Overhead shot of waves on a beach in Cape Town, South Africa
Dan Grinwis on Unsplash

Littoral convergence

From boundary to interface.

How likely? How soon? What impact?

Our greatest cities cling to the coasts, which historically provided cheap transportation and easy waste disposal. Today, however, mass tourism and aging populations are the main drivers of coastal settlement. The coast's value is in recreation and natural preservation.

But that future is at risk. Coastal cities face climate risks in the form of rising seas and more severe storms. Those located along river deltas are plagued by agricultural runoff. The viability of many estuarine ecosystems is in doubt. Yet despite the importance of coasts, we know more about what happens on the surface of the moon than what happens a few hundred meters offshore.

That is all changing. Over the next decade, we'll take an active role designing the urban coast, a complex boundary oceanographers call the "littoral zone." Sensor nets and undersea drones will tally the natural capital and ecosystem services these areas provide. With data in hand, we'll make plans that invest in regenerating coastal ecosystems. And we'll translate our know-how in airborne and land-based autonomous systems to the depths, extending our ability to shape the seas in ways we never imagined before.


Signals are evidence of possible futures found in the world today—technologies, products, services, and behaviors that we expect are already here but could become more widespread tomorrow.