Opening Keynote: The Future Is Sooner than You Think

“Technology often changes our world in ways we’re not expecting,” Jack Uldrich, futurist and best-selling author told APA's 108th National Planning Conference. 

His advice to APA members: Pay attention to trends. “They can transform our world sooner than you think.”

In his opening keynote address, “Vuja De: A Futurist Takes a Backwards Stroll into Your World of Tomorrow,” Uldrich took conference attendees on a tour through history, illustrating how both past and modern-day technological innovations that have fundamentally changed the way the world works.

His goal: to help NPC attendees not only define the future, but also to "shake up their assumptions and get them ready for the fresh ideas coming their way in the days ahead."

Planners are no strangers to planning for the future. But with the today’s rapid advances in technology, predicting what the world will look like in five, 10, or 20 years is a tall order, and it’s only getting harder. Innovations are happening at a faster and faster pace, said Uldrich. Technologies like GPS and self-driving cars are getting better, faster, and more affordable, which means things that seemed fifty years away may be only a be couple of years away.

Uldrich likened cars to elevators he said, which once required trained, dedicated operators but are now operable by anyone: “Our children and grandchildren are going to be able to push a button and operate driverless cars, and won’t give it a second thought.”

What planners should be asking, he says, is what are the implications for transportation and community and how do we need to plan for it?  "I know a lot of you are already thinking of this but I implore you to think about it harder because it might be here before you know it."

Technological innovations like self-driving cars have broad implications, and present opportunities, particularly for planners. For example:

  • With rapidly advancing robot technology, 40 percent of U.S. jobs will be lost to automation within the next 20 years. How will that affect the workforce?
  • Genome sequencing may increase the human life span to 120 years. That will mean four or five generations living on the Earth at the same time. What impacts will that have?
  • Think of the innovations that have been made possible by the Internet — social media, the sharing economy, online education — and how it’s already changed our lives. What kind of social, economic, and lifestyle changes will result as Internet and data service gets even faster and more affordable, and how will it affect the way people live and how our cities operate?
  • Tesla's model three already has 250,000 people willing to put a $1,000 down payment on an electric vehicle that won't be ready for a couple years. What does this and the advancements in self-driving cars tell us about how our transportation infrastructure needs to change?

So what does this all mean for the future? Uldrich said he doesn’t know, but he pointed to a quote from the late Peter Drucker, “The only way to predict the future is to create it yourself.”

Luckily, planners are in the future-making business, and uniquely positioned to consider how these and other trends (even the ones that seem pretty far “out there”) will change the world in the coming years, and then plan for them.

 “I wish you the best of luck in the future,” Uldrich said, “because it’s going to be both scary and exciting.”

About the Author

Mary Hammon is the associate editor of Planning magazine.

Image: Jack Uldrich delivering the 2016 conference opening keynote. Photo by Joe Szurszewski.


April 4, 2016

By Mary Hammon