Cultivating an appetite for the future demands recouping a politics of aspiration

Words by Maarten Hajer | 20 Sep, 2015

Society is struggling with radical uncertainty. We live in a phase in which things we thought we could take for granted can no longer be taken for granted. Wherever we look, economic growth is fragile. The European enlightenment project, which since 1993 has proposed a unity of people, lacks direction and is partially reversed. Poverty, failed states, structural unrest and violence around the world have resulted in unprecedented migration. It leads to feelings of anxiety that manifest themselves in protests on our streets. It leads to calls for the political to take the lead. Yet there is a blatant shortage of ideas as to how we might move on—and we critically need those ideas. We need to find ways to regain an appetite for the future. We must recoup a politics of aspiration, a wish to help create a better future.

At moments when we need to reinvent the political, it is culture that can help. Precisely when politics is hot, and every political statement is judged for its immediate effect on virtual electorates, safe spaces can come in handy. In order to regain an appetite for the future, we need to step back—one step back, to take two steps forward. In the safe spaces of culture we can discuss big ideas in relative freedom. We can exchange what we think might come next, and, more importantly, we can deliberate on what we want to have come next. This is a crucial difference. After all, there is no shortage of prophecies about what will come next. And, typically, such claims to knowing the future are combined with ideas that these futures are inevitable. It is the hidden politics of urban imaginaries.

One such urban imaginary is the “smart city”. The promise is that a toolkit of smart information and communications technologies (ICT) will revolutionise our cities. Nobody in his right mind would belittle the repercussions of the ICT revolution for cities, of course. Yet if we want to keep control over our own futures, we had better first unpack those visions of the smart city and analyse the politics they conceal. For one thing, we don’t need applications that make the existing city more efficient. We need to use smart tech to structurally transform our cities, making them more socially just and better organised in terms of the spatial positioning of work and housing—and also better able to read just when the next economy, once again, changes shape. Control rooms for metropolitan cities, such as the Centro de Operações Preifetura do Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, are a cybernetic dream. But what do they do for making the city fit for its future?

What we need to do is cultivate alternative and positive urban imaginaries—imaginaries that work for socially inclusive cities. We can see the glimpses of those alternative futures in our cities right now. In the Netherlands, for example, we have witnessed a radically innovative retrofit of the housing stock called Energiesprong. It has retrofitted

111 000 houses to net zero energy levels and offers an insurer backed energy performance guarantee. There are no more energy bills as the houses are well insulated and heated by a pump that stores heat when it is hot, pumping it up when it is cool. It is definitely smart, yet this time for its residents. It is still early days. But we can speculate what comes next. Experiments are now under way to use the power generated by these houses to charge a fleet of electric cars via a smart grid. One problem that has arisen from this experiment is that these energy entrepreneurs deliver so much surplus energy to the grid that the tax office now regards these households as an energy producer. And hence they have to pay.

A similar alternative employment of smart tech has been deployed in informal settlements in South Africa. The Sustainability Institute’s iShack project in Enkanini, a slum settlement outside Stellenbosch, uses various energy-efficient and sustainable technologies, including a photovoltaic solar panel capable of producing enough electricity to power three lights, providing light (which means added security) and reducing costs. A long time ago, American political scientists coined the term “iron triangle” to refer to the phenomenon that elected officials were caught up in interest group lobbies. One way around this phenomenon is to create safe spaces for people ill served by this political stalemate: in such safe spaces we can develop discourses that spell out opportunities, that show new ways forward. Here also, it is not clear who is in charge. It is a cultural space where no-one is in charge, but everybody is able to participate on an equal footing.

This is what we urgently need now. The next economy is an open concept. It calls for the meeting of free minds with an appetite to think creatively about what is coming. This type of performative urbanism requires lots of attention to mise en scène, to the interrelation between spatial interventions and urban actors, in order to make alternative futures come true. It also requires thinking about cities with a historical and anthropological awareness. The aim is to recover the sense of urban resilience: the capacity of cities, through the ages, to cope with the unexpected, to adjust, to reconnect and to move on.

It is time to critically deconstruct some of the current urban imaginaries that have captured the imagination of political elites. They include the smart city, the self-driving vehicle, the application of robots to health care, and the idea that makeshift new cities founded on neo-liberal doctrine—gated cities that miniaturise the ideal of a city in the confines of a castle—offer a viable future for city making in the global south. We cannot know what is next. But let’s put our energy into asking, what should be next? This is a key question shaping the alternative spaces of 21st century politics.

Maarten Hajer is distinguished professor of Urban Futures at Utrecht University and chief curator of the 2016 International Architecture Biennale Rotterdam