By mid-century, when today's toddlers are middle-aged, Sydney's population will be 7.5 million. Now it's 4.3 million. We can hardly imagine how they will live, work and play, but their lives will be at least as different to ours, as ours are different to those of our parents and grandparents 50 years ago.
Old ways of organising work, industry and community are being rapidly reshaped by digital technologies. Future generations will be more crowded, more switched on, and more local. The city is set to be transformed by multibillion-dollar mega-projects now coming on stream such as at Barangaroo, South Sydney (Victoria Park), Ultimo (Central Park), Parramatta Square and Rouse Hill. The pace of seemingly unstoppable development gives cause for pause: how do we plan the liveable digital metropolis of the future?
Sydney is in a moment of ''creative digital disruption'', according to Tim Williams, chief executive of the Committee for Sydney.
Now that people want to work on the go, whether at home, on public transport or in cafes, parks or libraries, a question mark hangs over big office developments. Williams has no doubt the city's changing demographics and emerging time-hungry culture will ''put downward pressure on the demand for transport by road''.
Online shopping similarly challenges traditional retailing. The developers whose ''big box'' retail developments have been the engines of growth in cities and towns for the past 30 years are ''slightly silent'' just now, says Williams.
Top-down planning and infrastructure on a monumental scale are on the way out. Bespoke, small scale, idiosyncratic and local are the buzz words in urban design. ''I just don't think we have any business models for the dissolving of boundaries that is going on … I think we are in the presence of the dissolution of all boundaries,'' Williams says.
It's radical to think, for example, that public transport is likely to be preferred over driving, especially by young people who use the time to connect with others via social media.
''The car was seen as a vehicle of freedom and now the smartphone is seen as a vehicle of freedom,'' the director of City Planning and development at City of Sydney, Graham Jahn, says. ''Things have shifted in people's minds.''
The 2011 census showed while the car continues to dominate, the proportion of the city's workers using public transport is at a 20-year high after declining for much of the 1990s. The share of Sydney commuters getting to work on trains, buses and ferries rose from 21.2 per cent at the 2006 census to 23.2 per cent in 2011.
''When, I don't say if, I say when, we reposition cities around people rather than cars, we will have the opportunity to get things right,'' the director of the Institute for Sustainable Futures at UTS, Stuart White, says. He confesses he finds it ''absolutely mindboggling'' the scale of road building envisaged in the recent Infrastructure NSW strategy for the NSW government is still being suggested.
What Sydney needs is a rapid mass transit system allowing trips that combine heavy rail, light rail, buses and taxis with ''active transport'', meaning walking and cycling, Professor White says. Ubiquitous digital information will let people know just where they need to go to pick up a bike or a car. More cross-city links and a second harbour rail crossing are inevitable. Reduced road infrastructure will not only free up asphalt, bitumen and concrete for green space but reduce the ''heat island effect'', which will be more important as we get more extremes of weather, he says.
Price signals to alleviate congestion on roads and public transport will increasingly influence decisions about when to travel and how, he says. Peak hour is already breaking down as employees develop newly flexible and mobile work rhythms. This should be the sunset era for the long commute, White believes.
Smartphones and tablets are increasing the amount of work people do from home. Already, more than 44 per cent of Australian workers do at least some work at home, research by the University of South Australia's Centre for Work + Life has found. That proportion is likely to rise.
But cities thrive on exchange. Teleworkers ducking out for a coffee or a meeting down the road, or sole traders seeking company at work from time to time, may help reconfigure today's dormitory suburbs into energised interchanges where urban design meets the digital world. Suburbs become a place to work rather than just a place to get to work from.
Research by the City of Sydney has revealed a significant percentage of visitors to its libraries are using them to work, its executive manager, culture, Rachel Healy, says. With the growing popularity of shared work spaces, where individuals either group together to rent a permanent space, or book office space for limited hours, the council has started discussions about ''whether some of our community centres should be repurposed to accommodate these needs''.
Healy says access to Wi-Fi should be freely available on public transport and in all public spaces, including parks and streetscapes.
''We hand out Wi-Fi like it's made of gold, there are little droplets depending on where you are, whereas in some cities most of the CBD's public domain is Wi-Fi enabled,'' Healy says. ''You would hope that would be absolutely fundamental to our city-building over the next 10 years. It's crucial to where we work, how we get around, how we engage and how we feed back. The changes we are seeing in people's work practices would be enhanced by having Wi-Fi-enabled public spaces everywhere.''
The needs of young and old will change the fabric of suburbia. As the share of older people in the population grows, they will need to be able to walk rather than drive to be able to access services. Meanwhile, young people want to work within a 20-minute journey of their homes. Better land-use planning needs to promote multiple housing types and ''mingling'' so that, for example, health and aged-care workers and teachers can live closer to the people they care for and teach.
Nurturing the economic and cultural expansion of alternative city hubs, especially Parramatta, will be crucial. An historic riverside setting and location at Sydney's demographic heart means it is destined to play an increasingly important role in the city's economic and cultural life. But planners say Parramatta needs much faster, more efficient public transport links with the CBD and other urban hubs in the north and south of the city.
The latest census underscored Sydney's growing preference for medium and high-density living. More than 80 per cent of the new households formed in Sydney between 2006 and 2011 settled in units and townhouses. For a decade most of the city's new housing has been supplied in established suburbs, not in new developments on the city's outskirts. Canada Bay, the river-side council area in the city's inner west, was the fastest growing part of the city in the five years to 2011.
But the vision for medium density, multiple housing types across a range of affordability throughout the metropolis runs counter to recent trends, warns Bill Randolph, director of the City Futures Research Centre of the University of NSW. Low-paid workers and retirees are increasingly concentrated in the south and west of the city and the housing affordability crisis is the ''elephant in the room''.
''If you want density all over the city you have to make it affordable for people in Bankstown and Parramatta,'' he says, yet developers complain that in some areas it is not possible to build apartments and flats cheaply enough for the people who want to live there to be able to afford them.
Professor Randolph is concerned about overdevelopment of some parts of Victoria Park in south Sydney, where the combination of absentee investor landlords, concentrations of overseas students and a short-term rental market which ''churns continually'' is new for Sydney.
''What are they going to look like in 30 years time? There will be blocks which will descend into pretty poor quality because investors are not going to overcapitalise in looking after [them],'' he says.
Developments by Landcom at Victoria Park, in which the state government has played a strong role, are high quality in contrast. ''That gives a really strong hint that the market won't deliver these outcomes on its own. It needs a strong public policy framework within which this density needs to be delivered.''
But urbanists warn the greater Sydney metropolis lacks an effective authority to manage its future. Local governments are too small and fragmented to influence the development of the broader city and the state government is often too big and remote from local communities.
The result, says Tim Williams, is a failure of governance and a dearth of civic dialogue. ''There is no metropolitan Sydney, it's a kind of fiction that we need to make real,'' he says. ''Sydney is 43 councils trying to create a metropolis.''
Social media has the potential to help Sydneysiders have more say in how their city takes shape.
''We are in a period of democratisation of policy-making where leadership looks like dialogue, '' Williams believes. ''It is exciting, it is innovative, it is scary and enjoy the ride,'' he says.