patterns in visualising urban futures between 1900 and now

I’m getting interested in how so-called ‘smart’ cities are being visualised.  ‘Smart’ is a recent way to describe how cities might run better – more sustainably, more efficiently, even more democratically – by using data gathered in various ways by digital technologies of various kinds.  There seems to next to nothing that’s considering how ‘smart urbanism’ is being imagined visually, though, which is odd.  Because they are being visualised, not least by the large corporations who are trying to sell ‘smart’ technologies to cities all over the world; and those visualisations are interesting because ‘smart’ and ‘data’ are not things that are intuitively easy to see in urban spaces.

I wonder if this absence is because most of the more theoretical and critical literatures on the digital technologies that are deployed in ‘smart’ cities draw on the new materialist realism.  They thus focus on the ontological status of technology and media, on the symbiosis between human bodies and technologies – technogenesis – on the agency of the technologies, and on technologies as extending bodily sensoria.  In that theoretical scenario, there doesn’t seem to be any room for accounts of human creativity reflecting back on technologies, as it were.  Only cities remain sentient, it seems.

An exception is a very interesting report on a UK government website that explores how future cities have been visualised, by Nick Dunn, Paul Cureton and Serena Pollastri.  You can download it here.  It’s full of fantastic images of all kinds: drawings, diagrams, paintings, collages, maps, digital visualisations.  (Actually, the website is pretty interesting too – it’s the site of a bit of the Government Office for Science, itself part of the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills, called Foresight, which is looking at urban futures fifty years from now.)

Dunn and his co-authors have produced a very interesting graphic, too, which puts their chosen images on a timeline.

future city graphicThis suggests that we are in a particular historical moment; enthusiasm for new cities peaked in the 1960s and 1970s, it appears, and then faded for two or three decades, before re-emerging strongly in the early 2000s.  Which suggests to me that, even if a lot of cutting-edge work on the digital seems to disagree, there’s a clear need to think about how smart and sentient cities are being brought into visibility, and with what effects.

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