design

Flying cars and floating cities -- these 8 radical designs predict our imminent future

Updated 22nd November 2021
Bell Nexus concept. Courtesy of Bell Textron Inc.
Credit: Courtesy of Bell Textron Inc/Smithsonian
Flying cars and floating cities -- these 8 radical designs predict our imminent future
Written by Jacqui Palumbo, CNN
Speculations about the future are often bleak, but for its 175th anniversary, the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC is presenting a grand vision of how the world could radically change through a blockbuster exhibition of technology, design and art. Housed in the Art + Industries Building (AIB), the "Futures" show will fill 32,000 square feet of space with a combination of real projects currently in the works, design proposals from the present and past, and prescient artistic concepts. Rachel Goslins, director of Smithsonian AIB, calls the show "a contemporary World's Fair of ideas."
"I think it's safe to say it's the only exhibition in history where you can play a video game with your eyes, talk to an emotional robot, visit a deli from the future and do your laundry," said Goslins.
Smithsonian is the largest network of museums, education and research centers in the world, and the show's curator Ashley Molese points our that the AIB has debuted many history-making objects on public display for the first time, including the lightbulb, the telephone and the Apollo spacecraft rockets.
Now, they hope to continue their legacy of innovation, she explains. "We have so much help these days imagining what could go wrong in the future," she said. "But we also need help imagining what could go right." Here are eight standout concepts and objects from the show.

An electric taxi takes flight

"Back to the Future 2" predicted we'd have flying cars by 2015. "Blade Runner" predicted we'd have them by 2019. But it's 2021 and we still have yet to see cars in our skies. ("The Jetsons" wagers we still have until the 2060s; "The Fifth Element," the 2250s.) At "Futures," a new concept will make its debut -- the Bell Nexus Air Taxi, designed by aerospace manufacturer Bell Textron, is a self-flying hybrid car designed to take off and land vertically. While passengers still have to be patient before they can flag a ride from above, this eternal future vision may finally arrive soon: Uber and Hyundai have teamed up and have set their sights on 2023 for the first prototype.

A city floats on the water

Oceanix City
Oceanix City Credit: Courtesy CEANIX/BIG-Bjarke Ingels Group/Smithsonian
With urban populations exploding, the sprawl may eventually move from land to sea. That's the idea behind Bjarke Ingels' ambitious concept for a floating city, which the Danish architect presented with artist Olaffur Eliasson and the company Oceanix at the UN two years ago. The Bjake Ingels Group (BIG) has become famous for their eye-catching, sustainable, modern designs around Denmark and beyond, and is currently underway on building Google's new campus in London. But the idea for "Oceanix City" is on a grand scale. The hexagonal, modular plan of the proposed ocean metropolis claims to be entirely adaptable based on a city's needs, while the infrastructure is designed to be sustainable and natural disaster-proof.

A new way to form a family

(Im)Possible Baby
(Im)Possible Baby Credit: Courtesy Ai Hasegawa/Smithsonian
Can science help same-sex couples have a baby that shares both parents' DNA? With progressing stem cell research and technology -- such as the gene-editing technique CRISPR -- it is only a matter of time, and has already been achieved with mice in a lab setting. The artist and designer Ai Hasegawa imagined such a future through the speculative design project "(Im)possible Baby," created when Hasegawa was at MIT. Hasegawa worked with a couple who both want to be bio moms, using their DNA data from the at-home genetic testing kit 23andMe to create simulated imagery of their potential children together. The project featured an album of family photos as well as a 30-minute documentary film that aired in Japan.

A lightning-fast mode of transportation

Pegasus vehicle
Pegasus vehicle Credit: Courtesy Virgin Hyperloop/Smithsonian
A working hyperloop in the US has been teased for around a decade, and with Virgin completing its first human trial last November, the futuristic travel option finally seems within reach. A hyperloop -- a vacuum tube for land travel that reaches flight speeds -- has been long imagined in science-fiction but was propelled forward by Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk and Silicon Valley investor Shervin Pishevar in 2012, with Virgin Group founder Richard Branson coming to the table in 2017. The Virgin Hyperloop Pegasus, which will be on display at "Futures," is a high-speed pod designed to travel up to 670 miles per hour, intended to connect major cities by minutes instead of hours.

An eco-conscious final resting place

Capsula Mundi
Capsula Mundi Credit: Courtesy Vincenzo Monzino/Smithsonian
When you die, become a tree -- that's what the Italian design team behind the concept "Capsula Mundi" is proposing. Raoul Pretzel and Anna Citelli's concept for an egg-shaped biodegradable urn topped with a new tree has circulated on the internet since they first introduced it in 2017. While it is still coming to market four years later, the concept for eco-friendly urn has been exhibited around the world and will make a stop at "Futures."

A new source of drinking water

Water Harvester
Water Harvester Credit: Courtesy Waha, Inc/Smithsonian
In Frank Herbert's "Dune" franchise, the desert-dwelling fremen create potable water by recycling all of their bodily fluids via their stillsuits -- they would likely be envious of the solar-powered Waha Water Harvester, which can convert water vapor from the air even in the most arid conditions. (In 2019, the startup Waha tested its technology in the Mojave Desert in California.) The Water Harvester can produce enough water for two to three adults -- a potential life-saving appliance for the quarter facing extreme water stress -- and Waha has plans to scale up to design a harvester with enough power to hydrate an entire village, according to Berkeley News.

An AI farm rover

Mineral Rover
Mineral Rover Credit: Courtesy of X, the Moonshot Factory (a Division of Google LLC)/Smithsonian
As the world's population continues to balloon, food security has become a more pressing issue -- particularly as climate change threatens our agricultural stability. It's one critical area that Google's parent company, Alphabet, is exploring through X, its "moonshot factory" dedicated to solving world-scale issues through technology. X's Mineral Rover prototype, debuting publicly at "Futures," is a four-wheeled autonomous rover the size of a small car that uses artificial intelligence to help farmers maximize crop yields and reduce ecological impact -- namely through the amount of water and chemicals required. The Mineral Rover can identify weeds and potential issues with plants as well as evaluate the ripeness of fruit, according to Smithsonian.

A capital city returns to the wild

ReWildAR Summer Visualization
ReWildAR Summer Visualization Credit: Courtesy of Tamiko Thiel/Smithsonian
What if Washington DC became a flourishing wild ecosystem again? That question is the basis for an AR project by artist Tamiko Thiel, who has transformed one of the exhibition halls into an idyllic wildflower habitat. Thiel, who contributed design to the first commercial AI supercomputer 35 years ago, worked with Smithsonian horticulture experts to visualize a radically greener future that attendees can experience through an augmented reality overlay.
"Futures" is opening November 20, 2021, and will remain on view until July 6, 2022.
Top image: The Bell Nexus Air Taxi