map to a more sustainable built urban environment of the future.

Future cities will become noticeably greener – and quieter – as the environmental, mental and physical health benefits of vegetated skyscrapers become more evident.

The innovations needed to create Skyscraper 2069 are many. But it is the details and composition of the materials with which we chose to build with will be most impactful. As the introduction of steel made the tall building a reality, the next most-influential urban intervention will be at the level of materials, fundamentally altering the building blocks we use to create the built urban environment. The Skyscraper 2069 project will include materially-efficient carbon-storing materials, including carbon-neutral steel, aggregate from the manufactured by-product of carbon-capture scrubbers, carbon-positive bio-based cements, bio-based floor systems made from a composite of bamboo and concrete, carbon-capture graphene in window mullions and bio-based finish materials (carpet and wall board), all part of a “circular-economy kit of parts”. It will also engage with passive energy generation systems, embedded into the tower façade.

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). (2018). Global Warming of 1.50C. Geneva: IPCC.