What Do the Next 175 Years Hold For Milwaukee?

Milwaukee’s future in 2196 looks uncertain (and maybe a little scary). Here are a few speculative takes on the times ahead.

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A technopolis of artificial intelligence and human-machine connectivity? A hot, flooded jungle overrun by refugees? A lost city, abandoned on our journey to Mars?

Predicting Milwaukee’s distant future is about as far from an accurate science as you can get, and the next 175 years is nowhere near certain. But scientists, academics and technologists in Milwaukee and beyond can offer a worthwhile glimpse into what might be coming down the line, and the challenges we may have to face.

Modeling for even the next 50 years indicates a much hotter climate than Wisconsinites are used to.

“There are two strips of land in the world where humans will be able to live after 2070, and one of them is a broad strip along the U.S.-Canadian border that includes Wisconsin,” says Steven Carpenter, professor emeritus at the UW-Madison Center for Limnology. “In a sense, that’s good. On the other hand, there are 3.5 billion people who will have to move. … Those 3.5 billion are going to be looking for a place to live.”

Carpenter helped lead the Yahara 2070 project, which attempted to look at the environmental future of that south central Wisconsin river’s watershed. The project determined four possible scenarios for 2070 – a societal collapse and reorganization, an accelerated technological innovation that combats environmental issues, a connected community with values focused on sustainability, and a reformed governance that promotes clean water. 

“The scenario about collapse and reorganization is probably the worst one, and that’s the track we’re on now,” Carpenter says. 

Derek Riley, the director of the Milwaukee School of Engineering computer science program, believes that technological solutions and innovations will play a crucial role in Milwaukee’s future. 

While a continuing exponential growth in computing power can be predicted with relative accuracy, Riley points to technological “disruptions” as something largely unpredictable and entirely transformative. Recent disruptions, such as the internet and wireless mobile technology, continue to revolutionize our lives.

Riley has one strong technological prediction on pace for the next few decades. 

“We’re going to get to the point where self-driving cars are safer than humans,” Riley says. “Cars driven by humans are going the way of horses.”

Beyond the next few decades, the possibilities grow wider, and quite a bit stranger.

“I genuinely believe that in the next 175 years, we’re going to be able to establish the ability to download and upload thoughts,” he says. “We’ve already seen these technologies in prosthetics with the brain connected to a digital device. I think we need to wrestle with those things as a society. We need to get ahead of it.”

As technology advances, Riley believes Milwaukee is well-positioned to establish itself as a technological hub. He points to established companies, like  Rockwell Automation, Milwaukee Tool and Direct Supply, which have invested in technology – and all that clean water isn’t going to hurt. 

Looking to the future, Carpenter says, “I think the best possible scenario for us is a combination of scenarios – technological evolution, a changing governance – and changing values, so that people simply act as if they would like civilization to last, so that people behave in a way that is consistent with wanting a better world for their children and grandchildren. It’s really a question for democracy, and it’s up to everyone to think about these ideas and talk about how they would like to see things go.” 


This story is part of Milwaukee Magazine‘s January issue.

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Archer is the managing editor at Milwaukee Magazine. Some say he is a great warrior and prophet, a man of boundless sight in a world gone blind, a denizen of truth and goodness, a beacon of hope shining bright in this dark world. Others say he smells like cheese.