Under the Grid: Detroit goes full-on solar in this fictional future
This story originally appeared in The Weight of Light: A Collection of Solar Futures, published by Arizona State University’s Center for Science and the Imagination. Find the whole collection on the center’s website.
Under the Grid
“I have a theory that we could measure cultural sophistication by the occurrence rate of puns,” Trevor texted. “The more concepts and connections in a time-place, the more linguistic opportunities for people to make bad jokes.”
“Uh huh.” Ingrid only half watched the noties, focusing instead on swiping through paperwork: HOA waiver tickets to resolve, memos about algorithmic tweaks in the approval pipeline, timesheets to justify her existence to the Emergency Government and their Chinese/European backers. “Guess that ‘PhoTown’ branding really is an indicator of successful urban renewal then.”
“Mayhap one day we’ll be so complex that every possible combination of words will constitute a pun,” Trevor continued. “This is my singularity.”
Ingrid snorted. “Preach!” she tapped.
Three dates in was usually the sweet spot for banter. Seeing each other naked lowered the conversational stakes. Suddenly people let you in on what was actually going on in their heads. But it was Tuesday, and she had two afternoon site visits in Grosse Pointe to prep for.
She had to spend a disproportionate amount of her time inspecting such neighborhoods. First, because rich enclaves resented Emergency’s suspension of municipal governance, so they were more likely to use homeowner association agreements to claw back some of their autonomy. Second, because white people had to be handled with kid gloves if she wanted to avoid hours of “let me talk to your manager” appeals.
Trevor’s texts kept coming. “All of which is just a setup for the following: has anyone ever told you…”
“Don’t say it!”
“…It’s pretty ironic that you work on the Grid instead of, pause for effect, in the Grid?”
“Never, actually,” Ingrid replied. “The rapture must be at hand.”
“baby… broke my leg 🤕”
That wasn’t Trevor. She picked up her phone.
“Mama, where are you?”
Her mother texted, “🐦🏠”
Ingrid chewed her lip. She looked out her office window, counted the Grid squares below, west to where her childhood home would be, if she could see through the thicket of vertical farms and the patchwork of silvery-black squares. The solar rolled in fractal waves, arranged to maximize sun collection while letting through light and wind—a delicate balance of homeowner investment and computational decree that Ingrid helped manage. And above it all, the Grid: a carbon-fiber scaffolding, white-gray, preposterously massive, cutting Detroit into uneven squares and trapezoids.
Every day she touched the Grid—who didn’t?—but she’d successfully avoided that house under it for years. She spent holidays with boyfriends and coworkers, saw her mother only remotely or at church.
She typed three letters, sent: “On my way!”
Ingrid took the monorail out to Springwells—end of the line. This train was a recent addition to the Grid, so it only went a bit outside the tall city core. Extending it further would require negotiating with countless HOAs and individual homeowners to clear a path through their skyspace. It was a mess she wasn’t looking forward to seeing farmed out to her department.
She jogged down spiral stairs to street level. From down there, Detroit was a jungle of contradictions. Skinny, single-lot towers stood beside century-old two-storys. The skyspace of these houses crowded with leafy trellises and tubes of aeroponic crops, dangling from the crisscross Grid 100 meters above. The Grid was supported by redwood-thick struts pushing out of the street. These always seemed a bit alien to Ingrid, with uncanny curves drawn by powerful math instead of human hands. They were colossal, yet made mundane by the rows of concert posters that covered the first few meters and the riot of graffiti that snaked up the rest. Bikes wheeled in the roundabouts the Grid had created in this once car-dominated city.
Her mother Krystal’s house was little more than a cottage, tucked between two 10-high modular stacks of container apartments. Ingrid paused on the lawn, looked up, sighed. Her mother’s skyspace was filled not with an orderly vertical garden or racks of slanted solar panels, but with clusters of boxes and baskets. Dozens of birds—maybe hundreds—sat on and in these houses, or swooped from feeder to feeder. They were of every size and color, and at least half weren’t native to North America: parrots squawked at singing robins. They were loud this morning. The cottage roof was white with droppings.
“Mama, did I see chickens up there? They can’t fly!” Ingrid said when she pushed into the house. The floor was covered in piles of computer junk, stacks of books. She edged a narrow path into the kitchen.
“Marsha down the block has chickens,” Krystal said. “Why should she get all the eggs?”
Ingrid’s mother sat in her creaky, Techni-brand recliner, left leg elevated in a gelatinous cast.
“Mrs. Frick’s coop is in her backyard. What happens if one of your chickens falls? They aren’t agile creatures.”
“They got wings. They can flap down. Then my dronies lift them back up.” Krystal shook her control board. Ingrid sighed.
“Mama, what happened? How’re you feeling?”
“Had to unclog that watering pipe. Drone couldn’t do it, and boys across the street stopped helping me. So, went up myself. Felt something buzz me, and…” Krystal waved at her leg. “Nurses just left. I’ve got meds. I’ll be fine.”
She didn’t look fine. Though spry for 70, Krystal was thinner than usual and seemed drained of blood, woozy and jittery from the medication. Her close-buzzed scalp had new splotches.
In recent years, Ingrid had watched her mother become uneven. She wasn’t senile, exactly, and with robotic assistance she couldn’t be called infirm. But manic compulsions set in. Krystal changed her mind often, or was insanely stubborn, each at unexpected times. The hoarding had gotten worse, and now there were the birds. For years Krystal had lived across from Zug Island, exposed to lead pollution and, eventually, the grating “Windsor Hum.” Ingrid had followed the studies about long-term effects of this low-frequency industrial noise: anxiety, irritability, spells of illucid thought.
So Ingrid reluctantly stayed the afternoon, puttering around, clearing space for the drones that would bring her mother food, helping her hop to the toilet on crutches. She moved a pile of magazines, and a stack of unopened mail fell to the floor.
“Mama, have you read this?” Ingrid held up one of the official-looking letters. “Your block voted to associate, put in new rules. Mama, they used the word ‘eviction.’”
“Oh, I know it!” Krystal said. “Busybodies think they can get all those Chinese at the PV lab to move over here if they get everyone to spit-shine their lawns. Well, I got deals with everyone next door, so they can’t do nada.”
“Mama, that’s not how that works,” Ingrid said, exasperated. “If their waiver goes through, this new HOA can homogenize skyspace use.”
“That’s what you’re here for, baby! That’s your job, right? I told them you’d reject that waiver.”
Ingrid was aghast. “Mama, no, that’s not up to me. This is serious. If your birds aren’t in compliance, they can seize the house.”
Krystal just turned back to her screen. Ingrid dialed the link on the letter. She got ahold of the new HOA’s general manager, David.
“Look, this has been in the works a while,” David said. “I’m sympathetic, but your mother had every chance to come to the meetings, help us build a policy that works for everyone.”
“She doesn’t like to leave the house. Just—what’s she out of compliance on?”
“Ms. Hall’s skyspace, as lovely as it is, barely met regional generation standards last year. Five months ago the new requirements cycled in, and my guess would be she’s now behind. She’s lucky Emergency hasn’t audited her block lately.”
“That’s it? We can get better panels.”
“Well, there’s the matter of the birds. Some neighbors think they’re a nuisance. They dirty solar panels, rip up crops, disrupt repair and delivery drones.”
“The algorithm has dispensations for biodiversity.”
“Yes, for native species,” David said, filling his voice with exaggerated patience. “Your mother is basically running an avian refugee camp. Birds migrating with the climate shifts, escaped pets. Emergency calls those pests.”
“What should we do?” Ingrid said. “You can’t evict her. She’s lived here for decades!”
“We’re just following the rules. Get the skyspace in order, talk to Ms. Hall about the birds. Then we’ll see.”
Ingrid sighed. She’d have to stay.
Trevor worked in HR, so he smoothed out her leave of absence. He even agreed to feed her cat.
“Thank you!!!!!!” she wrote. “I’ll make it up to you ;)”
“Now, now,” Trevor texted. “Here at Grid HR we are all about Guiding Responsible Interactions Diligently.”
“Are acronym puns your new thing? Can I veto that?”
“Not if you want to keep Getting Really Interesting”
“I was going to say Dates.”
“Sure you were.”
Ingrid moved onto her mother’s couch—just for the week, she hoped. She had to clear off dozens of misprinted birdhouses, and used this as an excuse to purge a good chunk of her mother’s hoard. Krystal, pacified by painkillers, didn’t make a scene.
Next Ingrid rented a safety harness from an HOA-approved vendor and ascended the nearby Grid pillar. Halfway up she clipped in and moved along a horizontal support beam to the subscaffolding that made it possible to use the 300 vertical feet of airspace Krystal legally owned above her house. Ingrid’s stomach fluttered at the light feel of the carbon fiber under her, but she knew that the Grid was impossibly strong.
From a generation perspective, Krystal’s property was a mess. Ingrid didn’t need an algorithm to see that the single solar panel on top was poorly aligned, partly shaded by the newer array above the neighboring tower. A few yoga mats of flexible PV dangled vertically, wobbling beneath the birdhouses, catching only a few random rays that trickled through the patchwork sky.
Detroit wasn’t Phoenix. They got less sun, and the heat island here was not so profound as to warrant a full-city roof, even under Emergency’s generous interpretation of its mission. So, in the spirit of assisted bootstrap-pulling, Detroit had instead gotten a half-infrastructure: a frame, planted by giant Chinese construction bots, into which individuals could plug the means of meeting their landowner watt-and-calorie contribution quotas. Quotas her mother was behind on.
Ingrid inched into the skyspace. It was windy. A pigeon banked by her head, and she flailed. She trusted the harness, but a fall could still wrench her shoulder. Spooked, she crouched on the catwalk.
“Mama, can you keep these things off me?” Ingrid sent. “No wonder you took a spill.”
“😤” Krystal replied, but a pair of quadcopters zipped up to escort her.
A ladder went up one side of the mass of birdhouses. Ingrid clipped and climbed. They were beautiful, in a way, an Escher jumble of painted boxes, half-eaten seed cones, plastic watering flowers, sacks of thistle only finches could land on. Hummingbirds inspected her furtively. The cooing was loud and rhythmic, vibrating her organs.
At the top, Ingrid examined the underside of the solar panel. There was a simple servo to track the sun, but pigeons had nested in the crook of the hinge. Pigeon waste was like cement when it dried, so the mechanism was frozen by a sticky mess of rust, poop, and feathers.
“Don’t you touch that!” Her mother’s voice came from the buzzing quadcopter’s tinny speaker. “We’re waiting on chickies.”
There were speckled blue eggs in the nest. Ingrid pulled herself up to get a better look. The quadcopter poked her in the rump.
“Hey!” She swatted at the drone, and her fingers got smacked by the spinning plastic blades. Smarting, she climbed down.
“Ugh this is why I got an office job!” she texted Trevor.
“Isn’t this your wheelhouse? Inspecting skyspace for compliance?”
“Not while fighting off storks and my crazy mother’s drones!”
“Jared in legal told me about some dude in North End who trained a falcon to swivel his neighbor’s panels out of the way,” Trevor wrote. “Can you believe that? A falcon!”
Ingrid could believe it. Sun was money. While algorithms did the heavy lifting maximizing where and how to collect solar energy within the Grid, legal precedents ensured there was a lot of play for property owners to customize and, at times, get an edge by undercutting their neighborhood competition. This illicit jockeying was a big reason why HOAs were popping up, but these came with their own compliance concerns. Compliance drift for a single house was hardly a blip, but for 40 houses, it mattered a great deal.
It occurred to Ingrid that even if the neighborhood’s waiver didn’t roll through her desk—and the automated conflict of interest system ensured it wouldn’t—she could still review it. If she found something off, she could Append Recommendations. She chewed her lip.
The next few days Ingrid alternated between fixing up her mother’s skyspace and poring over the new HOA’s paperwork. The repairs were tough but satisfying work. Waving at neighbors tending window boxes, she felt a new appreciation for the effort that went into living under the Grid. She lived in a downtown apartment, spent most of her workday in spreadsheets. Site visits were about confirming reported numbers, not getting her hands on the physical machinery that fed the Grid. Now she raised, expanded, and replaced her mother’s PV apparatus to catch better sun. Climbing ladders, using heavy tools at awkward angles, balancing on narrow Grid branches—these left her sore in muscles her Pilates app missed.
The paperwork was less satisfying. She couldn’t find a digit out of place. David was a well-paid professional who handled multiple HOAs. He had clean templates and had been in business long enough to know which way the algorithmic winds were blowing. The new rules contained nothing that hadn’t already been approved elsewhere a dozen times.
Then there was her mother. Krystal spent most of her time in her chair, occasionally hollering for Ingrid to take her to the bathroom. Or to clear away the piles of wrappers that accumulated as she munched down greasy drone delivery from a rotating cast of local home cooks. She watched videos in her panorama helmet and sent spider-like camerabots crawling up the Grid to photograph the birds her skyspace attracted. She printed these out big and glossy, and had Ingrid pin them to the walls around the house.
“Ohhh, look at this pretty fella!” Krystal said, zooming in on one. “So plump!”
“It’s very, uh, red,” Ingrid offered. Her mother always joked that she’d take up birding “soon as this egg leaves the nest.” Surprising everyone, she followed through.
“Scarlet tanager, breeding male. Never seen one with this much orange in the plumage. Isn’t he gorgeous?”
It was, Ingrid had to admit. Looking at the high-def stills and elegant gifs, she could see the appeal of getting to see these little nuggets of color and life.
“Mama, why do you gotta bring them here? The Grid’s not good for them. There are birding groups for seniors. They’d take you out to the country.”
“I don’t ‘bring them here,’ baby. Times have forced them out. We built over their homes or made it too hot. Now we’re saying, ‘move along, this spot ain’t for you.’ Where have I heard that before?”
Ingrid thought about this as she made her way back to the core. The nurses were visiting to iterate Krystal’s cast, so Ingrid had cleared out to meet Trevor for date number four. Over falafel on the Riverwalk, she recounted the conversation.
“She’s right, actually,” Trevor said. “Native versus invasive is a totally arbitrary distinction. Kind of a holdover from when the Endangered Species Act was the best tool the environmental lobby had, I think.”
“Uh, I’m going to guess that’s a gross oversimplification.”
“Okay, maybe. But these days we can’t assume that any ecosystem will support a particular species indefinitely. So instead we could just try to support as many lifeways as we can.” He tossed his last bit of falafel at a nearby squirrel. “Do you always do that when you’re making a decision?”
“Chew your lip.”
David the HOA manager didn’t live in the neighborhood. Ingrid trucked out to the address on his email signature, in Sherwood Forest. She’d expected an office park, but instead found a big brick house with pretentious round chimneys.
David answered the door holding a baby. For a second, racial anxiety flashed over his face. She saw him suppress the thought that this strange black lady might accost him on his porch. Then David smiled, waved her into his annoyingly tasteful study.
“Had to move my office home when my wife got a fellowship in South Greenland,” David explained. “What can I do for Emergency, Miss Hall?”
“There’s a new body of Brazilian law that uses bio-difference and bio-density metrics to meet the International Emergency Accord quotas,” Ingrid said. “They call them ‘multispecies cities.’ It’s all very hip, very ‘next nature,’ ‘Anthropocene as birth canal’ kinda stuff. Springwells Village could pioneer something similar in Detroit.”
The baby stirred, and David produced a bottle. “These Brazilians wouldn’t have anything to say about bird habitats, would they?”
“Everyone can win here. My mother can stay. The birds can stay. You get to not evict a sweet old lady. We can probably even find some grant money to pilot this.”
David did his exaggerated patient sigh. “Miss Hall, I’m successful because I help communities meet the only metrics that really matter: energy and peace. You have enough of those, you can do pretty much anything else. Like contribute to the Swerve, so my daughter here can grow up without having to be afraid of the sky. So when your mother’s birds increase the maintenance burden of the whole block, and get aggressive enough that neighbors are reluctant to climb up and improve their skyspaces… it’s hard to feel like everyone’s winning.”
“I don’t see any Grid panels over your house,” Ingrid said. She knew it was a crap deflection, but she decided to power through. “If you really thought kicking my mother out was going to move the needle on your daughter’s future, you’d be out there hand-cranking a sequestration tree instead of talking to me.”
“Okay,” David said. He pointedly checked his watch. “Look, you’re right. This is small potatoes to me. Have Krystal submit an amendment to the HOA rules. We’ll vote on it at the meeting next week. If it doesn’t pass, she’ll have to either lose the birds or lose the house.”
Ingrid fumed. She almost said spoken like every gentrifier, ever. Instead she said, “Fine.”
Ingrid wasn’t an organizer. She’d dabbled in college politics, but that had been dominated by the confused rage people felt when Emergency was declared. You heard about a protest and just showed up, hoping it was about something you agreed with.
Still, she thought she understood the basics: talk to lots of people, explain your side of the debate, ask for their support and their help talking to others. She blitzed through app courses on local-politics best practices as she zigzagged from door to door.
Neighbors who knew Krystal were sympathetic. Many had known her for decades, had seen her grow infirm and eccentric, and relished the chance to support her in a concrete way.
“It’s a good thing you’re doing, dear,” Marsha Frick said, feeding her chickens. “They’re just little birds! This ain’t a Hitchcock movie, and we ain’t trying to live in some sterile bubble. ‘Course we should let her be.”
Harder were the younger folks who’d moved into the apartment stacks flanking the cottage. Amid their highly mediated lives, the material and social reality of a crazy bird lady next door was foreign and anxiety-provoking. They hedged, and Ingrid spent more time than she’d planned cajoling them from the fire escape.
“We all give up stuff to live in a community,” one white twenty-something said, nervously braiding his beard. “Like taxes and stuff, right?”
“Sure, yes,” Ingrid said, trying not to get frustrated. “But are we really a community if we can’t care for our most vulnerable neighbors? And that means both Ms. Hall and the birds. Plus, under this new rule, you’ll get splash credit for the biodiversity your space accommodates.”
All this was draining. She could only have a few conversations per hour, if she was lucky, and the HOA was bigger than she’d thought. On the weekend, Trevor came down and helped her cover more ground.
“These two dudes laid into me about some drones that got downed by a goose,” Ingrid texted him as they worked opposite sides of the street. “They’re the guys who wouldn’t help mama with her watering pipe. They’re for sure voting against us. Honestly half-suspect they were the ones who buzzed her on that ladder.”
“Ugh, that’s awful honey :(”
“You’re calling me honey now?” In all the urgency, they had totally breezed through the Meet-My-Mother stage of the relationship. Who could say where they stood now.
“Yeah but pronounced more like hun-nay and spelled HONAE.”
“Fine, I’ll bite. What’s that stand for?”
“Helping Organize Neighbors Against Evictions!!!” Trevor said, in text that sparkled ridiculously. “It’s the name of our new pollinator-themed housing justice org!”
Ingrid laughed, but then sobered. She actually had reached out to local tenants-rights groups, but her strategy was too odd, the case too murky without an evil landlord to defy. She’d shrugged it off, but now she was appreciating just how much help help would be. There was just no time—which David had made sure of.
Krystal texted her then: “we winning the 🗳 baby”
Ingrid couldn’t tell if it was a statement or question. Question, probably. She bit her cheek, texted back: “Yes!!”
There wasn’t much else to say.
The HOA met in the old Patton rec center, right at the edge of the Grid. The multipurpose rooms smelled like yoga sweat, the hallways like chlorine. They arrived early to glad-hand, Trevor pushing Krystal in her wheelchair. It was crowded.
“Who are all these people?” Ingrid hissed. She’d canvassed nonstop, but still only recognized half the attendees. Must be all the folks who didn’t answer their doors.
Modern HOAs weren’t the developer-captured half-democracies they had evolved from. Rather, within the strict algorithmic confines laid down by Emergency, HOAs emulated the role of the abolished municipalities they had sprung up to replace—often with a kernel of radical democratic culture fizzling in their heart.
Springwells meetings ran on Robert & Regina’s Rules of Order, where a Progressive Stack system that forwarded marginal voices governed open discussions, which set the stage for formal debate. This allowed new people and ideas to join the conversation, without derailing the work that those in the know had done staking out coherent positions. Ingrid had done her best to “stack the stack” with “well-leading” questions from supporters, which sounded innocent but had answers that boosted their reasoning. But she still had the tricky task of arguing for the Brazilian Amendment in a way that won over people invested in the policy question, without confusing the people that just wanted Krystal to keep her house.
The meeting dragged. More strangers shuffled in, regulars who knew the pace of the agenda. After the first hour, she started getting apologetic looks from supporters as they slipped out, late to pick up kids or hit their shifts on the East Asian cam markets.
Still, when the amendment came up and Ingrid gave her speech, she felt like she really moved the room. People clapped. There was a solid amount of nodding. Everyone seemed to feel a deep empathy for the odd old woman whose daughter had come to plead her case.
“Okay, someone want to call the question?” David said. Marsha Frick did so, and hands went up to vote. Eyeballing things, it did seem close.
Later, after she’d finally gotten Krystal to sleep and gone through the motions setting drones to fill the bird feeders overnight, Ingrid walked with Trevor under the claustrophobic sky.
“Where did we go wrong?” she asked.
Trevor shrugged, somehow made it look compassionate. “Politics is hard. Some people voted online without knowing what the amendment was really about. Maybe we didn’t have enough time to reach them, or maybe this was just always a long shot we weren’t going to win.”
They passed a strut, and Ingrid ran her hands over its weird, plasticky bulk. Above, solar panels were uncanny squares of darkness, blotting out the stars.
“Where are they going to go?” she said.
“I don’t know. North, probably. Canada is doing a lot of rewilding. They’ll land somewhere.”
Move-out day sucked. Krystal alternated between terrorizing the movers with her drones and bouts of depressive sobbing. She wailed at seeing her horde purged, her bird habitat dismantled. All this made Ingrid a mess too. Her hands shook and she chewed her lip bloody. She kept excusing herself to the bathroom to run a four-minute-meditation app, which didn’t work.
Their car followed the moving van half an hour out to Southfield, miles past the edge of the Grid. The neighborhood was old ranch-style houses, set back from the street, once-grassy yards given over to bulk solar, rolled out flat on the lawn. The elder compound was a set of three modular apartment stacks, buzzing with delivery drones. When they pulled up, management was lowering Krystal’s new rooms into place atop the stack—a Tetris L block descending by crane.
The facility had an elevator and nursing staff on site, physical therapy accessible by bus. Apartments had window box gardens; a farmers market brought fresh produce on Tuesdays. There was good bandwidth for Krystal’s games and shows.
Ingrid wheeled her mother around the block to the little nature preserve the forums said was an up-and-coming birder spot. A well-kept boardwalk wove through the trees, to a bench looking out on the muddy lake. The water was gray, and so was the sky. Krystal sat in her chair sullenly.
They waited there a while, Ingrid trying to decide what to say. She’d avoided Krystal for years, but she never thought she’d be the kind of daughter to ship her mother to an old folks’ home. She put her head in her hands.
When she looked up, Krystal’s eyes were sharp, trained on the lake.
“Look there,” Krystal said. “Three egrets. Never seen more than one at a time before.”
The white birds had landed in the shallows. They stretched their long necks, dipped beaks into the water.
Ingrid and Krystal spent an hour there, watching warblers and chickadees land and take off again. Like planes at the airport, Ingrid thought.
Her first day back at work, Ingrid tapped listlessly through her inbox. Waivers, algorithm tweaks, HR memos. Considerate Trevor had asked what frequency of texting she preferred while she caught up.
“I can do anywhere from torrent to drought,” he’d joked as she left his place that morning. “But be warned, you’re damming a mighty river here. The chats must flow!”
She’d asked for radio silence to focus, but now she caught herself staring out the window at the sprawling Grid. For once she wasn’t looking at the placement of panels or the hanging gardens, but at the little specks flitting in between.
She texted Trevor, asked where HR put job postings. She found the database, keyed in “multispecies.” Half a dozen openings at multispecies pilot projects popped up. It’d be a pay cut, but Ingrid didn’t mind. She closed her other tasks and started on the paperwork.
Read about the thinking behind this future scenario in the essay, “Behind the Grid: Science, Technology, and the Creation of PhoTown,” by ASU Assistant Professor Darshan M.A. Karwat.