Sci-Fi Citymakers

Photo by Ergi Murra on Unsplash

Stories are a starting point, a feedback mechanism that can help us to build better cities. Imagineers, both professionals and ordinary citizens, are the citymakers of tomorrow.

In a world of fake news, separating fact from fiction has become such an enormous task that it has created an industry of fact-checkers, content moderators and reputation management consultants. As well as a shadow industry of covert influencers using the same technologies to subvert those processes. So, it’s easy to forget how important stories – the process of making things up – are to our history, our present and our future as sci-fi citymakers. 


In the next few weeks Think City will be launching an initiative linked to its Kuala Lumpur Creative & Cultural District (KLCCD) programme which asks citymakers to reimagine the role, purpose and layout of KL’s downtown districts, some of which are likely to be based on realistic and actionable principles, and some of which may be more theoretical and speculative. 

In the same way, the recent Think City created KISAH Futures competition described itself as a disruptive storytelling competition. In fiction, ideas don’t have to make sense. They aren’t governed by the laws of physics, or the rules of society. They allow the reader, or the viewer, a window into the mind and motivations of the writer as they enable those writers to share their private hopes and fears.

Those same ideas could find a home on social media, but shorn of context and a greater ecosystem, is social media the place share an existential but unformed dread of the power of the surveillance state or a flight of fancy about a cork-screwing office building reaching through our atmosphere into space? Stories are a place where we can – well – take those ideas out of storage and see what the world thinks about them. 

Starting with Star Trek

The science fiction and fantasy genres are obvious starting points. There’s an entire generation of scientists committed to bringing the ideas of screen icons like Star Trek and Bladerunner to life. One of my own favourites from the show Star Trek: The Next Generation, the replicator, is gradually becoming a reality. A device that synthesizes and creates any food, drink or small item a user requests, many of the replicator’s functions are being realised by developments in 3D printing (also known as additive manufacturing). 

We can already use these such machines to print foods, industrial prototypes and medicines. R&D in bioprinting may make it possible to custom print replacement organs from a patient’s own cells, removing the need for both donor organs and anti-tissue rejection drugs. Cultured meats, like the chicken nuggets in Singapore grown in a bioreactor, are another example of the kind of machine replications suggested in science fiction. 

The power of fiction to shape our present is all around us: both Amazon and Blue Origin’s Jeff Bezos and Tesla and Space X founder Elon Musk were partly inspired by science fiction in their vision to turn humanity into a space colonising species. Paypal’s founders found inspiration for the global and borderless payment system in the novel Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson. As for artificial intelligence, the foundational worlds and wisdom of writers like William Gibson, Philip K Dick and Isaac Asimov have established themselves as guiding principles. 

Patently Obvious

Variations on personal computers, smart devices, satellites, the Internet, video cameras, sliding doors, robots, touch screens, lasers and countless other common-place innovations were first described in the imaginations of storytellers. To create the 2002 celluloid version of the world imagined by Philip K Dick in the 1956 short story The Minority Report, the director Stephen Spielberg enlisted the help of scientists, futurists, urban planners and writers to help him picture the technology and cityscapes of 2054.

More than 100 patents have since been lodged that are based on or reflect technologies that were showcased in Minority Report. The futuristic images of self-driving cars in films like Blade Runner, Minority Report and I, Robot have helped to shape our own mental perception of what cities based on these principles might look like. In the same way, the iconic images of Tom Cruise waving his hands in mid-air to control holographic computer screens have had a direct influence on the development of user-interfaces (UI) and gesture control devices in the years since. 

Fiction writers, futurists and world building consultants (note: including me) are increasingly being retained by large corporations and think tanks to help them imagine and anticipate the challenges and consumer environments of tomorrow. During a conversation with car designers for a well-known German manufacturer a few years ago, I was fascinated by their need and ability, given design to production times that could stretch to many years, to imagine the shape of the cities and societies that those cars would inhabit.

Through the Line

The recently announced plan for The Line in Saudi Arabia imagines a linear network of walkable communities with no streets or cars spanning some 150 km, where essential services are located with a five minute walk. Buildings will be carbon positive and communities will be powered by clean energy. Service traffic, much of it autonomous, will be housed in tunnels underground. A centralised system of sensors and artificial intelligence sends back a continuous stream of data about traffic flow and city usage, enabling the system to adapt and change with its residents’ needs. 

Less than two decades ago, this would have been a work of utopian fiction. An unrealisable dream that citymakers might have borrowed from to create more modest solutions. Today it’s a reality: construction of The Line is set to break ground in the first quarter of 2021. 

The Futurist is a regular column from Matt Armitage.