Monday, April 14, 2014

A film from the future

One of the more interesting and humbling aspects of getting older is seeing things you have imagined come to pass, or not. No doubt this is true for everyone, but such moments perhaps carry an extra charge when you imagine possibilities for a living.

Sometimes it's a matter of provocative notions materialising sooner than expected. In 02006 Jake Dunagan and I featured corporate candidates running for public office as part of our continued growth scenario for 'Hawaii 2050'. We were taken aback when a public relations company called Murray Hill Inc announced its plans in early 02010 to run for Congress in Maryland. Apparently they were making a satirical point in the wake of a recent Supreme Court majority decision which seemed to pave the way for corporate voting in elections. Our scenario had played in the same satirical territory 3 1/2 years before – only set 44 years into the future. Too far, perhaps?

An even more striking example of the future arriving early came with a project called Coral Cross, a 'serious game' about a flu pandemic, which I was directing for the Hawaii Department of Health. (The CDC was funding it as an early experiment in using games to engage the public for serious health promoting purposes.) Just weeks before the game's scheduled launch date, the game's hypothetical near-future scenario was pre-empted by an actual pandemic – H1N1 swine flu. To this day it's still a little bit hard to believe that actually happened. The project went ahead, incidentally: we turned on a dime and redesigned it from the ground up to make what we dubbed an Emergent Reality Game as opposed to an Alternate Reality Game.

Sometimes, the opposite occurs. A thing you expected doesn't happen, or happens otherwise than anticipated. We could perhaps file the following story under that heading.

Back in April 02007 when I was in grad school, a number of us in the Dept of Political Science at UH-Manoa made a short film for a 48-hour film comp in Honolulu called 'Showdown in Chinatown'. The way these things work is that certain creative constraints are provided at the start of the period, which both helps to inspire projects and to verify that submissions are authentically tailor-made for the occasion. You then run around like headless chooks for two days trying to make a short film using those parameters.

Readers will be unsurprised to learn that I was interested in making a film from the future. (On which theme more in another post soon, but meanwhile anyone keen to understand where I'm coming from may begin here.)

The given constraints called for referencing the topic 'addiction', using the line 'that's it', and incorporating an apple and a pencil as props. During our Thursday afternoon beer-and-brainstorm session, Ashley Lukens (now Dr. Lukens) made the outlandish and frankly inspired suggestion that the addiction in question could be someone 'addicted to being a dog'. The film pretty much made itself from there.

Why do I blog this now? It's not that it was an especially serious bit of forecasting or rigorous future-date-selecting, but when I edited the short together, the excerpt from our fictitious news magazine show Aloha Tonight happened to be post-dated seven years: April 14, 02014.

Which is – holy crap – today. Time flies when you're meddling with it.

On Death of a President, and other films from the future
Hawaii 2050 kicks off
This is not a game
Coral Cross concludes
Hawaiian shorts

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Strategic foresight meets tactical media

It has been just over six months since I moved to Toronto, and some irons placed in the fire early on are getting ready to be hammered out. Particularly exciting to me is the Guerrilla Futures studio/seminar class to be run together with my Situation Lab co-director Jeff Watson, also a new prof at OCAD University, during the Northern Hemisphere summer now approaching.

Our description for this course (affectionately dubbed SFIN 5B01 by university admin):

'In order to work, fantasy needs to be rooted ten feet deep in reality.' - Maurice Sendak

Many artists, designers and entrepreneurs aim to bring the future to life: the Guerrilla Futures studio offers a unique approach to doing just that. Co-taught by a professional futurist and a game designer, you will systematically picture how alternative worlds could unfold; manifest your own visions playfully and compellingly in a range of media; and make these narratives available in the real world, via live urban interventions for unsuspecting audiences to encounter. Prepare to imagine rigorously, explore genuine change, and learn first-hand the joys – and hazards – of unsolicited transmedia storytelling.

Intended Learning Outcomes for the class:

- Analyse environments and systems in order to identify opportunities for transformative action;
- Formulate action plans to effect change in lived environments through the use of tactical media interventions;
- Produce and document urban media interventions using both digital and analog technologies and practices;
- Develop a designerly, impact-oriented approach to communication, honouring mastery of convention as well as appropriate experimentation; and
- Acquire experience and confidence in foresight methods and skills, kindling a lifelong interest in developing these further. 

Course registration is just about to open.

For anyone wondering just what guerrilla futures means, my short answer is 'strategic foresight meets tactical media'. A fuller answer's in this presentation given last year at FESTA, the Festival of Transitional Architecture.

More can be found in 'Guerrillas in the Wild', Chapter 5 of The Futures of Everyday Life.

> FoundFutures: Postcards from the future
> Fast-forwarding gentrification
> What becomes of Chinatowns in a world where China is the global superpower?
> Street art simulates bird flu epidemic
> New York Times Special Edition
> Future jamming 101
> The Futures of Everyday Life

Politicians discussing global warming

This is a small-scale sculpture in Berlin created by artist Isaac Cordal that has gone viral in the past few days, under the caption 'Politicians discussing global warming'.

A bit of research reveals that this installation actually took place in 02011 and that the work is part of a series called Follow the Leaders, which has been exhibited in various forms and locations including Milan (below), Brussels, and London (below, lower).

Blogger Jon Worth has commented today on 'the power of a title to make a picture go viral': it seems the original title of the Berlin piece was 'electoral campaign', so there was no apparent intention on Cordal's part to reference climate change or rising seas in particular. Intriguing how one audience member recontextualising the artist's work with an alternative title (whether accidentally or deliberately doesn't really matter) gives that work startling potency and a new lease of life.

Although Cordal seems to have had no part in these developments, they fit neatly with his interests. Looking into his work brought me to a couple of installations themed and framed explicitly along similar lines; Waiting for climate change, from the Triennial of Contemporary Art by the Sea in De Panne, Belgium (02012).

And this more recent piece of the same name at the Château des Ducs de Bretagne in Nantes, France (02013).

[Top image via Sierra Club and William Kramer, HRCFS; others from the artist's website.]

> Participatory Cli-Fi
It's a small world, after all
> Mapping c-change
Ignore global warming
> Not drowning, thriving
> A climate of regret
> Footwear for a warmer world
> Climate change for fun and profit

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Whose future is this?

In 02010 and 02011 a series of earthquakes devastated Christchurch, New Zealand's second-largest city, and left large parts of the downtown core in ruins.

Last October I gave a talk at TEDxChristchurch called Whose Future Is This?* Without presuming to comment specifically on the official plans now afoot for the rebuild, I urged Cantabrians (and others) to recognise that, as a matter of principle, the future we get is co-created in community – it is a story that we tell together – and should not be treated as scripted or predetermined.

Here's an interview I gave for The Press in the leadup to TEDx.

Video of the talk itself was recently put online.

This was the fourth annual TEDx gathering curated by the Ministry of Awesome's incomparable Kaila Colbin, who brought me over from Toronto to contribute. I was honoured (and a bit dumbfounded) by a report in Christchurch's daily newspaper the following day that listed my talk as the highlight of the event.

The author of that roundup, journalist Will Harvie, subsequently got in touch to say that he had begun thinking about what it might be like to create an edition of his newspaper from a future year, perhaps 02031 or 02036. His interest came in the wake of a story I had recounted during the talk, about the extraordinary #16juin2014 cross-media experiential futures campaign in Tunisia during the Arab Spring in 02011, which helped get the country back to work following the turmoil of revolution, painting a vivid portrait of how the next phase of national life could look.

I have now learned that the idea of news reports from various Christchurch futures has made its way into reality, with a series of articles by various contributors, set exactly 20 years after the worst of the earthquakes – in parallel versions of 22 February 02031.

This is the first case I can think of, offhand, of a newspaper bringing to life the stakes of today's choices by reporting diegetically from alternative futures (i.e., mutually exclusive logics rendered in the same medium, cf. our guerrilla postcards from the future intervention). There are of course more instances of papers or magazines – either officially, as here, or 'unofficially' – issuing reports from a single scenario.

It is most encouraging to see these strategies for experientialising multiple futures spreading and impacting how people imagine and discuss their options: steps towards a participatory platform of public imagination.

Well done, then, to Will Harvie and colleagues at The Press – I hope the experiment was a success, and that this forward-looking exploration continues.

Update (23mar14): Will Harvie got in touch last week to provide pdfs of the original publication – now embedded above. He points out that much credit for this journalistic experiment is due to Press editor Joanna Norris who 'risked her reputation much more than anyone else involved and had the cojones to see it through.' Also, 'Full credit to Camia Young for allowing us to publish her students’ work.'

[I'm grateful to Kaila Colbin both for the invitation to speak, and for the video, and also to Gapfiller's Ryan Reynolds for the tipoff about the future news.]

* This title is a riff on Ken Kesey's famous question to the Merry Pranksters, "Whose movie is this?" – for more background see page 128.

Related posts:
> Tunisia, 16 June 2014
FoundFutures: Postcards from the Future
> New York Times Special Edition
> Designing Futures
> Travelling without moving

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Build your own time machine

Newcomers to the design/futures party are often curious about bridging from abstract talk of possible futures into more tangible exploration -- but such interest doesn't automatically come with a sense of how to begin.

Last year I wrote a piece to provide a possible way to venture into this territory, for an anthology called 72 Assignments: The Foundation Course in Art and Science Today.

The 'Time Machine / Reverse Archaeology' assignment embedded below is a free pdf download from Scribd.

Published by the Paris College of Art, the collection's premise was to reimagine the Bauhaus Vorkurs ('foundation course'), almost a century after Johannes Itten introduced this landmark in arts education. (The book's working title was 100 Assignments: The Future of the Foundation Course in Art and Design.) Each assignment is meant to be doable within a three-hour window.

My piece was intended mainly as a first-timer's scaffolding for translating existing future scenarios into either physical prototypes or immersive situations. (You could tackle it alone, but in a group would be better. You could also do it in three hours, but longer might be easier.) The 'Reverse Archaeology' variant addresses the object-oriented concerns of design fiction. The 'Time Machine' variant exemplifies the more encompassing simulation/situation territory of experiential scenarios. Since publication in late 02013, both versions have given rise to some interesting results. More about those in posts to come.

It builds on similar assignments I've set for students at the University of Hawaii at Manoa (02008, with Scott Groeniger), at California College of the Arts (02011, with Jake Dunagan), and at the National University of Singapore (02012, with Aaron Maniam and Noah Raford). It also owes much to the alternative futures processes [pdf] that I learned from Professor Jim Dator and colleagues at the Hawaii Research Center for Futures Studies.

The whole idea of sharing materials like syllabi and assignments is bound up with a problem space I'm thinking about a fair bit lately: 'structures of participation' (a phrase borrowed from Natalie Jeremijenko) for designing experiential futures. This interest in structures of participation is about democratisation of the tools, in service of growing a more adept community of practice, in order ultimately to deploy experiential futures -- design fiction, experiential scenarios, etc -- at scale and to greater overall effect in the culture. To hone fluency in one's own practice is a fine thing, but it needs to be learnable in order to scale. And scaling our efforts towards 'social foresight' is the point, I think (see Chapter 7).

And so, to that question of democratisation, which might alternatively be framed as a matter of Open-Sourcing design/futures practice; it's nice to see the PCA Press collecting assignments, of all things. I'm now teaching graduate students full time. For three years before that I was consulting full time. A common feature to both areas of work, it seems to me, is that documentation isn't shared as much as it could be. A good deal of both teaching and consulting work seems to take place in bubbles, with no one quite knowing what's happening in others' bubbles. This is a paradox of practice-led discourse. You get practitioners so preoccupied with  learning-and-deploying in their own contexts that they don't, for whatever combination of reasons, share as fully as they could, thus depriving the commons of resources that would benefit all. We need quite deliberately and systematically to Open Source the work around which we seek to accelerate collective learning.

A disclaimer. The step-by-step process outlined in 'Time Machine / Reverse Archaeology' is probably bleeding obvious in some ways and a bit opaque in others. One or two of the key steps from scenaric premise to concrete future artifact/situation may be reminiscent of the old Monty Python sketch about D.P. Gumby's School of Flower Arranging: "First, take your flowers. Then, arrange them in a vase!"

But perfection is not the first step. Getting involved is. To the extent that any how-to guide helps people cross the threshold to a first attempt, it has in an important sense already succeeded.

Do get in touch if you decide to try out #timemachine or #reversearchaeology assignments -- it'd be great to hear how you go.

[Thanks to Bruce Sterling for blogging this over at Beyond the Beyond -- the curiosity that piqued in various quarters helped prompt me to post here too.]

> Travelling without moving
> 99 cent futures project
> Strategic Foresight at CCA's Design MBA
> The first guerrilla futures class
> Why futures and design are getting married