The Idea of 'Future'​ - Tech and the City

I always like my spirited monthly catch-ups with @thomassevcik. Recently, we did this as a ‘fireside chat’ in front of a lot of other people as part of the ULI/Germany Leadership Summit.

The subject was ‘AI-Hype’ and we began by checking off some of the obvious promises: affordability of services, net-zero-carbon environments, etc. We also noted that we don’t often talk about the ‘22nd Century’; it doesn’t evoke the idea of ‘Future’ in the breathless, optimistic, Dick Tracy-ish way ‘21st Century’ captured our parents’ imagination – and certainly our time as children. ‘Smart Cities’ and ‘AI’ have become semiotic proxies for ‘Future’, but we have darker views of technology now; we’re less likely to embrace the promise of technology as an end in itself. We anticipate that urban tech will help us achieve specific outcomes, but we are not sure what those long-term outcomes should be. Or rather: we have trouble agreeing how we should benefit from those outcomes. Sure, there can be greater efficiencies, more individual control; but how should Tech address public dis-satisfactions over increasing inequalities? Should Tech and the ‘Future’ roll back the frontiers of government control? Or perhaps should regulated outcomes, enabled by Tech, enable centralised government to play a greater role in the economy?

Constraints and rules create coherence and vice-versa. Tech allows individuals and organised groups to create their own rules and constraints; this in turn encourages polities to devolve (regress?) the modern nation-state into more essential and primitive forms – the empowered city state separating from the less-connected hinterlands, perhaps into mono-polar tech-centred kingdoms. If anything, the COVID era has accelerated this trend; our tech-supported hunkering down allows us to reconnect as loosely linked corporate tribes, or even as isolated family bands. We increasingly understand what Tech is capable of doing, but we are still thinking through what this means for our identities.

We also thought a bit about how Tech and AI are increasingly (and perversely) used as excuses for not improving physical urban assets – sharing driverless cars will reduce demands for roads and bridges, so no need to improve existing infrastructure...

In the end, there is no consolidated ‘Future’. Tech will enable us to define, measure, and control the performance of virtually every aspect of our environment. But these innovations are shaped by intended outcomes, which in turn are coloured by our cultural backgrounds. We were sitting and chatting in the gloriously re-purposed Fredenhagen steel mill, very much a reflection of the social market economy of ‘Rhine Capitalism’. We could easily have been in the badlands of a neo-Calvinist parking lot in a nostalgic low-population US state, or improving our social score in the enforced coherence of a mega-congress hall in Shanghai.

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