The futures of the city

Design Fiction and Urban IxD


By Sjors Timmer

At the London IxDA April meet-up I shared some of the things I learned at the Urban IxD summer school, a workshop event where we worked on various scenarios for the futures of cities.

There are three things I want to discuss: first, a bit of history on future cities; second, some of the theory behind Urban IxD and design fiction; and finally some of the projects of the summer school


1. The futures of the city

Let me take you back to New York World Fair of 1939, where General Motors had Futurama, one of the biggest pavilions. In it they sketched a vision of the world of tomorrow. For this pavilion they produced a short film called To New Horizons.

To New Horizons

In this film they look forward 20 years to the city of 1960 where all the planners’ dreams have become realised: large highways, segregation between slow and fast traffic, and entire neighbourhoods redeveloped for greater speed and efficiency. It’s interesting to see how Le Corbusier’s plan Voisin from 1925 (also sponsored by a car manufacturer) to demolish the inner city of Paris and replace it with efficient highways and skyscrapers had gone from a crazy idea to an accepted vision of the future.

In 2012 Danish film maker Andreas Dalsgaard produced Human Scale, an inquiry in the destructive influence that the car obsession has had on our cities and a discussion of better ways of city-making going forward. One of his features is set in New York (watch it here) and talks about how in the 1960s (as General Motors predicted/argued for) large parts of New York had been transformed to make way for the automobile.

By controlling it, you extinguish the possibility for life to pop up. […] you think about it in a very concrete system, an equilibrium. That’s not what made the city great then or now” — Jeff Risom in The Human Scale — New York

science fiction does not merely anticipate but actively shapes technological futures through its effect on the collective imagination — Paul Dourish and Genevieve Bell

What you can see here and what Paul Dourish and Genevieve Bell argue in their paper Resistance is Futile: Reading Science Fiction Alongside Ubiquitous Computing (via Near Future Lab), is that science fiction (and especially corporate fiction) is not a harmless exercise in predicting. Instead it’s a powerful technique to influence the collective imagination and alter the way research effort is allocated and therefore, what outcomes we can expect.


Today the Smart City is seen by many as the future city, a vision that sees the city filled with smart sensors, smart cameras and smart networks allowing city managers to run their city in an efficient and effective way. You can see a few of the pitches here:

IBM’s vision of the Intelligent Operations Centre
Cisco’s ideas about Smart City Barcelona
Philip’s concept of the Intelligent city

If you listen to the language used—of sensors, systems, networks and control centres—you can notice similarities with the General Motors video: a very top-down, company centric message. Also notice what is not said: no comments on strengthening local communities, no lean UX, no ‘we went into the neighbourhood and we showed people our plans’. Now this post is not an argument against the smart city—for that you’d be better off with Adam Greenfield’s Against the smart city—or in favour of a human centred approach—for that you should watch The Human Scale. This is a quest for a broader way of thinking, a larger set of ideas.

A good science fiction story should be able to predict not the automobile but the traffic jam — Frederik Pohl

We need a set of ideas that don’t imagine the future under perfect circumstances but explore weird, strange and challenging alternatives.


The futures cone by dr. Joseph Voros

We can use the futures cone (via Tobias Revell) as a diagram to think about the future. The further we get from today the more possibilities we have. If we keep on going like we are now, we’ll end up somewhere in the probable circle, but if we start to change our investments, research and regulations, we could move towards a more preferable way of living. The problem as always is the question: preferable for whom? For General Motors to sell more cars or for us to live in a pleasant neighbourhood?

The futures cone by dr. Joseph Voros

We can break through this limited view of the preferable future by challenging the major consensus narrative of how the future will unfold.

The future is always over sold and under imagined — Chris Luebkeman

One way of doing this is to develop more and vastly different scenarios, to throw in some wild cards — scenarios of low-probability and high-impact — and make it easier to think about and discuss a much wider set of possibilities.

2. Urban ixd, critical design and design fiction

At the Urban IxD summer school, we used the mindset of critical design and the methods of design fictions to create this wider range of possible urban futures. But what is Urban IxD, critical design and design fiction?

Urban IxD

Like UX or interaction design, no one has yet come up with the final definition of Urban IxD. Most agree, however, that it’s somewhere on the crossroads of human-computer interaction, design, and urban theory and practice.

[Urban IxD is] the artful integration of people, place and technology. — Marcus Foth

It contains the way you look up your next journey or how you might find a great coffee shop in a different part of town, how your car could find a free parking spot and how the police can quickly catch a criminal. Within the field of Urban IxD three universities and one company started the Urban IxD project, a two-year-long research project for the European Commission under the Future and Emerging Technologies programme.

One of the aims of this project was to organise a week-long summer school to bring together researchers and practitioners to kickstart a community of urban-ixd-ers and for ‘The production of fictional concepts [as] a suggestion for how to proceed and understand the problem space’ (summer school reader).

Critical design

Critical design takes a critical theory approach to design, and questions our design culture by producing objects that feel uncomfortable. It was developed by Dunne and Raby an artist/designer/teacher duo who define it as following:

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

One of their earlier projects was the short film Robots from 2007, where they explore other ways to imagine robots besides human-like metal machines.

Design fiction

Design fiction is a way of story-telling that uses fictional design objects in a setting and language that people can understand. For example, after the large touch screen was shown in Minority Report suddenly everybody had an opinion about touch screens and requests for touch-screen interfaces dominated the interaction design community for years. On Quora Joshua Glen Tanenbaum defines it as:

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. — Joshua Glen Tanenbaum

One of the groups best known for their design fiction work is the Near Future Laboratory, a group of mainly American designers and artists who did projects like Curious Rituals and the Corner Convenience.

Corner Convenience by the Near Future Laborator

Combined critical design and design fiction formed a solid but flexible framework to start working from.


3. Urban IxD summer school

As mentioned, the goal of the summer school was to bring together students, practitioners and researchers, and to create a set of near-future prototypes and scenarios that can be used as an outline for further research.

Thanks to the participation of the local University and Art Academy, the summer school was hosted in the wonderful seaside town of Split. We were based inside a brutalist masterpiece Dom mladih, a theatre building that was never finished but opened anyway and now is used as a youth centre.

What was made?

Together with Sandy Claes, Karey Helms and Pika Novak, I worked on Fabrika Split, a project that explored the possible impact of wearable screens. We wondered how new technology would change our daily routines and how social behaviour would change to accommodate this increased visual bombardment.

Different ways of using wearable screens
Photos show up where you just can’t see them, usability problems still plague technology of the future

Another interesting project was the Ministry of Misinformation, an alleged hackers collective that made it easy to create unreliable information about our urban environment, forcing us once more to reach out and speak to local people and depend on their knowledge.

Ministry of Misinformation

Aurora the Aura City was a project that took trust and Google Glass to another level and developed a short story called Aura city.

Aurora, the Aura City

The last video I showed was the Techno Shaman, a short documentary about the value of pre-digital knowledge and its role in future society.

Techno Shaman

There were about 10 more projects on the Urban IxD website and together they form a fascinating investigation into the hopes and fears of our future cities and future lives.