UCL Institute for Sustainable Resources


Summer School: A day in the life of the future

1 April 2022

Each year the UCL Institute for Sustainable Resources and The Bartlett work with IntoUniversity to host a summer school with A-level students from across the UK - this piece from one of the students outlines a sustainable, inclusive local community, set in the year 2040.

Aerial view of a car park with lots of green plants on the top

In August 2021, researchers and students from the Bartlett School of the Built Environment, along with a guest from Repowering London, and with the support of national education charity IntoUniversity, hosted an online summer school with A-level students from across the UK, focussing on the question of what the net-zero transition means for the communities where we live.

In small groups, the Summer School participants moved through a series of stages reflecting first on the qualities of our neighbourhoods as they are at the moment, then considering what potential changes could be brought about by the net-zero transition, and how such changes might also make our local neighbourhoods, healthier, more inclusive, vibrant and pleasant places to live. Each group then presented its vision for a sustainable, inclusive neighbourhood.

Lue Teoh, aged 18, joined the online summer school from his home in Manchester. In the following essay, Lue describes his vision of a sustainable, inclusive local community, set in the year 2040.

A day in the life of the future

It is early in the morning of the year 2040, the built world around me has transformed in the last decade or so, reshaped by the Fourth Industrial Revolution and continues to evolve at unprecedented speed.  I’m asleep in my new environmentally efficient home, constructed more durably, precisely and cost-effectively than homes that are built years ago by the reliability and profession of 3D printing technologies.  I got up and slowly, the blinds covering the solar windows in my bedroom begin to rise.  It’s a winter morning, the lighting and temperature controls within my home automatically respond to the elements outside.  Every fitting, fixture and feature in my home is designed to sense and react to my needs, helping me to run my life as smoothly as possible.  Some, such as my smart walls, are made of programmable materials that respond to external stimuli.  Others are directed by sensors controlled by me with just a word or flick of the wrist.  This means no more stumbling around in the dark on cold mornings, searching for the light switch or sweltering during hot summers.  Now, whatever the time of day or year, the lighting, temperature and atmosphere in my home will always be just how I like it.  As I blink awake, I wave my hand and turn on two of the translucent screens close by.  One brings up my virtual assistant and the other screen displays the morning’s headlines.

As I step into the bathroom, I check my freshwater stores and limit myself to a three-minute shower — before getting dressed.  When I am finished, I grab that day’s outfit.  It not only adapts to fit my body shape but also helps me monitor my physical health and mental wellbeing, sending regular updates to my phone.  This morning’s message is that I need more vitamin C, and it offers suggestions for different juice recipes.  I would select one and send it to my smart juicer.  It’s ready by the time I get to the kitchen, alongside a pot of freshly brewed coffee.  I grab a cup and some breakfast.  A friend is due to visit this weekend.  Before leaving, I rearrange my living space, moving the flexible internal walls of my home to create a spare bedroom and add a request to make up a bed to my home droid’s list of chores for the day.

Currently, my home is in a central community hub and every day the use of the space around me is evolving.  More people are relying on walking, biking and public transportation as they are faster, safer and cheaper alternatives to owning their car.  As a result, chunks of urban real estate once filled with vehicles are reclaimed for the community.  My new home is located in a former multi-story parking lot, now repurposed in record time using 3D printing technologies to provide access to sustainable, affordable homes for the city’s growing population as well as a public gym and other local facilities.  On a smaller scale, others are adapting their old garages to be used as drop-in workspaces.  Transport systems across the world are now using artificial intelligence (AI) and digital sensors to help analyse the millions of pieces of data being generated relating to demand, delays and constraint issues across their networks and respond with increased capacity, timetable changes and updates to passengers in real-time.  Over the last decade, the sky above me has become busier — increasingly populated by delivery drones, running alongside flying autonomous vehicles and governed by strict air traffic control rules and initiatives such as designated flight lanes and tolls.

At the same time, the world can’t afford for this excess water to go to waste.  The demand for freshwater is rising as the global population grows.  Farmers need it to boost food production and power stations to generate energy.  But we’re draining resources faster than they can be replenished.  Many like you rely on systems built into your homes, offices and other facilities to capture, store and treat rainwater for everyday use.  Some countries are exploring building ecosystems that will enable the transfer of floodwater to storage reservoirs so that it can be used by drought-hit areas elsewhere.  Tighter emissions regulations around the world are also driving innovation and investment in the treatment and reuse of water, aiming to reduce the need to abstract it from rivers and other natural water resources.  In response, the water industry has worked to upgrade its infrastructure and employ solutions like IFAS (Integrated Fixed-Film Activated Sludge) technology — which enables them to intensify their treatment processes, using their existing assets without increasing their costs or footprint.  Other advances include the use of microbubbles.  Water companies pump air into wastewater, creating bubbles to rapidly break down sewage.  This technology, which can be fitted to new and existing treatment plants, generates smaller bubbles to complete this purification process cheaper, faster and more sustainably than ever before.  And, most recently, the industry is drawing on microbubbles to strip out ammonia from drinking water and turn it directly into fertilizer, removing the need for previously costly additional stages.  Power stations, too, are increasingly becoming a thing of the past.  More and more homes are powered by super batteries that store and use energy generated via solar panels and other renewable solutions.

A day in the life of the future – commentary

Commentary written by ISR Senior Research Fellow Dr Nick Hughes

Lue Teoh, aged 18, from Manchester, took part in an online Summer School in August 2021, organised by the Bartlett Faculty of the Built Environment, in collaboration with IntoUniversity. Following the Summer School, Lue wrote the essay, A Day in the Life of the Future a fascinating glimpse of a possible resource-efficient, low carbon, and socially inclusive future.

I love the choice of setting it on a cold day in winter. This setting has a glimmer of an association for me with that masterpiece of dystopian fiction, George Orwell’s 1984, which also begins on ‘a bright cold day’ – but the association is quickly overwhelmed by a flood of relief that this imagined cold morning is in such beautiful contrast to Orwell’s nightmare. The cold winter morning also has an emotional resonance to me, as we consider loss, and what we hope to preserve, in the face of climate change – as Zadie Smith memorably reflects in her Elegy for a Country’s Seasons: ‘admiring the frost on the holly berries, en route to school. Taking a long, restorative walk on Boxing Day in the winter glare. Whole football pitches crunching underfoot.’ The idea that we may still enjoy winter mornings when the sun, low in the sky, makes the frost sparkle, may not be one of the most vital reasons to limit climate change – but it is one that has emotional resonance to me, and hence I find the wintry atmosphere of this vision both comforting and hopeful.

The cold weather is additionally pleasurable because of its contrast with the warm domestic atmosphere in which, as Lue writes, ‘the lighting, temperature and atmosphere in my home will always be just how I like it.’ The home is a place of security, in which human comforts are attended to with precision, but also flexibility – for example with internal walls that can simply be rearranged to create a spare bedroom.

This combination of flexibility and precision could enable us to achieve a much more efficient use of resources. Internal flexibility within buildings could help families to recreate their living spaces in response to changing life circumstances. Homes themselves could be ‘constructed more durably, precisely and cost-effectively’ through the assistance of 3D printing.

This sense of flexibility also extends into the wider built environment: ‘every day the use of the space around me is evolving.’ This includes the repurposing of now-redundant fossil fuel related infrastructure into ‘sustainable, affordable homes’; while the adaptation of ‘old garages to be used as drop-in workspaces’, is suggestive of a vibrant local economy with small-scale entrepreneurs sharing spaces and ideas.

Lue’s vision is of a low carbon and resource efficient future. ‘Solar windows’, ‘super batteries’ and domestic systems thatcapture, store and treat rainwater for everyday use’ suggest a home that is highly self-sufficient in energy and other resources. A redesigned urban space means people find that ‘walking, biking and public transportation’ are ‘faster, safer and cheaper alternatives to owning their car’.

Some aspects of Lue’s vision raise fascinating questions about how we can harness the benefits of technological progress for human wellbeing, while avoiding potentially more problematic trade-offs. There is an increased level of technological automation, both in the home, and in the sky – ‘now increasingly populated by delivery drones’ and ‘autonomous vehicles.’ Automation offers the potential to reduce human labour, but how will we ensure that the benefits of such changes are equally shared, and do not simply result in unemployment or increasingly precarious work for some?

There is also increased data gathering and use of artificial intelligence – Lue receives real-time and personalised feedback on health and diet, while AI systems are employed to manage transport systems. How will we balance the promises of such systems with concerns about data privacy, and preserving human autonomy and freedom of choice?

But for me, perhaps what is most inspiring and thought-provoking about this vision is precisely that it is not purely a technology-led vision. Though the envisaged technical changes are radical, it remains fundamentally a vision with humans at the centre. Lue does not live in an isolated unit, but rather as part of a ‘central community hub’ that provides not only sustainable and low cost housing, but also shared spaces and facilities. It is a world in which spare space and redundant infrastructure is reclaimed not for private benefit, but ‘for the community’. It is a world in which people are ready to take personal responsibility for their private resource use, but also are empowered to join their creativity with others in shared community spaces.

Bringing this kind of vision about will require us to think about how technological change can be integrated with planning and governance that crosses multiple scales – from local to national – but always puts people at its centre.

This type of creative storytelling is so important to bringing about sustainable transitions. We are increasingly familiar with dystopian visions of the future – whether in the alarming graphics of IPCC reports, or on the portentous placards of protestors.  Of course it is important to confront the risks and dangers of continued inaction. But we also need more utopian visions of where we want to go, to rescue us from despair, inspire us to take action, and perhaps most importantly, help us to think about what our next steps should be.

That’s why I am so grateful to Lue for this vision. It is inspiring and hopeful, and filled with insights that can help us to navigate towards a more resource efficient, low carbon and socially inclusive future.

Lue Teoh, 18, from Manchester, was taking part in a Summer School hosted in August 2021 by The Bartlett, UCL, in collaboration with IntoUniversity, a national education charity that works to support the aspirations of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Photo by CHUTTERSNAP on Unsplash