In the absence of opportunities to travel under The Current Circumstance, we thought you might enjoy a bit of armchair exploration instead—and so we’re pleased to present the Rough Planet Guide to Notterdam 2045, which is a guidebook with a difference. Most tourist guides can only transport you through space… but this one can transport you through time, too.

This is a guidebook to an imaginary European coastal city circa 2045, with all the tips and advice a visitor might need on arrival. What are the sights worth seeing? Where are the good spots to hang out? What’s good to eat, and where can I find it? How do I get there, and get around? All this and more awaits you—so dive in, and start planning your trip!

You might be wondering why a bunch of academics decided to publish a fictional travel guide to the future. Faced with the task of communicating the findings of REINVENT, a major Horizon2020 research project on decarbonisation pathways in European industry, we decided to do something different, in addition to the usual reports and policy briefs. Rather than answer the question: “how can we decarbonise?”—a question whose answer is highly context-specific and contingent, as our research showed—we instead asked ourselves: “assuming we do decarbonise, what might that look like at ‘street level’?”

Transitions research is a serious business—but it has a tendency to being somewhat dry and wonkish, too, as a result of the focus on industrial processes, policies and so forth. Given that the issues around decarbonisation affect everyone, not just academics and practitioners and policymakers, we believe there’s a need for broader, bottom-up visions of a decarbonised and climate-changed future: visions that depict a post-transition future in a way that ordinary citizens can understand and relate to, with a bit of humour and grit to make them engaging and—dare we say it—fun. The thing is, the average person doesn’t really care about methods of steel production, or the finer points of agricultural policy reform—and there’s no reason they should. That’s what experts are for, right?

But if we’re going to decarbonise, then things are going to change: those tweaks to steel production, agricultural policy and urban mobility planning (to name but a few) will have an effect on the way we live. The Rough Planet Guide comes from a feeling that most communications to the public about climate change adaptation and mitigation don’t do much to address the question of what life might be like in a successfully decarbonised society. “Reduced emissions” and “below two degrees of warming” are abstract concepts— and the absence of more concrete and accessible visions of such a future leaves a gap into which the well-funded forces of denial can project off-putting images of privation and sacrifice.

Monument to the death of an idea: an iconic art piece in Notterdam

To be clear, there are things we will have to give up—but one of the aims of the Guide was to show that a world in which we’ve given some things up for the sake of decarbonisation might actually be better than the one we’re living in. In many ways, it might not look very different at all: the particularities of what we do and how we do it might change, but the generalities probably won’t. We will likely still travel, visit museums and eat at restaurants (pandemics notwithstanding), move around our cities and regions, build houses, buy things, produce food. We’ll just do it all a bit differently.

Readers around my own age might think of it this way: when I think back to my adolescence in the early 1990s, I find myself thinking how much has changed… but also, simultaneously, how little has changed. There’s a tendency to focus on technological changes (smartphones! social media!) that obscures the long continuity of social practices, and of the built environment in which they occur. The city, considered as a stage-set, certainly changes with time—but slowly, incrementally. Meanwhile, the everyday human dramas we act out on that stage change very little; we just use different props. What we eat may change, but that we eat (and do so together, in fun places) will not; how we travel may change (particularly in terms of range and frequency), but that we travel will not.

A food stall in Notterdam

The point is that decarbonisation is plausible from a technological perspective, but also from a social perspective: things will change, but less than we think, and likely for the better. We wanted to show that not only is there a life after fossil fuels, but that it could be a pretty good life, too.

With that goal in mind, we borrowed the familiar format of the tourist guidebook, and set about bringing to life an imaginary city in which many of the innovations and transformations we studied in REINVENT—plus some others from elsewhere—have been realised, albeit unevenly. The result is a work of fiction, of course—but as you’ll see from the endnotes, it’s based on the best facts we have available. It’s not a prophecy or a promise, but a possibility. It’s not a perfect world, but it’s a better world—a world built on hope rather than optimism.

We hope you enjoy your visit, and we’d love to hear your thoughts—particularly if you know of any sites or scenes in Notterdam we should have included! And we hope that you’ll take the Guide as an encouragement to imagine—and share, and discuss—your own decarbonised futures.

Explore the city of Notterdam here


Paul Graham Raven

Editor-in-chief of the Rough Planet Guide, on behalf of the REINVENT Syndicate / Postdoc, Dept. Political Science, Lund University