How will we live in 150 years?

It is a century and a half since Giovanni Battista Pirelli founded his tyre company in Milan. We've come a long way since then, from horses and carts to electric supercars. Could it be that the next 150 years will bring even greater changes?

Home Life Lifestyle How will we live in 150 years?

You can pack a lot into 150 years. The year 1872 just happens to be the year when Jules Verne's adventure fantasy story Around the World In 80 Days was published – a time when the very idea of being able to travel right around the globe in as little as 80 days seemed like borderline science fiction.

Yet today a military jet can fly around the world (with the help of a little in-flight refuelling) in just under 43 hours. Or if you happen to have a seat on the International Space Station you can orbit our planet in 90 minutes at a speed of five miles per second. In only a century and a half we have gone from circuiting the earth in 80 days to something closer to 80 minutes. Is it possible that the next 150 years will bring comparable advances? And if so, what will they look like?

To look forward it is often helpful first to look back. When Pirelli was founded, there were only a small number of motor vehicles, mostly powered by steam – and in Britain at least they were required to be preceded by a man on foot blowing a horn and waving a red flag.

But matters have speeded up a little since then. It is no exaggeration to say that few things have played as big a role in transforming people's lives as advances in transportation. The growth of cities, the delivery of every kind of service, the connection of previously isolated societies, the development of trade and a global economy – none of it could have happened without a transport revolution.

Beyond carbon emissions

Progress, they say, is unstoppable. But the progress of the next 150 years is going to look very different from that of the previous period, and if there is one word that sums up that difference it is carbon. If only one thing is certain, the world in 2172 will not be emitting carbon from fossil fuels in the way we are today – because if it is, there won't be much of a world left to enjoy.

This means that over the next 150 years some of the biggest changes we will see must come in transport, because transport is the single biggest emitter of energy-related CO2, accounting for 24 per cent of all global emissions.

The early phase of these changes is already with us, in the growing sales of electric cars, particularly in Europe and China. But if history teaches us anything about technological change, it is that early phases don't much resemble later phases. The first motor vehicles were powered by steam. Early internal combustion engines were fuelled by moss spores and coal dust. Those technologies have disappeared and today's fuel technologies may go the same way.

The search for power

So, expect a dramatic rethink on where the world finds its motive power. Today the debate is mostly about the viability of alternative fuels such as hydrogen, bio-fuel and natural gas – but they all have their downsides and they all incur carbon emissions somewhere along the production chain. What is perhaps more likely is that we will develop new ways of producing carbon-free electricity.

We may see a revival of nuclear power, in the form of very small nuclear plants and even nuclear-powered road vehicles, or perhaps through solving the problems of nuclear fusion. We may see new forms of renewables, such as wave and sea-current energy. Or we may witness something entirely new.

For just one example, researchers are already experimenting with ways to harvest power such as that of natural world vibrations or background radio waves. The initial aim of the ‘Towards Zero Power Electronics' initiative of Germany's Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft applied research organisation is to eliminate batteries from low-powered Internet of Things sensors and communications devices. But the promise of alternative ‘ambient' sources could prove considerable, not only for the low-power connected devices needed to enable the transport revolution but eventually at higher power levels for many other applications.

Technological leaps

And there will be more change, as technology becomes ever more embedded in daily life. In fact, technology is likely to become literally embedded in our bodies, as neural implants allowing remote control of all sorts of devices become common. Eventually we will reach the point where we no longer think of technology as something separate from ordinary existence. And while we may not know the precise shape of the technological future, we can see the direction of travel.

It is a near certainty that technology will become increasingly predictive and we will know in advance about everything from weather and earthquakes to our own health needs. Quantum computers will solve currently unsolvable mathematical puzzles (which means an early goodbye to cryptocurrencies) and artificial intelligence will create entirely new molecules, materials and structures.

Such changes are probably only a fraction of what the next 150 years will bring. Yet when we remember that the world the Pirelli company was born into was one in which average life expectancy was less than half that of today and most serious diseases were incurable, a world where there were no lightbulbs, no telephones and no radios, such expectations do not seem exaggerated.

And the smell of petrol? Gone, gone forever.