Prototyping the Future American City

San Francisco is the center of the center of American innovation. The future of software, medicine and transportation is being created within a 60 mile square radius of the city. Based on that, it’s striking to notice at how old the city feels. Everything from its mass transit systems to its architecture seems dichotomous to the “everything-new” energy of the city.

San Francisco is an example of where society is outpacing its habitat. While San Francisco and other urban dwellings are experiencing this phenomenon now, it’s only a matter of time until every town and suburb goes through the same phenomenon. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out how we got here. Making any significant infrastructural modification takes considerable time, money and will. The amount of disruption of daily life for its residents would be considerable. On the occasions where projects like these fail, it becomes harder for future projects.

While this may be quaint, it's absolutely stupid. Photo by Michael Patterson
While this may be quaint, it’s absolutely stupid. Photo by Michael Patterson

Civil engineering is nothing like software engineering, but both professions face similar challenges. As the things they make age and complexity gets layered on, it becomes hard to make even the smallest changes. Any foundational modifications often lead to instability. It gets to the point where the team just wants to keep things running as-is because anything else would be risky and expensive. The great thing about software is its intangible existence. Old code can be scrapped and re-written at a relatively low cost. In comparison, if the city of New York wanted to retrofit Brooklyn, they couldn’t start by leveling it. That difference is one of the key ingredients of how the world of software has kept up (and even accelerated) the rate of advancement while many sectors that have a physical component to them are just trying to keep up.

Our cities are embarrassingly behind in the most basic technologies. There is only so much commercial products and services can do. This gap is only going to expand at an accelerating rate. At some point cities will begin to hold back its population. This is a serious problem.

So how can we solve this? I would like to see a start-from-scratch approach by building a prototype city built entirely on new technologies and new approaches in urban design. Each city would be relatively small in area and population—let’s say 4 square miles in area. Each prototype city would work to solve weighty urban issues in different ways based on the needs of their region. For instance, you probably wouldn’t want to create a solar-powered city in Seattle.

What's the modern equivalent to the stereotypical 1950's "City of Tomorrow"?
What’s the modern equivalent to the stereotypical 1950’s “City of Tomorrow”?

These prototype cities would provide an unconstrained vision of how cities could function. This would provide a much clearer view of how certain new technologies/approaches impact a community (for better or worse). They would also provide an avenue for technology companies to envision ambitious ideas with considerably less friction. Most importantly, these prototype cities would provide a blueprint for existing cities on how to (or how not to) approach modernizing their infrastructure to reduce the amount of risk when they choose to do so.

One focus for a prototype city could be the emerging technology of autonomous vehicles. At this point, the autonomous vehicle has had to work around laws and infrastructure that never planned to support them. Imagine how much better autonomous vehicles could operate with roads designed specifically for them. Would road signs have machine-readable information printed on them? Would they have different speed limits? Their own partitioned roads? How would a society work differently in this scenario? We can all take guesses on how autonomous vehicles would impact urban life or we can actually have it play out and apply those learnings to modernizing the rest of our cities.

Photo by Scott Schrantz.
What would a city look like if these were the only cars on the road? Photo by Scott Schrantz.

The autonomous vehicle is a perfect example of a technology that is almost assuredly going to become mainstream, have a dramatic impact on our society and require a significant adjustment on the city, state and national levels of government. I can guarantee you that the transition will be challenging, no matter what we do. If we just try to wing it and institute national standards without a model to work from, it’s going to be a mess. I can think of countless other technologies that will have a similar impact. We need to employ a [test, measure, adjust] approach to problems this large and complex. As long as cities are taking a reactionary approach to technology, any modernization efforts will be hacks.

We could also use this approach during recovery efforts of cities hit by disasters. Think hurricane Katrina or Sandy. We could use those disasters as opportunities to rebuild our towns/cities with forward-looking approaches and technologies. Think of a recovery process where as many technologists show up as engineers. Cities/towns hit by a disaster could have the opportunity to not just rebuild but re-imagine.

In many ways, America feels old, timid and tired. The country that created the Interstate system and the Apollo program has lost either the confidence, the will or both to create new, ambitious public infrastructures. The result is a portfolio of old and outdated cities. It is necessary for our existing cities to improve their infrastructure, but the process is far too incremental and compromised to provide a guiding direction of where America’s cities should head. Government shouldn’t be the only source of innovation, but it can’t shy away from it either. The private sector can’t and shouldn’t modernize our cities. We need government-generated innovation; a NASA for civil engineering if you will. Without such an initiative, our public spaces will always be uninspiringly behind.

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