Skip to main content

Writing the story of a sustainable future

sustainable cities graphic
September 03, 2014

Editor’s note: This article is part of a series about sustainable cities. Read the other articles: "Sustaining our cities," "Curbing urban sprawl," and "Room to grow."

“You can’t have better futures without better dreams,” says Ed Finn, director of the Center for Science and the Imagination at Arizona State University.

So if we want to be able to create a more sustainable city in the future, perhaps we should start by asking: What is our dream?

Is it a forested oasis? A high-tech mecca? At ASU, distant-eyed scholars in a variety of disciplines are imagining what the city of the future could look like, and exploring how we can get there.


Yellowstone City exists peacefully with the natural world. People work around bison and other beasts using commuter zeppelins and hobbit-hole-like buildings. The city creates energy through renewable systems and rewards citizens who conserve it.

ASU student Nathan David Smith dreamed up Yellowstone City for his short story, “For the Benefit of the People.” It’s part of “Green Dreams,” a contest put on by the Center for Science and the Imagination in partnership with Intel’s Tomorrow Project. The winning stories were published in an anthology titled “Cautions, Dreams & Curiosities.”

The image Smith creates is refreshingly hopeful compared to the typical doomsday sustainability narrative.

“I think to make sustainability work, you need to come up with new behaviors, new narratives, that people are excited about, that they want to live in,” says Finn.

According to science fiction author Neal Stephenson, the current trend of dystopian future-fiction is inspiring more fearful paralysis than innovation. To address this problem, Stephenson and the Center for Science and the Imagination started Project Hieroglyph. It aims “to come up with big ideas that we could accomplish right now if we just have the right story to tell about them,” says Finn.

Hieroglyph connects science fiction authors with scientists and engineers to produce the spark they need to bring a new idea to life, or to get young people interested in science and engineering in the first place.

The project is named for the Hieroglyph Theory, which Stephenson expounds on in his article “Innovation Starvation,” published in the World Policy Journal.

“Good science fiction supplies a plausible, fully thought-out picture of an alternate reality in which some sort of compelling innovation has taken place,” he writes. “Examples include Isaac Asimov’s robots, Robert Heinlein’s rocket ships and William Gibson’s cyberspace. As Jim Karkanias of Microsoft Research puts it, such icons serve as hieroglyphs – simple, recognizable symbols on whose significance everyone agrees.”

These “hieroglyphs” can help create sparks of motivation. Putting them in the frame of a story allows inventors to see how technologies might affect our world and provide insight on the best way to go about creating them.

The project’s first anthology, “Hieroglyph: Visions for a Better Future,” will be available on Sept. 9. Stories in the book present ideas like crowdsourcing 3-D printing robots on the moon, dronepunks building their own flying Internet and a “gamified” U.S.-Mexico border – like a reality TV competition for work visas.

The book was created on the premise that in order to change the future, we need to change the story we tell about the future. The Hieroglyph “formula” is to present a big, ambitious vision of the future, grounded in real science and packaged as a great story that inspires people to try something risky and unexpected, but also potentially transformative.

But the book is just the beginning, according to Finn.

“I think the real outcome of the project so far is the community of people who are involved in it,” he says. “We've got four hundred plus people from a huge range of different fields who are involved in these really great discussions online, creating a set of innovative ideas and an open community and open forum to talk about big stuff.”

Vision quest

How do we get from pie-in-the-sky stories to a real, sustainable future? Visioning can provide the bridge between fiction and policy.

David Iwaniec, a postdoctoral researcher in ASU’s Central Arizona-Phoenix Long-Term Ecological Research project, works on crafting sustainability visions that can guide public policy. He’s working with regional stakeholders to explore their “priorities and goals for the long-term future.”

By understanding citizen’s own ideas about the future, researchers and decision-makers can craft more citizen-oriented plans for the future, or get feedback on what may or may not be acceptable policies.

So far, Iwaniec has encountered numerous general clusters of visions for the Valley of the Sun. These include multiple small urban centers throughout the metropolitan area, centralized high-density urbanization, oasis-like urban cores and “smart cities” that emphasize energy and water efficiency.

Two main types of future visions are plausible and normative. Plausible futures are what is likely to happen based on evidence-based information and what we can anticipate. They use approaches such as systems modeling and empirical data such as water availability, climate change and population projections.

“They are one kind of the future projection based on our current understanding and explorations of outcomes that we can anticipate,” says Iwaniec.

Normative futures are often desire-based and might include radically transformational and motivational visions. Most of our global cities produce some form of these visions to guide long-term decision-making. Frequently, these plans outline a desirable future state, not necessarily what is likely to happen based on the current trends. The lack of systems thinking and meaningful engagement in normative visioning has led to extensive criticism of its usefulness. However, Iwaniec thinks normative futures can complement plausibility futures. He integrates both strategies in his research.

Visions are an effective way to spark discussion. This was the goal of the Phoenix 2050 scenarios created by ASU design students in collaboration with ASU’s Center for Nanotechnology in Society. Darren Petrucci, an architect and professor in the Design School, led the project with Rider Foley, a postdoctoral researcher in the center.

The center created four plausible narratives for a future Phoenix based on available and emerging nanotechnologies. The design students then consolidated and transformed them into two divergent scenarios that capture technical, cultural and aesthetic influences in a cohesive visual design.

The first scenario follows the trend of large corporations, like Google, developing large swaths of land into sustainably-run mega-campuses, where employees can both work and live. The second scenario depicts more equitable, integrated neighborhood development, but it’s messier.

“If everything goes private, you get that big corporate campus. (Or) you improve the existing infrastructures of the alleyways and the neighborhoods,” says Petrucci. Both situations could have negative outcomes, including increased socioeconomic divisions or difficult, long-term negotiations leading to patchwork implementation.

Vivid images like these can help inspire people to look beyond their unsustainable realities. They get people to ask hard questions about current trends and future goals.

The ASU scenarios focused a spotlight on the role of public and private operations within the city, and how each can both aid and arrest environmental, societal and economic sustainability.

Petrucci’s designs seek to integrate public and private infrastructures. For example, “solar streets” shade Phoenix’s roads with solar panels owned, maintained and operated by electric companies, tying public infrastructures into private funding and expertise. Multiple layers of single-use infrastructure would be meshed into one efficient system to cool and power Phoenix.

“The important thing (for developing a sustainable city) is that there’s an integrated goal,” he says. “Make the infrastructure integrated; make the infrastructure able to absorb and connect.”

A tale of two cities

Some visionaries have worked to make their radical visions into reality. The late Italian-American architect Paolo Soleri dreamt of high-density, self-sufficient and self-contained human habitats – cities designed the way nature designs an ecosystem. He named his cities arcologies, a portmanteau of “architecture” and “ecology.”

Arcosanti is the realization of his dream. Located about 65 miles north of Phoenix along the Agua Fria River, this experimental arcology is being built as an antithesis to urban sprawl. The city, started in 1970, incorporates sustainable urbanist principles such as pedestrian orientation, high density, green space and energy efficiency.

Arcosanti looks like something out of Star Trek, made of elegant curves and half-moons of concrete, offset with occasional straight edges, all rising out of the high desert scrub. Home to about 60 permanent residents currently, the city’s master plan includes facilities to support a population of 5,000.

A newer arcology is rising in another desert – Abu Dhabi’s Masdar City. Like Arcosanti, it’s an experiment in sustainable urbanism, with sustainability principles incorporated into every feature.

Masdar is intended to be an incubator for sustainable technologies that can be exported to the rest of the world. To achieve this, the city is building relations with clean energy technology companies through its sustainability-focused university. Planners hope this will ensure the city is a useful step toward a more sustainable future, rather than a footnote in a long list of unsuccessful master-planned communities.

In Petrucci’s opinion, however, Masdar City isn’t the way to go. He admits arcologies are “a nice laboratory for testing different materials and looking at tighter street grids and more shade.” But he believes a truly sustainable future must lie within metropolises we’ve already built.

“I'm not a believer in master plans,” he says. “I think it's typically a myopic view.”

Finn agrees.

“Historically utopias like that can't survive,” he says. “It's actually extremely difficult to build a truly self-sustaining ecosystem.”

However, as Petrucci notes, arcologies can be useful test beds for sustainable living. Furthermore, they concretize the optimistic outlook needed to advance sustainability.

“Arcologies are attempts to create utopias and to build them right, to say here's a working example of a space that is really ecologically sound but also appealing and exciting in other ways,” Finn says.

If these walls could talk

One way we might make our cities more sustainable is to make them “smarter.” Both of Petrucci’s visions of Phoenix in 2050 assumed the presence of extensive nanotechnology. Masdar City is similarly grounded in technological innovation.

Greg Raupp, director of ASU’s MacroTechnology Works initiative, is developing flexible sensing technology that could radically change how cities and people interact.

Ten years ago, he and other researchers at ASU began creating flexible electronic displays, such as bendable computer screens. Putting transistor arrays on flexible surfaces has a number of benefits, namely that the technology is feather-light and rugged.

Now Raupp is working on inverting the technology to create sensing arrays.

“Instead of sending a voltage or a current, we detect a voltage or a current. It's the exact same array. We don't change anything about the design. We just turn it inside out,” Raupp says.

Some of the potential uses for flexible sensing arrays include portable, wrap-around x-ray imagers; stress-sensors that can increase infrastructure safety; and a “Tunnel of Truth” for airports that can detect more threats with less hassle than current security options. These and other applications will change the interaction between people, technology and spaces.

“The technology's all around us,” says Raupp. “It's like the Star Trek vision. You walk into the bridge and the technology wakes up, but it's all automatic. You don't have to touch it. You wave at it, you talk at it. These transistor arrays can be built into our walls, built into our furniture, built into our surfaces.”

One major sustainability application is related to infrastructure. Today, structures are monitored primarily through visual inspection. Sensing arrays could analyze structural integrity more accurately.

“What if you could, out on the key parts of a bridge, put a sensor array that's looking at things like corrosion or cracks, and it can alert the maintenance techs and they fix it well before something goes wrong?” asks Raupp.

Conversely, there is no need to waste money tearing down old structures and building new ones if they are shown to be structurally sound.

“The theme of the story,” says Raupp, “is if you're going to have a sustainable world, you want to be able to sense it. Sense everything. That's the best way to sustain it: know whether or not it's safe, know what it's status is.”

In short, give the city a voice. Then listen to it.

Beyond the tomorrow mountains

Raupp believes that sensing technology could profoundly impact how humans interact with their environment – more than we can possibly imagine.

“Here's the weird thing about technology transformations,” he says. “The individuals who think about the technology transformation usually see a very limited form of the transformation and the reality is much, much bigger.”

So where does that leave us? How can we create a viable dream if the forces that will shape our future are unimaginable?

A starting point might be to try and change the way we imagine.

One of the biggest challenges that we face in making ideas, such as sustainable cities, become reality is that doing so requires long-term thinking. Unfortunately, we live in a culture of "now."

“We've become very caught up in the present,” Finn says. “That's a product of the contemporary industrial world that we live in.

“In the Middle Ages, people built these cathedrals that took a hundred years or more to build, and there was no expectation that the people who started them were going to see them completed ... there was this wonderful sense of a longer span of time.”

Finn, who is also an assistant professor in the School of Arts, Media and Engineering and the Department of English, hopes that the narratives coming out of places like the Center for Science and the Imagination can inspire people to think farther ahead.

“I think that the most important thing we can do is break people out of the rut of the present,” he says. “If we can get people to think five years ahead, ten years ahead, twenty years ahead, then we can, hopefully, build up a kind of competence both for ourselves and for the audiences that we interact with.”

Once that’s achieved, maybe ideas of green, integrated, safe and self-sufficient cities will seem less like dreams and more like goals that we can reach. Sustainability, after all, isn’t about “The Day After Tomorrow.” It’s about all the days that will ever come and how we, as a people and a planet, will survive and thrive through them all.

The Central Arizona-Phoenix Long-Term Ecological Research project is part of the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability. The Design School is a unit of the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts. The School of Arts, Media and Engineering is a transdisciplinary program in the Herberger Institute and the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering. The Department of English is a unit of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

Written by Erin Barton, Office of Knowledge Enterprise Development