The City of the Future

Future-casting. There’s an activity often met with trepidation by historians. While history might inform the present, it isn’t a tool for predicting the future. Or is it? At a conference last month, held by the UMass-Amherst Public History program on the occasion of their 25th anniversary, one presenter urged public historians to embrace their role in forecasting the future.

At first blush, it’s hard to imagine what this role might look like. But if we think specifically about museums, all of the necessary tools are in place. Museums are spaces where we gather information about the past, with art and artifacts and interpretation, and put that information squarely in the context of the present. We ask our visitors to share their ideas about how the past and the present connect. It is only natural that we throw suppositions about the future into that mix.

The National Building Museum in Washington, DC is doing exactly that. Last fall, they launched the Intelligent Cities project, with support from Time Magazine and IBM. They’ve jumped headfirst into some future-casting about our homes and our communities.

With the Intelligent Citiesinitiative, the museum is hoping to discover something about how we live in cities now as a way to explore where we want to be in the future. The museum has been gathering community input on their website, through polls and online video submissions, about how people make decisions about where they live. The website is organized around six major topics, moving outward in size from “The Home” all the way to “The Country.”

"The Space-Time-Money Continuum, by curator Susan Piedmont-Palladino (National Building Museum)."

Accompanying infographics transmit the changing nature of cities in sharp, fresh ways. The new “Intelligent City” might take better account of fuel in choosing transport methods, or child obesity in choosing how far to live from the nearest elementary school.

Part of the innovative nature of this project comes from the museum’s belief that all of us have something to offer on this topic. National Building Museum president and executive director Chase W. Rynd says, “Technology and access to information has reached a point where non-professionals can generate data and think deeply about where they live. Through Intelligent Cities, we have the means to share their viewpoints with experts in the design and building industries so that there is a true give and take between constituencies.” The eventual result of the project will be an exhibition in 2013, but as an interim step an Intelligent Cities book will be published this fall. The volume will include essays from experts in the fields of technology and design, as well as observations culled from the website and a recent public forum.

At the conference last month, we thought about what the field of public history will look like in 2036. Three major themes emerged: a stronger commitment to sharing, or a throwing off entirely, professional authority; the integration of sustainability into our mission and activities; and a deeper interest in the work history can do in the world. The Intelligent Cities initiative is an example of how those trends can come together in one project.

For the first time, more than half of the world’s population lives in cities. Historians have something to contribute to this topic, of course. Cities have alternatively been thought of as centers of ideas and hotbeds of crime – both the best and the worst that civilization has to offer. How have cities grown and changed over time? How do we want the cities of tomorrow to function? I’m pleased that the National Building Museum is leading the charge to discuss what this urban future might look like, getting input from as many corners as possible. History has work to do.

National Building Museum
401 F Street, NQ
Washington, DC 20001