Lucas van Valckenborch, The Tower of Babel
Lucas van Valckenborch, The Tower of Babel

Having conceived Babel, yet unable to build it themselves, they had thousands to build it for them. But those who toiled knew nothing of the dreams of those who planned. And the minds that planned the Tower of Babel cared nothing for the workers who built it. The hymns of praise of the few became the curses of the many. Between the mind that plans and the hands that build there must be a Mediator, and this must be the heart.
– Maria, in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis

Recently, the world witnessed two major events.

1 — Since 2008 – for the first time in history – more than half of the world’s population lives in towns or cities. A condition that is altogether new, and fully transformative for social, political, and physical conditions. City life becomes the essential human experience.
2 — In October 2011 the seventh billion person was born. Both these developments pose challenges to our natural environment, and to the way we organize extraction, production, distribution and consumption of materials and products. How do we provide for the needs of concentrated populations of millions?
Currently we have cultivated 43 percent of the earth’s ice-free landmass. Consider the total of our cities, towns, agricultural grounds and extraction sites. If the world’s population grows from seven billion to nine billion in 2045, we’ll probably use more than half of the earth’s ice-free landmass by 2025, which will disrupt even more the Earth’s ecosystems.

 

The Search for a Future Beyond Growth

These concerns are not new. In 1972 the Club of Rome report ‘The Limits to Growth’ concluded that somewhere in the 21st century the carrying capacity of earth would be reached – our resources would become depleted and Earth’s ecosystems would collapse. The conclusions of this report were based on a cybernetic computer model that showed how developments in demographics interacted with other areas of development, like food production, industrial output, pollution and resource depletion. So far, most of the world’s macro developments match the Club of Rome’s model.

Adding to these challenges is a growing awareness that automation is increasingly capable of making human labor more generic and even obsolete – testing one of the central tenets of capitalism: Work Hard, Consume Harder. We need new horizons.

 

Still City Project

This is a project about stillness. We are living in an increasingly urban world, in which growth is the central tenet. Growth, in all its cultural translations and incarnations, has been the cornerstone of modernity. Most of our parables stress the virtues of personal growth, economic growth, demographic growth and technological innovation. Forms of growth that are considered deeply intertwined, simultaneous, and interchangeable.

But what happens when growth is no longer feasible, or when it becomes undesirable? What happens to a city when growth based on ‘Bigger, Better and More of it’, becomes unsustainable? What happens when a city stops growing but doesn’t shrink either? What kind of values and narratives will emerge when the notions of economic growth and personal growth disconnect? How will people relate to labor, love, family, individuality, community, history and the future? Is there such a thing as a mature city?

Still City Project is a search for a dynamic urban culture that is not based on growth.The Still City can be understood as a sustainable and inclusive society. A society that wants to leave the more negative connotations of the notion ‘growth’ behind to find post-expansion, post-depletion and post-exploitation value-systems. The ambition of the project is to construct urban scenarios that will help us understand how a post-growth society could function.

 

Points of Departure

Still City Project was formulated after contemplating two interlinked contemporary concerns or understandings:

Economic growth based on population growth, mass consumption and technological innovation appears to be less and less sustainable. Technological innovation has the potential to replace human labor or to make human labor more generic. Both these understandings make an economic system based on efficiency, cost reduction and mass consumption not viable on the long term.

Obviously these concerns or understandings have to do with the totality of our cultural narratives, values and practices, so when addressing them we wanted to approach it as holistically as possible, while still having our feet on the ground and work with intelligence that is local, tangible, and rooted in the everyday. As workable points of departure we formulated the following questions:

Which contemporary trends – values, narratives and practices – can be a seen as strengthening an inclusive and sustainable society that is not based on growth? And how do these trends interact when extrapolated to a society where these trends would constitute dominant cultural rationales? How could a Still City function? How could the evaluation of these trends shift perspectives today, in the way we make policy, commerce, science and culture?

Considering these questions we were inspired by the World3 cybernetic model. The “The Limits to Growth” report was largely based on the results of this model. Inspired, we decided to build our own model, the Still World Model, that could process existing trends and investigate and formulate feasible Still City scenarios. Where the Club of Rome sought to warn the world of the dangers of short-term thinking, Still City Project seeks to project a sustainable and inclusive society, based on already existing but emerging values, narratives and practices. And, we decided that our first case study should be Tokyo.

Next read: From Doomsday Device to Scenario Machine