Skip to content

How Can Cities Get Smart(er) and Prepare for Disruptive Technologies: EVs, Distributed Energy, Cheap Solar, Autonomous Vehicles, Sharing Platforms

Session leader

  • Ray Wills, Managing Director, Future Smart Strategies (Presentation


Ray Wills predicts:

“Coal will exit the electricity market in the next decade, and gas will be displaced in the following decade, as will oil because of the rapid arrival of EVs. Some nuclear growth will continue over the coming decade because nuclear power stations being built today are the result of decisions taken in the last 10 years.”

He cautions that we cannot make predictions weighted by knowledge of the past; the future can be predictable based on careful use of contemporary data. He offered the world’s largest emergent companies (e.g. Uber, AirBnB and Skype) as examples of new models that are not well-predicted by past experiences; instead of owning assets, they deliver services through data. Wills posited that the new technologies at the core of these emergent companies replace old because they offer greater utility and change can be tracked through a “learning curve.” That “learning curve” is determined by the rate of cost reduction and when “prices are reduced faster than we anticipated, this is disruptive.”

While we do not know which specific technologies will succeed, certainly some will, and Wills said, we are in a state of rapid adoption: wind was fast, solar was faster, and Wills expects batteries to be faster still. This non-linear, exponential growth is challenging to understand and institutions like the IEA continue to predict linear growth of energy production, such as for coal, “this is poor science and it poorly informs policy-makers and planners.” Current renewables are first generation. Forecasting is not considering what will happen when second and third generation solar (in windows, clothing, paint, etc.) overtake the current generation. Also, as renewable energy increases, combustible fuel use decreases (albeit not necessarily at the same rate), which may not be captured in forecasts.

Cities will be pushed by technology uptake (e.g. electric and autonomous vehicles and home energy storage will impact their infrastructure planning), but local governments can also embrace and drive change (for example, some have started to ban certain types of vehicles).

Wrapping up his presentation, Wills made the rallying call: “Don’t be afraid to be ambitious, the future is already here!”


There were many follow up questions about specific technologies, to which Wills responded by reframing some common problems as opportunities: 3-D printing will replace traditional building materials; fuel cells may have proven to be superior but EVs have likely eclipsed them (like Beta vs VHS video); climate change is occurring faster than expected but he believes the market will transform fast enough to avoid the worst impacts; regulators and federal governments will become less relevant as new governance structures begin to take form in peer-to-peer transactions (e.g. peer-to-peer energy trading and ridesharing is simply a precursor to wider reaching change); and Wills predicts even food production will be decentralized with the advent of vertical farming.

There was discussion about the environmental impacts of materials in renewable energy equipment, such as solar photovoltaics. Wills classified this as a problem with resource extraction and recycling regulations, but acknowledged that these impacts need to be addressed but should not distract from promoting the adoption of renewables. One participant posited that “technologies are disruptive because of embedded interests,” which Wills framed as positive. He called renewables technologies of peace, bringing attention to the proposition that non-renewable energy technologies were historically developed in a context of conflict.

When asked about carbon pricing, Wills argued that a focus on emission intensity will take us further in combatting climate change. Another participant pointed out that cities continue to invest in traditional infrastructure that will remain for a long time and Wills indicated that is a result of institutional knowledge slowing behaviour change. He argued that data and businesses cases, coupled with good risk management, will lead to changes in planning.

Key Takeaways

Thinking in terms of disruptive technology means we cannot predict future developments based on the past. Some observations that emerged during this session include:

  • Technology is disruptive when prices drop faster than expected and uptake accelerates exponentially.
  • While we cannot predict which technologies will succeed, we should expect new technologies to replace old ones.
  • New tiers of governance are emerging in decision-making, such as stratas and corporations, and regulatory bodies and federal governments are becoming less relevant.
  • Cities will both push and be pulled by technology, and will play an increasingly important role in technological change as they are closely connected to the people they serve.