Julio Gil
1,373,665 views • 11:07

Today, more than half of the world's population lives in cities. The urbanization process started in the late 1700s and has been increasing since then. The prediction is that by 2050, 66 percent of the population will live in cities and the United Nations, the World Health Organization, the World Economic Forum, are warning us, if we don't plan for the increased density, current problems in our cities, like inequality, congestion, crime can only get worse. As a result, urban planners and city developers are putting a lot of effort and creativity in designing our future, denser, bigger cities.

But I have a different opinion. I think urbanization is actually reaching the end of its cycle, and now people are going to start moving back to the countryside. And you may think, "But what about the trend?" Well, let me tell you, socioeconomic trends don't last forever. You know, 12,000 years ago everybody was perfectly happy roaming the land, hunting and gathering. And then, the trend changes, and the new thing is to live in a farm and have cattle, until it changes again. When we get to the industrial revolution. Actually, that is what started the urbanization process. And you know what triggered it? Steam power, machines, new chemical processes — in two words, technological innovation. And I believe technology can also bring the end of this cycle.

I've been working on innovation for most of my career. I love it. I love my job. It allows me to work with drones, with 3D printers and smart glasses, and not just those you can buy in the shop but also prototypes. It's a lot of fun sometimes. Now, some of these technologies are opening new possibilities that will radically change the way we did things before and in a few years, they may allow us to enjoy the benefits of city life from anywhere. Think about it. If you could live in a place with a lower crime rate and more space and a lower cost of living and less traffic, of course many people would want that, but they feel they don't have a choice. You have to live in the city.

Well, in the past, people moved to the cities not because they loved the city itself but for the things you could have in a city, more job opportunities, easier access to services and goods and a rich social life. So let's dive deeper.

More jobs and career opportunities. Is that still true today, because the office people are starting to realize that working in the office and being in the office may not be the same thing anymore. According to a study by Global Workplace Analytics, more than 80 percent of the US workforce would like to work from home. And do you know how much it costs for a company to even have an office? 11,000 dollars per employee per year. If only half of those workers would telework even 50 percent of the time, the savings in the states would exceed 500 billion dollars, and it could reduce greenhouse gases by 54 million tons. That is the equivalent of 10 million cars off the streets for a whole year. But even though most people would want to telework, current technology makes the experience isolating. It's not comfortable. It doesn't feel like being there. But that is going to change by the convergence of two technologies: augmented reality and telepresence robots.

Augmented reality already today allows you to take your office environment everywhere with you. All you need is a wearable computer, a pair of smart glasses, and you can take your emails and your spreadsheets with you wherever you go. And video conferences and video calls have become very common these days, but they still need improvement. I mean, all those little faces on a flat screen, sometimes you don't even know who is talking.

Now, we already have something way better than static videocalls: your average telepresence robot. I call it tablet on a stick.

(Laughter)

You can control, you can move around, you can control what you're looking at. It's way better, but far from perfect. You know how they say that most human communication is nonverbal? Well, the robot doesn't give you any of that. It looks like an alien. But with advances in augmented reality, it will be easy to wrap the robot in a nice hologram that actually looks and moves like a person. That will do it. Or else, forget the robot. We go full VR, and everybody meets in cyberspace. Give it a couple of years and that will feel so real, you won't tell the difference.

So what was the next reason why people move to cities? Access to services and goods. But today you can do all that online. According to a study made by comScore, online shoppers in the US last year did more than half of their retail purchases online, and the global market for e-commerce is estimated to be at two trillion dollars. And it's expected to reach 2.38 by the end of 2017, according to eMarketer.

Now, from a logistics standpoint, density is good for deliveries. Supplying goods to a shopping mall is easy. You can send big shipments to the shop, and people will go there, pick it up and take it home themselves. E-commerce means we need to ship onesies and have them home delivered. That's more expensive. It's like the difference between having a birthday party for 20 people or bringing a piece of the cake to each of your 20 friends at their place. But at least in the city, they live close to each other. Density helps. Now, e-commerce deliveries in the countryside, those take forever. The truck sometimes needs to drive miles between one address and the next one. Those are the most expensive deliveries of all.

But we already have a solution for that: drones. A vehicle carrying a squadron of drones. The driver does some of the deliveries while the drones are flying back and forth from the truck as it moves. That way, the average cost for delivery is reduced, and voila: affordable e-commerce services in the countryside. You will see: the new homes of our teleworkers will probably have a drone pod in the yard. So once the final mile delivery is not a problem, you don't need to be in the city to buy things anymore. So that's two.

Now, what was the third reason why people move to cities? A rich social life. They would need to be in the city for that these days. Because people these days, they make friends, they chat, gossip and flirt from the comfort of their sofa.

(Laughter)

And while wearing their favorite pajamas.

(Laughter)

There are over two billion active social media users in the world. In a way, that makes you think like we are connected no matter where we are. But OK, not completely. Sometimes you still need some real human contact. Ironically, the city, with its population density, is not always the best for that. Actually, as social groups become smaller, they grow stronger. A recent study made in the UK by the Office for National Statistics showed a higher life satisfaction rating among people living in rural areas. So as people settle in the countryside, well, they will buy local groceries, fresh groceries, foodstuff, maintenance services. So handymen, small workshops, service companies will thrive. Maybe some of the industrial workers from the cities displaced by the automation will find a nice alternative job here, and they will move too. And as people move to the countryside, how is that going to be? Think about autonomous, off-the-grid houses with solar panels, with wind turbines and waste recycling utilities, our new homes producing their own energy and using it to also power the family car. I mean, cities have always been regarded as being more energy-efficient, but let me tell you, repopulating the countryside can be eco too.

By now, you're probably thinking of all the advantages of country living.

(Laughter)

I did it myself. Six years ago, my wife and I, we packed our stuff, we sold our little apartment in Spain, and for the same money we bought a house with a garden and little birds that come singing in the morning.

(Laughter)

It's so nice there. And we live in a small village, not really the countryside yet. That is going to be my next move: a refurbished farmhouse, not too far from a city, not too close. And now we'll make sure to have a good spot for drones to land.

(Laughter)

But hey, that's me. It doesn't have to be you, because it would seem like I'm trying to convince somebody to come join us in the country. I'm not.

(Laughter)

I don't need more people to come.

(Laughter)

I just think they will once they realize they can have the same benefits the city has. But if you don't like the country, I have good news for you, too. Cities will not disappear. But as people move out, a lower density will help them recover a better flow and balance.

Anyway, I guess now you have some thinking to do. Do you still think you need to live in the city? And more importantly, do you want to?

Thank you very much.

(Applause)