Design Fiction: Tomorrow’s Smart City Prototypes

“A designer is by nature a futurist, designers create ideas that are not yet of this world, and turn those ideas into the world we live in. To design therefore is an exercise in futurity.” – Davis Levine, 2016

In 2014, over 4,000 people and dozens of speakers descended on Dubai for the second annual Government Summit. As part of the summit, an exhibition was opened at the Museum of Future Government Services, a display of interactive demonstrations showcasing what life in Dubai could be in 2050.

Like something from a sci-fi movie (isn’t everything these days?), the exhibition featured a smart bathroom mirror that tracks your health, and an omniscient Wizard of Oz/Big Brother AI that watches over a city, driving urban planning, from the top of a skyscraper. These technologies, amongst many others, hinted at what citizens of the UAE could expect in the coming decades.

Alas, as inspiring and terrifying as the exhibits were, none were actually real. These were works of design fiction, created by tech-focused design agency, Tellart, for whom the UAE government is one of the largest clients.

Science Fiction and the Smart City

It has been said, with increasing frequency in recent years, that science fiction foreshadows science fact – it may even be a factor in driving scientific progress in the first place. When, for example, you read the (auto)biographies of some of the greatest minds in Silicon Valley and beyond, an emerging theme of child and teenhood fascination with science fiction develops. This is no coincidence.

Designers such as those at Tellart are essentially science fiction authors, albeit working in the visual, as opposed to the written medium. However, as our technological progress hastens and grows, fewer of these fictions seem beyond the realms of true possibility.

Design fiction, such as that displayed in Dubai in 2014, is not a new concept. Of course, science fiction goes back centuries, predating the first Industrial Revolution which sparked a profusion of literature that imagined future scientific developments from a range of angles. But a pertinent example might be the 1939 World’s Fair: “The World of Tomorrow”, which featured a US-spanning vehicle highway system that, as The Verge eloquently puts it, “looks like the worst parts of the New Jersey Turnpike today.”

The Smart City of Dubai: A City of Happiness

Dubai was one of the first countries to jump on the smart city bandwagon. “Our vision,” says the Smart Dubai website. “Is to make Dubai the happiest city on Earth.” Beneath this text, the subheading reads: “Our mission is to create happiness, by embracing technology innovation”.

From blockchain to 3D printed buildings, the city-wide Internet of Things network, and the strange notion of its ‘Happiness Meter’, Dubai is clearly hard at work. The forward-thinking, fictional prototypes of the 2012 exhibition acted as a form of performative anticipation, representing the future as an existing artefact that shapes the present in which it is presented. It is a preparation, a way of normalising upcoming technologies to minimise the shock of the new as it begins to arrive.

Preparation and Propaganda

Numerous agencies like Tellart have been working at the intersection between art and technology for decades, softening the blow of new technologies as they begin to emerge. Marketing and branding new tech before it even reaches the consumer market, they are normalised and commodified in the eyes of the consumer.  The appetite is whetted, the consumer bait is set. With Alexa controlling our homes, and our smartphones and watches assisting our daily lives, we are ready for more.

If the consumer goods market is the bait, then is the smart city itself is a trap? As the smart city slowly creeps towards us, the inherent concerns about privacy, the manipulation of reality for political or commercial gain, and engulfing isolation at the hands of technology, are all muffled. We are already acclimatised, lulled into eager acceptance with the shiny new devices in our homes and in our hands.

There’s little doubt that propaganda and manipulation are present here, but perhaps neither of these loaded words should be viewed as an implicit threat. Design fiction, a made-up pre-emption of what will later arrive, helps us to imagine a mainstream futuristic aesthetic that will benefit us more than it will restrict us. Perception is everything; if we allow ourselves to succumb to the technological future ahead of us, a new way of life emerges.

No less free than we are now, though perhaps more sedated by our surroundings and the ease of which we can slip from one moment of our day to the next, the smart city has the ability to liberate us from a wide range of cumbersome obstacles in our way to an easy life. A smarter city can be an altogether more eco-friendly, sustainable, and – as Dubai pledges – a happier place to live. And it is design fiction of the smart city that is preparing us for the brave new world ahead.