Cities of Light

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Cities of Light

A Collection of Solar Futures

Joey Eschrich and Clark A. Miller, Editors

Ruth Wylie, Project Director

Cities of Light: A Collection of Solar Futures. Copyright © 2021 Arizona State University

Short Stories

The copyrights for individual short stories are owned by their respective authors, as follows:

“Efficiency,” by Paolo Bacigalupi. Copyright © 2021 Paolo Bacigalupi.

“Solarshades,” by Andrew Dana Hudson. Copyright © 2021 Andrew Dana Hudson.

“Things That Bend, But Don’t Break,” by S.B. Divya. Copyright © 2021 Divya Breed.

“The Scent of the Freetails,” by Deji Bryce Olukotun. Copyright © 2021 Deji Bryce Olukotun.


The copyrights for individual illustrations are owned by their respective creators.

Nonfiction Pieces

The copyrights for individual nonfiction are owned by their respective authors, as follows:

“Introduction: Imagined Cities” by Clark A. Miller, Patricia Romero-Lankao, Andrew Dana Hudson, Joey Eschrich, and Ruth Wylie. Copyright © 2021 Clark A. Miller, Patricia Romero-Lankao, Andrew Dana Hudson, Joey Eschrich, and Ruth Wylie.

“Remarks by the President,” by Elizabeth Monoian and Robert Ferry. Copyright © 2021 Elizabeth Monoian and Robert Ferry.

“A Mobility Revolution is Coming” by Alāna Wilson. Copyright © 2021 Alāna Wilson.

“Grid Innovation,” by Madeline Gilleran. Copyright © 2021 Madeline Gilleran.

“Decolonizing Technology,” by Clark A. Miller. Copyright © 2021 Clark A. Miller

“Quiet Mobilization, Inclusion, and the Energy Futures of Cities,” by Patricia Romero-Lankao. Copyright © 2021 Patricia Romero-Lankao.

“Encountering Energy Systems,” by Angel L. Echevarria. Copyright © 2021 Angel L. Echevarria.

“New Solar Paint May Change Life as We Know It,” by Robert Ferry. Copyright © 2021 Robert Ferry.

“Aspiring Isn’t Enough: A Call to Continue Agitating for a Sustainable Puerto Rico,” by Yíamar Rivera-Matos. Copyright © 2021 Yíamar Rivera-Matos.

“Just a Start … to a ‘Revolutionary, Even Magical’ Tale,” by Joshua Sperling. Copyright © 2021 Joshua Sperling.

“Freetails, Freedom, and Community in a Solar-Powered Future,” by Lauren Withycombe Keeler. Copyright © 2021 Lauren Withycombe Keeler.

“Customized Energy Futures,” by Chris Gearhart. Copyright © 2021 Chris Gearhart.

“Intentional Innovation,” by Max Gabriele. Copyright © 2021 Max Gabriele.

“Democracy and Justice in Solar-Powered Cities: The Power of Customized and Inclusive Futures,” by Clark A. Miller, Andrew Dana Hudson, Max Gabriele, and Patricia Romero-Lankao. Copyright © 2021 Clark A. Miller, Andrew Dana Hudson, Max Gabriele, and Patricia Romero-Lankao.

The U.S. Government retains and the publisher, by accepting these nonfiction pieces for publication, acknowledges that the U.S. Government retains a nonexclusive, paid-up, irrevocable, worldwide license to publish or reproduce the published form of these nonfiction works, or allow others to do so, for U.S. Government purposes.

Center for Science and the Imagination, Arizona State University
PO Box 876511
Tempe, AZ 85287-6511

This material is based on upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 1041895. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

This is material also based on upon work authored by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, operated by Alliance for Sustainable Energy, LLC, for the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) under Contract No. DE-AC36-08GO28308. The views expressed in this publication do not necessarily represent the views of the DOE or the U.S. Government.

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In memory of Lawrence Busch, 1945-2019, who taught us that the design of a standard creates a recipe not only for making a new technology but also for constructing our future lives and selves.

Eternal sunrise, eternal sunset, eternal dawn and gloaming, on sea and continents and islands, each in its turn, as the round earth rolls.

—John Muir



  • Joey Eschrich
  • Clark Miller

Project Director

  • Ruth Wylie

Project Team

  • Max Gabriele
  • Andrew Dana Hudson

Cover Design

  • Nina Miller

Ebook Design

  • Emily Buckell
  • Tobias S. Buckell

Book and PDF Design

  • Nina Miller

Special Thanks

We owe a great debt of thanks to the staff and researchers of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) for their enthusiastic support for and participation in the project, for hosting us onsite for a fascinating two days of conversations and engagement, and for their invaluable assistance with logistics. Thanks especially to NREL’s star social scientist, Patricia Romero-Lankao, for her passionate support and tireless efforts to bring the project to fruition. Thanks also to the staff of the Center for Science and the Imagination and School for the Future of Innovation in Society at Arizona State University (ASU) for their substantial help with managing project travel and finances. We are very grateful for financial support from LightWorks, ASU’s university-wide energy initiative; the Quantum Energy and Sustainable Solar Technologies (QESST) Engineering Research Center; the NREL Center for Integrated Mobility Sciences; and the Sloan Foundation.

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About the Project

It should be evident by now to anyone who is paying attention that we need to radically decarbonize our societies posthaste, in the face of an ever-intensifying climate crisis. The thorny questions are in the design of that transition: precisely how we’ll pull it off, what pathways we’ll follow, where those paths will lead us, who will benefit, and who will be left out or behind. This is especially true in cities, which at their best are flamboyantly diverse, vibrant, cacophonous centers for cultural, social, and economic exchange and creativity, with deep histories, contentious political landscapes, and unique needs and constraints. Cities are hotbeds of human enterprise and infrastructure, critical nodes in transcontinental networks and supply chains, and centers of industrial production and economic consumption—all of which make them crucial arenas in the fight against climate change. Yet, they are so much more. To write the future of cities is to write the future of human experience.

To imagine the post-carbon city thus requires inquiry into far more than the technologies that will power its diverse activities. It requires an examination of what the elimination of greenhouse gas emissions from their lives will mean for the people who live in the cities of the future and walk, bicycle, and drive their boulevards and alleyways. The stories, essays, and art in this collection explore the challenges, opportunities, and irreducible complexities of transitioning our cities away from carbon-intensive fossil fuels and toward a renewable energy economy. They do so not by proposing general one-size-fits-all solutions, but rather by reveling in the geographic, infrastructural, and cultural particularities of four cities in the United States: Chicago, Illinois; Portland, Oregon; San Juan, Puerto Rico; and San Antonio, Texas.

To begin mapping pathways through this complexity to cleaner, more equitable energy futures, the Center for Science and the Imagination and Center for Energy and Society at Arizona State University, in collaboration with the U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), hosted a narrative hackathon at NREL’s headquarters in Golden, Colorado, just outside of another bustling North American metropolis, Denver. The event, in February 2020—just before the COVID-19 crisis hit the U.S. and forced us to reimagine the present and future of cities in entirely new ways—brought together science fiction authors, visual artists, experts in diverse fields (including public policy, sociology, political science, electrical engineering, physics, sustainable infrastructure, and mechanical engineering), and talented student researchers to create technically grounded, inspiring visions of the future shaped by a transition to clean, plentiful solar energy in urban centers.

In 2019, we published The Weight of Light: A Collection of Solar Futures, which established the basic process for group collaboration that we have iterated on for this second effort, as well as the structure we follow in this book: four sections, each including a short story, a piece of visual art, and several essays, all emanating from a shared vision of a possible solar future developed collaboratively by one of our four teams. While that first book focused more on the geographical placement of solar infrastructure (urban or rural) and the scale (constellations of small, decentralized panels or large, utility-scale installations), we focus here on energy transitions in cities, and how the peculiar features and habits of four distinct cities might shape, and be reshaped by, different approaches to decarbonization and energy transitions.

We grouped participants into four teams. Each team began their work by selecting a city in the United States as the setting for their exploration and storytelling. Teams also received two sets of randomly distributed cards in sealed envelopes, delineating points of focus for their visions of the future of clean-energy cities. The first set of cards pointed the team toward a handful of urban districts: downtowns, innovation hubs, higher education, parks and conservation areas, informal settlements, exurbs, and more. The teams were instructed to orient their work towards a couple of these districts, and ideally, on movement or interrelationships between them.

The second set of cards featured different conceptual models of cities: broad ways of thinking about the affordances, social functions, and unique character of cities. These included cities as regional hubs with deep interactions with and influence over their hinterlands; zoned landscapes, with different rules governing and activities occurring in each zone; place-based communities with distinctive identities, histories, and cultures; drivers of innovation, social transformation, and sustainability; and more. The teams were invited to use one or more of these conceptual models to shape their vision of energy transition and its complex transformative effects in their chosen city.

Finally, groups were given special instruction to think carefully about contests over ownership of energy infrastructure and the immense quantities of potentially valuable data generated by energy systems. Should energy ownership and control be public, private, or some mix of the two? Should ownership be centralized in utility companies, or other powerful institutions, or instead decentralized in some fashion among the denizens of the city? How will energy industries and data industries overlap, negotiate with one another, collide, collaborate, or compete? Will energy infrastructure and industry be an engine for wealth generation—as it largely is today—or should it be reimagined as a resource for alleviating poverty and achieving greater economic equity?

In person during the workshop, and virtually in the weeks following the gathering, each team produced a short story set in the near future, a work of visual art that represents a key moment or theme from the story, and one or more essays that scrutinize the technical, cultural, and political issues that undergird these visions of the future, considering how we could get from here to there, and what signposts and obstacles we might meet along the way.

Narrative Hackathons are intensively collaborative, structured as a series of short interactive sessions with clear goals and deliverables. Our teams oscillated between small-group brainstorming, large-group presentations, cross-group feedback, revisions and refinement, and individual working time throughout the two-day event. We also were treated to a fascinating tour of the NREL campus, with behind-the-scenes glimpses at breathtaking labs and cutting-edge technologies for energy generation, clean mobility, and informed decision-making. In the wake of the event, the teams continued their conversations and worked with editors to sharpen and finalize their stories, visual art, and essays.

Our goal with this project is to speculate on the future of cities, and to celebrate the vitality and diversity of urban spaces, by imagining ways that communities can use the clean-energy transition as an opportunity to enhance what makes them special. The transition will involve messiness, discomfort, and in some cases, dislocation and displacement. Yet it is also a chance to strengthen neighborhoods, foster greater equity and civic engagement, and repair the natural environments and ecosystems that both surround and wind through our cities. In this collection, we aim to provide glimpses into possible configurations of clean-energy infrastructure—along with its concomitant social relations, political structures, and institutions—that embrace the unique circumstances of different cities. We hope to encourage dialogue, debate, and critical thinking about how to navigate urban energy transitions in ways that are culturally responsive and inclusive, and in ways that honor and amplify the beauty and grandeur of cities, as well as their ability to provide places where people can live and thrive and make futures for themselves, their neighbors, and future generations.

To see full-color versions of the visual art, and to download and read this collection in different formats, visit

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About the Contributors

Paolo Bacigalupi is an international bestselling author of speculative fiction. He has won the Hugo, Nebula, and Michael L. Printz Awards, as well as being a National Book Award finalist. He can be found online at

S.B. Divya is a lover of science, math, fiction, and the Oxford comma. She is the Hugo and Nebula Award–nominated author of Runtime and co-editor of Escape Pod, with Mur Lafferty. Her short story collection, Contingency Plans For the Apocalypse and Other Situations, was published in 2019 by Hachette India, and her debut novel Machinehood was published by Saga Press in March 2021. She holds degrees in computational neuroscience and signal processing, and she worked for twenty years as an electrical engineer before becoming an author.

Andrew Duvall is a transportation behavior analyst in the Mobility, Behavior, and Advanced Powertrains group of the Transportation and Hydrogen Systems Center at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. His focus is on exploring the relationship between human behavior and energy use in transportation. He serves as a project leader and principal investigator on a range of efforts centered around emergent mobility trends and technologies. These include understanding the behavioral responses and human components of automated, connected, electric, and shared vehicles and practices, as well as mobility apps.

Angel L. Echevarria is a PhD student in the School for the Future of Innovation in Society at Arizona State University. He works as a research associate in the Grassroots Energy Innovation Laboratory at the Center for Energy and Society. Angel studied mechanical engineering at the University of Puerto Rico, where he worked at the National Institute for Energy and Island Sustainability. His research focuses on sustainability issues, energy systems, and how humans relate to both of them in society. Through his research, Angel examines the ongoing energy system transformation of the Puerto Rican archipelago. He aims to inform how that system can be designed differently to deliver more than electricity services to the people living in the islands.

Robert Ferry is the founding co-director of the Land Art Generator, a nonprofit that provides a platform for creativity around the design and implementation of renewable-energy infrastructures as works of art in public space. He is a LEED-accredited, licensed architect, a graduate of Carnegie Mellon University, and the recipient of multiple grants from the National Endowment for the Arts. He has been awarded the J.M.K. Innovation Prize, a program of the J.M. Kaplan Fund. His practice is focused on exploring the potential of regenerative buildings and public spaces to contribute to our zero-carbon future.

Max Gabriele is a PhD student in the Human and Social Dimensions of Science and Technology program at Arizona State University, where he is currently engaged in long-term ethnographic research involving Silicon Valley technologists and futurists. He has a master’s degree in sustainability, for which he studied agricultural therapy as a therapeutic method for military veterans suffering from PTSD. Demonology, imagination, ethics, humane technology, and the attention economy are salient themes in his work.

Chris Gearhart is a physicist and an automotive engineer with a background in alternative-energy vehicles. He is the director of the Center for Integrated Mobility Sciences at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. His center is dedicated to better understanding how to move people and goods efficiently, affordably, and with less impact to the environment. This includes understanding how mobility systems integrate with communities, the infrastructure that supports those communities, and energy systems with large amounts of renewable-energy production.

Madeline Gilleran is a researcher and data scientist at the National Renewable Energy Lab in Golden, Colorado, focusing on vehicle electrification and behind-the-meter energy storage. She graduated from the University of Michigan with a master’s degree in mechanical engineering in 2019, and previously interned at Tesla and Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E). At Tesla, she was a supply chain program manager for energy products; at PG&E, she developed strategies to train current employees in electrifying fleets for commercial customers.

Andrew Dana Hudson is a speculative fiction writer, sustainability researcher, and political organizer. His fiction has appeared in Lightspeed Magazine, Slate’s Future Tense channel, Vice’s Terraform channel, MIT Technology Review, Grist, and more. He is a fellow at the Center for Science and the Imagination at Arizona State University, and a member of the 2020 class of the Clarion Workshop. He lies in Tempe, Arizona. Find him online @andrewdhudson and at

Lauren Withycombe Keeler is an assistant professor in the School for the Future of Innovation in Society at Arizona State University. She studies the future, with an emphasis on participatory futures, sustainability, and radical change. She is the creator of multiple futures games, including Future Shocks and City Resilience, AudaCITY, and American Dream Tarot. She was awarded the 2019 Next Generation Foresight Practitioners Special Award for North America for her work creating games to help cities build more sustainable futures. 

Elizabeth Monoian is the founding co-director of the Land Art Generator, a nonprofit that provides a platform for creativity around the design and implementation of renewable-energy infrastructures as works of art in public space. She has published, exhibited, and presented globally on the aesthetics of renewable energy and the role of art and design in providing solutions to climate change. She is the recipient of multiple grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and has been awarded the J.M.K. Innovation Prize, a program of the J.M. Kaplan Fund. She holds an MFA from Carnegie Mellon University.

Sylvia Montero is a painter, printmaker, photographer, and performance artist. She is dedicated to creating art which reflects our human experiences in the world we live in. She exhibits nationally and internationally.

Venkatesh Lakshmi Narayanan is a graduate student at Arizona State University, focusing on human-computer interaction. He has more than six years of experience in UX and visual design, and in leading design teams in the e-commerce domain. Currently, he works as a design assistant at the Center for Science and the Imagination at Arizona State University, where he creates designs ranging from illustrations to user interfaces.

Deji Bryce Olukotun is the author of two novels, and his fiction has appeared in seven different book collections. His novel After the Flare won the 2018 Philip K. Dick special citation, and was chosen as one of the best books of 2017 by The Guardian, The Washington Post,,, and Kirkus Reviews. An attorney focused on emerging technologies, he is a Future Tense Fellow at New America and a fellow at Arizona State University’s Center for Science and the Imagination. Before that, he defended persecuted writers around the world at PEN America.

Yíamar Rivera-Matos is a student of decolonization, energy transitions, and sustainable futures. She is a PhD student in the Human and Social Dimensions of Science and Technology program in the School for the Future of Innovation in Society at Arizona State University. Her current research is on solar-energy technologies and grassroots community solar-energy projects in Puerto Rico.

Patricia Romero-Lankao joined the Center for Integrated Mobility Sciences at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in 2018, as a senior research scientist in joint appointment with the University of Chicago’s Mansueto Institute for Urban Innovation, where she is a research fellow. Previously, she has served as a senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research. She examines the interactions among people and cities, with a particular emphasis on the sustainability of energy systems, mobility, and the built environment, as well as their resilience to disruptive events. She was co-leading author to Working Group II of the Nobel Prize–winning IPCC Fourth Assessment Report (AR4), and she is the editor of the journal Earth’s Future. She is a steering committee member for the U.S. Carbon Program and the Colorado Local Science Engagement Network. 

Regan Rosburg is a writer, curator, artist, and educator from Denver, Colorado. In 2017, Rosburg published her research on the intersection of art and ecopsychology in the IGI International Journal on Civic Engagement and Social Change. Working in a variety of materials, her pieces weave together history, beauty, science, and consumerism. Rosburg also directs the Cayo Artist Residency, which brings together art and science with the goal of environmental awareness, forward-thinking ideas, and stewardship. Learn more about her work at 

Amy Schwab is a senior project leader in the Strategic Energy Analysis Center at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. Her focus is on helping groups concentrating on technical problems better understand and deal effectively with the dynamic human systems that shape and deploy solutions.

Sebastián Sifuentes is a mixed-media artist, graphic designer, and illustrator based in Boulder, Colorado. Born in Lima, Peru, Sebastián studied graphic design and traditional painting at Eastern Michigan University, where he graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts and a minor in sociology. Sebastián’s love of woodblock printing and textures has influenced his style and technique as an illustrator and graphic designer. His creative process goes back and forth between traditional media and digital means to achieve his unique hybrid and organic style.

Joshua Sperling is an “Urban Futures and Energy-X Nexus” engineer and multidisciplinary researcher at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL). He is a former Fulbright Scholar, holds a PhD from the interdisciplinary Sustainable Urban Infrastructure program at the University of Colorado Denver, and has co-led “Urban Nexus Science & Innovation” to “Cities & Energy-X Nexus” thrusts in National Science Foundation and Department of Energy (DOE) consortiums, after joining the NREL’s New Concepts Incubator, Joint Institute for Strategic Energy Analysis, Integrated Mobility Systems, and International teams in 2016. He co-leads DOE and NYSERDA “smart and connected cities and communities” work, strategic partnerships (including with universities), and supports various urban, behavioral, decision-science, and early-career mentoring efforts at NREL and beyond.

Parisa Tashakori, graphic designer and visual artist, is an instructor in the Advertising, Public Relations, and Design department at the College of Media, Communication and Information at the University of Colorado Boulder, and specializes in design and data visualization. With over twenty years of experience in design, Parisa has collaborated as a designer, creative director, and facilitator for several international cultural and social institutions. Now, she works in her own studio in Boulder, Colorado, focusing primarily on social and cultural communication. She has been a member of juries for numerous competitions and festivals, and has organized and carried out various cultural projects and workshops, individually or jointly with her friends.

Alāna Wilson believes bikes, public transit, and cooperatives will help save the world. She earned a PhD at the University of Colorado Boulder studying snow and glaciers, but since transportation-related greenhouse gas emissions are a significant contribution to the destruction of Earth’s cryosphere, she now works as a sustainable mobility researcher at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. Alāna has lived car-free since 2004, and for the past eight years has lived in cooperative housing. She is on the board of her local food co-op, and was previously employed at a worker-owned cooperative.


Joey Eschrich is the editor and program manager at the Center for Science and the Imagination at Arizona State University, and assistant director for Future Tense, a partnership of ASU, Slate magazine, and New America on emerging technology, policy, and society. He has coedited several books of science fiction and nonfiction, including Future Tense Fiction (2019), published by Unnamed Press, A Year Without a Winter (2019), published by Columbia University Press, and Visions, Ventures, Escape Velocities (2017), which was supported by a grant from NASA. He edits Imaginary Papers, a quarterly newsletter on science fiction worldbuilding, futures thinking, and imagination. In collaboration with the Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative writing, he runs Arizona State University’s Everything Change global climate fiction contest.

Clark A. Miller is a designer, theorist, and analyst of techno-human futures. He explores how societies create and inhabit new technologies, and their global implications for the future of people and the planet. This work aims to redesign technology innovation as a tool for creatively imagining and constructing inclusive, thriving communities. He helps lead Arizona State University’s School for the Future of Innovation in Society, where the motto is: “The future is for everyone.” He also established the interdisciplinary PhD in the Human and Social Dimensions of Science and Technology. An electrical engineer by training, Miller directs the Center for Energy and Society and the sustainability research group of the Quantum Energy and Sustainable Solar Technologies (QESST) photovoltaics engineering research center.

Ruth Wylie is the assistant director of the Center for Science and the Imagination and an associate research professor in the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College at Arizona State University. She concentrates on interdisciplinary, translational research that leverages knowledge and insights from theory and laboratory studies to address real-world problems. Her previous research projects have been on the design, development, and implementation of educational technology for students and teachers in middle schools, high schools, and universities.

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