The Toys of Boomtown

10/10/2014 14:48 | Updated 09 December 2014

What culture will we find in the urban spaces of the future? How is meaning articulated in cities beyond the often empty rhetoric of efficiency and progress? Our team (see below) are midway through a project that looks at possible high growth towns of the future through the forms of play found there.

Six months ago we were sat in classroom in Ahmedabad as part of the Unbox Labs programme. We were trying to apply our broad range of design backgrounds to the question of what cities of the future might look like and how we might live in them. We've since been on a lumpy, often tangental journey trying to understand what that meant.

We have looked to use critical design to articulate our exploration, some of which can be found here. To steal the Dunne and Raby definition: "Critical Design uses speculative design proposals to challenge narrow assumptions, preconceptions and givens.." Our motivations were in part a response to a perceived lack of foresight or speculation in the work we were seeing around cities. Are the designers and planners of cities doing enough to understand how they are created and what they feel like on the inside. We were also conscious that in India speculation and future thinking is often put aside whilst pressing issues of sanitation and housing are addressed. In using a critical design process we were trying to explore future contexts in a meaningful, constructive way and design tools to help us get to grips with how others could productively apply this form of thinking. Patrick's digram on forms of speculation is a useful companion whilst exploring the motivations for critical design. Since our work in Ahmedabad we've been lucky enough to be able to continue our cross cultural collaboration with the help of the British Council.

A theme that persisted for us from the original work was the idea of the genesis story. What stimuli create the conditions for a new city or might rapidly redefine an existing settlement. A place like Truth and Consequences in New Mexico is being reformed by the imminent opening of the Virgin Spaceport and Williston in North Dakota has tripled its population in 5 years thanks to the shale oil boom. China has an instant cities phenomenon where urban spaces explode into life in response to market opportunity.

That contrasts with the cities we see in India and China being designed from the ground up without real industry or purpose. The ghost town of Ordos in China is a particularly remarkable example of a city being built almost out of habit in a location with little more than a noteworthy growth potential. It's not just in Asia where urban spaces are conceived in boardrooms, places such as Old Oak Common in the UK are equally fated by the whims of market and political opportunity. It's no more guaranteed a prosperous future than Ordos or Kochi.

With these examples in mind, we defined our project within the context of emerging high growth urban spaces, something called Boomtowns. Places like tiny Skagway in Alaska are the classic image of a boomtown, growing to be the largest city in Alaska during the Klondike gold rush. Yet places like Liverpool had similar spikes during the industrial revolution when it went from a small tidal inlet to one of the great cities of the world thanks to technological innovations in the ship building industry.

In the past two months we've worked with a number of experts to help shape the project. We spoke with Jan Zalasiewizs, know for his work on the Anthropocene, about how geology reads cities. He is something of a heretic in the slow moving geology space, believing the impact on the earth of the industrial revolution is already significant enough to constitute the beginning of an epoch, something normally measured in millions of years. Jan talked about how a geologist would measure a city by the rocks it puts down and the movement of minerals to and from the site. Post industrial cities are geologically more significant for their complex materials such as concrete and iron. Do our boomtowns lack a geological typology that might mark them out? All of the cities above, with the exception of Liverpool, are defined by low cost, quickly deployed structures that are reflected in the culture around them. What changes when a boomtown transitions to becoming geologically significant?

Justin Pickard who's work focuses on the social adoption of technology helped us shape the output. He talked about how like technologies, often the best, most vibrant cities aren't the most robust. It's in this space of potential where some of the biggest ideas are born. When, as in the Klondike, the fragility of the economy is exposed ideas are often already locked in imagination. A reminder that the cities we experience daily are very different to the bigger ideas they inspire in others. We talked about toys and Dan Hill's essay Dark Matter and Trojan horses which speculates that significant change has to be smuggled into institutions. Toys are often smuggling values into our lives, they are about historical and cultural context forming and are both representative and politicised. They also adapt to the context of use, in play patterns and the materials used.

Finn Williams looks at the possibilities presented by planning laws and how their inherent bureaucracy is often used as a form of control. His work looks to subvert the negative language of planning to create positive, user focused messages around how citizens can influence their home and the environment around them. He imagines future cities where the architecture becomes reflective of the gaps in planning law. We worked with Finn to understand the power struggles at play in city development and how it sits alongside the top-level visions often imposed on or lacking from cities. He also made a mean gant chart for us that helped rationalise the points on the hype cycle that different materials, values and histories might emerge in a boomtown's artefacts.

So toys are mundane on one level, yet also representative of the aspirations and pedagogic considerations of a society, an interesting lens through which to view urban values. We are just as interested in how the hopes and fears of citizens become embedded in cultural creation as by the high growth cities themselves. The citizens of Truth and Consequences are set to embrace their new exposure by bringing their children up to understand space travel (or at least its commercial potential). How will the children of lithium mining towns in Bolivia or those born in a data service economy on the edge of the arctic circle encounter culture through the values embedded in the toys of their boomtown.

The Future Cities team is:
Ayaz Basrai
Sara Anand
Cassie Robinson
Patrick Stevenson-Keating
Dan Watson
Carlo Zapponi 
Ben Barker