Skip to Content

The resourceful city, part 4: Reprogramming possibilities

“What if…?” is the moment of departure from the present to a possible future.

Every city has a similar stock of buildings, spaces and physical infrastructure. As they age, the arc of time, use and functionality takes its toll. Some cities choose a passive course of action and allow obsolescence to set in. Dynamic and resourceful cities look at their stock of assets and ask “What if…?” to propel it to a new future. If one were to distill a city’s character down to single factors, how often the city’s authorities and citizens use the phrase would be the difference between a complacent, static city and a resourceful, forward one.


'The Museum of Self' rendering by The Hypothetical Development Organization

Click image above to view slideshow.


Reprogramming the city is about bringing future potential into the present. Every building, space and piece of infrastructure repurposed to serve a new function is born from someone who views the resources at hand and asks, “What if they could serve another function?” The catalyst of suggestion is a force in itself; when the results manifest themselves in a changed environment, the breadth of imagination becomes part of the city’s fabric. It all begins with “What if…?”

The bold, far-reaching “What if…?” scenarios that may be out of reach of current resources or abilities also have value. The question becomes a starting point, freeing us for a moment from the complexity of application to allow windows of possibility to open. Workshops and whiteboard sessions often begin with open-ended scenarios, but pragmatic concerns frequently dampen the more adventurous opportunities. Allowing bold ideas to take root in the absence of expected execution may seem folly to some, but embracing open imagination enables us to reach further into our collective sense of what could be possible. A key part of reprogramming the city begins with reprogramming our sense of possibility.

From Archigram to Thom Mayne, “What if...?” has influenced a generation of professionals to redefine the potential of our built environment. They, as have many others, recognized the value in extending ideas past our current grasp. A simple rule takes place in this context: The boldest imaginings may be met only halfway, but the further ahead the idea is, the further ahead the halfway mark is as well.

The power of imagining future scenarios, however implausible, does more than provide options within our minds; it reawakens possibility in areas that may have otherwise been lost from public consciousness.

The Hypothetical Development Organization (HDO) creates “implausible futures for unpopular places.” Focusing on some of the more unloved and overlooked areas of cities, the organization invents hypothetical futures for selected structures.

A derelict building on St. Joseph Street in downtown New Orleans may gain some interest when a local paper suggests it be used for apartments, but when the HDO suggests that the space be transformed into a mirror-walled “Museum of the Self,” complete with a giant thumbs-up “like” icon, the local community’s relationship with the site shifts. Even if the practicality of the development is speculative, the suggestion becomes a transformative force in itself.

“Unlike a traditional, reality-based developer, however,” the HDO explains on its website, “our organization is not bound by rules relating to commercial potential, practical materials, or physics. In our view, plausibility is a creative dead end.”

At each site, the HDO mimics the visual communication of traditional development plans, installing convincing renderings of the imagined future use of the site on the current building. Development of the site may be a long way away, but the “What if…?” factor catalyzes the space and community to reach for a bolder future. In people’s minds, a transformation through imagination begins.

In Valencia, Spain, change can sometimes come slowly. Local studio espai MGR became frustrated with the vacant lots in the city that they passed each day and created “Habit Makes Us Blind” as a visual provocation to jump-start thinking about the spaces’ potential.

Valencia’s numerous vacant spaces, says the firm, have both a visual and psychological impact on the city. “Just like an invisible metastasis generated in the heart of the city and extending to all its arteries. Years have made us immune to this problem…. Sometimes, the tourists are the ones who open our eyes by mentioning or questioning whether this situation is normal.”

Embracing the impractical nature of tourists’ suggestions, espai MGR created the imagined scenarios as a way to call people’s attention to the spaces and open their imaginations. Their futuristic renderings, says the firm, “demand the recreational use of those vacant lots through the eyes of a child, by filling them with impossible constructions, surrealistic installations in line with the problem. A children’s game as a neighbor’s shout, demanding the right to take part in their city.”

Boston has its own catalyst for future scenarios to extend the possibilities of the city’s built environment. The annual SHIFTboston design competition has generated a range of future potentials for the city and its surroundings through its open competitions, which ask “What if…?” and, more pointedly, “Why not?”

The winner of the 2009 SHIFTboston competition considered the overlooked potential held by one of the city’s abandoned subway tunnels and asked, “What if the abandoned Tremont Street Subway Tunnel became an interactive social environment? What if we shifted these contemporary urban ruins into a network of underground, interactive social environments—experiential theatres and immersive digital (art) galleries—while celebrating the past through a media-infused trolley museum inside North America’s oldest subway system?”

SHIFTboston has brought other ideas forth, ranging from the Boston Treepods—structures that provide the function and health benefits to the city of a normal tree without soil and water to inviting proposals for “Floating Sensory Experiences” on the barge in the city’s Fort Point Channel.

Such ideas-based design competitions without a clear route to executing the winning entries generate valuable caches of imagination to advance our cities’ future prospects. Yet they remain a fairly niche style of competition in cities. This style of open idea generation should be embraced more widely, given the benefits not only to the collective imagination of the city but also for the media reach that such ideas bring and the accompanying perception of the host city as a platform for such ideas.

The perception of complexity can be a significant barrier between the introduction of bold ideas and their adoption. Commenting on the impact his book A Brief History of Time had and its wide reception by people who might otherwise not have investigated such seemingly complex ideas, Stephen Hawking said, “Someone told me that each equation I included in the book would halve the sales. I therefore resolved not to have any equations at all.”

Cities cannot get lost in dream scenarios without equations for execution but should also allow the dream’s energy to serve a function of its own. Asking “What if…?” is the departure from what we have now to what we could have next. We’ve begun to reprogram our cities with new abilities. Reprogramming our sense of what is possible should be next.


Scott Burnham is a social entrepreneur and creative strategist focused on new approaches to design and the city. His recent urban design projects include Urban Play, created for the city of Amsterdam, and Bairro Criativo, created for Porto, Portugal. He is the author of Finding the Truth in Systems: In Praise of Design-Hacking, Urban Play and The Urban Guide for Alternate Use, and is a fellow of the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, London. Currently based in London, he is relocating to Boston soon.

Editorial note: Scott Burnham is the curator for Reprogramming the City: Opportunities for Urban Infrastructure, on view at BSA Space in the summer of 2013.