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Inventing Future Cities

Michael Batty
MIT Press: London, 2018

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Reviewed by Andreas Koch
University of Salzburg

Cover of book

The title Inventing Future Cities by Michael Batty, a well-known British urban planner, geographer and spatial data scientist, is meant to be a plea for more reasonable thinking of how the future of cities may look like. Batty rejects a simplified ‘prediction of the future’, simply because it is impossible, though certain techniques such as modelling and simulation do have some epistemological power to generate possible forthcoming paths based on justified ‘what-if’-assumptions. Instead, ‘invention’ refers to the power of societies in creating or inhibiting contexts that help or prohibit certain developments from taking place. Batty’s argument here is that “we invent these futures” (page 12), which is outlined in the first chapter of the book.

The second chapter deals with ‘the great transition’ of cities in terms of size, distribution and allocation, and is based on ideas, among others, of Zipf’s rank-size rule. Based on these conclusions, the following chapters are dedicated to define cities (Chapter 3), to rethink urban morphology and functions (Chapter 4), to add the temporal and spatial dimensions on the social nature of cities (Chapters 5 and 6), to embed the discussion about future cities into bigger socio-economic transitions (Chapter 7), and finally to conclude with some remarks on future city morphologies and social conditions (Chapter 8).

All these topics are framed by some higher-order principles which Batty argues are non-predictive as they rely on urban development from the very beginning to the present situation. However, because these principles do not end up in a single point attractor, the future development remains contingent and thus impossible to foresee. These basic principles are (i) Glaeser’s paradox (the “paradox of modern metropolis”, that “suggests that proximity or nearness is becoming more important as the cost and time of connecting across distances is becoming less”, page 15); (ii) von Thünen’s concentric model of a city as a baseline model; (iii) the impact of transportation infrastructure and technology on population distribution; (iv) Tobler’s first law of geography (stating that “everything is related to everything else, but near things are more related than distant things”, page 169); and (v) Zipf’s law on the city-size distribution. Batty’s all-encompassing conclusion according to these principles is “that during this century, the transition from a world of “no cities” to a world of “all cities” will become complete” (page 194).

It is obvious that this phrase is a simplified dichotomy, but it adequately points to the big transformation that is going to change the urban morphology, their functions and societal conditions that we associate with a city. A major trigger of this fundamental transition is given with information and communication technologies (ICT) because ICT transforms our understanding of a city as a place-based location towards a city as a network. Batty repeatedly emphasises that this transformation is not a one-way road but comes with a lot of intertwined and overlapping paths, allowing for much diversity and ambiguity of how future cities develop even though the underlying principles are the same.

The book is relevant to researchers in the field of modelling and simulating urban issues, although it barely refers explicitly to these methods. Its prevailing intention is to introduce to theories and epistemologies that frame the future development of cities as places and networks, which will be the common location for most of us. While these topics have been outlined broadly and convincingly, current topics such as climate change, social inequality, demographic change, or the future of work have been presented less extensively (only ten pages at the end of the book are dedicated to all these issues), although their impacts on the future of our cities are at least as relevant as the digital revolution may be.


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