Back To The (Sustainable) Future: The Year 2050 In Words And Pictures

A new book presents a full-color future for us that’s rosy without being far-fetched, with water efficiency and robot friends.

It’s 2050. Somehow we haven’t joined the dinosaurs in extinction, succumbed to the Secret Society of Super Villains, or been raptured up to the clouds. And the robots are friendly, not evil.


Futurologist and environmentalist Sir Jonathan Porritt’s The World We Made: Alex McKay’s Story from 2050, published this week by Phaidon, imagines in full color what the future will look like if humanity gets with the eco program. Absent here is the dire forecasting of Orwell’s 1984 or the mystical monolith of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Porritt presents a future that’s rosy without being far-fetched, where every house is water-efficient and we’re all BFFs with our robots. The book is framed as the parting gift of a retiring history professor, Alex McKay, telling his students “how we got the world back from the brink of collapse to where we are now in 2050.”

“It’s definitely not science fiction,” Porritt tells Co.Design. “Everything in this book is either already in existence or in development today, or has been flagged up by a designer as a possibility for the near future.” Porritt would know–he founded Forum for the Future and acts as a sustainability adviser for the Prince of Wales and companies like Nike and PepsiCo. He spent years on this book working with teams of designers, from urban planners to architects to genetic engineers, and the results are astounding.

Page after page displays brilliant examples of solving problems through design. McKay details developments in everything from agriculture to energy to cities to technology since he began teaching in the 2020s.

One hand-doodled diagram challenges readers to “Grow your own meat.” Forget grass-fed or free-range–in 2050, we’ll be eating burgers sprouted from stem cells. Meet the Boeing Concept 2050, the world’s first hybrid electric plane, combining conventional turbofan jet propulsion with electric power. Cargo ships use solar panel sails and self-clean, like the skin of sharks. The Sahara Forest Project, inspired by the water-harvesting habits of the Namibian fog-basking beetle, powers greenhouses in just one example of design by biomimicry.

Not everything is sunshine and roses in 2050, though. Sana’a, the capital of Yemen, has been completely deserted after a scarce fossil water supply ran out. Phaidon’s designers made an image of Sana’a as a blistering ghost town by distressing a current photo “like a pair of jeans,” Porritt says.

The author often opts for visual simplicity in his vision for the future: “When designing Alex’s house, we decided against ultra out-there, space-age, sci-fi novelties. Instead, we made it not so different from the houses that we live in today, except that it has the absolute lowest possible impact on the environment.”


So what’s keeping the world from achieving sustainability? “The thing that’s been missing has been a sense of excitement about what a sustainable world could be. That’s a design issue,” Porritt tells Co.Design. As it stands, there’s still a bit of extra credit given when a designer creates an eco-friendly product. It’s not yet the norm. “This kind of sustainability now needs to become critical to every design project instead of being an occasional bonus,” says Porritt

With 180 full-color illustrations of what’s surely the best of all possible worlds, The World We Made is available here.

About the author

Carey Dunne is a Brooklyn-based writer covering art and design. Follow her on Twitter.