Visualisations of future cities contribute to our social imaginary. They can, and have been used as speculative objects for imagining new possible ways of living as communities (Dunn et al., 2014). However, future cities are usually represented through coherent scenarios that only tell one story (or one version of it), and rarely express the complexity of urban life.
How can the diversity that characterises the city be represented in visions of future that give voice to different, diverging ways of living and experiencing it? How do these visualisations contribute to inclusive design and research actions aimed at envisioning, prototyping, and reflecting on possible scenarios for liveable cities?
My research focuses ways of visualising possibilities for life in future cities that include and valorise plurality and agonism (DiSalvo, 2010), rather than present (as it usually happens) only one story. For a lack of existing terminology, I am calling this approach “Visual Conversations on Urban Futures” (VCUF).
Although there are no definitions or structured descriptions of Visual Conversations on Urban Futures, some prototypes can be found in design, art, and architecture. These examples show the great variety of methods and media that can be adopted in participatory processes of imagining futures cities. As part of my study, I am collecting historical and contemporary examples of multiple voices debating possible urban futures in an online archive (https://subjectivefutures.wordpress.com/).
As a designer, I have chosen to adopt an action-research methodology (Kock, 2012; Rust, Mottram, & Till, 2007) to conduct, document reflect on a series of design experiments (Eriksen & Bang, 2013) that help me understand what does it mean to make pluralism explicit when producing visions of urban futures.
The two main design experiments are:
- the Atlas of Imaginary Future Cities, developed as part of Liveable Cities’ Future Visions research challenge: an example of making divergent visions readable and explorable.
- The Sharing Cities case-study, that reflects on ways to use visual methods to involve a heterogeneous group of stakeholders in reflecting on the possibilities and implications of thinking of their city as a “sharing city” (participatory scenario making).
Visual Conversations on Urban Futures could offer a significant contribution in the early stages of processes of building scenarios for possible futures. Manzini and Coad (2015) describe scenarios as “communicative artifacts produced to further the social conversation about what to do”. This way of imagining futures is ultimately about building alternatives to the dominant order by “making possible what apperar(s) to be impossible” (Lefebvre, 1970, cited in Buckley & Violeau, 2011).
While in times of urgent change seeking clarity and agreement might seem a much preferable route, I argue that articulating divergence is a necessary step to explore truly radical solutions. Stepping back from a solution-oriented approach allows us to critically question the present and the underlying assumptions of current research and political discourse on “growth” and “sustainability”.