Technological Advances, Urban Equity, and Urbanism Representations
Melissa Gutiérrez (MIT SMarchS Urbanism ‘20), Chen Feiyue (MIT SMarchS Urbanism ‘20)
Image Credit: Audi’s Urban Futures. https://www.archdaily.com/583601/audi-urban-future-award-2014-team-berlin-s-flywheel-could-revolutionize-personal-mobility/54a6a677e58ecee15b0000af-award2014_berlin_urban_mobility_landscape2-jpg
Urbanism is, in its nature, futuristic. Urbanists envisage the framework of the unestablished and rationalize it to a point that it could be, hopefully, suitably contextualized in a society for the following decades. We’ve been talking about futures and trying to imagine the scenarios, positive and negative, that await humanity. Also, science fictions and other alternative methodologies have represented a futuristic world of technological cities, with economic, political and cultural repercussions for societies.
We, as human beings, are all born with the ability to dream and imagine, and these capabilities have led us to further materialize futuristic images for our cities and the planet. However, it is easy to spot immaturity, bias and exclusivity in such process. For instance, when revisiting historical science fictions, we will find that filmmakers used to picture the future as all “grand, bright and shiny” before the concept of “used future” or “cyberpunk” was introduced and popularized during the 80s. Also, before the character of Uhura from Star Trek appeared on the screen as one of the first black female featured in a non-menial role, the sci-fi storytelling was once disproportionately dominated by white and male actors, creating a strange implication that there would be no other races in the coming “brave new world”.
The continuously evolving process of science fictionists’ mindset could also be used as a lens to re-exam the way of future conceiving in the field of urbanism. As urban planners and designers of the built environment, we’ve been taking part in bringing the future to the table, worried and excited by all the possibilities and different scenarios in which we imagine the human inhabitations and their lifestyle. We’ve been trying to predict, based on speculative designs, how our cities will function and look like in 20, 50 or even 100 years from now. It would be, consequently, important to ask ourselves, as urbanists, who are we designing for? Who are we inviting to the conversation?
Nowadays, when envisioning urban futures, we immediately start speaking of AVs (autonomous vehicles), drones and smart neighborhoods that promise a new version of suburbia with a reshaped mobility/circulation system. It seems that we are picturing the future in technological, culture-less scenarios, with places only for the privileged. It is agreed that these technological advances are positive to cities and open up many possibilities for urban design, but a critical question remains unanswered: who will, and who will not have the access to these devices and spaces? When projecting the future, we must stop perpetuating the exclusivity of "progress".
The representation of urban futures is a tool to start a conversation. It is true that, as architects and urban designers, we don’t have the first nor the last word when coming to social or economic problem solving, but by designing and showcasing an inclusive, diverse and resilient image of the future, we might, actually, have a significant impact on people’s perceptions. Through the representations of artfully demonstrating how arrangements and relations of existing elements could be bettered, we could also get the chance to remind people what went ignored or neglected from previous imaginations. On top of these, the agency of users, the administrative will and the market forces could consensually, or at least relatively consensually, work together to find paths and strategies to reach an equitable future embodied by just cities.
To date, we have been designing with great uncertainty and unpredictable factors, inevitably or even unconsciously focusing on fixed social contracts. When faced with the unforeseen, it is acceptable that we construct a framework first (even if problematic) so that we have a base to start from, alter with and speculate at. However, if this base responds to variables that reinforce inequality, it’s important that we question the direction that our designs must follow and the various alternatives that can lead us to more equitable and inclusive situations, and in this way rethink the way in which we represent the cities of the future.
James Cameron Story of Science Fiction. AMC. 2018.