The Abundant City
published on 18/11/2015
Monnik describes a city in which productivity growth is replaced by resource distribution, and where social status is measured by 'I Am' instead of 'I Have'.
A city is an aggregate of human endeavour. It is rooted in history and branches out towards promises, expectations, profits and dreams, i.e. the future. These vectors of human desire point to many possible urban models just beyond the horizon. One of these possible cities is the Abundant City, the place where homo romanticus lives and works. What would life look like in a city like this?
The Abundant City (i.e. the “there is enough”-city) and its meaning seeking inhabitant, the homo romanticus stand in contrast to another model reality: Scarcity City (i.e. the “never enough”-city) and its calculating homo economicus. We would arrive in the Abundant City if we reprioritised the primary aim that a developed economy should serve, from productivity growth to distribution.
In the Abundant City man is liberated from labour by artificial intelligence and advanced robotics, and a basic income (or a negative income tax) ensures that the artificially produced goods are fairly and equally distributed. Everyone would enjoy economic security. Our ageing population is no longer a potential financial debt bomb; it simply means more stuff for less people. In this scenario, the (post-productive) work and life of the homo romanticus’ becomes a reality. In the Abundant City, social status is shifting from the “I have” that motivates the homo economicus to the “I am” that drives the homo romanticus. The Abundant City is an inclusive and sustainable urban system.
A perspective on life in the Abundant City opens up when we recast working, living and city-making as meaning-seeking, instead of profit-maximising activities.
Technology enabling meaning
Smart grids, block chains, the Internet of Things, service drones and artificial intelligence are the basic ingredients infrastructure of the Abundant City. The city is a display of automation mixed with human desire. Autonomous but networked machines provide transport, energy, security and maintenance. But machines also support homo romanticus’ search for a meaningful existence (as they’ve always done). They assist the tailors in producing their post-fast-fashion garments, they will co-discover new materials with engineers and brainstorm with scientists about new ways to reach our nearest galaxy. Space will be the new frontier. In the Abundant City, algorithms dim streetlights in order to reveal the marvels of the Milky Way, soft machines will comfort the lonely, and drones shall deliriously perform Dadaist poems on its street corners. The Abundant City is a city with a high tech utility infrastructure that will coincide with low tech craftsmanship.
Post-diploma local learning
Where the school system was once geared to deliver labourers to the productive economy, the schools of the Abundant City support the development of their students' personalities. The social status of bodily, mental and social intelligence is equal. Masters of Law and Masters of Craft enjoy equal standing. This means that people who are getting vocational training and university degrees will meet, greet and be able to fall in love again. The diploma democracy will crumble. A school in the Abundant City is a decentralized entity that provides an infrastructure for learning, curiosity and the acquisition of experience. Teaching and practicing becomes more intertwined and craftsmen, artists, engineers and scientists will specialize and collaborate in guild-like clusters in order to form schools of all sorts and kinds. Some of these guild-like clusters will have a local focus, others will act more globally. Workshops will also be shops and will also be classrooms. Guilds, cooperatives and studios are scattered throughout the neighbourhood, embedded in the urban fabric, all equipped to specific needs. The city will be sprinkled with workshops for crafts, domes for stargazing, greenhouses for biology and holodecks for simulations.
From consuming to producing meaning
When shops become workshops they will not just be sites of consumption but also places of production, education and socialization. Machinery, tools and skills turn raw materials into localized products. Products will be custom made, bespoke, designed to fit, and the fruit of a conversation between patron and shopkeeper. The workshop will be part of the schooling system where apprentices acquire skill and experience. The workshops of the Abundant City are the production sites of goods, meaning, community and knowledge. With the introduction of multi-purpose robots that help the craftsman, and that can operate safely in smaller spaces, production will return to the urban cores. The big industrial and commercial zones that are now situated along the edge of the city will shrink to a couple of smart and largely unmanned automated mass-production or resource-distribution centers.
The personal home
A house in Abundant City is not very different from our house today. Its infrastructure of plumbing, electricity, gas, WiFi, refrigeration, modern medicine and yet uninvented future technology makes our lives comfortable but does not provide meaning and therefore recedes into the background of our daily lives. Central in our homes will be that which signifies, bares stories and evokes memories: the table made by your dad, the bread from the rooftop farm down the street, and the DIY carpentry of your kitchen. Also, the homely interior is not just the result of consuming comfort and meaning, it is also - like the shop - a site of production, a place of work. The functionalist division of commercial, industrial and residential program of the city we once knew will disappear.
Due to a phenomenon called the demographic-economic paradox people will have less children the moment they feel economically secure. With the introduction of a basic income distribution scheme, our population will shrink. People will not only have fewer children but the bonds of love and friendship will become more diverse. With the equalization in social status of mental and manual intelligence, a rocket-scientist mom can just fall in love with a master-carpenter dad. Children will grow up in a glocal world, both deeply rooted in the cityscape but comfortable traveling and meeting other people around the globe. They will grow up safer because people will have less trauma from social status or poverty related frustrations.
The return of the tragic
When meaningfulness becomes a personal affair and progress will not be the sole driver of our society, we will have more room to be reacquainted with the tragic aspects of our lives. Education will also teach you to deal with heartbreak, loss, sickness, failure and death. The homo romanticus will be more attuned to deal with limitations, may they be personal, social or environmental. He or she understands that growing up also means learning what you cannot do, what skills you do not have. He or she understands that how one deals with limitations defines how worthwhile he or she experiences one’s life.
Setting the agenda
There is enough. We don’t need to prioritise the increase of production capacity. We need to recalibrate our socio-economic systems so that fair and efficient distribution of wealth becomes the priority. If we do, the city we could get would be more sustainable and inclusive than today’s. It would provide meaningful life and work, and enrich the natural world. We’ll have to set the agenda, stimulate the imagination and draft increasingly detailed plans. And then, when the strategies of growth have been exhausted, we’ll be ready.
Edwin Gardner and Christiaan Fruneaux
Monnik – creative studio for urbanism and futurology
Top image: Teikoku Shônen