No Return City

Thinking about the future; the birth of our Bright Future project, part 1.

We all think about the future. It’s as much a part of us as our past and our present. We aspire, we worry, and we imagine – we’re so good at it that we can create imaginary worlds that seem to always echo our true potential to create, destroy and change our world.

Published  January 23, 2020

I’ve always been fascinated by the relationship between fiction and design: two human enterprises that both look forward, moving at different rates and with different goals. Imagination and technology dance around each other and in very real terms help to create the actual world that lives just over the horizon of every day.

In the early fall of 2017, I came across a little throw-away drawing I’d made as part of a design school project in 2002. It was a one-page story in pencils only, cartoonish and incompletely formed, in which I’d imaged the most dramatic way a city could evolve – a city whose parts moved around in space in the same way as its residents; changing to adapt to their patterns and their rhythms. Looking at it again 15 years later, it was funny to see how many things that are about to become real were built into this sketch of a place, but it also led me to think about something else…


I only know the name of the place I’d drawn because the scanned file I’d kept was titled: No Return City. The title is recognition that the living memory of a city is imprinted on it; through photos, maps, and the experiences of every resident or visitor. What is a city, really? Is it the buildings, bricks, streets and vehicles? The residents, parks and animals? The arts, culture, food, entertainment? All or none of the above? My city lives in my mind, in three and four dimensions. A city of the present and the past, and increasingly through the work I’ve chosen, of the future. I know it’s part of my responsibility to balance these things when embarking on a design, and to recognize that there are millions of possible versions of the city when we seek to change it, and as we think about building a real future through design.


While I’ve been thinking about the future for as long as I can remember (generally through the lens of film, literature, graphic novels and video games) recently, the topic has become all-consuming in the media; as science-fiction imaginings of innovative technology have started to creep into our lives, and concepts that were once the realm of researchers enter our daily routines.

When we were asked to present a concept for IDS, I had just returned from a day of talks at The Future Of in London, UK. What I brought home from that day, was a deep sense of the importance of staying focused on the human experience as the world changes around us. For us, that means that we need to ask deep, difficult and meaningful questions as we absorb, implement and adapt, or hack new technologies. That was the birth of our Bright Future project; we want to remind people that technology is as good or bad as we decide or allow it to be, and that the real tools for change are the questions that we ask ourselves.

Learn More Bright Futures

– Michael Donaldson

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