The city has been a visual symbol of the future for well over a century, and the “futureness” of it is always reflected in the same way: by increasing the density, verticality, and mobility. From “King’s Dream of New York” — the book cover from 1908 pictured here — to science fiction icons such as Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element or Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, popular culture places us in a future vision by showing us a city that holds more people that we imagine possible, housed in gigantic buildings that dwarf any current city, flitting about in vehicles that do not yet exist (usually flying ones).
Although urban visions are changing to accommodate the needs of climate change, and green urbanism is a mainstream feature of both past and future city planning, people still think of the future as being “more of the same” in these classically urban terms: dense, vertical, mobile.*
And of course, we must add the word technological, for the city is the opposite of our agrarian, low-tech past. Agriculture and rural life is, in fact, a symbol of the past, just as the city is a symbol of the future — except when agriculture involves hydroponics powered by solar cells in a modern, urban building. This expanding practice is sometimes called “vertical farming“.
Karl Sigmund, Exact Thinking in Demented Times: The Vienna Circle and the Epic Quest for the Foundations of Science, New York, NY: Basic Books, 2017.
Sigmund tells a riveting story about the intellectual vortex of ideas and thinkers centered on Vienna in early years of the 1900s, and how those thinkers survived (or in many cases, did not survive) those years of increasing violence and persecution, climaxing with World War II.
Attempting to establish firm foundations for the new “scientific worldview” was an extremely future-focused activity, not to say visionary. Participants in the Vienna Circle — overwhelmingly male — were aiming at nothing less than the intellectual reform of humanity. To an astonishing degree, when one looks at the various threads of impact that ultimately radiated out of Vienna and into the world, from the interpretation of the implications of Einstein’s breakthroughs, to the development the fundamental mathematical theory behind the design of computers, to the invention of the use of infographics for public education, and more, they succeeded.
For we understand neither why this world exists, nor why it is constituted just as it is, nor why we are in it, nor why we were born in just these and no other circumstances. Why then should we fancy that we know one thing for sure, that there is no other world, and that we never were nor ever will be in another?
— Kurt Gödel, letter to his mother, cited by Karl Sigmund, Exact Thinking in Demented Times, 2017, p. 381.
The problem I see is that vision is frankly teleological — it asserts or at least implies the causal efficacy of purpose in the real world. A vision of a desirable future functions as a lure, a pull toward itself. For the lure to be effective, like magnetic north, it has to embody real and objective value — not just subjective preferences of individuals.
I strongly believe in the causal efficacy of purpose as well as objective value, and it is a source of dismay to me that many others do not. Before we can save the biosphere, we will have to save the idea of purpose itself, or at least free it from the bondage in which it has been held by neo-darwinists for so long. Even those scientists who are too honest to deny the reality of purpose are nevertheless rendered half-hearted and feeble by the inconsistency between their personal life and the basic assumption of their science. It is hard to get excited about visions of a desirable future if you even half believe that purpose is an illusion.
— Herman Daly, Letter to Donella H. Meadows, June 1999
Everything great had a beginning in dreams, desires and hopes that did not have visible success for a long time. Unbreakable faith in the future keeps courage alive until the thoughts and visions start coming into being.
To transform the world, we must begin with ourselves; and what is important in beginning with ourselves is the intention. The intention must be to understand ourselves and not to leave it to others to transform themselves. This is our responsibility, yours and mine, because however small may be the world we live in, if we can bring about a radically different point of view in our daily existence, then perhaps we shall affect the world at large.
I am a practical person. I think of myself as relentlessly realistic. I want to create change in the world, not visions in my head. I am constantly amazed, but increasingly convinced, that visioning is a tool for producing results. Olympic athletes use vision to make the difference between the superior performance their trained bodies can achieve and the outstanding performance their inspired vision can achieve. Corporate executives take formal classes in vision. All great leaders have been visionaries. Even the scientific, systems-analyst side of me has to admit that we can hardly achieve a desirable, sustainable world, if we can’t even picture what it will be like.
— Donella Meadows, “The Importance of Visioning, the Practice of Visioning,” reprinted in The Balaton Bulletin, Winter 1999