Michael Batty’s most recent book, Inventing Future Cities, deserves more attention than what it has been accorded from both academics and policy makers since its publication in 2018. It also comes at a time when the cities of the world are now home to close to sixty percent of the world’s population, and set to further increase in the near future. Specialists or mainstream readers seeking a singular and coherent work on the complex issues involving the future of cities will find a number of useful insights that are supported by Batty’s sense of historical nuance and theoretical rigour. It is also to his credit that Batty avoids an all too convenient tactic taken by other writers at promoting grand narratives and sensational proclamations about the future of cities. Instead, he offers a humbling and sober message, claiming instead, that we can never truly know what the future of cities will be like. At best, one can only manage how we should “think about cities” (Batty 2018: 12), based on past and present knowledge.
A fundamental assumption of his arguments rests on accepting the unpredictable nature of the city as a method to understanding urban development, while articulating it through the lenses of complexity theory. It is such an approach that enables greater theoretical dynamism in understanding cities of the future, as opposed to a kind of analytical dogmatism that privileges an economy-centric view of city growth, leading to incomplete analyses of urban systems that hold little regard for environmental, social-cultural or geo-political constraints and realities.
By critiquing rigid and one-dimensional discourses, Batty acknowledges that cities of the future will be complicated and multifaceted living systems that are largely self-organising from the ground up. This is combined with a view that cities today and tomorrow are sites of time-space compression, where diverse and diffused mobility-communication networks are no longer easily defined along geo-spatial boundaries, or by their physical artifacts that rely on measurements like density and size. Referencing a paradox proposed by the urban economist Edward Glaeser where “proximity becomes more important while the deterrent effect of distance is of lesser significance” (Batty 2018: 15, 65-66), contextual examples are drawn from post-industrial cities in the United Kingdom and other parts of Europe, suggesting that future cities may no longer necessarily follow their original early industrial functions within a digital age. This is one outcome of the advent of smart cities”, or what Batty (2018: 165-168) labels the “sixth Kondratieff wave”, referring to the Soviet scholar who identified periodic economic cycles leading to “waves of innovation” in society.
At the same time, one area that Batty could have examined further is how cities, within and between themselves, are seldom homogenous social and cultural spaces. Academic discourses on cities and their futures may also need to turn their attention to the persons and communities that ultimately inhabit them. This is also consistent with adopting a complexity theory approach. While Batty acknowledges the multiplicity of processes and nuances in decision-making within cities, such complexity in urban spaces is often mired in inequalities and power differences that emerge from challenges like digital divides, ethnic enclaves and urban gentrification. Contending social-cultural, political and economic forces further entwine the urban experience of cities and their subsequent transformations.
Cities, while the site of creativity, innovation and ambiguity, can equally be the site of exploitation, conflict and socio-economic precarity. This is because cities are also lived spaces inhabited by people driven by competing interests and intersecting sub-cultures. Batty had an opportunity to extend his discussion into such areas, but did not appear to devote enough reflection on this, and appears to gloss over them. And while it may be argued that the social and political aspects of future cities was not the key focus of this book, it is even harder to dismiss the marginal attention that climate change gets throughout its narrative in spite of its structuralist-inspired perspective.
Nevertheless, not all this should distract the reader from the undeniable contributions of Inventing Future Cities for the field of urban studies and urban planning. In more ways than one, this book provides a continuation of a far older and ongoing intellectual examination of the connections between urbanity, demography and technology that began with the emergence of the first industrial cities in human history. It marks a positive step towards greater dialogue between academics, urban-planning professionals and policy-makers, paving the way for a more comprehensive understanding about the future of cities. Reading it now, the global Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic also appears to validate his position on how we can never truly predict the future of cities and the critical role digitisation is playing in ensuring a sense of sociality within a so-called ‘new normal’ where spaces are increasingly policed. For the impact of the pandemic now appears to be most severe within the crowded spaces within cities around the world, transforming a lot of previous assumptions we held about the nature of everyday life in urban settings.
Michael Batty. Inventing Future Cities. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2018.
Kevin S.Y. Tan, PhD, is an Adjunct Faculty at the School of Global Studies, Thammasat University, Thailand