Future Cities: Starting From Scratch

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Future Cities: Starting From Scratch

Ben Barker

29th March 2014

Above Photo: Last years Delhi Trip

As I write this we’ve taxied to the far side of Heathrow. Through the window are a beige 7 storey car park, an angular carrier plane and 2 cars on a road just beyond the footprint of the airport. We’re waiting for clearance on an Air India flight, first to Mumbai, then on to Ahmedabad.

We are in Ballard country. Through the window is his proto-city. Not the airport itself, but the spaces that grew around it, turned from London and it’s institutions, freed to be a new type of urban, a city built for speed. To Ballard, Heathrow and it’s suburbs were places built around anonymity, efficiency and a decoupling from the heavy gravity of London. Most of all the Heathrow Hilton:

“The Heathrow Hilton, designed by Michael Manser, is a masterpiece…Sitting in its atrium one becomes, briefly, a more advanced kind of human being. Within this remarkable building one feels no emotions and could never fall in love, or need to. I’d like everything to be like that. I’d like England to look as if everybody was getting ready to leave for Mars.”

There are parallels in Ballards Heathrow to the modern narrative of the smart city, sold through glossy adverts and soulless urbanites. As Adam Greefield points out in his pamphlet Against the Smart City big technologies vision of the future city is being built from scratch in the desert, places such as PlanIT Valley in Portugal or Kochi in India. They are urban spaces built around a vision, rather than on top of other institutions. They are places without concession. Although most of us have never been to the parties, homes or offices depicted and they bare no resemblance to our experience, big technologies view of the future is still carving the deepest channel in our cities.

Concrete Island, Ballard’s book about a man marooned in the negative space between two flyovers tells a deeper truth about urban life. Trapped in the un designed margin, the protagonist is forced to adapt, a 20th century Alexander Selkirk, which for me recalls images of ingenuity and compromise from Delhi and last years Unbox. There this same triangle of land was a dwelling, a garden centre or a bike repair stall. Cities are people and things in improbable places. It’s the bar down the seedy side street, the theatre piece in a disused office. The city is a collection of potential spaces, impossible to know entirely. It’s a patchwork not just stitched by services and data, but stories experienced together and apart.

So whilst in Ahmedabad, I’ll be thinking about how we convey human experience in the future city. Our storytelling is often limited to measurability, impact and scale. We show a future of data zipping to expectant end points and people freed from impulse. How do we support cities that think it’s just as important to have intrigue and disappointment?

If Microsoft, Cisco and IBM all get to have their dream city, what is our sensation and experience driven city? In the Hilton, Ballard got his functional Corbusian dream but what spaces would we build in the blank slate paradigm? If we went now to found a city in the desert, what if anything, would we take from the suburbs of Heathrow, from the IT Valleys of Portugal and from beneath the flyovers of Dehli? Then, what institutions and spaces would we build to support them?

Now, first flight over I’m in Mumbai airport, sat in the new and other-wordly Terminal 2, waiting for a flight to Ahmedabad. Stuffed with seven thousand pieces of art from the last 1500 years, it’s billed as the one of the largest public displays in the world. But as Naresh Fernandes points out, it’s only public once you’ve bought an international flight. So in Mumbai, as in Ballards Hilton, and in Plan IT valley, this vision of the future is privately owned, built without concession and not for everyone. I’m looking forward to seeing what Ahmedabad and the Unbox programme provokes that might challenge the current offer.


Other reading:
Ballard: Cities Built for Speed
Matt Ward: Boring Urban Spaces.

Originally posted here
Delhi Photos here

Future Cities: Which Future?

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Future Cities: Which Future?

Ben Barker

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..