Breaking the Past’s Lock on Our Future

The future is always layered over the past.

That’s the insight that has stayed with me two weeks after the Association of Professional Futurists October 4-6 annual gathering in Pittsburgh. While this futurist conference themed around the Resurgent City and the Future of Urban Environments showcased local examples of what the near future might be, that future clearly struggles to rise above the limitations of existing infrastructure and beliefs.

No example illustrated this insight better than the Carnegie Mellon spin-off company, Rapid Flow, which is using AI to make “dumb” traffic intersections smart to improve traffic flow. While AI could help optimize flow, this powerful software has to be harnessed to a 1980s vintage controller that itself has established outer parameters for light duration that AI cannot override.

Beliefs are also a limiting factor. Mike Courtney of Aperio Insights, took us on a visual tour of future images of what our cities would be as envisioned 75 to 100 years. While many of the envisioned technologies do have contemporary analogs, these humorous images illustrate how often we project our social and cultural norms onto the future as if we expect they will not change. And unfortunately that can be too true.

When we try to create images of the future, we are hobbled by these extant images without noticing how they limit what we imagine. Tradition and precedent are powerful.

That’s why the work of Stuart Candy, an experiential futurist now at Carnegie Mellon, is so intriguing. He shared his attempts to offer dissenting or competing images of the future by creating situations or stuff that catalyze insights and change. My favorite was NaturePod, a totally imaginary new product launch staged at a major design show. People relaxed face down in massage chairs peering through googles at images of nature. As if connecting with nature in this way didn’t speak volumes about our alienation from our natural environment. Candy designs these experiences to call upon upon the “wisdom of repugnance” to question our values.

It was equally unsettling visiting the redevelopment of a major downtown department store into residences, hotel and other amenities. While the building had many smart features including Alexa in every apartment, you could see that it is destined to become a fortress of privilege in the central city. At least these new residents will not displace old residents as happens in gentrification.

The recounting of a recent Mobiliti event offered a hopeful alternative to this kind of thinking about what makes a resurgent city. In this planning event, diverse stakeholders came together to innovate solutions to everyday transportation challenges like getting groceries home without a car or generating goodwill between bus drivers and the riders. Simple stuff that might increase civility and connections within a community.

As someone who lives in a community also on Amazon’s shortlist for its second headquarters, I found it intriguing how often people in Pittsburgh referenced this opportunity as a catalyst for change. The Amazon decision is typical of how most cities seek their resurgence. Too many cities are waiting for a rich suitor to lift them out of their current struggles.

Maybe we have more capability to create thriving cities on our own if we can first acknowledge how our past—infrastructure and beliefs—may be holding us back. Cities are a lasting manifestation of what we as societies have decided we value.