- The Scent of the Freetails, by Deji Bryce Olukotun
- Freetails, Freedom, and Community in a Solar-Powered Future, by Lauren Withycombe Keeler
- Customized Energy Futures, by Chris Gearhart
- Intentional Innovation, by Max Gabriele
- Democracy and Justice in Solar-Powered Cities: The Power of Customized and Inclusive Futures, by Clark A. Miller et al.
You are reading the HTML version of Cities of Light: A Collection of Solar Futures. Visit the book’s home page to download it for free in other formats, including .epub and .mobi (for Kindle devices).
San Antonio, Texas
- Max Gabriele
- Chris Gearhart
- Lauren Withycombe Keeler
- Deji Bryce Olukotun
- Parisa Tashakori
Illustration by Parisa Tashakori
The Scent of the Freetails
By Deji Bryce Olukotun
Every parent feared that their kid would become a juicer, but Raj had never considered that his daughter might fall for one. He liked to believe that all the juicers lived far enough away that they couldn’t pose a threat. And like most Houstonians, he’d tried to prepare himself for the day when they came calling.
He was motoring along the scrubland I-10 highway at seventy-five miles an hour in a hybrid Ford F-150, mulling over his self-defense lessons. His daughter Rosa, riding in the backseat, had just been hailed by a glimmering summertime billboard.
The Hottest, Coolest Time in Texas.
Your family friendly water park.
Don’t miss it! Turn now!
“Schlitterbahn!” Rosa said, as they drove past. “Can we go?”
“We’re almost in San Antonio,” Raj replied.
“It says we’re still forty-five minutes away.”
Like most billboards in Houston, this one was sticky—the image imprinted itself on their windows for several miles. The sign appeared brightest in the rear of the car, showing Rosa rotating images of a water slide, a lazy river, and a sprinkling fountain. On the passenger side, where Raj’s wife Helena sat, the billboard displayed a frosty margarita.
Helena swiped away the billboard like a cobweb. “They’ve got one in Galveston, Rosa. We can go when we get back home.”
“It was destroyed by Hurricane Xander,” Raj’s daughter argued.
“Water’s not good for your leg.”
“I would take it off, Mom.”
“Then how would you get around?”
“I would swim! It’s a water park. Besides, they use recycled water. It’s good for the environment.”
“I fail to see,” Raj said triumphantly, “how a water park in the middle of Texas could ever be good for the environment. We’re going to San Antonio.”
“I could use a margarita though,” Helena muttered.
Every trip on a highway out of Houston meant negotiations with his daughter. Rosa, who was fourteen and shared her mother’s thick black hair, would pepper him with sophisticated arguments mingled with guilt. Raj had learned to withstand the barrage. He had to: he could no longer afford an ad-free vehicle package.
The billboards stopped as soon as they crossed the county line, respecting San Antonio’s more conservative data ordinances. The route offered glimpses of open country—bent barbed-wire fences curling beneath gnarled oaks, the thick spear of longhorn cattle—but the suburbs of the two cities nearly touched, about to connect like the fingers of God and Adam in the Sistine. As they drew closer to the city, the lawns became xeriscaped with succulents—a world apart from the spongy Bermuda grass Raj manicured in his front yard back in Houston. The landscape felt puckered, thirsty, with solar arrays blotting out the horizon like the blue-black scales of a pelagic fish.
Raj couldn’t shake the feeling that he was driving towards a colossal mistake—San Antonio was known to harbor more than a few juicer gangs. He reached for the pulse stick in his jacket pocket. When his fingers touched the handle it vibrated, but he quickly withdrew his hand, afraid that his wife would hear the weapon’s cartridge spin up.
The road split and then split again into separate lanes for automated vehicles, rapid-transit buses, and then carbon-burning vehicles. The larger shipping trucks, packed together like a peloton, were forced to exit before entering the city limits. He could see them unloading their wares onto smaller two-axle vehicles not far off the highway.
“Raj,” Helena said quietly in the passenger seat beside him, “you said we’d go to La Estrella first to drop off our bags.”
“I don’t want to be rushed. We’ve been planning to go to the Alamo for months.”
“No, we’ve been planning to go to La Estrella for months, and you glommed on the Alamo like they were two peas in a pod. It’s one of the only neighborhoods we could afford here. We should get a good look at it.”
“Rosa should know her history. It’s important for Texas. It’s important for this country.”
Helena pushed her hair behind her ear. “I’ve never once heard you mention it before.”
“The Alamo has been around for five hundred million years or something,” Rosa observed from the back seat.
“Helena, I’m not comfortable dragging our kid into a neighborhood with that kind of reputation.”
“I’m not a kid!”
“I talked to Yeimi about it,” Helena said. “It’s perfectly safe.”
“We’re going to the Alamo. We’ve got plenty of time.”
The lane for the Alamo, now lit from underneath by neon logos, turned sharply to the left, dropping them in the center of the city. Helena was right, of course. Raj had hated the Alamo as a kid. He’d visited it on a school trip soon after immigrating with his family from Guyana, an English-speaking country in South America with oil reserves rivaling those of Venezuela. Raj had been something of a flirt back in his home country, and well-liked, so he sat next to a pretty classmate on the bus ride to the monument and tried to make her laugh. After a few unsuccessful tries, she replied: “I can’t understand what you’re saying. You don’t even sound Mexican.” He became instantly ashamed of his accent that day, wanting to scrape his heritage from his tongue.
Raj parked his F-150 at the Alamo—his own truck, not a school bus this time—and was charged $100 for the day because his car used gasoline. The electrics, he noticed, were charged half that amount, San Antonio’s subtle way of frowning on the carbon-intensive largesse of Houstonians. Rosa dangled her strong leg over the side of the car and twisted on her artificial leg with a click. There was a soft whir as the servomotors kicked in, and she hopped down from her seat. They stood in line for nearly an hour in the stultifying midday heat, to Raj’s mounting frustration. Rosa handled it well at first, engrossed in her flexy. The ticket salesperson said they could rent AR goggles that would allow them to watch the recreated Battle of the Alamo right before their eyes for a special one-time offer of $75 per person. Raj declined.
By the time they stepped inside, he could register Rosa’s disappointment as she watched other children wander the grounds with their goggles on, laughing and reacting to the simulated battle.
“Why won’t he get me the goggles?” Rosa asked her mother, as if Raj wasn’t there.
“We can’t afford it,” Helena said softly.
Just like his first school trip, he found the history of the Alamo extremely confusing, since it wasn’t even clear whether Texas had been a part of the United States at the time, and anyway the Americans, if that’s what they were, had lost. The importance of the resolute adobe walls with its barren horse corral had been lost on his ten-year-old mind, and he’d wandered the grounds alone until he chanced upon some dioramas. It was there that he’d learned how a slave named Joe had miraculously survived the final assault by General Santa Anna’s troops after being shot and bayoneted. He found it unnerving at the time. How had Joe survived? What was the man even doing there, and why didn’t he have a last name? Raj himself was descended from Indians (from India, not Native Americans) and Africans (from The Gambia or somewhere close to it), yet he saw a warning in the strange diorama.
Maybe that was why he’d come back. This was the very place where he’d decided to assimilate to the best of his ability. He could hide out in dusty corridors and feel sorry for himself about his Guyanese accent, or he could become a Texan. Two years later he’d developed an acceptable drawl and used his soccer skills to become a tolerable kicker for the middle-school football team—enough to blend in, if not exactly to make him a star. The Alamo had broken him. It had also made him into the man he was today: found him a profession, a family, and a place to call home. Right now he felt duty-bound to protect all those things.
“Raj,” Helena interrupted. “We should get going. Yeimi told me we need to arrive before dark if we want to see the bats.”
“We’ve got plenty of time.”
“We don’t know where we’re going.”
“Why do you keep reaching into your pocket?” Helena asked. “What’s in there?”
“Raj, what did you bring?” Her whisper felt like a shout.
“It’s for safety.”
“Safety? From what?”
“I researched the neighborhood, Helena. Juicers raped a girl last year. She nearly died.”
“Yeimi told me those kids were from another neighborhood, Raj. They weren’t from Estrella. They were caught.”
“It’s a pulse stick,” he confessed.
“Good Lord, Raj. What the hell are you thinking?”
“We’ve got to think about Rosa. It’s the only weapon guaranteed to stop a juicer.”
“How dare you, Raj! Please don’t start this again. You’re not taking a gun into La Estrella. Stop making excuses. We’re going. You promised me. You promised we would give this a chance.”
“It’s not a gun.”
Raj looked back at the Alamo, the fattening afternoon shadows making it seem larger than it really was. This was where his Texan life had begun, but it couldn’t tell him where it should go. What had he promised his wife, exactly? He tried to remember the words.
While Helena and Rosa used the bathroom, Raj purchased a Mobility Pass to transport them to La Estrella, since they couldn’t access it with their truck. The automated vehicle arrived after five minutes, a roomy sedan with plenty of seating and space for their luggage. Helena grabbed him by the arm as he was loading up their suitcases. “Leave it in the truck, Raj.”
“Leave the gun in the truck or I am taking Rosa, and I swear I will leave you here to fry in this damn heat.”
Raj started to protest, but saw Helena’s furrowed brow and thought better of it. He reopened the truck and slipped the pulse stick into the glove compartment, peering around to see if anyone was watching him.
“It’s perfectly legal,” he said, as much to himself as to Helena.
Once they were seated in the rented car, the AV’s guide kicked to life. “We’ll be in La Estrella in twenty-five minutes. It’s known for being the first Dark Sky community within the San Antonio city limits, which makes it an excellent spot for stargazing. The area is also famous for the Mexican freetail bat, with a seasonal population of more than three million animals.”
“Are we going to see them, Mom?” Rosa asked.
“You bet, honey. Maybe even more than once.”
The AV merged into a dedicated lane as packed as a Houston traffic jam. The car quickly synced with the oncoming traffic and accelerated. The vehicles were evenly spaced, although they tended to appear in clusters, depending on the size and aerodynamics of the transport. Their sedan naturally clustered with other sedans. Peering into other vehicles, Raj could see people engrossed in conversation: a woman knitting, a man watching a video, an elderly woman with her head tilted back, snoring. A few riders had activated their privacy screens. There were also clusters you could join according to your interest—it wasn’t uncommon to find a string of gamer shuttles linked together, their passengers peering into the ether and jerking their bodies in spasmodic movements. They had AVs in Houston, of course, but the city hadn’t designated entire sections of the city for them, so passengers there still had to fret about getting rear-ended by a manual driver.
“Bats don’t attack people, do they?” Rosa asked, suddenly nervous. She tended to flit between enthusiasm and extreme caution.
“No, silly,” Raj said. “They eat insects. Or fruit.”
“The Mexican freetail bat,” Helena dictated, reading from her flexy, “feasts on a diet of moths, dragonflies, wasps, and ants.”
Raj was thinking about the $3,000 he had spent on the pulse stick and the $2,000 on lessons to learn how to use it, which was the electromagnetic equivalent of kicking a juicer in the ribs. He normally didn’t worry about money, but times had changed. They had lent Helena’s cousin Yeimi $50,000 in a fit of generosity. But last year he ran out of clients, and Yeimi cursed him out when he’d asked for the money back.
This year, along with a Christmas card, Yeimi sent $20,000 and an invitation to come visit her in La Estrella. Helena was convinced her cousin had turned over a new leaf. Raj wasn’t so sure, but he’d accepted the money.
Raj used to delight in his daughter’s company, clowning around with his family, but the mirth had left him lately. He couldn’t seem to find the energy, and he could feel Rosa withdrawing. She was right; she wasn’t really a kid anymore. Nor was she a woman. When he tried to make sense of his proper role, he became overbearing like his own parents—exactly the type of adults he’d once disliked.
The AV smoothly exited the dedicated lane away from the river and came to a stop behind another half-dozen cars unloading their passengers. A drone luggage porter was already waiting for them at their stop. The air felt cooler here, as if a layer of heat had been peeled away like a lemon rind. Looking towards where the street should have continued, he noticed that it ended abruptly and had been converted into gardens with a wide central path.
“There she is!” Helena said, waving her hand. “Yeimi! Yeimi, over here!”
Helena’s cousin Yeimi was a jocular fourth-generation Mexican American with a lilting Texan drawl like his wife’s. She wrapped the family in a big hug, which he couldn’t help but return. Guyanese and Mexicans shared a love of welcomes and goodbyes.
“Looks like you’ve found yourself a porter,” Yeimi observed, pointing at the luggage carrier. “It’s about a fifteen-minute walk.”
As the AV pulled away with new passengers, Raj felt exposed, standing on the curb in a strange neighborhood with no means to drive away. There would be no swift exit. He looked over at his daughter to see how she was managing.
“Rosa, I thought you charged your leg.”
“I did charge it.”
“Then why is it red?”
“I don’t know.”
“Did you use it to charge your flexy?”
“I don’t know,” Rosa said, her eyes downcast. “I forgot.”
“How will you get around?”
“I’ll shift it to kinetic,” she said, striding confidently onto the walking path. This setting used her own energy to add juice to the limb, keeping it at a minimum charge. But Raj knew the lack of extra battery power would exhaust her. It was like walking with a five-pound weight attached to your ankle.
“La Estrella is a little different,” Yeimi explained, assuming the role of host. “These sidewalks are laced with PV. Solar cells. Once you spend enough time in this neighborhood, you’ll see them everywhere. They’re in the windows, roof tiles, chimneys, even the cladding. If there’s a spot the sun touches, we’ll use it in La Estrella.”
There were modest craftsman, Victorian, and Spanish Revival dwellings painted in pastels, reminding Raj of the vibrant neighborhoods he’d been raised in back in Georgetown, Guyana. Peering closer, he could see how the technology was interwoven into the colorful fabric of each house. The luggage porter slid along quietly beside them.
“Feels so open here,” Helena said, happily.
“You won’t find any power lines or overhead street lights,” Yeimi went on. “We’re an energy-sovereign community. Fought like hell to become one, too. Here, this is one of our four batteries. We call this one Blubber.”
“Like the fat that whales store. Full of energy. This powers about five hundred homes.”
The battery was protected by a high fence with warning signs indicating electric shock. It was about forty feet long by fifteen feet wide and high. True to its name, there were murals of whales and narwhals painted on the battery, which must’ve been drawn by children.
The teenagers leapt out from behind the battery before he could do anything. There were three boys and two girls wearing tight clothing with the kind of hypnagogic patterns that young people currently found cool. One of the kids was nearly as tall as Raj and heavily muscled, his biceps popping out of his shirt unnaturally. His veins writhed beneath his skin like garter snakes.
Peddled like drugs, kids took the growth hormones before they hit puberty and their muscles erupted into their bodies at adolescence, giving them superhuman strength. Juicing scared the hell out of parents because they couldn’t know if their children were using until the effects manifested themselves years later. Videos of juicers tossing cars were common, along with the frightening social tics that came from the mass disruption of their endocrine systems.
A 3D glowing image of an angry rodent floated above the kids. It looked like a gang sign. He cursed himself for leaving the pulse stick behind. It was designed for exactly these types of situations—clearing an area efficiently without killing anyone.
Yeimi forced a laugh. “Carlos,” she said, addressing another one of the teens. “You can’t just jump in front of people like that. You’ll scare your cousins half to death. You were supposed to meet us at the drop-off.”
“Sorry, Mama. Tim took forever.”
“I’m sorry, Ms. Hernandez,” the juicer said sheepishly. He had a crackly, pubescent voice. “I was working out.”
“What else could you have been doing, Tim?” Carlos asked sarcastically.
Gradually Raj calmed down. He couldn’t believe it—his nephew had been a pudgy little brat when he’d last seen him. Carlos was now tall and lanky, with bright eyes. And somehow he seemed to be in control of this entire crew.
“Carlos,” his daughter said, shaking free of Raj’s grip. “It’s me, Rosa.”
“Mom said you would need help getting around,” Carlos said. “But you’ve got a leg.”
“People like me aren’t supposed to exist anymore. But I can walk fine.”
“No, it’s cool. I didn’t mean anything by it—”
“What is that thing above you, a gopher?” Rosa asked.
His daughter didn’t have patience for anyone who pitied her.
“It’s a wombat, actually. They have them in Australia.”
“They poop cubes too,” Tim chimed in.
“Gross!” Rosa laughed.
“We unite our flexies with the insignia app,” Tim explained. “Yesterday we were a vampire and it freaked people out.” He ran his fingers through his hair, spiked with some kind of gel creme. “You want to see the bats tonight? We know a place that none of the tourists can find. Best spot in La Estrella.”
“We’re going to the house first,” Raj intervened. “We’ll all watch the bats together.”
“It’s not a baseball game,” Rosa argued. “We don’t have assigned seats.”
“When I say that we’re going together—” he began, waving his finger in the air.
But Helena pulled Raj aside. “Raj, we need some time to catch up with Yeimi and Peter.”
“We’ll have plenty of time to catch up—”
“Not if Rosa’s with us. Come on, Raj. She’s been cooped up all day in the car, and she sat through the Alamo. Let her have some fun.”
“Have you seen that boy? He could break her like a twig. How is it responsible to let her run around in a neighborhood like this?”
“Carlos will take good care of her,” Yeimi announced to everyone. “Don’t worry, or he’ll answer to me, won’t you Carlos?”
“You too, Tim.”
“Right, Ms. Hernandez,” the juicer said.
Raj looked from Carlos to Tim and to his daughter, trying to assess the situation. No one had prepared him for this. “You’ll call if you have an issue,” he said, feeling outmaneuvered. “Anything.”
“We’ll call if the bats suck out our blood, Dad.”
“You won’t survive the first bite,” Tim laughed.
“Hilarious. Keep your flexies on.”
He watched as Rosa mingled with her cousin and the juicer, surprised at their enthusiasm for one another. At that age, he’d believed that overexcitement was uncool. But maybe that was because he was an immigrant kid trying to blend in at a Houston middle school. Rosa paced confidently away, seemingly unconcerned that her leg was about to become leaden and heavy.
“Did you see that?” Helena said to Yeimi.
“Sure did,” Yeimi laughed. “Tim’s such a sweetheart. Couldn’t hurt a fly.”
“What?” Raj asked. “What did you see?”
“Blind as the bats, Raj,” Helena said.
“Sparks,” Yeimi said. “I saw sparks.”
“What, from the battery?”
“Blinder than the bats,” Yeimi laughed.
Now he realized they were talking about love or, worse, sex, a topic he had studiously avoided with his daughter. Rumors about the denizens of La Estrella had reached Houston. The story went that the subdued lighting, energy restrictions, and quiet ambiance made people naturally throw off their clothes in the cool of the evening, swapping partners like outfits. Even though La Estrella had become a tourist destination, it remained shrouded in lusty mystery—not even searchable on satellite view. Photos and videos were geofenced so that they couldn’t leave.
More people were joining the walking path now: locals going for a stroll, tourists hopping off AVs to watch the bats, commuters returning from work. Instead of the sticky billboards of Houston, the older buildings were painted with festive murals, which Yeimi explained were voted upon by the neighborhood. One depicted a half-naked woman with her bare breasts exposed, nurturing an infant with a bib that read Independencia energética.
Finally, they arrived at Yeimi’s home, a low-slung three-bedroom ranch house that would have been considered small in Houston. Except there was no driveway and no garage. Instead, there was a fenced garden with various herbs and vegetables, and a backyard with some kind of succulent grass that shined silver. There was also a freestanding climbing wall where Yeimi explained that Carlos practiced bouldering. It didn’t look like the home of a family that had struck it rich, which meant that paying back $20,000 couldn’t have been easy for them.
After unloading the suitcases, the baggage porter didn’t hold out its hand for a tip or announce anything. It simply turned around and wheeled back to the AV drop-off, ready to help the next passenger who had paid for a mobility package.
Yeimi’s husband Peter was barbecuing synthetic pork in the backyard when they arrived, and Raj found himself drawn to the barrel smoker like a mosquito to hot blood. Yeimi and Helena lingered in the kitchen to catch up. Peter had large hands and a wide chest, with thick arms. He was some kind of fitness buff. Not a juicer, but the middle-age equivalent.
“This a real steel drum?” Raj asked.
“No, it’s a Carolina smoker. Got it from a neighbor.” Peter flipped a tenderloin with a sizzle. “It cooks at a low temperature so you’ve got to take your time with it. You get the money?”
“We got it. Thanks.”
“No need to thank me. We wanted to thank you. We invested that money in this house. Couldn’t have afforded it otherwise. It may not look like much but we’re proud to own it. Of course, a portion went to the community association, but it’s worth it.”
“The way everyone talks about this place, it sounds like some kind of commune.”
“Heh, it’s no commune. We all chip in towards the batteries. Since we’re equal partners with the grid, we get paid when we contribute more than we take. They can’t just look at our usage and charge us accordingly, because we’ve walled that off too. If they want access to our data, they can pay for it. Otherwise, we’re a black box to them. No one has to live here, though. Some people don’t like having to put down their hairdryers at night when the great battery in the sky turns off. You have to be more mindful.”
Peter opened a cooler and pulled out a rack of ribs. Unlike Houston, where heat could linger until the early morning, the temperature was dropping swiftly. A prickly pear cut a long shadow on the sandstone gravel sprinkled about the yard.
“I suppose the most socialist thing,” Peter added, “is that you can’t sell your home for more than seven percent of what you paid for it. The excess goes back into the neighborhood. But we’re planning to stay so we’re not worried about it. You know the first term that comes up when you ask for La Estrella on your flexy, Raj?”
“Sex? Sex, no. Not in my household anyway.” He slapped Raj on the back, chuckling. “No, it’s crime. Rape. Murder. Anything they can throw at us. The data lords didn’t forgive us when we started keeping our information from them. It’s how they try to keep people away from us. I paid you that check out of our energy credits. Learning how to convert our own data into money—that’s what scares them.” He turned over the ribs, the fat spitting into the grill. Raj’s stomach rumbled. Somewhere along the way he’d forgotten to eat.
“There’s work here for people with your skills,” Peter added.
“How do you know?”
“You’re an engineer, right?”
“Petrochemical. I don’t have any background in electrical.”
“But you clean up dirty water, right?”
“I clean up refineries—crackers and oil tanks. Brownfields. Most of it’s been remediated already in Texas.”
“Sounds like you worked yourself out of a job, Raj.”
Raj knew he was right. He could’ve thrown in his lot with the typical petrochemical engineers and focused on production, which was a much more lucrative job when the price of oil was high. He had a cousin who had retired in luxury before he turned forty. But even after Raj’s resolution to become Texan, back at the Alamo, he had secreted away a piece of his Guyanese heritage. He would work in oil but he would clean it up, too, as if he could scrub his newfound identity clean of guilt. He had never expected the oil market to collapse so swiftly. No one had.
“I don’t know about crackers,” Peter went on, “but we could use your help here along the river. Helena told Yeimi you need the work, so I hope you don’t mind me being so forward. There are going to be more neighborhoods like us. Lots of spills to clean up. La Estrella was built around an old tannery—you wouldn’t believe the shit they used to cure leather. Cyanide, someone told me.”
“Chromium, more likely.” Raj tried to get Peter off his soapbox: “Don’t you get tired of the darkness here?”
“Tired of the dark?” Peter smiled, amused. “Raj, my man, you don’t get tired of it. It’s how we were meant to live.”
“Raj, time to get going,” Helena shouted from inside the house. “Yeimi said the bats fly out in fifteen minutes.”
“Regular as clockwork,” Peter said.
Yeimi sent them ahead, telling them she would prep for dinner. Outside, the neighborhood had been transformed. Instead of overhead street lighting, fiber-optics tracked along the walkways in soft colors: cobalt blue, forest green, blood red. The illumination was so faint that if you looked directly at the lights they disappeared like starlight, but somehow the combined effect steered Raj and Helena in the right direction. Some homes had pathway lamps instead of the inset lighting. Hundreds of people were walking along the path, many in a jubilant mood. In the distance, Raj heard a trumpet climbing through a scale.
Helena slipped her hand into his, something she hadn’t done in years. He couldn’t recall the last time they’d gone for a stroll anywhere except when they were on vacation—their neighborhood in Houston only had one sidewalk, and it led to the convenience store. Next to that was a strip club, a symptom of Houston’s utter lack of zoning.
“Yeimi told me USAA is hiring,” Helena said. “They prioritize veterans.”
“You want to work for a bank?”
“Who knows? I might be good at it. They pay on time, unlike my clients.”
“I wish you hadn’t told Yeimi about our problems. It’s private. I’ll get my consulting practice going again soon.”
“They want to help us, Raj. They were in our situation just a few years ago and you helped them. There’s nothing wrong with them returning the favor.”
“It’s not like we’re living on the street. I grew up in Houston. I like doing things our way. This place is some kind of socialist experiment.”
“No, you like doing things your way, Raj. Not our way.”
“What about Rosa? It’s not like we can drive her wherever we want in here. There are barely any roads.”
They paused at a home with LEDs that swept over its facade like water, timed to some kind of electrozen music. He felt nothing but strident, grating notes in its atmospheric soundscape, as if the music was stripping away the lacquer of self-reliance he had so diligently painted over his life. I want to leave this place, he thought. As soon as possible.
“Have you heard from her?” Helena suddenly asked.
He pulled out his flexy. “Someone buzzed me a second ago.”
They looked at the screen together. The message from his daughter read XKJŒOF*(S*ESD.
“What does that mean?” Helena asked.
“She probably sat on it.”
“I’m sure she’s fine,” Helena said, hopefully. But he could sense the growing nervousness in her voice.
“I’ll try her,” he said, firing off a message.
But Rosa didn’t return his message. “Should we look for her?”
“I don’t know.”
And then he did something he promised his daughter he’d never do—he checked the battery of her leg remotely. OFF. Not low, not yellow, not green, but off.
“Her leg is off.”
Helena started to protest, then kept silent.
“We’re her parents,” she said, as if justifying the privacy intrusion. “Tim said they were going to a place that the tourists don’t know.”
“I thought that juicer was joking.”
“She’d call us if anything went wrong.”
“But what if she couldn’t call us?”
The thought of Rosa fallen down, with no means of getting up, hadn’t crossed his mind since she was three years old. Everything she’d done since then suggested that the very opposite would happen—that she was resilient, that she would always find her way to them. But the whispered lighting and silhouetted strangers became menacing in Raj’s head.
“Your hand is sweating,” Helena said, rubbing her palm on her dress.
He should have been projecting calm. He should have been resolute. But the fiber-optic paths and the twinkling lights were making him anxious. And the pulse stick was miles away in his truck. He had nothing.
Finally they came to the canal, which was a causeway with a bridge arching over it. He’d expected a more enduring structure, like the chipped limestone bridges of the San Antonio Riverfront, maybe, with a WPA logo emblazoned on its ribbing. This was a utilitarian bridge, free of adornment. Steel and concrete. The green-brown water flowing underneath was almost certainly laced with trihalomethanes and perchlorates. The entire trip—come to La Estrella to see the bats!—was starting to feel like a nasty marketing trick.
Where was Rosa? He began to doubt everything: the hard sell by the cousins, the batteries painted like Easter eggs, the juicer trying to blend in like a normal kid. This was a solar Wonka factory with a river flowing with garbage liquor instead of chocolate.
He heard a countdown begin in the throngs: “Twenty, nineteen, eighteen …”
“What are they doing?” he asked.
“It’s a countdown until sunset.”
“Ten, nine, eight …”
“Someone help us!” Raj shouted. “We’ve lost our daughter.” But his voice was drowned out by the jubilant crowd.
“Three, two, one …”
And then at the count of one, or within a few seconds of one, the first bat flitted from beneath the bridge, zig-zagging across the blue-black sky. He thought he heard the flutter of its wings. It sparked a chittering, high-pitch susurration that emanated from the heart of the bridge, as if the ugly structure had come alive. The bats spilled out from the shadows in a rush of frenetic energy. Thousands, then tens of thousands of bats corkscrewed into the dusk.
“There she is!” Helena said, grabbing Raj by the arm.
“There, down on the bank by the water.”
Rosa was there, pointing up at the bats as they swept past. She was sitting on the gravel bank next to her cousin Carlos and what must have been his girlfriend, who was clinging to him possessively. They were laughing. And even Tim, who must have watched the bats a hundred times, looked up with a smile, enjoying the sight.
“Rosa!” Helena shouted, waving her arms. “Rosa!”
Now Raj noticed the scent of the bats, a raw guano musk, a kind of peat-moss purity, earthy and primal.
“She can’t hear us,” Helena said. “Should we go down to her?”
When the last bats trickled out of the bridge, the entire riverscape lit up in a dizzying array of fiber-optics. The moon was hoisting its way above the live oaks. He looked down at his daughter’s face, radiant with expectation.
She could be fine here, he realized. Somehow, in the maelstrom of parenting, he had overlooked what she had become. He could be fine. He clasped Helena’s hand as the moon slipped above them. He pulled his wife into the crowd, and they began to dance.
Freetails, Freedom, and Community in a Solar-Powered FutureBy Lauren Withycombe Keeler
In “The Scent of the Freetails,” the year is 2050 and a shift has happened. Cities and towns, houses and apartments, temples and shrines, are all powered by the sun. The shift happened slowly and then all at once, as it so often does. At first, solar panels were for wealthier, liberal-minded individuals who wanted to contribute to a greener future and more rugged individualists who wanted to depend on themselves and the sun, rather than the government, to power their lives. Eventually utilities, responsible for bringing power to the people, could not ignore the lower cost of solar energy—and, to a lesser extent, the demands of their consumers for a cleaner grid—and they began to diversify. Solar panels began to consume empty spaces outside cities. Mountaintops sprouted wind turbines. Shuttered coal plants and industrial sites were refurbished to house batteries, which stored power for cities and towns when the sun went down and the wind ceased to blow. By 2050, an new energy system has emerged, as diverse and variable as America itself.
People have shifted too. At first, many clung to the earth. For several hundred years man and machine had cleaved, broken, drilled, exploded earth—extracting her black insides to enliven cities and illuminate the night sky. Carbon brought livelihoods, predictability, convenience, and comforting daily routines to people across the world. Turning from fossil fuels to renewables was a gamble for some, but for others it was an outright rebuke of once honorable and honest ways of life. But in geologic time these affronts were short-lived, and by the time the energy transition was well underway, most people looked to the sun for light, and power, and liberation too. In 2050, the light of the sun shines bright on arrays, reflects off mirrors, and refracts through windows and skylights. Sunlight sustains cities like it sustains flowers and trees, feeding them in the daytime and retreating in the night, that they might rest, recover, and grow.
In “The Scent of the Freetails,” the transition to a future powered by renewable energy could not be achieved by technology alone. Solar and wind are not barreled and piped, shipped and fired on demand like oil and coal. The daytime sunlight powers human life, but only so much of that sunlight can be stored in batteries for use in the evening. To use less power in the evenings, people and industries have shifted how they operate, moving high-energy-use activities to times of peak solar production, between about 10:00 a.m. and 3:00 p.m. in a place like San Antonio. As a result, people and technologies work together in different ways than they do today, and what emerges are new cultures and patterns of life, both foreign and familiar. “Freetails” explores some of those cultural shifts while highlighting how people’s experiences of the renewable energy transition look very different depending on their ability to adapt to changing social, economic, and technological circumstances.
La Estrella provides a rich backdrop to explore how society and culture are shaped by technology, and vice versa. This middle-class part of San Antonio had long supported policies to reduce fossil-fuel use. Perhaps more importantly, though, this was a community that had elected leaders and supported policies that put the health and well-being of their community above those of individuals. When the electrical grid went full-renewable, this community had experience pooling their resources to invest in their community. That experience helped them more easily agree to create a battery co-op. Peter explains to Raj that they have community-owned battery storage, where energy created from solar arrays built into homes and businesses can be stored for use by the community at night.
This, in and of itself, is not so radical, but La Estrella has further embraced this diurnal way of life. The community has decided to welcome back the darkness, becoming a Dark Sky community: committing through policy and practice to keeping nighttime light pollution to a minimum.1 With the return of the darkness has come the sunset dance of the freetail bats, backlit by the rising stars. Residents of La Estrella use little of the community’s stored energy at night, and sell the excess to other communities who wish to keep the darkness and its denizens at bay. They invest the money they make back into the community to replace roads with walking paths shaded by native cottonwoods, verdant with vegetation that cools the neighborhoods, and to expand habitats for the freetail bats, nine-banded armadillos, tiger swallowtail butterflies, and other San Antonio natives once pushed to the urban perimeter. In La Estrella, we see how people can use technology to reshape the patterns of daily life, to leverage the values held by individuals and communities, and to reflect those values in policies and practices.
Not everyone is comfortable with the retreat of humanity from nature’s supposed master to one of its many inhabitants, and most communities in this future are not La Estrella. Raj comes from a different place, mentally and geographically. His experience in “The Scent of the Freetails” can help us understand how other individuals and groups might cope with and adapt to a solar-powered future. As a Guyanese immigrant, he’s a bootstrapper; he’s witnessed firsthand the power of the individual to better their life, and he’s a believer in this principle. He is fiercely protective of his nuclear family and dubious of this amorphous “community” of La Estrella residents whom he’s supposed to trust with the well-being of his only child.
The highway from Houston to San Antonio is filled with shared autonomous vehicles and autonomous buses in dedicated lanes, but Raj makes the journey to La Estrella in his truck. It is not the fastest option, but he gets to be in control. His experience as an immigrant kid in Houston schools, and later raising a child with a disability, have taught him that the world is not a reliable place and that one must be prepared to take care of their own. In this future, people like Raj power their homes with solar energy and have in-home battery storage that ensures consistent access to electricity day and night; no need to negotiate with your neighbors to create a co-op, no reason to contend with the darkness when you’d prefer light. Still others might purchase their power from utilities, like today, and receive nighttime power at higher rates if they can afford it, or in lower quantities if they can’t afford nighttime pricing. In Raj’s experience and the depiction of a future Houston, we see that it might be possible for some people and some cities to weather a transition to renewable energy with very little change to the rhythms of daily life—but the world does change around them.
If the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us anything, it is surely that our social systems and patterns of behavior can be transformed in an instant. Individually, we are not all able to adapt to these changes in the same ways—and we are likely to value different kinds of adaptations. However, together we can share the burden of transition and use the disruption to create communities and ways of life that better reflect our values.
The energy transition is often discussed and monitored in terms of the sources of electrons on the grid or square meters of solar panels, but such quantitative metrics tell us little of what matters in daily life. An inventory of a community’s values says far more about how that community will look when powered by renewable energy. If you want to live in a community like La Estrella, transformed by renewable energy, you’ll make more progress on that future by getting to know your neighbors than by putting solar panels on your roof.
Unlike today, the energy system of the future will be far less uniform. Regional and even local differences in climate, geography, and culture will play a role in shaping the kind of energy that is used, when, and how much. In the short term, this transition creates uncertainty about how to ensure stable and reliable access to energy. In the longer term, however, it might be more reflective of an American way, deferential to the rights and preferences of the individual but fashioned according to the shared values and cultural practices that make the country rich in diverse, local identities.
1 “International Dark Sky Communities,” International Dark-Sky Association, https://www.darksky.org/our-work/conservation/idsp/communities. Accessed February 17, 2021. [Back]
Customized Energy Futures
By Chris Gearhart
Go anywhere in the United States, today, and most people’s relationships to energy are pretty much the same. We drive cars to work and to the mall, and we power our devices by plugging them into centralized electricity grids. Will that sameness persist in the future? Or will different communities develop more customized energy solutions that fit their goals and aspirations for how they want to live?
Customization is increasingly possible because of the potential for integrating different kinds of systems together: transportation, electricity, data, buildings, and cities. As the director of the Center for Integrated Mobility Sciences at the U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratory, I think a lot about how the integration of these technologies as part of future urban systems will affect our lives. Transportation has always been integrated into our lives and has driven the evolution of our cities. Historically, this integration has happened through relatively slow processes: the buildout of infrastructure, which takes place on the timescale of years and decades, and the delivery of fuel to filling stations, which occurs on a timeframe of days and weeks. New technology is accelerating the speed of integration and multiplying the channels of interaction. This acceleration is driven by the introduction of electric vehicles, connectivity of travelers with the internet of things, distributed electric-vehicle charging, distributed electrical generation, and soon, the introduction of automated vehicles. As these technologies are developed and deployed together, they create new opportunities for communities to organize themselves differently than in the past.
As our team imagined a future San Antonio, we found ourselves focusing on many of the indirect consequences of an energy-generation system based on solar power. In creating this world, we looked to the past to think about how the creation of a centralized, coal-based electrical system changed communities during the early part of the last century. Large centralized power plants are not easy to turn on and off. They cannot be turned down quickly when demand for power is low, and they cannot be turned up quickly when power is needed again. In order to keep these generators running as close to steady-state as possible, demand was created to keep lights on at night. Machines were invented to electrify tasks that didn’t really need to be made more convenient. The shift of transportation to automobiles, driven by the development of the internal-combustion engine, had similar impacts and drove the evolution of cities for the past century. Cities were organized around automobiles as the dominant technology and evolved based on the assumption that everyone would use them to go everywhere. With these shifts, the cycles of most people’s lives changed and were locked in by monolithic systems over which they had no control.
The aspect of Deji Bryce Olukotun’s story “The Scent of the Freetails” that I find most interesting is the extent to which new technologies could give communities back some control over these cycles. Much of the motivation for this future vision was an attempt to answer the question, how might a distributed, solar-based electrical system allow people to shape the rhythms of life in their community? To do so, as the story suggests, will require strong integration across transportation, information, and distributed energy systems, as well as the rest of the urban environment. This integration makes it possible for communities to customize their relationship with both energy and mobility.
In the story, we see the community of La Estrella through the eyes of a person traveling from Houston. From this perspective, we get a glimpse of two communities that have adapted to electrification in two very different ways. La Estrella is a forward-looking urban community, while Houston is a city having trouble moving away from its past. For the residents of La Estrella, it is important that their community get closer to the natural day-night rhythm. Locally generated solar power is a perfect fit for this. For the people of the fictional future Huston, it is important to respect their legacy as a key part of the nation’s oil and gas industry. Because of this legacy, there is strong preference for internal-combustion-engine vehicles.
It is interesting to imagine how other communities in this fictional future might take advantage of this flexibility to adapt energy systems to their diverse priorities. As I write this, I am currently sitting in my home, sheltering in place to avoid spreading COVID-19. In this environment, it is easy for me to imagine enclaves of people using these technologies to isolate themselves from the rest of the world. I also imagine rural communities in the Midwest where farmers in feed caps meet at the local diner for morning coffee to compare dividends from the local Solar and Wind Electrical Cooperative, and rehash old arguments about which had a better electric drive system, the F-150 or the Dodge Ram. I imagine wealthy communities full of energy-independent estates that reflect the individualistic self-made images the owners want to project. Everywhere in between, I imagine the vast majority of folks are still plugged into the traditional energy grid—but an energy grid of the future that must take advantage of the same integrated technologies in order to adapt quickly to changing energy generation and demand.
Critical to all of these scenarios is a need for nearly ubiquitous energy storage, coupled to local energy generation from solar or wind. Communities can adapt to the average cycles of renewable-energy generation, using more power during the day when solar generation is high and less at night, for example, but there must be some source of power for those times when there is no solar or wind energy available. Energy storage provides the needed energy buffer that allows us to decouple generation of energy from demand for energy. There are several ways this energy storage could be provided. Utilities could use very large energy-storage systems to store energy within the grid. Our imagined future La Estrella elected a community-based solution that allows them to be independent from the grid. Electric vehicles will each contain large batteries that, coupled with bi-directional charging systems, could provide the needed energy storage. The cost of lithium-ion batteries has dropped dramatically in the past decade. It is projected that electric cars will soon be no more expensive than comparable internal-combustion vehicles. There has been a similar drop in the cost of photovoltaic solar cells. The simultaneous reduction in price of these two critical technologies makes the idea of customized energy communities not only possible, but perhaps inevitable.
Today, data and mobility are already tightly integrated. Essentially all new vehicles are constantly sending and receiving data. Even when the vehicle is not, most travelers carry a smartphone that is transmitting the traveler’s location and preferences. From a mobility perspective, these data are currently used primarily for navigation purposes, but we can expect these uses to expand. Automation of vehicles is the aspect of integrating mobility and data that gets discussed most often. Typically, this discussion goes in one of two directions: either speculation that automated vehicles will usher in an area of increased efficiency in the movement of people, or that future highways will be filled bumper-to-bumper with even more cars, half of them empty.
In “The Scent of the Freetails,” a more nuanced version of these two futures is presented. The story recognizes that both of these futures may exist simultaneously. Just as we have communities today that are pedestrian-friendly and communities that are not, in the future we imagine some communities that adopt integrated mobility solutions in ways that push people toward travel by car, and others that enable a more flexible car-lite lifestyle. A subtle but beautiful example of this from Deji’s story is the way in which the low-level lighting integrated into the walkways of La Estrella serves to also direct pedestrians to their desired destinations.
In the story, the implication is that energy choices will be coupled with data-management and data-privacy policies. In the transportation world, the concept of geofencing is often used to manage and enforce different mobility policies. Geofencing takes advantage of the fact that we can tell when vehicles with GPS units enter or leave different areas. Some areas could be designated for electric vehicles only, or as autonomous mobility districts, much as London now allows only taxis, buses, and delivery vans. In this story, both San Antonio and La Estrella have adopted ordinances that change data restrictions at their borders. Electronic advertising pushed to connected vehicles and mobile devices stops at the San Antonio border, as Raj and his family drive into town. Transmission of data out of La Estrella is also restricted, allowing the community to choose how their data is used and by whom. The implication in this story that data access can also be geofenced adds an interesting element to this concept, and suggests even more ways that communities can take advantage of systems integration to customize their own living experience.
The story also points out some of the many indirect consequences of these choices. Enabling communities to be less dependent on automobiles will reduce the need for roads and parking lots. Less asphalt means less localized heating, which in turn means less energy needed for air conditioning. Changes in the design of housing are another interesting consequence. The description of the houses in La Estrella presents a vision of a neighborhood full of houses of many different styles, all taking advantage of energy-generation technology integrated into building materials to create unique energy-efficient homes. The current centralized energy and transportation systems encourage neighborhoods to be very uniform. Today we see car-intensive communities that, from the road, appear to be nothing more than an uninterrupted line of garage doors. In this story, we imagine a future in which a three-car garage could be considered an anachronism.
In the future as presented in “The Scent of the Freetails,” we get a glimpse of how people might take advantage of new technologies to customize their energy and mobility futures to create the communities they want. The story also makes it clear that how people react to technology is at least as important as the technology itself, in terms of how technology is used. Central to successfully integrating technologies into our communities is understanding that people are crucial to the process. As a scientist and an engineer, I can tell you these technologies are not that far off. Low-cost distributed energy generation and energy storage are here. Information technology that ties everything together is here. What we need to understand, however, is how people will react to and interact with these technologies and put them to use to shape their lives and their landscapes. Stories like “The Scent of the Freetails” help us to imagine these human interactions and to project ourselves into these futures.
By Max Gabriele
As I write, the world is going through a global crisis the likes of which I have not seen in my lifetime. Forced to withdraw from work, school, and other unavoidably social environments, people are finding solace in home-improvement projects, livestreamed yoga classes, and all those books in the “to be read” pile. But that’s not all they’re doing. They’re forming mutual-aid groups online and amongst their closest neighbors, organizing to distribute suddenly scarce food and hygiene items to those in need. My own neighbors and I walk each other’s dogs, use each other’s gym equipment, gather for game nights in the evenings, and have planted vegetables in each other’s yards. We have become, without prior intent, an intentional community.
As the crisis ramps up, the disappointing response of many of this nation’s leaders stands in stark contrast with the ad hoc ingenuity of its citizens. I’ve seen bed frames converted into garden plots, classes taught on World of Warcraft, parents supporting each other by sharing home-schooling lessons and activities, or even teaching each other’s children over videoconferencing software—reorganizing and repurposing assets to meet the demands of the day. These and other responses are innovative in every sense of the word.
Observing and experiencing this has led me to reflect on what we mean when we talk about innovation. Despite excellent scholarship and service by dedicated members of academic institutions, NGOs, and governmental organizations that have highlighted the resourcefulness and generalizability of bottom-up and indigenous innovation, it’s still common to think of innovation as a top-down process that happens when hundreds of geniuses crunch noggins in Silicon Valley, or at the MIT Media Lab. But that’s just one kind of innovation, and one that is not without problems. For all its intellectual and computational horsepower, that kind of innovation risks instrumentalizing humans as users according to a market logic that prioritizes speed and scale over the essential needs of real people. Communities get divvied up by demographics instead of neighborhoods, diverse identities get averaged and aggregated into normative avatars, and society gets atomized into individual constellations of pain points and preferences.
In Deji Bryce Olukotun’s story “The Scent of the Freetails,” the dominant ideology of a possible future Houston reflects that of our own present society in its almost neurotic commitment to a style of defensive individualism. In contrast, the path-blazing neighborhood of La Estrella, in San Antonio, has chosen to resist individuation by thinking and acting collectively. Top-down, market-driven innovation might see a solar-powered community as disadvantaged during the unlit hours of the day and then produce all kinds of techno-wizardry to service each individual household’s nighttime power demand. In contrast, bottom-up, community-driven innovation in La Estrella opted simply (but profoundly) to see the dearth of power at night as an opportunity to revel in the unique natural advantages of their local environment by instituting a “dark sky” ordinance.
A Dark Sky community, according to the International Dark-Sky Association, “is a town, city, municipality or other legally organized community that has shown exceptional dedication to the preservation of the night sky through the implementation and enforcement of a quality outdoor lighting ordinance, dark sky education and citizen support of dark skies.”1 But the clever surprise in Olukotun’s story is that, for La Estrella, “dark sky” is not only a celebration of the local, but also a strategy of communal empowerment through the geofenced occlusion of satellite surveillance. La Estrella’s data sovereignty is an example of how what is, on one level, a decision about energy can also be an opportunity to extend agency to communities who might otherwise be marginalized or aggregated in other spheres of life.
Data and energy are deeply intertwined. Historically, electric companies understood that energy consumption was related to consumers’ daily rhythms—sleep, work, social time, family intimacy, etc.—and simultaneously, that the predictability and consistency of consumption was instrumental to their profit margins. It is cheaper and more efficient to run power plants on fossil fuels at equilibrium, rather than lowering or raising output throughout the day based on human needs. Electric companies invested in things like amusement parks and television and promoted the institution of night shifts for workers, all in an effort to bring human behavior into conformity with the needs of the energy system. In light of this, La Estrella’s decision to “black-box” their data and to match their behavior to a more natural day/night pattern—the way “we were meant to live”—is also a rejection of the system’s attempt to mold them to its own rationalized logic. The fact that this is done collectively is important, because even though one consumer’s usage data is of little significance, the entire community’s data has real value to utilities and others. Thus, the decision to reject conformity to aggregated and abstracted averages is inherently emancipatory and democratic.
No doubt La Estrella took flak for their outside-the-box thinking. The point-of-view character Raj, coming from Houston, is wary of San Antonio and of La Estrella in particular, suggesting that the neighborhood may be unique even in the context of the surrounding city. Difference rarely pleases everyone, so we can assume the community has weathered a storm of criticism. But the inhabitants of La Estrella stuck to their principles, resolutely maintaining that this new direction was the right choice for their community. That, it seems to me, is what intentional innovation ought to mean. It is the opposite of generalized, one-size-fits-all solutions and normalizations formulated and imposed from some distant perch, unresponsive to the local idiosyncrasies and personalities of the people they are supposed to apply to.
As a kind of experiment as I was preparing to write this, I did two Google image searches for “innovation hub” and “intentional community.” I imagine what I saw is what anyone would intuitively expect. Innovation hub: scenes of modern architecture, audacious spans of tempered glass, pale wood, white furniture, young, enthusiastically engaged professionals working their way through a project, with no real variation even after several minutes of continuous scrolling. The results for “intentional community” were just as consistent, but with images of outdoor scenes, communal gardening, group meals, repurposed building materials, people meditating or doing yoga. Although the results conformed to my expectations, I can’t help but think of this as odd. When did innovation become synonymous with technology and design, and partitioned off from vibrant spaces where people live and play? When did intentionality become associated with some kind of new age sub- or even counter-culture? This isn’t just odd, it’s stupid.
For all the significance that the word innovation has come to bear in our current era, it simply means to introduce something new or to find novel applications for something that already exists. So why not take “The Scent of the Freetails” as an opportunity to think about innovation differently? It’s time to take seriously the idea of intentional innovation: novel technologies or applications designed from the earliest stages to serve communities and help shape them based on their own collective visions. It’s time to take seriously a notion of innovative communities, empowered to reject or adopt technologies and practices based on their capacity to further internally generated goals. This doesn’t mean turning every neighborhood into a Googleplex; rather, it means doubling down on what makes each neighborhood and its residents unique. Nor does it have to be solemn or militant. It can be fun, even inspiring. In Olukotun’s story, naming and decorating the community’s collectively owned batteries and gathering to observe the nightly exodus of the Mexican freetail bats are two examples of how conscientious energy use, communal self-determinism, and collective celebration can overlap and strengthen one another.
But what of the Googleplex? What of the Media Labs and the Motherships and the innovation hubs as we know them now? What role would they have in this intentional paradigm? Rather than outline a proposal for some new kind of institution or mechanism of exchange, I think the first and most essential step that could be taken in these places, as they exist today, is to cultivate a new ethic of innovation—an ethic that emerges from a patient and persistent effort to place the values, concerns, and desires of communities ahead or above technical or economic optimization. This vision is inspired by ideas sketched out by Isabelle Stengers in her “Cosmopolitical Proposal,” where she promotes a kind of collective thinking that happens in the presence of those that will be victim to or affected by the product of that thinking.2 Crucially, Stengers insists that those community concerns must be prioritized and addressed, even when the substance of them sharply diverges from or even denies the legitimacy of the innovators’ own expert opinions and goals. The power of the “cosmos” in cosmopolitical is to embed innovators and innovation in a complex ecology of interactions and responsibilities. It cancels out the artificial distance between the sites where innovation is produced and where it is put into action, and affirms that its products must be answerable to real human needs, not vice versa.
How might this be accomplished in practice? How might the community be made present in the halls or on the screens where innovation occurs? Isn’t it true that engineers already attempt something like this in their use of avatars—fictional characters based on aggregated surveys, statistics, and stories—to stand in for the user? And don’t cutting-edge labs like the Media Lab and Google’s Moonshot Factory employ groups dedicated to bombarding product-development teams with every imaginable criticism in an effort to foresee unintended consequences, mishaps, or dissatisfaction? They do, but I want to suggest that there are two fundamental differences between what those groups do and what I am suggesting. In both instances (and others like them) the decision to innovate has already been made by the designers and engineers before the avatars are conjured and the bombardments begin. At the same time, the avatars are merely stand-ins for users; they are rarely the users themselves. My vision of intentional innovation, inspired by Stengers’s cosmopolitical proposal, would be something much more (maybe wholly) passive: rather than thinking up products for other people, intentional innovation would be at rest until called upon by the community to use its remarkable knowledge and technical expertise.
Innovation’s next product, in effect, must be an ethics that emerges from a new aesthetic approach to its work—one that allows itself to be constrained by the community in which and for which that work is done, just as an artist is constrained by the medium she chooses to work with. “Politics is an art,” writes Stengers, “and an art has no ground to demand compliance from what it deals with. It has to create the manners that will enable it to become able to deal with what it has to deal with.” I think we should think about innovation as an art in the same sense. We could talk (maybe in future iterations of The Weight of Light3 and Cities of Light) about what the characteristics of such a manner might be—respect, deference, patience, a virtue of service—but if we really want to take up this idea, then talking isn’t where to begin. It is and always will be practice that leads to great art. That is to say, there is no reason not to start, right away, polishing the manner from which a theory of cosmopolitical, or intentional, innovation can emerge.
1 “International Dark Sky Communities,” International Dark-Sky Association, https://www.darksky.org/our-work/conservation/idsp/communities. Accessed February 17, 2021. [Back]
2 Isabelle Stengers, “The Cosmopolitical Proposal,” in Bruno Latour and Peter Weibel, eds., Making Things Public: Atmospheres of Democracy, MIT Press, 2005: 994-1003. [Back]
Joey Eschrich and Clark A. Miller, eds. The Weight of Light: A Collection of Solar Futures, Center for Science and the Imagination, 2019. [Back]