Here’s a brief write up of a CamUsability talk I attended yesterday evening about the future of cities given given by Sjors Timmer at Microsoft Research.


Why do we talk about the future in the singular, when at any moment in time there are many futures to consider? When we look at corporate visions of the future of our cities, we are shown a clear path towards the Smart City. But is that true?

Sjors discussed the Urban IxD Project, which experimented with ways to break through the monolithic vision of the future city and create a much wider range of possible urban futures. He showed how their method of critical design and design fiction was used to explore different futures.

Past visions of the future

In 1939 there was a New York exhibition called Futurama that presented a model of the world 20 years into the future (1959–60). Sponsored by the General Motors Corporation, the installation was characterised by its automated highways and vast suburbs. This would have been very appealing at a time when cars were relatively new and novel.

Looking back years later, we can see that this once-aspirational vision of the city was remarkably accurate. However, now that traffic is ubiquitous, we know the downside of this. We can’t build our way out of traffic.

Corporate visions of the future

We watched several corporate visions of the cities of tomorrow, such as ‘Intelligent Operations Center’ from IBM, ‘Smart City Barcelona’ from Cisco and ‘Intelligent Cities’ from Philips. Although technically advanced, the language of the companies was extremely functional and devoid of any human emotion – ‘efficiency, smart, resources, systems’ etc. No one seemed to be talking to the people living in the cities.

Urban IxD Summer School

The Urban IxD Summer school was formed to produce fictional concepts and suggestions for Urban IxD using Critical Design and Design Fiction.

Urban IxD is the artful integration of people, place and technology.

Critical Design uses speculative design proposals to challenge narrow assumptions, preconceptions and givens about the role preconceptions play in everyday life.

Design Fiction uses a fictional frame to make an argument about a potential future by demonstrating that future in a context that a large public audience can understand.

What was made?

We were shown a couple of the videos produced at Urban IxD school. You can find all the projects’ videos and background stories on the school’s website. The projects were thought-provoking, but there is still much to be explored.

After the talk, we discussed how Urban IxD could impact governmental and social change: How would shared decision making work in future cities? Would privacy be an issue? How would different cities use technology? Can Urban IxD improve care for the elderly? Could Urban IxD encourage people to live healthier lives?

Here’s to the future!