“Conversations about multiple potential futures are crucial” 

27 June 2024

Carsten Beck is an economist working at the Copenhagen Institute for Future Studies (CIFS), a non-profit think tank based in Copenhagen that analyses trends and foresight processes.  

“Being a futurist doesn’t mean we can predict the future, but it’s crucial to have conversations about where citizens, societies, markets or companies might end up,” explains Beck. “This helps in strategic planning and avoids being caught off guard.” 

Eurocities has talked with Beck about the future of cities and the challenges and opportunities ahead. 

You said that we cannot predict the future and that sounds about right. But what’s the objective then? What do you do with the data, the analysis, or the trends?  

We use quantitative data about the past and present to conduct trend analyses and have conversations. For example, if you look at data on house construction, fertility levels or migration patterns, you’re working with historical data.  

Yesterday, I discussed the future of education in Denmark with some schools. Fertility levels are rather low —higher than in some other European countries, but still low—, suggesting fewer children in the future, and that’s a starting point for a discussion. Data will tell you how many schools there are, what’s the social construct of the families in that area, and so on. 

This applies to any trend —economics, politics, technology, environmental concerns, etc. It could change tomorrow as it’s theoretical, but we need to create scenarios and have conversations about a multitude of potential futures. Ultimately, someone in the city must take a decision —even when it’s not futureproofed—, and it’s smarter to have a foresight process before taking that decision not having one at all. 

Local politicians must make decisions based on data or analysis. Indeed they need to believe that something is going to happen to act, which is challenging. 

Absolutely. And success is difficult to measure. Did the mayor or politicians of a certain city reach their goals? The goals of Lyon can be different from the goals of Brussels, which may differ from the goals of Copenhagen, making it hard to evaluate success uniformly. 

All activities that make life interesting whether you’re young or old, rich or poor, will continue to take place in cities.
— Carsten Beck

Hans Rosling is a Swedish analyst who wrote ‘Factfulness’. He’s not trying to predict anything, but rather saying ‘You need to understand the facts of today’. When discussing city topics, start with data and then see what’s going on. Some data may seem negative to a politician or a citizen, but it’s essential to examine it. 

In Denmark, researchers studied why young people move out of their parents’ homes. The main driver was seeking other young people, such as friends, partners or fellow students. If you’re sitting in a super small city without young people, you need to acknowledge that you cannot be blind to demands and wishes. And the same goes for any trend, for example, AI.  

You mentioned demographic changes, which are very important because the city of the future will look different from the city of the present and the past. How do you imagine cities in 2050? What are the opportunities ahead? 

Urbanisation is a megatrend. We will go hiking in the mountains and have fun on the beach, visit farms outside cities and buy special beer, but all activities that make life interesting whether you’re young or old, rich or poor, will continue to take place in cities. Consumption, education, healthcare, schools, work. 

[Sustainability] is where I see cities have a glorious future, the urban dimension will be very important in creating more sustainable futures for our citizens.
— Carsten Beck

In some regions, like in East Asia, they’re closing down small cities. People tend to love the region they’re from, so we should keep trying. However, in the medium to long term, if the population levels keep decreasing in, for instance, in Eastern European countries, Russia and then it’ll get to Western Europe, then we will close down the countryside. 

It’s very nice to have local production and farming and activities but if you don’t have a sustainable economic model for the countryside then people will not be pleased. If you’re considering moving to a small city but there is no school for your kids, you will not move but, instead, choose the next nearest city with the needed amenities.  

This reality leads to significant changes and poses a risk. We’ve seen farmers protesting in Germany, France, Holland and Belgium. The countryside’s prosperity is uncertain, though. Fifteen years ago, I would have said that rural areas could thrive due to the benefits of a quiet life, good neighbours and internet connectivity.

Political demands and regulations are trying to support the countryside in countries like France and even in super-small countries like Denmark, but it’s not changing anything. Urbanisation will continue. Consumption, education, healthcare, schools, work, all will continue to happen in cities. The interesting thing now is that all the processes that take place in cities can be digitalised. When I was young, there were two cities in Denmark to study Economics, so you needed to travel. If I wanted to buy music, I had to go to the music store. That’s what you would do in cities. But now, at least in theory, all these activities could be digitalised. I am not suggesting that this will happen and the physical concentration of people will disappear as we’re social creatures, but we need to strategise what added value we are creating in the cities, and the value of people being physically together. 

There is tremendous value in schools. Kids socialise, learn how to behave and so on. I am sure this will continue, but on the other hand, fifteen years ago I would have said that physical retail would have continued, and it did not. 

But we’ll still manage. Some of my colleagues think there will be no jobs in the future because of digitalisation and that AI will take over everything. I think there will be lots of jobs and new demands in the future but we need to examine all of this and understand what it means for our city. 

For example, I was walking down the nice old city centre of a small German city – old houses and a very nice atmosphere with 30,000 residents. In the middle of the city, there is a big building that used to be the department store that is closed now. We want to avoid that. It could be used for retail, or offices, for example. Those would be some of the things I would look into. If we’re more often at home it means there is less going on on the streets. 

And I see suburbs as a very important trend. Big cities are crowded and well-known, and host tech companies and opportunities but, if you look at the numbers, people still tend to live in cities that are not Paris. People choose suburbs for many reasons. 

Additionally, sustainability will be a significant focus. We have talked about climate change for decades, and only now we’re starting to act. Whether we’re acting in the right way or fast enough, that’s a political debate, but we are acting. That’s where I see cities have a glorious future, the urban dimension will be very important in creating more sustainable futures for our citizens. It will require systemic solutions, which are more manageable in areas where two million people live. 

We need to delve deeper to understand why young people moving to cities still experience anxiety and loneliness.  
— Carsten Beck

You talked about youth in last year’s Eurocities Social Affairs Forum and also just now. Youth is very important because they will be the ones affected by future challenges we can already identify, for instance, climate change.  

We, as European citizens, must understand why young people feel anxious today. What is the reason for pessimism? The increasing issues with mental health, particularly among young people, might be partly due to social media. We need to delve deeper to understand why young people moving to cities still experience anxiety and loneliness.  

This is a highly political issue with various proposed solutions, but it requires serious attention. I believe local communities play a crucial role. Whether through concepts like the 15-minute city or even smaller communities related to work, we need to explore ways to strengthen these connections to address the problem.  

This brings to mind movies like “Back to the Future,” which predicted how 2020 would look. But it turned out quite different. Can you provide examples of present-day challenges that were identified with enough time in the past? 

Back in 1992, I wrote my thesis on climate change. Surprisingly, we didn’t take action sooner, given what we knew. Had we started 20 years earlier, we could have given companies time to adapt, particularly in terms of mobility systems, and found new ways of creating climate-neutral or regenerative materials when we built our cities. 

Political backlash is particularly interesting in big cities.
— Carsten Beck

Continuing on this track, we are seeing significant changes in circularity. We need to develop circular systems to change how we treat and perceive trash compared to 20-30 years ago, and this shift is happening now.  

One major change has been technology, particularly smartphones. While it’s fantastic that we can now connect through platforms like Teams, which allows us to see each other smile, I’m still puzzled by the lack of further progress. Despite technological advancements, the screens of devices like the iPhone look similar to those from 20 years ago. Although companies like Apple and Samsung claim improvements, I expected deeper integration of data supporting urban environments.  

The Internet of Things has made strides with digital trends and machine processes, but I would have imagined even greater integration to create better solutions. 

What about globalisation and the role of cities in the world? 

As an economist, I see globalisation as a wonderful concept. The idea of everyone doing what they do best and then trading is fundamental. Cities like London, New York, Tokyo, and Singapore are global and super international. For example, London remains highly international and excels at integrating foreigners into its economy, more so than countries like Denmark or others in Europe. 

I expected this trend to continue, but political backlash changed the landscape. This shift is particularly interesting in big cities. 

But let’s be honest, the branding and opportunities that cities like Paris, London, and Berlin offer are on a different level compared to second-tier cities. This isn’t to say these cities can’t prosper. For instance, Groningen in the northern part of the Netherlands has done an excellent job attracting young people, primarily from all of the Netherlands and perhaps a bit from Belgium and Germany.  

If you asked an average American about Groningen, they might not know it, but they likely know Amsterdam or even The Hague.  It’s easier if you are branded. 

For a more balanced and effective urban development, we need to involve 'everyday citizens' who experience the city's realities daily. This inclusion would ensure that the planning process reflects the diverse needs and perspectives of all residents.
— Carsten Beck

How would you improve the foresight processes that impact urban environments? 

Citizens must engage in foresight processes to anticipate and shape future trends. Many cities are attempting this, and creating scenarios is an essential part of avoiding getting stuck in a limited mindset. For example, cities can become fixated on their current identity, such as Amsterdam with its canals and bikes or a city being just a charming place. While these attributes are wonderful, cities need to challenge and expand their vision. 

One challenge I often see in these processes is the involvement of the same groups of people. Typically, we engage with NGOs, young activists and people passionate about sustainability, which is vital. However, the broader population—those leading ordinary lives, working regular jobs, and dealing with everyday issues—are often left out of the conversation. These individuals may fill out surveys and be part of quantitative data, but they rarely participate actively in planning discussions. 

For a more comprehensive approach, we need to involve these “everyday” citizens who experience the city’s realities daily. This inclusion would ensure that the planning process reflects the diverse needs and perspectives of all residents, not just those who are already engaged and vocal. I believe this shift would lead to more balanced and effective urban development. 


Marta Buces Eurocities Writer