Mon Jun 28 2021 Michael McQueen

Last year threw a spanner in the works of human movement. While we were on an unwavering trajectory towards an urbanised and globalised world, widespread lockdowns sent us back to the confines of our homes, into the borders of our own countries and towards suburbs beyond the cities. With a new balance of working from home and at the office, and real estate booming beyond the major cities, we are seeing a version of our future emerging faster and more differently than we ever could have predicted. The notion of city living is expanding in its definition as are the innovations that are accompanying it.  

It seems that the coming years will bring us a version of cities far more widespread than the centralised kind we are used to. As technologies like augmented reality and Zoom are allowing for unprecedented flexible employment and remote work, there is a decreasing need for metropolitan living. Small and midsized cities are emerging as the favoured locations for real estate, lifestyle and recreating, this trend seeing innovative jobs and real estate solutions come to the fore.

In a modern version of the American Dream, communities around the US are embracing their picket fences and backyards in the form of rental housing. In line with the decline of ownership across industries, these rental communities mimic the suburban family neighbourhood in a way that is viable for the modern young couple. As house prices grow higher while houses grow smaller, rental properties like this appear as a viable alternative to urban apartment living, especially as working in the city is no longer the only option for working. Beyond this, the flexibility offered by new employment options only encourages the pursuit of flexibility in housing, with the number of young people interested in home ownership steadily decreasing. [1]

With these trends in mind, the backing of investors is unsurprising. These built-to-rent houses now represent 6% of new US homes, but developments are projected to double by 2024 and investors will be backing them in numbers up to $40 billion. Real estate companies will act as the landlord for these rental suburbs, leaving tenants with many of the benefits of home ownership and little of the responsibility.[2] If the deurbanization trends we have been seeing in the last couple of years continue, communities like these may offer a viable solution for those moving to smaller cities.

Beyond real estate options, small and midsize cities are already seeing the implementation of various innovative solutions to current and potential problems regarding population, economy, housing and employment. Small to midsize cities offer a helpful testing ground for new ideas, aside from being a rising contender for the world’s populations.

In increasingly egalitarian moves, many communities are offering universal income, affordable housing, granting loans, and even utilising the efficient construction, size and cost of tiny homes as a solution to homelessness. In a bold statement of social justice, one Chicago suburb is paying reparations to African American residents who descend from enslaved people or have faced systemic discrimination.[3]

Beyond economic and social welfare, neighbourhoods across the US are adopting emerging technology in making systems more efficient. A neighbourhood in Texas is testing self-driving ride-share shuttles in responding to the rising cost of public transport. In responding to the inefficiency of delivery zones in highly populated areas, collaborating companies are developing smart delivery zones. Utilising a curb-management smartphone app, drivers reserve drop-off zones for deliveries, preventing congestion and traffic. The data that is accumulated by the app then offers the city new sources of information, solutions and revenue.[4]

While many be moving out of our major metropolitan areas, it is undeniable that big cities will continue remain crucial to economy, employment and real estate. However, the realties of widespread overpopulation and climate change have revealed a need for efficient and climate-conscious solutions and purposes for buildings and systems. As the last year exposed a need to rethink the purposes of city infrastructure, these trends are provoking innovation that would not have otherwise emerged.

Recently, three neighbourhoods in New York have granted residents free Wifi with the installation of solar panels on the buildings’ rooftops. Driven by the Workforce Housing group and partly financed by the NY Green Bank, this project is being enacted in the hopes of increasing housing affordability, sustainability and access to the internet. The system is designed to be applicable across the globe in underprivileged communities.[5]

In a similar urban use of solar power, an architecture and building company in Philadelphia called Onion Flats has recently developed an apartment complex named Front Flats that is reimagining solar panel use.  The four-story block of 28 apartments in Philadelphia has achieved the goal of being net-zero by featuring 492 windowpanes that double as translucent solar panels. It has already proved its viability by successfully generating more than enough of its own power in 2020 and selling its excess to the grid.[6] Efficient solutions such as this are continuing to prove they are the future of city living.

In light of these new small cities, the changing nature of our big metropolitan areas and the innovation accompanying it all, we are set to see the emergence of some unexpected jobs. While we have always predicted technology-centred jobs for the future such as roboticists and AI programmers, the jobs that this kind of innovation will see emerge involve titles as outlandish as ‘vertical gardener’ and ‘cooling consultant’. With green spaces and vertical gardens steadily emerging in big cities, gardeners for the innovative areas are necessary. Furthermore, as global warming leaves us with the conundrum of requiring air conditioning which further pollutes the atmosphere and raises the temperature, cooling solutions will be increasingly essential in coming years. Cooling solutions which draw upon nature, architecture, advanced sensors and software will be crucial in solving this problem, as will the expert minds on the topic.[7]

While big cities will remain essential for so many systems of our society, the future will see small and midsize cities rise in importance as populations continue to grow and technology continues to improve. Regardless, with increasingly efficient, effective and egalitarian solutions consistently emerging, it seems we have much to look forward to in the cities of tomorrow.


Michael McQueen is a trends forecaster, business strategist and award-winning conference speaker.

He features regularly as a commentator on TV and radio and is a bestselling author of 9 books. His most recent book The New Now examines the 10 trends that will dominate a post-COVID world and how to prepare for them now. 

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[1] Parker, W 2021, ‘Built-to-rent suburbs are poised to spread across the U.S’, The Wall Street Journal, 7 June.

[2] Parker, W 2021, ‘Built-to-rent suburbs are poised to spread across the U.S’, The Wall Street Journal, 7 June.

[3] Putzier, K 2021,  ‘10 big ideas to improve life in small and midsize cities’, The Wall Street Journal, 10 June.

[4] Putzier, K 2021,  ‘10 big ideas to improve life in small and midsize cities’, The Wall Street Journal, 10 June.

[5] Khoury, K 2021, ‘Solar energy savings provides city residents with free wifi’, Springwise, 23 June.

[6] Gold, R. 2021, ‘An architecture firm’s push to build net-zero apartments’, The Wall Street Journal, 5 February.

[7] Morenne, B 2021, ‘Jobs for the city of tomorrow’, The Wall Street Journal, 7 June.