Originally published on Fast Company
They’re just acting, of course, but they portray the benefits (and conflicts) that might result from a world of autonomous vehicles, hyperloops, and redesigned city streets.
It’s 2035 in Manhattan, after the morning commute on a weekday, and the traffic on city streets has shifted: instead of autonomous shuttles taking people to work, the roads are given over to bikes, scooters, and other human-powered transportation. In the middle of the night, the rules automatically shift again to prioritize autonomous delivery vans.
That’s one scenario imagined in a series of fake podcasts from the future created by the design firm Designit, which wanted to explore how potential changes in urban transportation could affect everyday life.
Instead of focusing on technology, they’re more interested in the potential social impacts. “The format we used is really useful not to create false futures or false ‘perfect’ states, but to understand all the potential conflicts that are out there,” says Jun Lee, design research director at Designit.
“We weren’t interested in trying to predict anything specific,” he says. “We wanted to start a conversation about some of the social and cultural realities that would emerge from many of the technology trends that people already know about.”
In one podcast, someone interviews residents about how they’re adapting to the new mode-shifting “FlexStreets” created by the city’s Department of Movement (a merger between the Department of Transportation and the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications).
The skit is a little awkward (and badly acted) but raises interesting ideas. How difficult would it be to navigate streets that constantly shift between uses? How could it launch new businesses? As driving patterns shift, could parts of streets be leased to apartment buildings for use as playgrounds or open-air markets?
In another podcast, the city is considering a ban on “fluid neighborhoods,” or cars, vans, and boats that have turned into mobile businesses and roving homes. Driven out by rising rents, some former New Yorkers have moved farther away and commute via hyperloop, but others, unwilling to leave, are camping in vehicles.
Like food trucks, the mobile businesses come and go, tracked by maps. Boats docked at a harbor might become a temporary cafe for an afternoon; nap pods temporarily park near offices. People living in traditional permanent apartments—and traditional businesses—are annoyed and want the “carborhoods” to disappear.
A third podcast imagines how faster transit—whether it’s the hyperloop or high-speed rail—will shift focus from cities to regions. If it’s possible to commute from Philadelphia to New York in half an hour, will Philly lose its identity and feel like a suburb of New York?
In the podcast, the hyperloop has just opened, and the company running it has launched a competition to see who can deliver a Philly cheesesteak fastest to an address in New York City. The interviewer talks to a company-owned bot instead of a spokesperson, who says that people need to think beyond the traditional idea of a city.
One competitor explains how she uses tech and various forms of transportation along the way. A bot helped her run out of the station in New York, telling her which staircase was fastest. She hacked a CityBoat (like CitiBike, a public-private partnership, in this case for autonomous boats) to make it go faster. While she rode a CitiBike, another bot warned her that there weren’t any open docking places at her destination, so she hired someone to take the bike from her and return it elsewhere.
All of the podcasts explore how people use technology, how policy shapes urban systems, and how modes of transit may change, but in a very relatable way.
“I think the format and the way we talk about the future—looking at it from almost the banality of everyday life, and the kinds of social conflicts that emerge, and people’s emotions getting involved—that’s a way of understanding and getting a glimpse of into something that we can’t relate to in the future with something that we can relate to, which is how people are in everyday life,” says Lee.