Cities of Light: Introduction

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Introduction: Imagined Cities

By Clark A. Miller, Patricia Romero-Lankao, Andrew Dana Hudson, Joey Eschrich, and Ruth Wylie

“From each city Marco described to him, the Great Khan’s mind set out on its own, and after dismantling the city piece by piece, reconstructed it in other ways, substituting elements, shifting them, inverting them.”—Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities1

How do we imagine the cities of tomorrow?

In Italo Calvino’s novel Invisible Cities, the Venetian explorer Marco Polo receives an invitation to visit with the Mongol emperor, Kublai Khan. Trapped in his palace by the demands of rule, the Khan no longer knows the cities of his empire, except through dispatches and messengers he does not trust. And, so, he asks his visitor to describe those cities, to explore for him, through stories of his own travels, the state of the empire and whether his cities and their residents thrive. This Polo does, recounting 55 stories of 55 cities. 

The challenge is that the two protagonists do not share a common register of truth. Rather, the cities that Polo conjures are shaped by memories of Venice, while the Khan rambles through memories informed by past imperial campaigns, each refracting the streets of Polo’s narratives through his own fantasies about what cities should be, molded by very different life experiences and positions of power.

Our task is similar. Today’s decision-makers have far more capable data systems for knowing the cities of today. But we do not have any better tools than Polo and Khan for grasping the cities of tomorrow. And, so, we tell tales for you, conjured from our own urban experiences, and our own imaginings of what the future may bring, in the hope that they will inspire you to imagine and create sustainable cities of the future worth inhabiting.

An Exercise in Imagination

“I should never have imagined a city like this could exist …”—Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

Imagine a city. Picture it in your mind, even just one neighborhood or part of town. Feel its shape, its textures, its vibe, its street culture. Envision the lives and the lifestyles that it cultivates and nourishes. What gives the city vitality? Why does it exist? Who lives there? What meanings does it have for them? What is its history? What is its future? Make it real. What does it cost people to live there, financially and otherwise? What inequalities and conflicts does it harbor? Who owns the city? At whose expense?

Now imagine that same city, a few decades from now, powered by solar energy. How has the city weathered the transition to renewable energy? Has its look and feel changed? Do people live, work, and play in different ways? Where are all the solar panels? Who owns them? Who benefits or bears the risks from the technological, economic, and political power they generate? How are benefits and risks distributed? How are those panels connected to the invisible threads of history and purpose, commerce and industry, culture and society that make up the city?

Is the city of tomorrow you imagined worth inhabiting? For whom, and in what ways? How does sustainable energy contribute to that worth? In your mind, who decided what the future would look like, and whose voices were left out?

The Future of the City

“Kublai asked Marco: ‘You who go about exploring and see signs, can tell toward which of those futures the favoring winds are driving us.’”—Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

This book is about imagining the future of the post-carbon city. And since, for millennia, the city has been a focal point of human experience, before even the Greeks conceived of their city-states and the Romans imagined their civitas—a community of citizens, from which we derive the English word city—this book is also about imagining the future of the human experience and human community in the wake of a sustainable energy revolution. We imagine that future as very different than the cities of today.

Many people agree that a major change in the energy sector is coming, and point to a need to swap the use of fossil fuels for renewable sources of electricity. Cities are the locus of that challenge. Cities are where people use and consume the vast majority of the world’s energy. Cities, too, are where most of the world’s energy systems are controlled, even if much of the energy is made in more distant places. Fortunately, around the world, thousands of cities have declared their intention to become carbon-neutral, as have thousands of city-based businesses across finance, transportation, manufacturing, and energy. Change is coming fast.

Almost everyone also agrees that a big part of the future of energy is solar—perhaps as much as half or more of future global energy supply.2 Solar energy is just too abundant and too cheap. As the epigraph for this book suggests, sunlight is, cyclically, eternal and everywhere. There’s daylight to spare. The amount of solar energy arriving at the Earth’s surface dwarfs human energy consumption. Photovoltaic (PV) panels already collect sunlight and transform it into electricity at lower cost than any other energy technology, and their price continues to drop at a rapid clip.3 PV is also highly flexible: able to be deployed in a wide range of technological, economic, political, and social arrangements, making solar energy relevant to a much wider array of people, places, and organizations than other energy options.4

What kinds of tomorrows will this confluence of post-carbon cities and solar energy bring? If we do create a future powered largely by solar energy, what kinds of cities will flourish in that future? What kinds of people and communities, what experiences, what forms of living, working, and playing will take flight in sunlight-powered cities? Who will get to choose?

How much would cities change? According to the conventional wisdom, not much at all. We often separate energy production from use and think that we can substitute new forms of energy supply without influencing how we use energy. And, yet, there is ample precedent for the idea that energy creation and use change together in meaningful ways and, hence, that energy innovation could nucleate radical social and economic transformation.

No city dweller of the late nineteenth century could have predicted what either the automobile or the light bulb would bring to cities in the first several decades of the twentieth century.5 Skyscrapers grew up, rising dozens and then hundreds of stories into the sky, made possible by electric elevator motors. Suburbs, exurbs, and highways were stamped out by the thousands, packed with cars and trucks fueled by inexpensive gasoline. Desert cities exploded outward, their environments made livable by air conditioning. Houses filled up with hundreds, perhaps thousands, of electrical devices. Radio and television stations offered new modalities of mass communication and culture. At the dawn of 2019, nobody could have predicted the emergent behavioral changes—working remotely, reduced travel, social distancing—induced by COVID-19. Nobody could have imagined that, together with powerful economic forces, the coronavirus would push the coal and oil industry to unthinkable lows, that new pipelines would be cancelled or the price of oil would go negative, with deep consequences for climate change and for the health of people and ecosystems.

Will a renewable-energy revolution change cities as much as coal and oil did? Will an appreciation of the potential of renewable energy to bring new urban opportunities and benefits induce people to build cities differently, once again, as happened with the introduction of electricity and automobiles? If so, how? Such questions are rarely asked, except in narrow, technical terms that largely neglect the rich complexity and diversity of human experience. It is perhaps easier today to imagine such upheaval happening, again, as we write in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. The pandemic has revealed the capacity for societies to act rapidly in response to global crises and the power of such action to reduce humanity’s environmental footprint. Yet, it has also revealed the complexity of collective human action, even in the face of crisis. And it has revealed the deep racial, economic, health, and environmental inequalities that persist in cities, that expose people differentially to risk and harm, and that limit the ability of people of color to shape either their own futures or the future of the city. The simultaneous resurgence of massive protests in solidarity with the threatened lives of Black Americans has also made it clear that no institution in the United States today—including the energy sector—can afford not to ask how its own work contributes, or fails to contribute, to advancing social and economic progress for Black, Hispanic/Latinx, Native American, Indigenous, and other disadvantaged communities. 

It is essential, therefore, that we ask how energy transitions will contribute not just to decarbonizing the energy sector but also to transforming cities into safer, healthier, more secure, more prosperous, and more just places for all of their diverse inhabitants. What will an energy transition mean for the composition and organization of our cities, for how people in different neighborhoods live and work and play in them, or for how cities treat people of color and disadvantaged communities, politically and economically? Will investments in energy innovation enable change for the better, by reducing urban inequalities, or, if we are being truthful, for the worse, if we are not attentive to the social, political, and cultural dimensions of energy transitions? 

We need, in other words, to ask not just what energy technologies will populate our urban futures, but what the future of post-carbon energy will mean for people in cities.

This gap in our thinking about energy futures blinds us to the realities of human transformation that will accompany large-scale energy systems change.6 When we gaze today upon the world’s poorest communities, many of which still use wood to heat their homes and cook their food and rely on human and animal muscle power for transportation, we intuitively understand that energy innovation is a driver of social and economic change. We imagine that their lives would be transformed by access to new ways of producing and consuming energy. Yet, when we envision energy transitions in North America and Europe, we do not imagine the same. We either do not think to ask—or choose not to inquire too deeply into—what it will mean for our cities if we power them differently. We focus, instead, narrowly, on where energy comes from, its sources, its carriers, and the technologies that voraciously extract, transform, and consume it to do work in modern industrial and post-industrial societies and economies.

This is a mistake. Time and again, cities have transformed through new ways of harnessing energy to human organization and work.7 Yet, it’s as if we have forgotten that fact: that cities throughout history have driven and shaped themselves around their sources of power, light, fuel, and energy. We know that today our cities embody what anthropologists describe as petrocultures and what the historian Timothy Mitchell has called carbon democracies—ways of living in and ordering human communities along lines sculpted by inexpensive coal and oil.8 Why do we not ask what it might be like to live, instead, in photoncultures and solar democracies

The answers to this question are legion, even as they are unsatisfactory justifications for neglect. It’s too hard to predict transformation. We view technology as an independent driver of social change over which we have no control: whatever comes of a solar-powered future will come. It’s politically inconvenient to admit, for example, that fossil-fuel industries will close and jobs will be lost. Imagining that society will be better off in a new energy regime smacks either of naïve utopianism or blatant boosterism. Engineers, economists, urban analysts, climate scientists—professionals authorized in our societies to speak authoritatively about energy futures—often work in narrow techno-economic terms and eschew problems of techno-politics and techno-culture that are difficult to reduce to numbers, equations, models, and algorithms. We have lived so long within the walls of the current energy paradigms that we have forgotten how powerful new ones can be. We imagine that energy infrastructure is like plug-and-play hard drives on our computer: take one power plant off the grid, put another one on; remove one internal-combustion engine from the streets, insert one electric vehicle. We imagine that our social and economic behavior is too rigid and fixed to ever change, and thus any future energy system must merely replicate existing structures, rather than change them. We measure energy consumption by the amount of energy we consume, rather than by the forms of political economy it gives rise to. Climate change is too important: we need to be laser-focused on getting to carbon neutrality.

There’s one big reason, however, to speculate about cities of the future, powered by solar energy, in the full richness of their human vitality. The future is not set in stone. 

We can neither predict the future nor control it. Yet, although the power to envision and realize urban futures is unevenly shared across our cities, we make individual and collective choices every day that shape the trajectories that lead us inexorably to tomorrow. Those choices, and their unequal distribution across different groups, have deep consequences for which future cities our children will ultimately inhabit. Our aim, therefore, is to expand the opportunities to imagine cities from the future, to tell more diverse stories about them, to stimulate your imagination to dream about the cities of your future, and to help you recognize and open up the choices that you are making today that are bringing them into being. If we can do so, and in so doing can help humanity cultivate a capacity to bring into being cities worth inhabiting, then our purpose will have been served.

Imagining and Designing the Future

“The Great Khan contemplates an empire covered with cities that weigh upon the earth and upon mankind, crammed with wealth and traffic, overladen with ornaments and offices, complicated with mechanisms and hierarchies, swollen, tense, ponderous.”—Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

In Dreamscapes of Modernity, Sheila Jasanoff and a group of scholars in the field of science and technology studies describe the incredible power of the human imagination to create and realize dreams.9 At the heart of their account is the idea of sociotechnical imaginaries: “collectively held, institutionally stabilized, and publicly performed visions of desirable futures, animated by shared understandings of forms of social life and social order attainable through, and supportive of, advances in science and technology.” Sociotechnical imaginaries are the iron cages of the modern mind, shared across universities, laboratories, industries, governments, and communities, like the angels and devils who sit upon people’s shoulders and constantly whisper into our ears, reminding us of the power of this or that technology to make life better. They are the stories that define our expectations about future technological, political, and societal situations and capabilities.

No better examples of sociotechnical imaginaries exist than the ideas of the automobile city and electric city birthed in the United States in the first few decades after 1900 by Henry Ford and Samuel Insull—ideas that subsequently ruled the twentieth century. Indeed, these imaginaries became so hegemonic that they spread far beyond the United States, infecting the reveries of people everywhere. More than one billion people around the world, one in seven inhabitants of the planet, still do not have electricity, and many more do not drive automobiles. Yet, everywhere on Earth, we find cities that have been reworked around these two technologies. Everywhere, the dream of modern energy services fuels ambitions of development. 

We live in a world of standard energy. Oil is refined into gasoline and diesel and jet fuel to power transportation. Monopoly utilities provide electricity, even within so-called electricity markets, powered by large, centralized power plants and carried by regional transmission and distribution grids. Globalization is a product, in no small part, of the standardization wrought and made possible by our global energy systems. People and goods can move anywhere, thanks to the uniformity of our oil and electricity infrastructures.

In the last quarter century, however, it has become abundantly clear that these global energy systems are deeply unsustainable. Nor is it merely their carbon that is a problem. Modern energy systems are among the most dangerous technologies on the planet. Car crashes kill five times as many people per year as gunshots. According to the World Health Organization, over 20 million people are injured each year in traffic accidents.10 Air pollution from cars and trucks clogs the world’s cities, contributing to over 4 million annual deaths.11

Our task in this book is, therefore, through novel stories of cities of the future, to help break the chains that bind the human imagination to particular technological flights of fancy.

Our goal is not, however, simply to substitute light for dark. The solar future is not fixed. It does not come in a single flavor. Rather, there are many possible sociotechnical paths to follow, and the ones we choose to take—as individuals, as cities, as nations, and as a planet—will have profound implications for people’s hopes and dreams, lives and livelihoods, communities and commonalities, for centuries to come.12 We aim instead to open up for imagination, exploration, interrogation, and debate the myriad possibilities of the solar-powered city of the future.

Imagine two photographs, for example. In each, solar panels blanket the rooftops of a suburban landscape. In one, invisible to the eye, but woven into the topography, a homeowner owns each home and its attendant solar system, generating and selling power to neighbors through peer-to-peer markets. In the other, a single wealthy individual or company owns all the solar panels, renting roof space, perhaps from the sharing-economy landlords who own the homes, selling power to the tenants: the largest utility in the world. Now imagine two more photographs, also identical in all visible respects: in each, solar panels shade the public spaces of a desert city. In one, an investor-owned utility has monopoly rights to produce and sell electricity and the power to restrict or demand compensation from other solar providers, even private citizens who might wish to generate power for themselves. In the other, neighborhood co-ops distribute the power—and the revenues—to their members, their constitutional rights to collect and share energy guaranteed by their society. The political and economic differences across these four photographs are vast: a libertarian dream, a neoliberal nightmare, a variant on state-sponsored capitalism, a collectivist utopia.

Nor are the choices open to us only ones of ownership; they are also decisions about access to solar assets and services, about what kind of solar systems to develop, where, and for whom. For solar energy disrupts the fundamental temporal and spatial rhythms of the city. For over a century, the differences between day and night have increasingly been erased by the relentless drive for 24/7/365 occupation, the differences between one part of the city and another flattened by the homogeneity of the streets, the cars, the electricity grids, the homes with their front-facing garages and their ubiquitous electric lighting and devices, the big-box retailers that cater to their person-car customers. Standard energy has begat standard people, standard homes, standard lives. 

Part of what has driven and enabled the vibrant hum of 24/7/365 culture is the unyielding nature of thermal power. Coal and nuclear power plants dislike variation: they prefer to produce the same amount of electricity, day, night, summer, winter, year after year. As a result, nighttime electricity has always been cheaper than its daytime or evening equivalent, reflected today in time-of-use pricing plans that, for example, in Arizona, sell electricity for 7 cents per kilowatt-hour during winter nights and 24 cents during summer afternoons and evenings. They also like economies of scale, meaning they prefer to operate in giant, centralized power plants that power entire regions, like the 4 GW Navajo Generating Station coal plant that closed in the winter of 2019, or the 4 GW Palo Verde nuclear plant, which, between them, powered half or more of the Phoenix metropolitan region.

Solar is different. Sunlight is plentiful at certain times of day and scarce or absent for long periods of night or overcast skies. Already, at still relatively low levels of integration into the electricity grid, solar power in California generates so much electricity during the middle of the day, between 10:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m., that prices in California electricity markets are negative—meaning they are paying people to use daytime electricity. And while solar, too, acquires some rewards from economies of scale, those advantages decrease markedly above the size of a good parking-garage rooftop system, or a shade structure in a public park. In addition, in many cases, the higher costs of small-scale solar systems are compensated for in buyers’ minds by other factors of solar design, such as resilience in the case of grid outages, savings on utility bills, and a desire to be seen to contribute to addressing climate change. These factors influence their willingness to pay for everything from solar-powered devices to small home systems to neighborhood and community solar projects. Indeed, the emerging solar city is already a hodgepodge of different kinds of systems, with different forms of ownership, scattered across both urban and rural landscapes. Solar is a flexible instrument that can be written into many different possible narratives of the urban future.

Just how all of this will affect the life and hum and culture of the city thus remains unknown, emergent, yet to be written. As they do now, some people and companies may opt to concentrate their energy-consuming activities during times of low electricity prices, which in a future powered by solar energy will occur in the middle of the day instead of the middle of the night. Others may choose higher-priced options for storing electricity for later use, whether in batteries, electric vehicles, hydropower reservoirs, heavy weights, spinning flywheels, or chemical energy, reconstituting fuels that can transport energy over long distances and not just across time. These trade-offs are similar to those encountered in fossil-energy systems, but now reconfigured around new temporal and spatial patterns of pricing and value, altering the relationships between desire, dream, ambition, and energy, reoptimized algorithmically or through more human and humane means to find new peaks and new troughs, new patterns, new relationships, new behaviors, new ways of lighting and powering the city and making it go. And new supply chains, connecting in new ways one city with another, with their rural neighbors, and with far-flung resources, places, and peoples of the planet, creating new patterns of social and ecological footprints in the world—a new set of energy landscapes and geographies and lifecycles for critical review and reassessment.

There are those who say that the only questions that matter are whether we can achieve a solar-powered city, how fast, and how to do so at the lowest possible cost. How silly. The future of the city—of all cities, of the human experience—is too important to be constrained in such narrow terms, too significant to be left solely in the hands of those with the money to buy solar panels in the vast quantities necessary to power the global economy. Why should they alone be allowed to determine the shape of the streets our children and grandchildren wander, the fountains they sit by as they woo their future partners, the shopfronts and cafés they frequent, the distributions of power and wealth that determine whether their lives and those of their friends and families are put at risk or protected by the technological landscapes of tomorrow? 

Which City?

“I will describe the cities and you will tell me if they exist.”—Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

Which city did you pick, back at the beginning of this essay? Paris? London? Beijing? São Paolo? Des Moines? Dallas? Detroit? We are used to thinking about cities in terms of their place in the world. And place matters enormously in the world of solar energy. Hot and dry cities like Phoenix and Ouarzazate, Morocco, nicknamed “the door of the desert,” inhabit environments with full sun and few clouds. The equator has more consistent hours of daylight, year-round, than the polar latitudes, where for months at a time the sun barely rises above the horizon. Hot climates need air conditioning during the summer day, cold ones heating during the winter nights. Silicon PV panels produce more energy in arid zones, thin film cadmium-telluride panels more in their humid counterparts, water vapor obscuring less of the parts of the solar spectrum that they prefer relative to their silicon cousins. European cities are more compact, more conducive to electrified public transportation and bicycling than their suburban and exurban counterparts in North America.

Yet, as Marco Polo’s pageant of cities reminds us in Calvino’s Invisible Cities, geography is only one facet of the city. Cities are not just infrastructures arranged on the land; they are communities of people, with all of the complexities that entails. In Diomira, we are introduced to “a city with sixty silver domes, bronze statues of all the gods, streets paved with lead, a crystal theater, a golden cock that crows each morning on a tower.” In Dorothea, Polo tells how “the nubile girls of each quarter marry youths of other quarters and their parents exchange the goods that each family holds in monopoly—bergamot, sturgeon, roe, astrolabes, amethysts.” In Zaira, we learn of the “relationships between the measurements of its space and the events of its past: the height of the lamppost and the distance from the ground of a hanged usurper’s swaying feet; the line strung from the lamppost to the railing opposite and the festoons that decorate the queen’s nuptial procession; the height of that railing and the leap of the adulterer who climbed over it at dawn.” Of Anastasia, Polo opines, “I should praise the flesh of the golden pheasant cooked over fires of seasoned cherry wood and sprinkled with much sweet marjoram.” In Tamara, Polo directs our eye not to things but rather to “the images of things that mean other things: pincers point out the tooth-drawer’s house; a tankard, the tavern; halberds, the barracks; scales, the grocer’s.” “Zora,” Polo observes, “has the quality of remaining in your memory point by point, in the succession of streets, of houses along the streets, and of doors and windows in the houses …. The man who knows by heart how Zora is made, if he is unable to sleep at night, can imagine he is walking along the streets and he remembers the order by which the copper clock follows the barber’s striped awning, then the fountains with the nine jets, the astronomer’s glass tower, the melon vendor’s kiosk, the statue of the hermit and the lion, the Turkish bath, the café at the corner, the alley that leads to the harbor.”

Cities are all of these things—culture, food, history, arrangements of buildings and people, constellations of businesses and signs—and much, much more. Cities are economic engines and cultural hubs, and their density remains the best way to limit the impact of energy systems on the environment. Cities are also places of inequality and injustice, where structural oppression is intensified, evident, and visible.

“Which city?” is a cue to engage this diversity in imagining urban futures powered by post-carbon energy. Cities are centers of population but also industry, services, commerce, and tourism; the city that the tourist sees, imagines, and remembers is different from that recalled by the shop seller, the artist, or the pensioner, though they all share the same space. Which city will be transformed by the coming energy revolution? Whose city will be reinvented, for whose benefit, and at whose cost?

To that end, this book is not an attempt at prediction. We do not imagine that we could possibly foresee the future of the city, even as we approach science fiction as a “seeing instrument,” in the words of Joni Adamson, through which to explore what possible futures might look like.13 Rather, it is an exercise in speculative, design fiction.14 There are those who see in design the triumph—or curse—of the aesthetic, the victory of a paradigm of form and beauty over function and work. But there is no such constraint in the verb to design. To design, at least as we define it for our purposes, is to imagine, to create, to build, to plan: to set in motion a process through which a future is anticipated, reflected upon, contested, deliberated, and then worked toward. Design is open-ended, fluid, flexible, capable of arriving at multiple possible endpoints depending on whose voices and ideas enter into the process and shape the choices that enter into the future-in-the-making. It can be exclusive, the province of experts or those with the power or money to set the criteria against which design options are evaluated. It can also be inclusive, open to a diversity of perspectives, values, lenses, ways of seeing and imagining the future yet to be.

This book is an effort to leverage that inclusivity to undo some of the constraints that currently impinge on the design of future cities. Today’s urban futures are constrained by the sociotechnical imaginaries that pervade societies, which are embedded, reinforced, reinscribed at every turn in our mental maps and in the design and construction of our technological infrastructures. No one any more can pretend that the future of the North American city, with its ever-growing networks of concrete highways and byways, its snarls of traffic and congestion, navigated with ever greater care by its Google Maps-informed person-car-phone hybrids, segregated into its zones of racial, class, and ethnic disaggregation and divergent regimes of enforcement, can continue in familiar pathways. Too much is awry. And, yet, every year, the Department of Transportation receives its allocation of public funds, and every year its engineers design new highways to reach new suburbs. Every year the highways get new lanes, to carry more person-car-phone hybrids on their daily journeys further and further from home to work to store to school and home, again. And all too frequently those highways run through the neighborhoods of the poor and vulnerable.

If we are to choose different futures for our cities—more sustainable, livable, resilient, diverse, empowered futures—we need to escape the power of the reigning sociotechnical imaginaries over how we imagine the future of technology and society. We need innovative tools for speculating about the future in new ways: tools that open up the imagination to new possibilities for design, new ways of arranging the relationships between people and their machines—and between people—so that we can reconfigure the cities of the future. We need to explore what might happen if we follow Path A or Path B to deploying solar energy. What would it mean to build, for example, giant solar farms across desert landscapes to produce hydrogen fuel to power cars and buildings during the times when solar energy is less abundant? By contrast, would it be better to design small, distributed solar and battery systems that power individual houses of microgrids? We need to ask better questions about what happens when daylight energy is abundant and cheap and nighttime energy scarce and expensive—and how that fact will matter for people’s day-to-day lives, their sensibilities about nature, and the organization of their businesses and work. We need to interrogate what happens if we organize the ownership of solar in this way, versus that way. And, if capital costs rise in the economy due to higher energy expenses for using equipment on the night shift, we need to know what that may mean for fundamental economic arrangements, such as the balance between labor and capital and the prevalence of meaningful, well-paid work.

Speculative Design Fiction and the World-in-the-Making

“With cities, it is as with dreams: everything imaginable can be dreamed.”—Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

This volume is one attempt at building tools that travel part of the way toward opening up the design imagination to new possibilities of rich and nuanced techno-human futures. At the heart of the collection are science fictional narratives, stories of future cities, each coupled with extended expert commentaries and artistic imagery designed to help both flesh out the sociotechnical worlds our future cities inhabit and allow them to capture and engage diverse facets of visual, textual, rational, and emotional imagination. 

The power of such assemblages rests in the emergent world-making in which each and every one of us partakes. The fabrics of our present-day techno-human relationships are richly hued, full of complex, nuanced shadings of color, pattern, and texture. Our cities hum with excitement and vibe, with the power of technology and innovation, with the dynamism of global trade and transport, the vitality and pandemonium of diversity and cultural cross-fertilization, layered with the lived experiences of hundreds of intersectional inequalities. If someone tries to sell you a simple story about technology, assume that the underlying reality is about a thousand times more convoluted, multifarious, and dense, as Jasanoff’s Dreamscapes of Modernity reminds us.

And yet, at its core, Jasanoff’s most important argument, which goes by the label of co-production, is remarkably simple. As societies fashion new technologies, through the choices they make about what technologies to invest in, how to design and implement them, and how to wrap them up in human lives and livelihoods, societies also fashion themselves. That’s partly why it’s all so damn complex out there, in the sci-fi land of artificial intelligence and of human germline engineering and carbon capture and recycling, where we all apparently now live. We’re never just making technology; we, too, as denizens of technological landscapes and constitutions, are always also at stake.

Our cities aren’t just bunches of buildings, streets, sewer lines, electricity grids, 5G networks, doctor’s offices, shopping malls, biological and chemical feedstocks, grocery stores, scientific laboratories, and factories. They are living, breathing communities of humans, people with different ideas, imaginations, lives, families, bodies, work, conversations, health outcomes, neurological states, and entertainment, and those communities are always in-the-making, in dynamic tension with the always-also-in-the-making techno-scientific infrastructures that we inhabit.

Humans are constantly making and remaking the forms of materiality and sociality that make us up as techno-human dwellers of the urban landscape. As cities decide where to build streets and highways, what rules will govern the design of buildings and the operations of hospitals, not to mention which neighborhoods will get power plants next door, they are also deciding, de facto, what it will be like to live in different parts of the city, who will be exposed to health risks, and how prosperity, power, and thriving will be distributed among their residents. We don’t get a choice about it. There’s no magical middle ground, no apolitical fantasy-land, in which technology exists independently of the people who design and use it.

When we fashion our technological futures, we also fashion the cities of the future where we will reside. There is no option in which the future of the city is not written in the choices we make about how to design and implement the future of energy. There is no future in which our choices of how to design solar tomorrows don’t also involve choosing how to allocate wealth and power among the city’s citizens (and non-citizens), or the kinds of lifestyles and the forms of work that will be possible, or not, in a clean-energy future. We can’t escape the reality of techno-human co-production. 

The question is how to shape it.

We know it is possible to write alternative technological futures, to create worlds that infect and empower our imagination and let us become, at least for a short time, an inhabitant of a different city in a different place at a different time: Star Wars’ Mos Eisley, on Tatooine; Asimov’s imperial capital, Trantor; the future Bangkok of Paolo Bacigalupi’s award-winning novel The Windup Girl, in which the calorie men own the world through their monopoly on the patents for rice and wheat, which store the sun’s energy in their carbohydrates, to create biofuel for the megodonts that slowly, step-by-step, crank springs to store potential energy in their windings for later human consumption. 

The question is how to create stories that go further than just writing alternative futures, that also meaningfully engage people in dialogue, even if only with themselves, about the future-in-the-making that surrounds us every day. For every day, theories of co-production tell us, we are making and remaking ourselves, our societies, and our technologies through the choices we make as citizens, inhabitants, businesspeople, financiers, mayors, legislators, regulators, managers, protestors, and more. Of course, as Yaron Ezrahi reminds us in Imagined Democracies, those choices are always structured by our imaginaries of what is or is not possible, within the cities and societies that we inhabit, and the distributions of power and wealth that determine whose decisions lead to which outcomes.15 And, so, to make different cities, we need stories that help us to understand those structures and to understand how it might be possible to imagine making a different array of choices. We need stories that infect people’s imagination differently as they are making their choices, every day, about where and how to live, work, and play, about how their households and organizations will engage in renewable energy transitions, and about where and how to place, own, arrange, resist, use, and otherwise relate to solar energy. The depth of what is at stake in these everyday choices is nothing less than the future of the city—understood as Calvino would have us understand it, in all of its startling complexity, multiplicity, and diversity. 

This book is an attempt to create such stories and to embed them in the kinds of conversations that Polo offered to the Khan—conversations that stimulate the imagination to new leaps of creativity but that also reshape the everyday work of building and maintaining the city. These stories are the product of conversations among a diverse array of people with deep knowledge and passion about the future of energy, the future of the city, and the future of humanity. With its accompanying essays and artworks, each story is also in dialogue with other writing about the future, in other genres. And each is in dialogue with the other stories and essays in this volume, as well as those in its predecessor, The Weight of Light, across the four future cities described in these pages (Portland, San Juan, San Antonio, and Chicago) and the two cities portrayed in that previous volume (Phoenix and Detroit).16 Together, the two volumes offer a comparative, cross-pollinating look neither at utopia nor dystopia, but rather at what might come to pass if the collective choices of those building the futures of these cities follow particular pathways through the energy transitions to come, rather than others. They are none of them set in the same world; nonetheless, they are meant to be read together, in hermeneutic tension with one another, as stories about the possible futures of our world, the one we all live in, sometime after the day after tomorrow.

The stories and essays are, to return to the beginning, much like Marco Polo’s stories to the Khan, in his palace at the heart of the empire. In modernity, the imperial gaze has been replaced by the God’s-eye view of science, the view from nowhere, or everywhere, simultaneously transcendent and immanent. The difference matters enormously for the perspective gained, yet it remains through our imagination that, when we gaze out at the world, the light falling on the cones and rods of our retina, converted into electrons flowing along the optic nerve to our brain, is transformed into cities. Even the overhead imagery of the satellite works its magic by conjuring in the mind’s eye far more than it reveals from its heights. These stories and essays are another lens through which to view the city of the future, one which stimulates the imagination in different ways, and one which, we hope, leads to new pathways and new designs.

Invisible Cities, after all, isn’t about the Khan and his ability or inability to truly see the cities of his empire. It is an invitation to you, the reader, to enter into and share the same opportunities as the Khan, to participate in imagining the city and what it means for the people who live there, so that perhaps you may come to see the city in a different light. So, too, this book and the stories, art, and essays that it contains invite you, the reader, who may know much or little about energy technologies or economics, to nonetheless participate in a conversation about the future of energy—and the future of cities powered by light. It is nothing less than a conversation about your future, the future of your family, and our human future, as a collective enterprise.

1 All of the quotes in this chapter from Calvino’s novel are taken from: Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1978. [Back]

2 Sarah R. Kurtz et al., “Revisiting the Terawatt Challenge,” MRS Bulletin 45, no. 3 (2020): 159-164. [Back]

3 “Levelized Cost of Energy and Levelized Cost of Storage 2019,” Lazard, November 7, 2019, Accessed July 27, 2020. [Back]

4 Clark A. Miller et al., “Designing in Sunlight,” in Joey Eschrich and Clark A. Miller, eds., The Weight of Light: A Collection of Solar Futures, Center for Science and the Imagination, 2019: 15-36. [Back]

5 David Nye, Electrifying America: Social Meanings of a New Technology, 1880-1940, MIT Press, 1990. [Back]

6 Clark A. Miller, Jennifer Richter, and Jason O’Leary, “Socio-Energy Systems Design: A Policy Framework for Energy Transitions,” Energy Research & Social Science 6 (2015): 29-40. [Back]

7 Historians of technology and the environment have deftly illuminated the relationship between energy systems and urban form, life, and politics. See, for example, William Cronon, Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West, W. W. Norton, 1991. See also Thomas Hughes, Networks of Power: Electrification in Western Society, 1880-1930, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983. [Back]

8 Timothy Mitchell, Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil, Verso, 2013. [Back]

9 Sheila Jasanoff and Sang-Hyun Kim, eds., Dreamscapes of Modernity: Sociotechnical Imaginaries and the Fabrication of Power, University of Chicago Press, 2015. [Back]

10 “Road Safety,” The Global Health Observatory, World Health Organization, Accessed July 27, 2020. [Back]

11 “Ambient Air Pollution,” World Health Organization, Accessed July 27, 2020. [Back]

12 Steven A. Moore, Alternative Routes to the Sustainable City, Lexington Books, 2007. [Back]

13 Joni Adamson, “Environmental Justice, Cosmopolitics, and Climate Change,” in Louise Westling, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Literature and the Environment, Cambridge University Press, 2011: 169-183. [Back]

14 Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby, Speculative Everything: Design, Fiction, and Social Dreaming, MIT Press, 2013. [Back]

15 Yaron Ezrahi, Imagined Democracies: Necessary Political Fictions, Cambridge University Press, 2012. [Back]

16 Joey Eschrich and Clark A. Miller, eds., The Weight of Light: A Collection of Solar Futures, Center for Science and Imagination, 2019. [Back]

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Design Variables

At the heart of this project sits the question of design. What options do we have for the design of solar energy futures? How will we design solar technologies? How will we integrate solar technologies into the design of urban landscapes? And how will we design the societies and economies of the future around solar energy? This approach emphasizes that solar design is not merely a question of technology: it’s also a question of how we make solar energy part of our lives as individuals, households, neighborhoods, and cities.

We use a variety of tools and strategies to prompt people to think creatively and imaginatively about the future design possibilities for solar power and solar-powered societies. For this book, we asked each team of participants to choose one city, and to root their explorations in the unique people, streets, neighborhoods, politics, and geographies of those cities.

For each city/team, we then randomly selected two city districts and asked the team to explore the distinctiveness of those districts as sites for, beneficiaries of, and places put at risk because of solar energy projects. Places like the port, the factories, downtown areas, and the exurbs—and the people who live and work there—will engage and experience solar energy in fundamentally different ways. Thinking about those variations through a comparative lens helps highlight why design matters and the diverse ways that solar may shape the future of the city.

Finally, we asked our teams to reflect on a set of design variables that we developed for our first collection, The Weight of Light (2019), which lay out some of the key axes of variation across solar energy systems design:

Geography: Where will solar energy systems be built?

The question of where we install solar systems is crucial to all kinds of design questions, as design will always be shaped by place. Will we build them in cities or in the countryside? In cities, will we build them on rooftops, in parking lots, in parks, over streets, or as giant shade structures over entire cities?

Scale: How big will the solar systems of the future be?

Many people argue that the only financially sensible approach is to build the cheapest solar plants, which at the moment are also the largest: utility-scale projects of 10+ megawatts (MW). But distributed, rooftop-scale systems of a few kilowatts (kW) remain highly popular with households all over the globe and have many advantages, despite sometimes being more expensive. Rooftop systems also deliver energy at the point of consumption, reducing losses from transmitting energy long distances and the costs of building and maintaining transmission lines. And many others advocate for the benefits of community-scale solar projects, in the 1-5 MW scale, which power individual neighborhoods or small communities.

Ownership: Who will own the solar energy of the future and benefit financially?

Ownership of and financial benefit from existing energy systems tends to be highly concentrated. Solar systems are already demonstrating the viability of different ownership models that distribute financial risks and rewards in new and innovative ways. Key questions include scale and distribution of energy ownership (potentially independent of, or intertwined with, system size and geography) and questions of public vs. private ownership.

Governance: Who will make the rules for solar energy futures?

Existing energy systems operate under a huge variety of different governance models, from government-owned-and-operated models to regulated monopolies to electricity markets to internationally traded commodities. Solar could arguably easily fit into all of these options and perhaps some new ones.

Aesthetics: Can solar energy futures be beautiful?

It’s a taken-for-granted assumption of modern energy landscapes that energy infrastructures are allowed to be industrial monstrosities. Where they aren’t relegated to out-of-the-way locations, they are visual blights. Folks like the Land Art Generator Initiative, on the other hand, are exploring whether the future of solar energy is in tourism. Can energy also be art?

Supply Chains: Where do all those solar panels come from?

The design of the solar-energy manufacturing industry, with its factories and transportation systems, is a critical question with regard to the future of the solar-energy workforce (e.g., where will the jobs be, and what kind of jobs will they be), and how its financial benefits and environmental risks are distributed. Given the scale of construction required, the question of what materials get used in manufacturing solar panels is also crucial, and where and how those materials are dug up and transformed into the building blocks of photovoltaic systems.

Waste: Where do all the dead solar panels go?

The current expectation is that solar panels will last 25 years before needing to be replaced. Longer lifecycles may be possible in the future, but a century from now, we’ll have had to figure out how to dispose of four generations of solar panels, in very high volumes. How we set up the plans to do that will have major implications for society and the environment.

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