Designing City Futures

As corporate lifespans decline, cities are increasingly understood as being the primary long-term economic, social and cultural infrastructure for managing growth and development. This recognition is driving a new and renewed interest in city governance; one which begins to appreciate corporates as mere pop-ups in the trajectory of the successful city, and the fallacy of reliance on solely private sector, market-driven future.

This future poses a key question — can we fundamentally shift our models, theories and methods of organising and managing away from an obsession with control, market fixes and instrumentalisation? Can we design and develop meaningful alternatives focused on unleashing a democracy of mission, imbued with purpose and agency — centred around around our humanity and empathy as opposed to extending Taylorist, Fordist tyrannies to our supposedly democratic cities.

The central challenge we face is reinventing city governance so that it evolves from an industrialised, centrally controlled model towards one that recognises interdependence and the fundamental responsibility to the democratic agency of all citizens in making society. Civic infrastructure and welfare too must be re-imagined; focused not on optimising corporate balance sheets, nor addressing political social costs, nor even addressing long term social and environmental costs but on utilising the full democratic capacity of all citizens. This is a city of the future that places these citizens — both present and future — at the centre of its economic, social and cultural vision. We must unleash this city: now let’s imagine this city.

This is city that has moved on from a system where behind the democracy of governance hides the autocracy of the economy of industrial (virtual) chains of production. It is a city that is no longer managed according to data and targets, no longer driven by need and fear, that is is focused not on the instrumentalisation of its ‘work force’ but instead chooses to view its human capital as its core asset to invest in.

This is a city which understands itself first and foremost as being the primary social and economic organisation unit: a meta-institutional platform for citizens, corporates and cooperatives; for work, rest and play — a true agent of the public.

This is a city that recognises that in a world where free knowledge with a global reach is increasingly commodified, the unique quality of physical proximity can sow the seeds of empathy within a collaborative economy.

This is a city which recognizes that we are in the midst of a interaction revolution: moving beyond the Fordist model, where the city was a transactional engine (now increasingly the role of the web) to one focused on tacit interactions and knowledge exchange, where complex decision-making is no longer clouded by ambiguity, where there is no rule book to follow.

This is a city which understands the role of design as being an architect of conditions that seed the culture and hardwire the capacity of the city to serve as an ‘empathy engine’. It is a city that requires us to reinvent our old world economics and re-conceptualise our globalization, creating one that is instead comfortable to operate in a boundless world shaped by interdependency rather than boundaries.

This is a city that seeks us to unleash, not undermine, the extraordinary humanity of the 99% in the face of the sociopathy of the 1%. It is a free city liberated by our technology, not further tyrannised and instrumentalised by it and those that wield its power. This is a city where freedom does not mean dreaming of isolation within a rural idle but instead means empathy, respectful interdependency and the unleashing of our collective personal agency.

It is our responsibility as seekers, designers, developers and financiers of the future city, to collectively empower and emboldened the dreamers and darers whilst shunning the fear-makers. This is a city that demands we search for our place in the stars — and do not just struggle to sustain our place in the dirt: this city is the launchpad for a remarkable, 21st Century civilisation.

Indy Johar