A design fiction in which society regresses to nomadic living in order to survive with population increase and limited resources. We examined the current state of urban living and imagined what future urban living might be, by looking at infrastructure and resources, transportation, and identity.
This project, based around the self-defined theme of ‘transitions and transformations,’ was assigned as an open-ended prompt, for Aisling Kelliher’s class “Design Fictions and Imaginary Futures” at Carnegie Mellon University, during the spring semester of 2013. The project was done in collaboration with Rebecca Gulotta and Paulina Reyes. We examined the current state of urban living and imagined what future urban living might be, by looking at infrastructure and resources, transportation, and identity. From this exercise, we developed a design fiction in which society regresses to nomadic living in order to survive with population increase and limited resources. To refine the concept, we applied a communication plan framework, and decided that the form of the design fiction should be a manifesto with artifacts that an urban nomad might carry. We also developed symbols or branding that would be associated with urban nomads, supporters, and the opposition.
A design fiction is a “propositions for new, future things” presented as “physical instantiations rather than future project plans” and are often “stories with objects; stories embedded within object.”  To create constraints for the project, we agreed on the theme of ‘transitions and transformations,’ which lends itself to exploration of processes, comparisons between present and future, and storytelling. After agreeing on this theme, we thought about future contexts that could involve transitions and transformations. Our ideas clustered around topics like identity, race, urban living, dying cities, and reviving cities. We imagined a future where population growth peaks, resources begin to dwindle, and our current-day lifestyle of unrestrained consumption becomes physically unsustainable. In this future, we imagined a shift towards urban living, examined the current state of urban living, and projected how this lifestyle might change in a context of dying cities.
Current and Future States of Urban Living
Infrastructure and Resources
In current-day cities, most structures are permanent, and as it develops, the city will grow vertically (by building higher or underground) or horizontally (by spreading to nearby areas). People prefer permanent living, and even though they might change residence several times, their goal is to find a place to settle. Moving is seen as a life event, and usually considered an arduous task. People live in family units, and given how closely they live next to other families, lifestyles are rather isolated. Spaces are owned, and public spaces are often not taken care of, unless there is a strong sense of community within the group of people living near that space. Resources, such as water, food, clothing, are mostly imported, and not produced in the city. Resources are bought, owned, and consumed, but are rarely shared. In a future of limited resources and a population explosion, we imagined that current lifestyles will become unsustainable and that there will be a regression toward past societal structures, such as city-states, tribalism, feudalism, and nomadism. We decided to focus on the idea of urban nomadism, and a move away from permanent living.
Transportation in current-day cities can be divided into two main categories: public transportation and private transportation. In cities, people rely heavily on public transportation (i.e. buses, trains, subways, etc.) because it is more convenient and less costly than private transportation (i.e. cars, motorcycles). However, in many cities the public transportation is not as efficient as it could be and becomes more inconvenient than private transportation, while some cities lack any public transportation at all. There has been resurgence in bicycle-use, a private transportation alternative, not powered by fuel. Some cities are very bike-friendly, and some are extremely dangerous for bikers, drivers, and pedestrians alike. Transportation between major cities can be convenient in places where a good public transportation system is established (i.e. between cities with high-speed rail in Europe and Asia). Otherwise, it requires a lengthy trip, which usually must be planned in advance. If traveling by airplane, the trips are time consuming because of airport security and check-in, so even if airplanes are the fastest possible transportation, the trips still take a good amount of time, and there is a risk that your trip maybe cancelled. In a society where nomadism is a dominant lifestyle, transportation systems would be much more complex, widespread, and well designed than they are today. Roads would cater to bicyclists and pedestrians. Nomads may develop transportation systems of their own, such as private airlines, which do not require security checks, because of the trust between people of this lifestyle and their sense of responsibility.
While exploring the idea of identities, we concluded that identities of people are largely tied to place. A person’s characteristics – from accent, attitude, way of interacting with others, and sometimes race to choice of clothing, walking speed, and driving style – are often associated with a certain place. At the same time, cities themselves have an identity. If one was told to imagine New York City, San Francisco, London, Tokyo, Sydney, Buenos Aires, a certain atmosphere, lifestyle, and aesthetic would be associated with the city. In addition, the city would also be associated with a certain type of people; the identity of a place and the identity of the people who live there build on one another, creating a feedback loop. We questioned whether identity would still be so strongly tied to place, for someone who lived a nomadic lifestyle. Most likely identity would be tied instead to the nomadic group, or the lifestyle as a symbol. The identity of a city would still exist, but would be more defined by it’s structure and aesthetics (possibly remnants of its past identity). The feedback loop between the identity of the city and the identity of the people would still exist. Nomads who come to a city would absorb some characteristics in order to adapt to the city, and in turn they would contribute a part of their identity to the city, whether it be a structure, an object, a symbol, or an idea.
To refine the concept, we applied it to a communication plan framework , by researching existing designs, concepts, or lifestyles that were similar to the idea of urban nomadism, identifying the objectives of this design fiction, pinpointing the target audience and stakeholders of this design fiction, creating the message that needed to be communicated to this audience, and finally the method in which this message would be communicated.
As inspiration for our design fiction, we looked at the work of Lucy Orta. Her “Refuge Wear” projects combined wearables, portable habitats, and temporary shelters, with social activism . We also looked at Michael Rakowitz’s “paraSITE” projects, in which he worked with homeless people in Boston to design individualized inflatable plastic shelter that would attach to air vents of buildings . These projects helped us think about the form that our design fiction would take. We researched lifestyles like those who live by the “100 Things Challenge” a movement, begun by Dave Bruno, which “is about creating better relationships of all kinds through the formative power of simplicity” . Another lifestyle we discovered was that of the “Minimalist Digital Nomad” Raam Dev, who traveled with only 25 things for six months . Finally, we researched the experiences of current-day urban nomads, and their advice for people who want to transition into an urban nomadic lifestyle . The research on lifestyles helped us determine the message of our design fiction.
The objective of this design fiction is be to explore the relationship between people and belongings. It also explores how identity is tied to place, and how this relationship changes for travelers and nomads. Lastly, this design fiction looks at how alternative lifestyles can start to fit into a shifting demographic towards urban living, in a world of changing climate patterns and dwindling resources.
This design fiction is targeted towards current-day travelers, urban planners, environmentalists, digital nomads, urban nomads. Stakeholders of this design fiction could be people in the future seeking an alternative lifestyle, homeless people, people who adopt nomadism out of choice, people forced into nomadism, city legislators, and government. There could also be groups supporting urban nomads, without living the lifestyle, and also groups who actively oppose the urban nomadic lifestyle, and express their opposition.
This design fiction is a critique on living in excess, an exploration of the value we place on belongings, and a projection of this lifestyle and value set into the future. The messages would be presented as simple tenets like, ‘you are what you own’, ‘having less is living more’, and ‘you are how you live’.
I realized that the messages sounded like the tenets of a manifesto and suggested that the concept be presented as one. The final manifesto is as follows:
The Urban Nomad Manifesto
The forces which gave birth to our cities here on Earth – water, resources, collisions of culture and economy – are now driving its transformation. The meaning of urban living has changed, with the proliferation of dying cities and dwindling resources. We can no longer afford to live as permanent residents of urban environments, and must draw on the past societal structure of nomadic living, in order to revive them.
We have begun a new era of urban living in response to global shifts in resources and dying cities. Through a nomadic lifestyle, we seek to explore the relationship between one and her belongings, to re-conceive how identity is tied to a place, and to learn how to live through adapting rather than controlling our environment. We therefore affirm the following:
(1) Where we cannot survive we must adapt.
(2) The identity of a place is fluid.
(3) Permanence breeds excess.
(4) Having less is living more.
(5) You are what you own.
(6) You are how you live.
So stand the theses of urban nomadic living. To live such a lifestyle is not just a means of survival, but also a moral imperative for ourselves and those around us. By denying ourselves permanent living, we sacrifice routine and complacency, but we gain agency over our identities.
(Signed) Lilian Kong, Rebecca Gulotta, Paulina Reyes
Instead of printing the manifesto as a pamphlet or book, we designed a simple multi-use artifact that would have the manifesto printed on it. The artifact was a sheet of Tyvek, with the sides sewn and eyelets along the side. Accompanying the sheet was a Tyvek strip with the tenets of the manifesto printed along the strip. The strip could be strung through the sides, or the eyelets to reconfigure the sheet into different forms for different uses.
In addition to the artifact, we developed a symbol for the Urban Nomad lifestyle, and variations of the symbol which would represent groups supporting and opposing it. We imagined contexts in which these symbols would be used, from an expression of extreme devotion to leaving a mark to notify other nomads about a certain area, or a way to exclude or ban nomads.
If I were to continue this project, I would define the infrastructure and transportation of these future cities more clearly, develop communication methods of urban nomads, and identify the challenges of living as an urban nomad. I would create a video showing the artifacts and branding in context and also to show the future infrastructure and transportation systems of cities.
Thank you to Ethan Frier for modeling the artifact.
 Bleecker, J. “Design Fictions: A short essay on design science fact and fiction”. Near Future Laboratory. http://nearfuturelaboratory.com/2009/03/17/design-fiction-a-short-essay-on-design-science-fact-and-fiction/.
 Communication Planning for Organizations. http://www.omafra.gov.on.ca/english/rural/facts/03-033.htm.
 Rakowits, M. paraSITE. http://michaelrakowitz.com/projects/parasite/.
 Bruno, D. 100 Thing Challenge. http://www.100thingchallenge.com/about-100tc/.
 Dev, R. Lifestyle of a Minimalist Digital Nomad. http://raamdev.com/2010/lifestyle-of-a-minimalist-digital-nomad/.