What will life in Richmond look like in the year 2030?
Inspired by an article in the June 2018 issue of Wired magazine that projects future developments based on current trends and research, here’s one possible version of our city’s future:
Driverless trucks and and personal delivery services managed by software will have completely changed the local cargo, trucking and logistics industries. Any business that didn’t retool its fleet and workforce around automation, probably by joining a larger conglomerate, went out of business. Light rail has seen a resurgence and both cargo and passenger trains have begun passing through Richmond daily, though the Hyperloop route from Cincinnati to Chicago bypasses us. What was the Richmond Municipal Airport is now a charging and cargo transfer station used almost exclusively by long-haul drones.
Other automation rapidly took hold in the 2020s, forcing local machine shops and production plants to either install the new equipment to meet turnaround time demands and production standards, or to close down entirely. Some simply couldn’t afford the capital costs involved with keeping up, having already shaved their profit margins to the bone in the early 2000s to compete with off-shore operations.
What’s left of the local workforce has had a tough decade. Simple drug screenings and background checks were replaced by comprehensive evaluations of an applicant’s personal work history, health history, social media posting history, travel history, criminal and civil legal history, and detailed proficiency examinations in the skill areas related to their desired jobs. Many of Richmond’s workers were required to enter new training programs, stop working altogether, or become underground day laborers who are paid much less and have no benefits.
Crime is low and violent crime is almost non-existent. The 2022 city-wide installation of cameras, microphones and surveillance drones was a factor in this, though civil rights groups continue to challenge their necessity and legality. More influential was the massive 2023 effort to address the opioid crisis and related public health risks once and for all; it put the City into debt for several years but then turned around into a huge savings in health care, law enforcement, K-12 education and other areas.
A cyberattack in 2021 took Richmond’s power out for nine whole days, increasing pressure to modernize and secure our infrastructure. Richmond Power and Light no longer exists as such, with the closure of the facility south of town and the transfer of all management and billing operations to a central power conglomerate office elsewhere in the region. Most power infrastructure is maintained by automated repair trucks and robots.
The downtown area is now just three city blocks of the remaining original buildings, the rest having been rebuilt or torn down entirely. Individual storefronts and retail operations have given way to a sprawling flea market approach, a downtown shopping mall of sorts that is always reconfiguring itself. Local and regional vendors set up booths with a variety of handmade crafts, foods, tools, personal services and other items that try to draw people away from online shopping.
Big box stores like Meijer and Walmart have been converted to fulfillment centers, where orders for groceries, electronics, clothes and furniture are assembled by robots and then either picked up by nostalgic customers or loaded into driverless delivery vans. Miller Milkhouses remain, but are just fully automated drive-through vending machines. The underground, off-grid trading economy is strong, but always subject to problems with quality and reliability.
Local colleges and universities are still here, but have torn down or sold off much of their physical infrastructure given the sharp decline in students looking for a residential educational experience. Most college students now participate in lectures, labs and course work entirely over the Internet while traveling around to different internships, foreign study placements and short-term intensive courses. Because college instructors and professors can now teach from anywhere, the local population tied to Earlham, IU East and Ivy Tech’s presence here has decreased significantly, taking substantial disposable income and community involvement with it.
Reid Health is now an almost entirely automated health care center, most patients interacting with nursing staff and doctors who are physically located elsewhere. Travel time to more extensive medical facilities in Indianapolis and Dayton is so short such that any significant medical procedures take place out of town. The loss of tax and disposable income from residential medical professionals has reshaped local retail, government and philanthropy. People with low or no income, or who have not allowed themselves to be scanned into the modern medical records system, get treatment only when absolutely necessary from a small remaining cadre of offline, off-the-books doctors and non-traditional healers.
Most bank branches have closed. National bank chains were quick to replace their staff and locations with automated banking centers, while locally owned banks held on a little longer. Still, 99% of banking, lending and real estate transactions are now handled online or at ATMs. After retailers could no longer keep up with fraudulent paper currency printing operations or the security costs of storing physical money even temporarily, cash is no longer accepted anywhere.
What’s our main export? Tourism.
Richmond and the surrounding region did a good enough job early in the century preserving and maintaining its green spaces, trails, lakes and waterways, and cultural destinations that we now see huge influxes of visitors on weekends and in the warm months.
They come on their bikes and boats to experience an outdoors that remains relatively uncorrupted compared to other cities our size. They buy hand-made goods, artwork, food and beer crafted by locals. They visit our museums, performance venues and remaining historic buildings in droves, with schools regularly busing in students from a 5-hour radius. City parks, Cope Environmental Center, the Whitewater Valley Land Trust, Hayes Arboretum and the Cardinal Greenway are the shining jewels of the local economy. Related to this, the local retirement and assisted-living industries also continue to thrive.
Is this the future of Richmond, Indiana?
I don’t know. I’d be willing to bet that at least some of these changes will come to pass, for better or worse. I hope we find a way to see the best ones to fruition and prevent the darker ones from happening. But assuming we survive the effects of climate change, global trends in commerce and automation are going to make our city look very different in 10-15 years, whether we like it or not.
Anyone doing planning today for the future of our city needs to be thinking about these aspects of our tomorrow.