In January 2013, a photograph of a projected image on a smog-enshrouded high-rise building in Beijing became an internet sensation because it seemed uncannily reminiscent of the urban landscape seen in the 1982 film Blade Runner. Notwithstanding the negative effects of excessive urban pollution on urban residents, Blade Runner tours are now being offered to tourists to cash in on this unexpected coming together of life and art; of the real and the imagined — a situation that has only intensified after the 2017 release of the film’s much-lauded sequel Blade Runner 2049. This phenomenon demonstrates just how attuned we are today to the links between what we experience in real cities and the mental images we carry of imagined ones we have encountered in science-fiction films, novels and video games. It seems that in cities like Beijing and Shanghai, with their astonishing rate of growth in recent years, the futuristic visions of the past have already arrived, producing a strange mingling of past, present and future. Indeed, the urban landscape of perhaps the most ‘futuristic’ city today — Dubai — is already being used as a set for cinematic visions of the future, such as in the very first science-fiction film produced in the United Arab Emirates, The Sons of Two Suns, released in 2013.

The fundamental way in which we make sense of the future is through the imagination: to think of the future is, by necessity, to imagine it. Yet so much of current thinking on the future of cities is instrumental in its nature, drawing on science-based predictions to map out possible scenarios and separating this empirical data from the rather more subjective predictions stemming from the creative imagination. Cities are always a meld of matter and mind, places that we are rooted in both physically and mentally. Furthermore, in the digital age, the real and the imagined are already thoroughly intertwined — why else, after all, would tourists now be offered Blade Runner tours? Rather than cleave the imagination from reason, should we not explore how the two are entangled – how together they can open up rich possibilities in terms of how we think the future?

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Paul Dobraszczyk researcher and writer based in Manchester, UK, and a teaching fellow at the Bartlett School of Architecture in London. He is the author of numerous books, the latest of which is Future Cities, out from Reaction in 2019 and distributed by UChicago Press in the U.S.