Black Panther and the Future of Cities

By: Sonal Somaiya, Class of 2019

Unless you have been living under a rock this past month, it’s likely that you watched Black Panther, a revolutionary movie in many ways, but also importantly, for its nuanced portrayal of a futuristic city.

The country of Wakanda serves as the picturesque home of an advanced – and, sadly, fictional – society centered around access to vibranium, another fictional yet hyper powerful metallic substance that provides superhuman abilities to the nation’s citizens. Access to this resource has propelled Wakandan civilization technologically far ahead that of their modern-day peers, akin to having had access to a critical and life sustaining body of water in the context of ancient civilizations. Though Black Panther’s screenwriters could have captured the modernity of Wakanda with a hyper modern, utopian city like those we are used to seeing in film – think of TRON and Star Trek– this city embodies a more realistic future for our own urban spaces. The richly developed scenery incorporates the influence of African history, politics and traditions across the continent. Cities are never going to be built from the ground up; how they exist and operate today will have an important impact on how they develop in the future, so to project what a city might look like, we should not only look forward, but to our own history and development for some clues.  

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The cities of Wakanda excellently capture the dichotomy of city and country we will experience until we have truly populated every corner of the Earth. While there is a bustling metropolis with high tech transportation and crowds of people at the center of the city, on the outskirts, we encounter more traditional agricultural and livestock focused lifestyles. Just as we see today with suburbs surrounding large cities, not everyone has the appetite or need to live in the heart of even the most technologically advanced society. That’s not to say that there can’t be smart towns and smart farms, but we can reasonably expect the “countryside” to continue to exist even in the most technologically advanced societies.

Wakanda also accurately depicts what I expect will be the future of merchants and trade in our future cities as seen in the picture above. Though we tend to envision future cities without street vendors, messy storefront displays or farmers markets, more realistically, these elements of civilization will continue to coexist with more advanced retailers. Even if we ultimately end up buying everything online, there will always be an informal sector trading goods, negotiating and contributing the personal aspect of commerce.  Take for example Amazon’s cashierless store in Seattle. This store has proven that with even today’s technology, the shopping experience can be entirely technology directed and doesn’t require any human input or interaction in the process. At the same time, people naturally crave an opportunity to have a conversation with a vendor and know a little bit about what we are buying. Humans are social by nature and even the biggest technological advances will never change our desire to socialize especially in business.

Though it can be tempting to envision future cities with clean streets, a perfect grid system of transport and automated shopping, it’s more likely that we will see something more like Wakanda in the future: a bustling and messy metropolis with history, social spaces and tech enabled interactions.