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The wilcard that came to be: The Empty Planet – and perhps Empty cities

Demographic trends are – as we speak – reshaping our planet, our societies and markets. Changes in lifestyles, female empowerment, migration, etc. are having immense influence on the future and should not be dealt with in a lighthearted manner. Looking to the future, two of the most interesting and worrying consequences of the demographic development are “The Empty Planet” syndrome and The Death of Cities.

When organizations – public as well as private – work with strategic scenario processes together with the Copenhagen Institute for Futures Studies, the process often starts with an outside in perspective based on megatrends that are shaping the future of markets and societies. We very often start the process with the demographic trends that are affecting the organization. And it is a funny thing – demographics. We think we know the main trends: Aging, urbanization, migration, new family structures, low fertility rates and increased longevity. To a certain extend we do – and we can even put numbers on the main trends (as an example: UNs biannual Revision of World Population Prospects). But the in-depth analysis of the consequences is often too superficial and sometimes organizations simply “forget” to look at the consequences because they are considered banal and not as exciting or important as the digital megatrends shaping the future.

Nothing could be more wrong. Demographic trends are – as we speak – reshaping our planet, our societies and markets. Changes in lifestyles, female empowerment, migration, etc. are having immense influence on the future and should not be dealt with in a lighthearted manner. Beyond the above-mentioned trends weak signals and signs are emerging that might result in even more extreme consequences.

Looking to the future, two of the most interesting and worrying consequences of the demographic development are:

1. The Empty Planet syndrome
2. The Death of Cities

As you will see below, we are of course not imagining a planet without people or a world without cities. But we are starting to investigate scenarios where countries increasingly are lacking people in the workforce and in parts of the world lacking people at large. For the cities: cities will certainly not disappear, but the value created by the physical city spaces in the world needs to be developed much further in order to create life in our cities.

Empty planet

When discussing global population trends most of the analysis done from Malthus times and until today has been about an overcrowded world with too many people, to few resources and dystopian environmental and economic perspectives. Historically the Malthus like predictions have been proved wrong time and time again by technological and societal developments. Looking towards 2030 we will see a continued increase in the global population and we will most likely face a long term future with somewhere between 9 and 11 billion people on this planet. This will strain the resources, climate, land area use in many parts of the world, and we will need to prepare for an even more efficient way of using and circulating resources.

But just as important – and for some countries even more so – is the depopulation trend facing a large number of countries in East Asia, Europe and increasingly the rest of the world. As fertility levels are dropping all over the world, populations are starting to shrink in countryside’s, in cities and in countries. In Japan the population will shrink by a third in 2065 — leading to a workforce shortage and possible economic crisis.
Some of the implications of this Empty Planet syndrome is a renewed focus on nativist policies where politicians have tried – in vain – to implement policies to increase fertility levels. So far most of these attempts have failed. Politicians have tried to use economic incentive structures, others like the South Korean government tried to encourage people to have more children, by having offices turn off the lights quicker, at 7.30 pm, on every third Wednesday of the month so that employees could go home early.

Or in Japan where a group of university students developed a baby robot (cries, sneezes, giggles, calms down with a rattle) which was supposed to introduce the idea of parenthood to men and women. The thinking was that if the potential parents are put in a situation which makes them think of themselves as parents, they are more likely to try having a real baby.

Some of the main consequences of the Empty Planet syndrome will be:

  1. Increased efforts to attract talents. Either by getting people to return to their home countries or by attracting foreign talents. New initiatives emerge like Tuk Tam, a not-for-profit organization in Bulgaria, which coordinates job fairs for returnees, provides scholarships and tries to disseminate positive news about the country’s development.
  2. Increased focus on nativist policies with the purpose of raising fertility levels. This requires more in-depth focus on everything that enables and supports families and new strategies for getting rid of whatever kind of obstacle there might be for potential parents.
  3. Increased focus on automation and efficiency levels in the economy. With rapidly shrinking workforces in many parts of the world increased investments in all kinds of automation processes will be more important. How can fewer people in the workforce support more people in retirement?
  4. Strategies for “dying” regions and cities. As population decreases strategies for the affected areas needs to be in place. How can we make sure that life for the remaining part of the population is good? As an extreme case go to Japan’s Nagoro Village where they have started to repopulate the village with life size dolls. This kind of gimmicky solution is a good way of provoking interest in a concept that will be more important: How to organize communities that are in steep decline?

The death of cities

Just as a growing global population is one of the critical megatrends shaping the coming decades, so is the continued growth of global cities changing societies and markets. The influx of people not only to city centers – as is the general perception of urbanization – but increasingly the global growth of the suburbs.

However – just like “Empty Planet” is a trend emerging at the same time as the world population is growing – urbanisation in mature economies is emerging at the same time as more and more activities disappear from our city centres.
The major change driver is obviously the continued expansion of e-commerce and other digital solutions and services. Cities are the hub of human activity and transactions used to be based in shops in city centers, shopping malls or centers in the suburbs. All of this is changing fast and the transactional aspect of stores is disappearing.

This poses the question. Why do citizens in the future want to use city spaces? And what kind of value are city spaces creating for its citizens when transactions disappear? We are not talking about the disappearance of cities, but we are questioning the value of cities.

What is interesting here in 2020 is that most cities focus on the same kind of solutions. More entertainment, more fun, greater experiences and network opportunities. Shops are transformed into retail theaters with cafés, entertainment, etc. However – there are limits. Limits to how much entertainment consumers demand, limits to how much time we have available in everyday life, etc.

This calls for a new and much more collaborative approach to cities. Combinations of service, entertainment, networking, studies, etc. needs to take place in physical surroundings that offer genuine value to citizens. Hence, we will see a big divide in the future city landscape. We will have the cities that are transformed from living city spaces into empty spaces where people might live and work, but where all the interaction will be digitalized and the city as a stage or a platform will disappear. And then we will see cities that have reinvented themselves in order to create new ways of offering value in the physical space. Value that lies beyond another café or event or restaurant.


Written by Carsten Beck, Director of research at The Copenhagen Institute for Future Studies.
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