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Liam Young

Planet City is turning audiences into activists, inviting people to get creative in the face of climate change.

The immersive fictional world, one of the selections at Tribeca Festival 2022, presents a radically regenerative narrative for the future, imagining what life could look like if we took drastic steps to reverse our planetary sprawl and surrender the majority of the planet to nature.

The project was created and directed by Liam Young, a speculative architect and director who "operates in the spaces between design, fiction and futures." Young has given a Ted Talk on Planet City, is the cofounder of urban futures think tank Tomorrows Thoughts Today, a director and concept designer whose work has been collected by cultural institutions such as MOMA, the Met and the Victoria and Albert Museum, and has been described by the BBC as "the man designing our futures."

Young's work urges viewers to critically reexamine the environmental questions facing us today. Below, he catches up with us on how world-building is a form of activism, the power of science fiction and why thinking about the physical and digital as independent entities is problematic for our future.

What is Planet City?

Planet city is a world-building project; it’s a whole series of fragments that each give an insight into an imaginary world.

It began with the discovery of an idea called Half-Earth, which is a proposal from the seminal biologist Edward O. Wilson to stave off mass extinction by devoting half the surface of the earth completely to nature, thereby consolidating human development to the other half.

Right now, we essentially already occupy a planetary-scaled city, it’s just spread across the entirety of the earth. At the density of the current cities that exist, you could house the entire population of the earth not in 50% of the planet, but in 0.02% of the planet—in a single city about the size of Texas. And that’s what Planet City is. It’s an imaginary city for 10 billion people—the projected global population in 2050—concentrated in one place, reversing our planetary sprawl so that we can return almost the entirety of the earth to nature; a giant, globally-scaled national park.

Would you call Planet City a work of science fiction or a call to activism?

I think it has to be both. Great science fiction either operates as a cautionary tale, a warning sign, or an aspirational future. The great power of science fiction is that it can draw us into a possible future, confront us with it and force us to ask questions like, ‘is this a world that we want to live in?’ or ‘is it a world we want to run away from, kicking and screaming?’ If it’s a world we want to live in, then how do we enact that world? What are the decisions we might have to make in order to bring it about? If it’s a dystopia, and we want to prevent that world, what do we need to do today to make sure that future doesn’t come to pass?

Any science fiction has embedded within it the necessity to act. In many ways, science fiction is not about prediction. It’s not about presenting one vision of a future and hoping it’s accurate. Science fiction is about promoting action today. Whether that’s decisions about what technologies we might invest in, or what technologies we should regulate, decisions about who we might become, all of that is embedded in the medium.

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Planet City. Courtesy of Liam Young

How did you bring Planet City to life?

Planet City, like all my projects, was born out of deep collaboration with scientists, technologists, political theorists, economists. Because even though what I’m talking about are imaginary and speculative worlds, the way those worlds work and the way that they become powerful is if we embed them in the deep reality of the present.

All of our most wonderous science fiction stories begin with research. My process as a designer is just one of exaggeration: taking existing trends from the present, taking existing technologies and expanding them into possible and potential futures. We do that because we’re trying to create worlds that feel believable and visceral, that punch you in the gut. When they’re rooted in reality, we connect to them more. Unlike Star Wars and spaceships and laser beams and Game of Thrones and dragons—these are works of fantasy. But works of science fiction are more meaningful because we don’t escape into them, but rather we’re confronted by them.

From that perspective, the storyteller carries a big weight on their shoulders. Do you think storytellers have a responsibility to elicit some sort of action out of their audience?

Yes. Storytelling is a really powerful medium. Fiction is always how our culture has shared and disseminated ideas. And we live now in a post-truth world where, really, the currency is stories. Sometimes they’re stories of a nostalgia for an America that never existed, like Make America Great Again; stories that are designed to divide us and separate us. Sometimes they’re stories that can empower us and bring us together. We’ve just got to get better at telling the right kinds of stories.

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Planet City. Courtesy of Liam Young

What is the advantage of approaching hard topics and conversations like climate disaster through the lens of fiction?

When we started Planet City, we were really interested in making a work that would respond to the rising red line on the graph of climate change. We all know the situation we’re in, yet we still aren’t really doing anything.

But I think the power of world-building, of creating fictional worlds, of storytelling, of fiction allows us to not just visualize that data and see patterns within it and understand it, but it’s what I call data dramatization. It allows us to imbue that data and those ideas with drama and emotion—and that means that we can’t really ignore it anymore. We become wrapped up in it and complicit in it and we’re forced to develop a response to it.

In these imaginary worlds, we can prototype ideas, we can prototype the decisions we might make. We can explore new and alternative cultures risk-free. We can model them and immerse ourselves in them and then we laugh or cry or scream or cry out with rage, and it becomes so much more active as an experience than just passively sitting back, watching the news and letting the horror of reality wash over us.

What is the added value that emerging technologies like virtual and augmented reality lend to that power?

The ability to be in a story, as opposed to just watch a story forces a different kind of engagement. Our eyes don’t just glass over, we don’t just fall asleep on the couch, but we’re forced to move around in that space—we’re forced to make decisions about who we are or what we want to be in that space. It changes us from being a passive audience into an active citizen. To be a citizen of an immersive world is a different kind of relationship than being an audience member in front of a screen.

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Planet City. Courtesy of Liam Young

Popular opinion holds that nature and technology are working against one another. Do you agree with that? How do you foresee the relationship between nature and technology evolving in the future?

We use words like ‘digital’ and ‘physical’ and we make distinctions between nature and technology, but I think that these are really just outmoded terms. The digital has consequence on the physical. We all live mediated lives that are extensions of our digital selves, and our screens have huge consequence in the physical world. To talk about them as being isolated, independent things is really problematic.

Similarly, to put immersive technologies on one end of the spectrum and some idealized version of nature on the other is equally problematic. Technology has always been a driver in evolutionary change. There is really no such thing as pure, untouched nature. It’s a cultural construct.

There is no future where we put technology back in the bottle. Any future that sees as the only solution to climate change a retreat from our existing lives and cities into log cabins and pastoral existences without electricity are just total falsehoods. They’re utopian fantasies that don’t work at the scales at which we currently operate.

What we’re interested in doing is looking at how technology can start to address the problems we’ve created, to see technology and nature as being fundamentally intertwined things, and then seeing how the two can start to act together to create a new kind of future. The sooner we imagine and deal with the new nature that we’ve constructed for ourselves, the sooner we can get closer to the solutions we need.

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