Future Cities: Which Future?

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Future Cities: Which Future?

Ben Barker

29th March 2014

The future has a lot in store for cities. Planners and architects will soon see some weird briefs. We’ll make settlements on the moonin digital space and roaming settlements that graze the landscape for resources. Opportunities will shape our urban futures in exciting ways, whilst impending challenges will redefine how we understand urban. The decline in the efficacy of antibiotics will affect how we live together and rising water levels will terraform cities from London to the Ganges Delta. Designers and makers will have a responsibility to explore what those futures are, and understand how we’ll live when they get here.

Bruce Sterling’s assertion, in his closing notes at SxSW, that the future will be old people in cities, frightened of the sky, is an extrapolation of the challenges of climate change, urban migration and an ageing population. It’s a possible future that hasn’t been rendered in such folk terms before. In that talk Sterling also announced that he would become a maker of things, his decision to move from words to objects shows his understanding of the power of design, it puts the thing in your hand and the idea in a form you can discuss.

At the start of March I was part of the Unbox Future Cities Lab, a two weeks programme held at the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad, India. 36 researchers, designers and makers from the Uk and India came together around theme of Future Cities. The brief was almost impossibly open: collect people working on city based projects using diverse processes and get them thinking about cities together. We know there is a responsibility for practitioners to explore the forces that might split, weave and define the many possible threads of the future, the question is which futures?


First we have to define what the opportunities and trends facing our collective futures are. Most will happen on some scale, somewhere, but which are likely to have the greatest impact? We spent a day creating headlines from futures we both anticipated and hoped for. The cross-cultural record of the future we created will be one of my enduring records of the trip, a zeitgeist of expectation from two continents. Importantly, as with Sterlings assertion, closer inspection of those ideas reveals that a lot of them aren’t as far away as they first seem.


We also have to bring these ideas to life. Whether that’s through the design fiction seen in the work of Dunne and Raby or in the alternate realities of games and film. If we don’t imagine and then realise these futures then we are left working under the assumed notion of a shared values of the future. We have to design futures that encapsulate the values we want. We have to be frank about what and only by making them can we defend or avert them.

When Mayor Antanas Mockus of Bogota made all his traffic warden dress up as Mimes, he wasn’t saying this is the future, he was saying what if we understood the role of the city differently.  One of our best known working prototype future cities might be Disney Land, Walt Disney created a a testing model for our future urban spaces in the form of a theme park. I want more weird future testing spaces, if Unbox left me thinking one thing, it’s lets bring to life more of these possible future cities. Below are a selection of the spaces we began to describe at Unbox, the document containing more detail can be seen here.

The Data City – Due to it’s climate and proximity to energy resources, a Siberian town becomes home to the worlds largest data centre. The finance industry move in driven by a need for reduced latency in algorithmic trading and briefly make it the banking capital of the Eurasian continent. Who moves in after them?

The City after Antibiotics – LA becomes obsessed with personal hygiene transparency and sterilisation as antibiotics are deemed no longer effective against the vast majority of diseases and bacteria. How do people move around and indicate their good health in disease obsessed city?

The First Settlers at Chernobyl – In the distant future, with uninhabited land at a premium, the first planning permission is received for the irradiated blast zone around Chernobyl after lying uninhabited for nearly 600 years. What does this application look like..


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Sam Hill

14th August 2011

During the start of Riot Week 2011, when many of us were darting wide-eyed between Twitter and rolling news coverage, there was a undeniable feeling of uncertainty. Obviously order was tenuously regained within a matter of days, but because it was difficult to rationalise a reason for the riots starting in the first place, it was even harder to understand when they would stop. Looting and arson seemed to be breaking out in locations arbitrarily. Why exactly were people raiding high streets in Birmingham, Liverpool or Bristol because of the activity going on in Tottenham?

A few people on Facebook and Twitter were quick to make wry allusions toward classic apocalyptic tropes. A comment like “It starts with isolated events…” might earn itself a dozen or so likes and replies within minutes. The implication was, invariably, that these riots were the media misinterpreting the dawn of a zombie/ ‘crazie’ uprising. It was an excuse for some people – the ones with Walking Dead collections and healthy Gamerscores – to fall, misty eyed, into a state of mental preparedness.

It’s hard to calculate precisely what proportion of people have had, at one time, an “undead survival strategy” (how can the property be secured; what immediately available object could be re-appropriated as a weapon; food and water supplies; who needs ‘saving’; routes out of the city etc. etc.) but it must be enough to have warranted the success of Max Brook’s The Zombie Survival Guide, Pegg and Wright’s Shaun of the Dead and Valve’s Left 4 Dead series.

It’s tempting to predict the future of digital culture has only two certainties: zombies and kittens. It’s difficult to imagine what sort of backlash would be significant enough to counter the cultural inertia that both memes possess. Though the undead seem to have been a perennial example since even before Romero, there are other du jour harbingers of the apocalypse too: aliens, viruses, the weather, the environment, meteorites, magnetism, plants, robots, nuclear war etc.

But where is the appeal? How can the apocalyptic fiction industry be so successful? Why indulge in a mind game in which most of your friends, family and colleagues die a painful, traumatic death? Gross schadenfreude? A fetish for unrestrained commercial consumption? The idea of rebuilding society according to one’s own ideals? Subconscious manifestation of genetic competitiveness?

Perhaps it’s nothing more than a lust for adventure and exploration coupled with a resentment for restrictive aspects of western twentieth century living. We have an enormous legacy of exploration, but no frontiers left to investigate*. To quote The Truman Show: “you’re too late, there’s really nothing left to explore”. Global disaster wipes that slate clean – the familiar becomes unknown; the rules are broken; the old order is gone.

How can apocalust be sated? Well, games, films, literature and television drama seem to be doing a good job already – the demand is satisfactorily met.  It might be argued that they’re fuelling the desire too, but in general there are more than enough fantasy frontiers out there to explore in fiction, doomsday related or not. But if the illusion no longer works, then there’s always the potential to go travelling. After all, just because everywhere on earth is known by it’s people, it’s not to say the individuals cannot discover new things for themselves.

* – of course, there are tonnes of frontiers left to explore, scientifically: medicine, astronomy, marine ecology etc.  But not a lot is open for the every man, and not in a way so literal as, say, the colonisation of the Americas.

The Conflicting Nature of Computer Games

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The Conflicting Nature of Computer Games

Sam Hill

21st June 2011

It’s difficult to describe precisely how excited I am about the upcoming Bethesda game Skyrim, which is due to be released in November this year.

Specifically, I’m looking forward to fighting dragons. In my day-to-day life I’m unable to fight dragons, you see, so the prospect is quite exciting.

This is an important consideration when evaluating contemporary computer games. Their status, somewhere between the legacy of Pong (1972) and the potential to be Nozick’s theoretical Experience Machine implies a complex question:

How much experiential value do they really impart?

The case against computer games

  1. Computer games are synthetic experiences. They are approximations of situations built from rendering software, conversation trees, scripts and flags. They are built by finitely sized teams of people. Ultimately, they are limited by the comprehension of the human mind – a condition from which reality does not suffer. They are as incomparable from that which they simulate as a train crash is from a mathematical collision model; as a fruit salad is from a fruit salad.
  2. They are played through a bottleneck of sensation. We input though fingertips – or more recently through gesture. Feedback is received as light and sound. Occasionally primitive haptic feedback devices like “rumble-packs” are involved but generally most of the human range of sensation remains unstimulated.
  3. Computer gaming is a time-consuming activity. Hours can disappear when playing. It is entirely foreseeable that whole childhoods, and adulthoods too, can be lost to a digital interface. This time could be spent doing many, many other things in ‘the real world’ – outdoor activities like running, building, swimming and climbing might be missed out on. The smell of grass, the feeling of the sun on skin, or breathlessness from activity cannot be emulated by a computer.
  4. The long-term rewards of gaming are debatable (though not entirely deniable). Time spent gaming might otherwise be invested in developing skills and knowledge, or pursuing other hobbies, interests and activities. Missing out on these knowledge-experiences can have a cumulative effect in denying future opportunities to learn.
  5. It’s possible for excessive gaming to be described as an addictive behaviour. This can impede social interaction from friends, family and other people, restricting socio-cultural development, and the enrichment this provides experientially.

The case for computer games

  1. “Gaming” is a misleading term. Though most platforms will have puzzles, goals or skill-based challenges, things have changed a great deal since the arcade era of Tetris and Asteroids. It might be more accurate to state that products like L.A. Noire, for example, are simulators, interactive narratives or synthetic experiences. Here, the potential for what might be simulated is bounded only by the imagination of developers. This might sound contradictory to the first argument against games – but it’s not the case; merely the the other side of the coin. As stated before, we cannot actually go out and fight dragons on mountain tops, nor tackle crime in nineteen-forties’ America. But through synthetic experiences we may save the world countless times. We can explore space and solve mysteries and battled demons. We can be gangsters, tycoons and blue hedgehogs. Reality could not deliver these situations, but here we are having lived them -to a very limited extent, yes, but the difference between these simulacra and nothing is huge.
  2. Skilled developers at companies such as Valve and Bethesda absolutely understand what is required to make exciting, fun and memorable titles. Games are consumed actively, not passively. Their immersive nature is virtually unparalleled amongst other creative mediums – being far more interactive than literature, more dynamic than film, more bespoke than most theatre. Though rarely considered a cultural medium, they are annihilating competing products in terms of both intensity and duration of experience. Imperfect though they are, games probably represent the absolute pinnacle of human-engineered experience.
  3. Games are a pragmatic, utilitarian solution for the service and consumption of experience. They are easily replicable and relatively cheap to produce (compared to, say, holidays, leisure activities, or Hollywood blockbusters). Games can exist entirely digitally, so they are a very sustainable form of experience consumption. They also offer good value for money as a medium, with successful titles providing many more hours of immersive entertainment per pound than other forms of consumption.


It’s important to remember: the richest experiences possible are not necessarily man-made at all, and even when this is the case they may not be easily replicable or sustainable. These salient circumstances and events – valuable, definable moment in time – should not be undermined by the inferior, if ubiquitous industry of gaming.

However, games certainly have their place, and in moderation can augment an already experientially rich life with an immersive level of fantasy and escapism. It is also foreseeable that advances in technology, changes in culture and expansion of platforms will help reduce some of their current limitations.