The Ideal City 2040: Reimagining the Cities of Tomorrow

05.05.224 min read
Illustration — Manshen Lo

What if we could tackle the climate crisis and create a better everyday life for the many people — simply by rethinking our cities?

Welcome to the Ideal City 2040.

In collaboration with Modem, we imagine possible futures where cities exist in harmony with nature, and improve our environment and quality of life.

Coastal City

Bioregional ideal cities

In 2021, we teamed up with gestalten to publish The Ideal City and reimagine the cities of tomorrow. Speaking with designers, researchers, technologists, community leaders and city planners, the book showcases inspiring solutions for a better everyday life for both people and the planet.

For The Ideal City 2040, we extend these projects and perspectives beyond the page and weave them together in virtual reality (VR). In this interactive installation, we share three speculative environments — the Coastal City, the Garden City, and the Solar City. Entering these envisioned futures, visitors experience what our cities could look like in the year 2040.

Seeing is believing

To bring these visions to life, we invited Modem to collaborate with us on the concept for The Ideal City 2040. Drawing on projects and ideas presented in the book, together we created three utopian scenarios that highlight how cities in different bioregions might take localised approaches to address the climate crisis.

Viewers glimpse these futures through one of three VR headsets, custom-designed in the shape of coin-operated binoculars. Each headset reveals five scenes, accompanied by an audio narration that guides the viewer through the actions each city took to arrive at a safe, desirable and hopeful 2040.

In the Garden City, Manshen Lo illustrates a tranquil society where greenery cools the city, and regenerative gardens feed the people who live there. Here, communities enjoy the benefits of shared living, public transport, and a circular economy.

Wanjira Kinyua’s sun-kissed illustrations show communities coming together in a solar-powered city. In the Solar City, decision-makers centre local and Indigenous knowledge to build affordable, sustainable homes and revitalise the landscape.

Meanwhile, in the Coastal City, Sébastien Plassard illustrates serene, cinematic vignettes of a well-planned urban landscape surrounded by coastal canals and a harbour. Here, the city has been built to co-exist with its marine environment, and everything residents need is only a short walk away.

Evoking the city

We worked with Modem and Studio Rowan Siriram to design a space that could be adapted and reused as the exhibition travels.

Inspired by different types of scaffolding seen in cities under construction, we looked to sustainable materials — like untreated FSC-certified timber and 100 percent recycled polyester mesh fabric — to build frames to display written narratives. Like scaffolding, the frames are easy to assemble and dismantle, and can be used for the lifespan of the exhibition — and beyond.

In their basic form, both scaffolding and binoculars are familiar to many people. For Modem, it was important the spatial design reflected a city environment, so that viewers could relate to the ideas in The Ideal City 2040.

‘We wanted to make sure these futures feel achievable and attainable for people. Instead of depicting flying cars, we share futures that could be part of our everyday lives,’ says Bas van de Poel of Modem.

‘Working with artists from around the world, we’ve imagined tangible examples of what a more desirable urban future could look and feel like — and how we can get there together.’

We have all the ingredients

Everything you see in these cities is possible today. We already have the tools and the know-how. The only thing we need is action.

‘Cities are at the heart of the problem, but that also means they are at the heart of the solution. If we put our knowledge into action, we have an opportunity to make our cities into places that work better for more people — and for our planet.’

Simon Caspersen

Co-founder, SPACE10

The Ideal City 2040 premiered at the Barbican Centre as part of the exhibition, Our Time on Earth, from 5 May until 29 August 2022, and will travel to venues around the world. It was exhibited at H22 City Expo in Helsingborg, Sweden. And it is open at SPACE10 Gallery in Copenhagen, Denmark from 19 August 2022 to 27 April 2023.

Solar City


Modem is an office for design and innovation, designing for resilience in times of exceptional change. Modem works as a hybrid between a think tank and design studio to anticipate and respond to new and emerging futures.

Wanjira Kinyua is a designer and illustrator based in Nairobi. Her previous clients include CNN Style, Airbnb, and Google. Inspired by everyday subjects, she takes a historical approach to her illustrations and aims to create worlds within them.

Manshen Lo is a visual artist living in London. Her minimalist compositions investigate the subtle tension between humans and urban space. Previous clients include Pentagram, Bloomberg Businessweek, The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Atlantic, and MTV.

Sébastien Plassard is an illustrator based in Paris, who has previously collaborated with Télérama, GQ, The New York Times, and The New Yorker. Cinematic and surreal, his drawings narrate the absurdity and contradictions of the everyday.

Set Snail is an experimental development playground and indie games studio. Based in Denmark, the team helps agencies and companies create exciting and playful interactive experiences across all sorts of digital media.

Studio Rowan Siriram is a design studio focusing on spatial design, light installations and odd furniture. Inspired by the preservation of cultural heritage and sci-fi movies from the early 2000s, they create multisensory, scenographic experiences and structures.

Thanks to Liv Siddall, FranklinTill, and Barbican Centre.