The Future of Cities: are we heading for dystopia?
How small decisions could mean the difference between accidentally designing ourselves into a hellish Minority Report dystopia - or taking the wheel to create a future we're proud to be part of.
A combined effort from a tech giant and a Scandinavian capital city, the challenge was to determine the likely futures (scenarios) for future cities (15-30 year time horizon); then to help executive stakeholders engage with the findings to break out of their day-to-day, and connect to future possibilities through speaking engagements, training and a set of interactive planning tools. This work would inform long-term strategy and digital transformation in technology infrastructure. But instead of 'revealing' the future so these stakeholders can react to it - can we offer a path that creates a lot more value?
✍ Beyond the brief: the best way to know the future is to create it.
The future isn’t passive. The purpose of this work was to reveal likely futures so both groups knew how to react; what technologies to build, and how to prepare for the future. But the decisions of these executives would actually be influencing the 'future city'; whether they realised it or not. If you're not driving toward your own vision for the future, you're letting someone else decide - and that's an enormous responsibility to give up.
🖼 Reframing the challenge: How can we help our government and business counterparts and their customers actually shape a future they want to be part of together, and use this to drive strategy? Instead of revealing futures, can we identify what makes a 'good' future city, what to steer clear of on the way - and connect the dots between day-to-day decisions and this goal future?
“The future is already here – it's just not evenly distributed."
William Gibson - The Economist, December 4, 2003
|Insights & mind shifts||
🤖😱To achieve the smartest, most efficient city, you'd need to get rid of the people.
At the start of this work, I found the phrase 'smart cities' was often conflated with the goal of urban development; with many not putting deeper thought into where this goal could lead. For many city decision-makers it seemed, technology was the goal - not the enabler. That painted a scary picture. Our research showed that to achieve truly maximally efficient, maximally productive "smart cities", people would need to function more like robots. Already, urban development in some regions offered a glimpse into this future. While on the surface technology and consulting companies were celebrating case studies with impressive figures, our research on the ground showed people in these places were unhappy, unfulfilled, and disconnected. And not only that; but if cities optimise for productivity and efficiency - research shows that undermines resilience, flexibility, and innovation. "Smart cities" is not just a label; words matter, because they become goals that dictate futures.
📺👾 No one wants the sci-fi future (+ it undermines resilience)
🤝 💡Alternative reality: culture fuels innovation and social buy-in.
Are we developing cities for people or companies? Here's a clue; the word 'city' comes from citizens. It seems obvious, but somehow that was getting lost; commerce is important but if we optimise for that future without a thriving community, we will certainly design ourselves into a future we don't like and don't belong in;. The surgically clean, well-ordered utopian 'future cities' often portrayed in movies is actually very unappealing to the majority - 'perfect' is hard to relate to. Instead, there is a strong desire for contrast, for imperfections, and a bit of chaos - some personality that gives us the shared feeling of humanity. And critically, people also wanted a feeling of agency and reciprocity. People wanted to help create their city - not to have everything done for them; that was the single biggest predictor of a feeling of identity and social contract buy-in. This was also the greatest predictor of innovation and adaptability. Once again, current cities give us a glimpse; the most resilient cities are well aware of the importance of strong social and cultural capital. So why aren't there as many case studies about this? Culture and well-being are messier and harder to measure - but that doesn't mean it's not important. We often won't find out to which degree until disaster strikes. (Like a pandemic…?)
🙉🙈 Unexpected finding: what you think you 'should' do actually won't make you happy; our experts and citizens were completely contradicting themselves.
To get a 360, unbiased view of what makes a good city, we spoke to an enormous range of city participants, from governments and business executives to social workers and citizens. And we made an interesting discovery; where people think cities 'should' is often directly opposed to what makes them happy. To bookend interviews, the research team and I asked two questions:
- At the start; "Can you tell us what you think is an exemplar city". - And at the end "Tell us about your favourite city, real or imagined". When asked to explain the difference in answers, the results were fascinating - and represented a major turning point in the project. We'd need to find a way to rationalise this disconnect.
🎨🖌 Tangible objects and stories help to connect with an uncertain future:
"The future" is difficult to plan for when it is vague, uncertain, and invisible. Through our research - and the insights above, it was clearly critical to help people connect the dots between their current reality to potential future outcomes, and understand what kind of future they want to be part of. We developed a museum-style exhibit and three extreme future city examples, installing this in two locations, and training employees on touring groups through this exhibit, while also running workshops and speaking engagements. The tangible artifacts and stories of this exhibition helped bring the key drivers of future cities to life, helping participants to imagine how the future could be and relating this back the influence of the decisions they are making now.
🌊 👀 A ripple effect of change.
I personally completed 15+ speaking engagements and 30 workshops of 10-300 people using this research... and to scale the impact, also trained others on using the research and tools developed to co-create the future. To date, it's estimated this research and the associated tools have been used over 100 times in presentations, workshops and to inform strategy sessions with corporate, government and citizen groups. Along with my co-lead, we engaged with a number of city municipalities on their planning, and also with key multinational companies who would have huge influence in their footprint locations; telcos, electronics, professional services, and technology companies. The exhibitions remained in place for three years.
🏙🌲🏡 So what makes a good city? The result of our research and testing was three clear pillars of successful cities; principles of success - or 'guardrails' that created a guide for decision-makers to drive for environments that would support the health and wellbeing of citizens and environments now, in a way that's financially and technically viable - and remain flexible enough to adapt to future realities as things change. I won't share them here - but feel fre to ask me.
🤸♀️🙌🕺 The penny dropped: As they tried to reconcile their view as business people and as living, feeling humans, our Executive team had an awakening, realising a great future city is a lot more than just advanced technology, and it was within their control to shape. This material inspired many different groups to proactively drive for positive change in their communities as well as companies, often finding ways to work together for shared outcomes.
🤙This project has forever changed my view on how we define success, on ideal urban environments, and above all, what it means to be a contributing citizen.