Millennials – They Make Cities Smart

Cities were once thought to be inferior to their surrounding suburbs. Thanks to the millennials, that view is changing.

by Todd Q. Adams - Contributing Writer / February 2, 2015

The neighborhood is not what it used to be … our cities are changing. Many urban cities were once thought to be inferior to their surrounding suburbs. Thanks to the millennials (ages 18 to 34), that view is changing.

While baby boomers (ages 51 to 69) have been lauded for defining 20th-century cities and suburbs, millennials represent our best hope at solving urban problems related to population growth and urban sprawl.

Last year the consumer behavior measurement company, Nielsen, reported that almost two-thirds of millennials prefer cities over suburbs. Conversely, boomers prefer suburban communities. Unlike boomers, millennials prefer efficient public transportation over cars and urban convenience to suburban yards. Millennials, who will compose 75 percent of the workforce by 2025, are also more likely to buy from companies supporting social causes.

As a result, for the first time since the 1920s growth in cities outpaces growth in suburbs. Urban planning experts have always asserted that this type of high population density growth is essential to 21st-century urbanism and urban revitalization. Population projections released in December 2014 by the U.S. Census Bureau indicate that millennials will become the largest living generation in America by the end of 2015. They are projected to number 75.3 million, surpassing the projected 74.9 million baby boomers. Population-dense San Francisco and Washington, D.C., are among the best at attracting socially conscious and creative young talent.

According to an October 2014 White House report, 15 Economic Facts about Millennials, 42 percent of millennials identify with a race or ethnicity other than non-Hispanic white. A recent New York Times article also reported that Houston and Nashville, immigrant-friendly and racially inclusive cities, are attracting recent college graduates at a higher rate than any other city in America. Millennials are predisposed to living in cities where diversity and inclusion are fundamental to talent attraction and innovation.

Citizen Engagement

They were born with electronic devices attached to their hands. As digital natives who incessantly use mobile technology, millennials by default are redefining citizen engagement as dynamic and interactive. For example, anyone can download iPhone and Google mobile applications from the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) website. One application allows citizens to be proactive by reporting suspicious activity via texts and pictures, and another application provides real-time scheduling information.

Technology vendors have introduced customer engagement applications for electric and water utilities. Although we’re in early stage adoption, it is the social-media-savvy and mobile-technology-adopting millennials that will soon change this. Whether it’s an electric utility introducing a real-time pricing mobile application or a water utility introducing a smart water management mobile application to a drought-stricken California city, young environmental stewards will be engaged.

Higher Education and Urban Innovation

Older cities plagued by eroding tax bases, declining populations, and stagnant innovation are hoping that colleges and universities will anchor urban revitalization on and near campus. This model typically involves unprecedented collaboration among universities, health-care institutions, local government, real estate developers and other community stakeholders.

With new campus construction, an integrated planning approach is necessary where retail development, startup businesses, and private housing are in close proximity to campus. Universities now realize that they are part of an urban ecosystem, and the student customer is demanding a more holistic experience. Examples include Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland and the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. Innovation will clearly hinge on developing sustainable value for college students and young skilled talent.

Smart Policies

Fearing the end of the social promise that afforded their parents with livable wages, and steady employment, millennials pushed President Obama to advocate for free community college, substantive workforce development initiatives, and affordable health care. Just as they have demanded human-centered policies at the federal level, millennials are also poised to make their mark on cities. It is the soft infrastructure, the policies empowering all human capital that matter most in an innovation economy. So far the millennials, by virtue of their social values, have been change agents for smart urban design – the foundation for smart cities. It is therefore quite natural that they are change agents in demanding new policies relative to urban revitalization challenges such as affordable housing, gentrification and immigration.

Ultimately economic development, environmental stewardship and social responsibility are inseparable. Millennials make cities smart by residing where infrastructure planning, technology and human sustainability intersect


Todd Q. Adams is the Chief Officer of Sustainability and Innovation for Visibility Marketing Inc. Adams’ expertise is in the areas of smart metering for smart grid, electric vehicles' readiness for smart grid, smart water management and intelligent transportation initiatives.