The Dreaming City: The First Step To A Better World Is Imagining One

Gerry Hassan

Soundings: A Journal of Politics and Culture ‘Tales of the City’ Special Issue WInter 2007

Thinking of the future is one of the characteristics of being human through the ages and different societies. Imagining different worlds can be seen in the novels of H. G. Wells and Jules Verne and in the modernist visions of films such as Metropolis and Minority Report with their urban utopian/distopian worlds of flying cars and isolated individuals.

However, these powerful public images are far removed from the world of institutional futures thinking, commonly known as futurology. This began with the establishment of the RAND Corporation in 1946 which focused on issues such as how the Americans could win a limited nuclear war, Mutually Assured Destruction and the missile gap between the US and Soviets. This narrow, technocratic world has seen the powerful forces who run the world: governments, transnationals, international agencies, engage in scenario planning …..

In the last couple of years I have been involved leading two major Demos projects looking at a much wider sense of how we imagine the future: Scotland 2020 and Glasgow 2020. Scotland 2020 examined the prevalence of negative accounts of the early years of Scotland’s experiment with devolved government, and looked to identify positive possibilities through the idea of story. (1)

From the Scotland 2020 project came the impetus to set up a much more ambitituous and daring project to test the public appetite for imagining the future at the level of a city through story: Glasgow 2020 (2). The Glasgow 2020 project had three dimensions. It was:

•    About the city of Glasgow
•    Not just about Glasgow, but cities generally
•    And about how we think about the future

These three strands came together to make Glasgow 2020 something of a unique project and intervention and as far as we know a world first – attempting to reimagine the city through the idea of the stories people tell.

Glasgow is a fascinating city to attempt such a bold experiment. It is Scotland’s first city in terms of size, still being significantly larger than Edinburgh, the capital city. It has underwent huge waves of expansion, growth, change, reinvention, challenge and decline, and while its formal council area has seen a population decline from 1.1 million in the 1950s to 600,000 now the wider Glasgow conurbation still contains 1.2 million people and is one of the most vibrant and varied parts of Scotland and the UK.

In its waves of change, it has gone from being known as ‘the Second City of Empire’, a city which made its wealth on transatlantic commerce and trade, to ‘the Second City of Shopping’, reflecting the potency of its consumer power (3). It also likes to see itself as a ‘big city’ – a place bigger and more important than it is merely in terms of population or status.

This is a city rich with stories and tales, We know that some of these stories about the city have a power and reach which can be problematic. Thus, the city is commonly known as ‘the sick man of Europe’ because of its public health, while its crime and in particular, violence and sectarian issue between Celtic and Rangers FC are widely known. It is also true that the upbeat picture of the city, emphasising culture and creativity and the buzz and character of the place, present a very different face.

The idea of Glasgow 2020 was to try to look beyond these images and accounts, and find stories and perspectives of the city which opened up possibilities and addressed some of the fundamental questions about the future: what kind of city do you want to live in, what kind of values do you want your life and city to be shaped by, and ambitituously, how can we begin to mark out a route map to get there?

An Age of Urban Renaissance?
This is according to some analysts a golden age for cities. Regeneration. Redevelopment. Renaissance. Across large parts of the globe, bright new shiny buildings are being built everywhere, In the new growth centres of the once ‘Third World’ new cities of wealth, status and acquisitiveness are rising: Dubai, Shanghai, Seoul. In the once dominant cities of the Western world skylines are changing reflecting the changing mix of cities in housing and leisure and rise of corporate power. (x)

Across different societies and cities, the same shapes are emerging validating and reproducing the same values and view of urban living. From the bulging Chinese metropolises to the UK and European continent and North America the same architects, designers and consultants ply for the same lucrative contracts happy to adapt their work to the latest despot with an open wallet.

This has had the cumulative effect of producing an identikit city you can practically buy off the shelf! The urban formula of success – tried and tested in places like Barcelona and Bilbao first – has become an increasingly narrow one with diminishing results. It reduces cities to a kind of cultural arms race with iconic buildings, galleries and museums, riverfront developments and squinty bridges. This is a model of development seen in the ubiquitous references to Richard Florida’s over-hyped book ‘The Rise of the Creative Classes’: a book cited but seldom read by economic development consultants, and which appropriates ‘culture’, ‘creativity’ and ‘diversity’ instrumentally for economic policy and an urban manifesto for the globally mobile (4).

The current orthodoxies of city development have delivered for many cities across the world in the 1990s and early 21st century, but it is at a cost in they lose something intangible. Everywhere begins to look the same and places lose their sense of being unique.

A revealing example of the narrowness of the urban future on offer was shown at the ‘Imagining the City’ symposium recently held at the Hayward Gallery as part of the activities to mark the reopening of the Southbank Centre and to coincide with Anthony Gormley’s ‘Blind Light’ exhibition (5). Following on from a contribution from Gromley, Richard Sennett offered a critique of the contemporary urban orthodoxy and the grip of a monoculture shaped by tourism and finance, whereby the city becomes a sight of inequality: of a lived in space filled with lots of people doing well and lots of people struggling to survive.

What was revealing was the inadvertent way in which the subsequent panel discussion showed the opaque nature of this conventional order, and how it really just does not get it and does not care. One of the panel contributions came from Peter Head, Director of Sustainability at Arup, consulting engineers. In a Powerpoint presentation of ghastly and near Hollywood style totalitarianism he offered us a glimpse into the world of Arup through two projects.

One was a Chinese eco-set of villages, while the other was a meta-intervention of monster proportions in the Shanghai River Delta. Head seemed oblivious to the fact he and his agency were working with one of the most oppressive and murderous regimes in the world, and happy to take their money and talk without any self-reflection or obvious doubt about the authencity of Arup’s innovative processes. Questioned by a clearly appalled Sennett, who asked him, ‘what parts of this project are you self-critical about’, Head replied, ‘none’. In that exchange, Head sat, clearly self-satisfied.

The above shows a number of problems about how we operate in terms of cities, societies and development. We are living in an epoch where wealth, status and power have become uncritically celebrated, and where many of us fail to note or challenge the compromises and collusions numerous institiutions and individuals make in the course of their work and lives. This contributes to the maintenance of an economic and social order which is based on ignoring huge suffering and poverty at a time of superabundance, and which is environmentally unsustainable.

The World of the Official Future
This leads to the world of ‘the official future’ (5). This is a place where the sum total of public discourse of government, public agencies, mainstream media and corporate coalesce into a relatively coherent worldview. This increasingly points in one way: towards a model of the world centred on economic growth, determinism and the primacy of competition and markets.

What is very revealing given the power and hold of this worldview in public discussions is that people feel they have little choice but to accept the ‘There is No Alternative’ juggernaut of this mindset, but they do so without any real enthusiasm and a sense of resignation. They feel they have little say in it and there is a sense in which ‘the official future’ says that the future has already been decided by forces more powerful than you and I – and so doing reduces people to being instrumental agents and feeling powerless.

The official future is a place filled with its own jargon, buzz words and bright, shiny documents which promise an upbeat, glorious world of optimism and prosperity. Beneath this panglossian promise, there is an innate, deep-seated pessimism – which acknowledges that this is a soulless, friendless and loveless world. It is one filled with such word games as ‘inviting people to do the step-change’: sadly not a new dance craze, but one of many examples of ridiculous consultant class speak!

Welcome to the World of Mass Imagination ….

The world of ‘the official future’ is characterised by an idea of cities, people and progress as the servants of a narrow idea of economic growth. The concepts of change  that are inherent in this are filled with words and values from business models and the primacy of economic development. Ideas of change which are filled by other values: social, cultural, ecological, or which are more organic, evolving and community centred just don’t get a look in.

Glasgow 2020 set out over the course of two years to explore the possibilities of people thinking, conceiving and developing their own futures. We called this a mass imagination exercise – shifting from the legendary, but more passive 1940s mass observation surveys, to something more active. We ran a total of 38 events, nearly all of these in Glasgow, involving over 5,000 local people, nearly one percent of the city, but with a small international programme of events in cities such as Amsterdam, Stockholm and Helsinki. We reached out across geographies, generations, identities and socio-economic background – from taxi drivers and hairdressers to journalists, entrepreneurs, people living in social housing, asylum seekers and commuters and many more.

This was an imagination exercise, not a consultation. Instead of operating within the system and following its own inherent logic, Glasgow 2020 sat outside the system, while engaging with it. Animation, fun, humour, creativity and fuzziness were the main characteristics in our events. . Events did not focus on peoples’ identities as ‘single parents’ or ‘creative entrepreneurs’ and instead developed a general, structured conversation about the future using the techniques of philosophical inquiry. This meant that discussions which began with people stating their usual views on a subject often ended up in different places. (x)

A variety of public spaces were used. Some were everyday public spaces such as libraries, museums and community centres. Others were disruptive spaces where Glasgow-Edinburgh trains were taken over for two days, a Saturday of events was run in the city’s biggest art gallery and museum: Kelvingrove, and a boat was equipped as an office for a day and sailed up and down the River Clyde in stormy weather!

Tales of the City
One of the central pillars of Glasgow 2020 was the power of story. Stories matter. People relate to and identify with the idea of story. Our lives, loves and world are made sense by the various stories which make up them. Politics used to be shaped and defined by a set of over-arching and potent stories which offered to make sense of the world. The centre-left in Britain once had a story in socialism, along with an idea of how this was to come about through ‘the forward march’ of ‘the labour movement’. One of the fundamental changes of the Blair era has been the near complete disappearance of this story, with the subsequent Brown administration left unsure of its moral compass and mission (6).

Cities are shaped by the myths and potencies of stories as Armistead Maupin recognised in his famous ‘Tales of the Cities’ set in 1970s San Francisco onward. Glasgow 2020 looked to encourage the non-institutional stories of the city to find their voice. We ran events where people after their initial discussions, created characters who inhabited the city in 2020 and embryonic storylines; from these seeds in many events fully fledged stories of the city of the future emerged.

There is a direct relationship between peoples’ disquiet about ‘the official future’ and how they see and judge public institutions from government to the corporate sector. More and more people say that they suspect the values which inform institutions are not the values they would like them to be informed by. People also suspect that the public face that these organisations present to the world with all their talk of being sensitive and informed by what the public think whether it is as users of public services or consumers is not what really influences them.

This is not a difference which can be addressed by better communications or transparency by public agencies or corporates. Instead, this is about something much deeper and more problematic: an emerging values gap between people and institutions. There is a general sense that institutions have bought into a view of the world which is about a set of values far removed from notions of public service and public duty, or any sense of real consumer sensitivities and power. What is revealing is that the scepticism people feel in this is often articulated in the most hesitant and unsure way you can imagine as if people wish they could actually be proven wrong by the facts. And the manner in which people state their views show that the language of this doubt and disquiet – after socialism’s demise – has yet to find a full form.

In very event across the project people expressed hope for themselves, their neighbourhoods and city. From the poorest to the most affluent areas, people had hope and showed that they had individual or neighbourhood ways they acted upon this. What was missing was the sense of a city-wide collective agency joining this up.

Across the city this tale was shaped by gender. More women than men ‘did’ things. Women had tales of doing things to take hold of their lives, support their children and change their communities. This amounted to a very different and more immediate idea of change and politics than the more conventional ideas expressed by many men who tended to have a view of politics and social change which was rooted in others, i.e.: namely politicians, bringing about change.

From the range of discussions and activities of Glasgow 2020 seven very different cities of the future emerged. These future cities were all very possible futures which rather than utopias or distopias, were already present in some way in the city of the present. The seven cities merely took different aspects of the present and accentuated them or cross-fertilised them with other forces. The seven cities were:

•    The Two Speed City
•    The Soft City
•    The Dear Green City
•    The Slow City
•    The Lonely City
•    The Hard City
•    The Kaleidoscope City

A fundamental difference emerged between the seven cities of the future and the way ‘the official future’ portrays the city. The official version of the city emphasises such factors as shopping, tourism and culture alongside economic and cultural regeneration. It is shaped by the importance of sectors and promoting them as a dynamic manifestation of the creative city.

Despite this being one of the most prominent ways that cities are understood, across the Glasgow 2020 project, very few individuals talked for very long in such ways. In some way, people just take these things for granted as part of modern life; and in another way by thinking like this they recognise that shopping and tourism, et al, are not part of what makes a city unique because everywhere has it. Instead, the manner by which people talked about the city and the future was informed by addressing questions about the meaning and purpose of life, the question of values and what kind of values people would like to see their city represent.

The seven cities of the future cover a range of futures: from the two-speed city, whereby the two halves of the city evident now virtually separate and become two distinct communities living side by side. In the ‘Soft City’, the city shaped by feminine values and nurturing comes to the fore and change how both men and women act. In the ‘Kaleidoscope City’ the changing nature of the city from migration to sexual liberalism radically change the mainstream culture of the city. (x)

Running through all of this was the question: what vessels and sense of agency can people create and bring into being whey they themselves own? Glasgow 2020 offered the beginnings of a road map on how to tentatively begin to answer this huge question. It showed that people have the capacities, creativities and imagination to think deeply and profoundly about their city and the future.

The book of the project, The Dreaming City: Glasgow 2020 and the Power of Mass Imagination, contains a collection of short stories about the future which emerged from our events (and one poem). It also contains project tools and methodologies, a critique of the way we think about cities, and lessons and implications from the project for cities and thinking about the future.

A number of independent initiatives spun out of the project. The seven cities of the future which emerged from project discussions were summarised into individual postcards and distributed around the city as part of the Scottish Executive’s Six Cities Festival. A music album of the same name, The Dreaming City brought together the work of nine musicians and groups who took some of the stories and one poem and used them to create new artistic pieces of work. The resulting album involved the artists creating a series of musical landscapes which were about Glasgow and Scotland, but also sounded as if they were about a distant, magical or imagined city in a far-off land (7).

Assemblies of Hope
Glasgow 2020 suggested one possible answer to the issue of agency the idea of ‘assemblies of hope’. These are fluid, flowing networks bringing together an array of people, alchemists, campaigners, imagineers, and people with ideas, creative energies and want to do something. The aim would be to bring people together to develop dialogues that don’t normally happen, cross boundaries and divides, aid individual action into collective action, and support communities of interest into communities of action.

These assemblies – of which there are already many embryonic and mascent ones in existence – would not defibe people as mere props of economic policy. They would say that human action, interaction, art, creativity, and many other areas of life have worth on their own terms, and should not be seen as instrumental and subordinated to the needs of economic determinism.

The thinking behind this is that many of us feel increasingly squashed and pressurised by the inexorable logic and insatiable appetite of the market and being defined by economic logic. We need to create spaces, zones, discussions, deliberations and ways of being which aid us to define ourselves in different ways.

The reality of much of city life and public space is the all-pervasive pressure of consumerism, advertising and the hussle and buzzle of a fast life. In many city centres there are few places for an individual to go where he or she is not defined as a consumer. A more daring notion of city spaces would see city authorities encourage ‘quiet zones’ in the manner found on some train carriages; these would be advertising, brand-free zones where people could go to find a slower, gentler, more contemplative mood. Imagine the positive effect the first major city in the UK would get which began such a process: of recognising that life wasn’t all about getting faster, smarter and leaner, but which said ‘life in the slow lane’ had some advantages over the clichéd ‘life in the fast lane’. It would be a very powerful statement!

There is An Alternative
The Glasgow 2020 project was a unque and wonderful project which it was a pleasure and privilege to lead and watch flourish and grow. It offers a rich tapestry of ideas, insights, processes and findings. It shows that people increasingly question the current orthodoxies in policy, politics and society which has characterised the post-Thatcherite/Blairite consensus. The old-fashioned wisdoms of the right: of the market as the solution and government and the state as the problem, and of the left: of capitalism’s creative destructive power and inequality as the problem are increasingly out of touch with the challenges of modern society and the planet. Both the conventional left and right are united in a narrow economistic view of the world, have the same idea of human nature and narrow notion of progress founded on materialist values, and are blind to the coming environmental crisis.

This is an age where mainstream politics across the Western world now operates in an increasingly narrow bandwith. The language, values and priorities of ‘the official future’ have become an intolerant, inflexible orthodoxy embracing our political elites, business, media and most public discussion, and in which there is little room for manoeuvre or dissent. The power and hold of this worldview is directly linked to the demise of the Soviet bloc, Soviet Union and socialism in 1989-91; from this set of events an ideological perspective has arisen about the attractiveness and appeal of a certain kind of capitalist economy and order: one which is increasingly divided into winners and losers, which celebrates wealth, status and power, and is shaped by massive structural inequalities and relative poverty sitting side-by-side wealth undreamt of in human history.

One of the great tragedies in the last decade and a half is that so many, many people have gone along with such a warped, flawed and horrid view of the world. The centre-left across the Western world has become one of the leading cheerleaders of this perspective: from Clinton, both Bill and Hillary, to Blair and Brown. People in leading positions in public institutions in the UK, US and Europe have embraced the language and mindset of this world. They have given sustence to the notions that we live in an age where ‘There Is No Alternative’ , where words such as ‘knowledge economy’, ‘globalisation’, ‘step change’ are used often without any critical understanding of what they mean, so people feel they can buy into the in-words of the political age.

The last decade and a half has seen the acquisence of a large swathe of the Western political, social and cultural elites and institutions that the only political choices on offer domestically and internationally are between different versions of dynamic capitalism and how far we cut back the state and tax levels.

What the last two years of the Glasgow 2020 project show is that people don’t want this state of affairs, nor do they believe in their hearts and souls in ‘the official future’. They recognise that the world on offer is a pretty unattractive, soulless and pessimistic one, where every person is a potential economic threat and competitor, rather than a friend and neighbour. They recognise that relationships have to be about more than economic logic, and that we cannot go about the world viewing everything else: other cities, countries and institutions, as threats that we need to trash and undermine. This is the Hobbesian logic of ‘the official future.’

There is a very definite message of optimism and hope within the Glasgow 2020 project. Firstly, there is this deep seated disquiet and lack of faith in the values, aims and aspirations of ‘the official future’. Secondly, there is a profound sense of creativity, imagination and play which is not touched upon or recognised in the mainstream debates with the narrow straighjacket of values. We need if we are to live in future societies which we feel we can someway identify with, connect with and make connections with others, and which we recognise some degree of identification and ownership of, that we need to fundamentally change direction. This has to be centred on the concept of progress and the version of the future we wish to nourish; once upon a long time ago the left once had a sense of certainty and arrogance on such positions, whereas now it has a sense of doubt, silence and unease.

Cities have been throughout all human history places where different versions of humanity have competed and contested different versions of the social order and the future. The left historically has always been a tradition more at home and with more to say about urban communities than the countryside or small towns; the city was a place of social change, upheaval and dislocation; a place of capitalism’s greatest triumphs and potential destruction.

Alongside this vision the city has offered itself as a place of economic exchange and commerce, and as a place of safety and sanctuary from medieval times to the long war with terrorism post 9/11.

These cannot be the limited choices on offer for our future cities. Lewis Mumford in his seminal The City in History, written in 1961 argued that the city is not just a place of economic calculus and exchange. Instead he offered a daring, emboldening prospectus which still resonates with relevance today:

For the city should be an organ of love; and the best economy of cities is the care and culture of men. (8)


1.    Gerry Hassan, Eddie Gibb and Lydia Howland (eds), Scotland 2020: Hopeful Stories for a Northern Nation, London: Demos 2005.
2.    Gerry Hassan, Melissa Mean and Charlie Tims, The Dreaming city: Glasgow 2020 and the Power of Mass Imagination, London: Demos 2007.
3.    Irene Maver, Glasgow, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press 2000.
4.    Richard Florida, The Rise of the Creative Classes, 2003.
5.    Imagining the City, Symposium, June 30th 2007, Royal Festival Hall.
6.    On the idea of ‘the official future’ see Richard Eckersley, Well and Good, Text Publishing 2004.
7.    Gerry Hassan, ‘After Blair, After Socialism’, in Gerry Hassan (ed), After Blair: Politics After the New labour Decade, London: Lawrence and Wishart 2007.
8.    The Dreaming City album, Glasgow: Sub-Urban Collective 2007. Available from:
9.    Lewis Mumford, The City in History, 1961.