For students of the built environment there is no better location than here and no better time than now. Hong Kong is one of 11 urban cores that together comprise the world’s first 100M city. Beyond that, half the world’s population live within a five-hour flight of the city. Right on our doorstep, the biggest migration event in human history will complete over the next 20 or so years as another 300 million Chinese move from villages and small towns to cities. By comparison, the US population in 2020 is 331 million, meaning that China will need to construct human habitats – cities, buildings, public spaces and urban landscapes – equivalent to the US today within the next 20-25 years.

Our planet has arrived at a poignant moment never experienced before. Some call it the rural-urban singularity moment: when all effectively becomes urban. Before the onset of the Industrial Revolution, the proportion of the global population living in cities was minimal. Over the past 250 years the proportion has been accelerating exponentially. By the first quarter of the 20th century it was still less than 15%, but by the last quarter of the current century it will be pushing 80%. Between now and 2050 an average rate of around 1.5M people will be urbanised each week, producing a city the size of Hong Kong roughly every month. For 50,000 years, modern humans lived at approximately 0% urbanisation. Within a short period of about 300 years that will have shifted to approximately 100% urbanisation.

world urbanisation

Why does this matter? Why might it influence your choice of career?

Our experience shows that among those intelligent enough to study to become a medical doctor, lawyer or financier, there are those who will want to choose instead to shape the cities of the future.

Buildings account for 36% of global energy use and produce far more carbon emissions than any other sector. The built environment contributes to climate change through the urban heat island effect; exhausts ground water sources deposited during the last ice-age; pollutes rivers that cities and whole countries downstream depend upon. Yet, cities also create wealth and culture; provide health care and educational services that lift people out of poverty and subsistence. Buildings are and always have been at the very centre of human civilisation. But they will need to change if the human race is to survive and continue to thrive.

There is a reason why designers and makers of buildings have had a prominent social position throughout history, from the builders of ancient pyramids in the Nile Delta, to the Renaissance-inspired artist-architects from the 1400s, to the multi-skilled expert teams of surveyors, architects, engineers, planners, landscape-designers and construction project managers that currently shape our cities. Building, city planning and city greening projects in the 21st century are more complex than they have ever been. Shaping our habitats to be environmentally sustainable places, healthy and healing places, economically vibrant and resilient places, socially safe, rich, diverse and harmonious places requires the most creative of minds.

European Renaissance society was ready for the rise of the so-called ‘Renaissance Man’, who merged science and engineering with a new depth of art made possible by developments in the science of drawing, the physics of construction and the application of a distinctive spiritual and social vision. HKU Faculty of Architecture is on a trajectory to educate the equivalent for our era: the Singularity Person if you like, fusing art and vision and a deep sense of history, with technology- and data- driven analyses of contemporary human society, economy and built habitat. The sheer complexity of building and city planning projects in the age of mass-economy and mass technology means that a different kind of genius is required. We cannot create the geniuses who will build the kinds of cities and urbanised countryside we need in the future. But we provide them with the right kind of soil in which to grow.

The Future is here. How will you shape it?

Professor Chris Webster
Dean, Faculty of Architecture