Monday, June 27, 2016

Impacting the Social

Images: Candy Chang, Before I Die, New Orleans, 02011.


Last month a remarkable book was published by Designmatters at ArtCenter College of Design –– LEAP Dialogues: Career Pathways in Design for Social Innovation.

In the preface, editor Mariana Amatullo states that the work is "a first-of-its kind resource" directly addressing "change[s] in how design is taught, practiced and integrated into organizations, why these changes are happening, what is needed to support these new practices, and how designers can pursue these new career pathways". With 84 contributors across many themes, it's an impressively wide-ranging, substantial, and I might add, beautifully designed volume.

I'm thrilled to have a piece in LEAP Dialogues in the form of a conversation with artist Candy Chang, moderated by designer Bryan Boyer, who is also one of the collection's co-editors.

Bryan Boyer's wonderful stuff has appeared here at The Sceptical Futuryst before; he has since spent years working on pathbreaking projects and approaches in strategic design (e.g., In Studio: Recipes for Systemic Change, 02011, pdf).

Candy Chang's work includes marvellous participatory public projects such as Before I Die and I Wish This Was, as well as contributions to the Hypothetical Development Organization, a collaboration with Rob Walker and others which I delightedly backed on Kickstarter years ago, and regularly feature in talks about guerrilla futures practice.

Our dialogue appears in the book under the title "Impacting the Social".


Bryan Boyer: You both do projects that are performed in the real world, in the city. Why is this important to you?

Stuart Candy: I work across settings and formats—museums, galleries, boardrooms, conferences, universities, city streets. Operating in diverse sites from project to project is more important to me than any one project by itself. To my mind, all contexts of deployment are “real world,” although each has its own affordances, limitations and publics. The same goes for different media—online game, workshop, installation, mailout, design jam, short film and so on. To riff off Marshall McLuhan, each medium is a different massage. These different contexts of encounter, and alternative ways of massaging those contexts, are not merely interchangeable aesthetic options but design parameters: how would you like to massage those you wish to engage?

Experiential futures practice is location and medium agnostic because it is more about enabling futures than using or advancing a particular mode of expression. Anything that you can cause to happen to, with and for someone is, in principle, fair game; the entirety of experience, the whole of the sensorium, is the canvas or design space. The term “experiential futures“ tries to convey this encompassing, transmedia idea of the range of options at our disposal. The corollary is that each intervention within the practice must be highly specific to topic, site, time, audience, etc.

What‘s interesting to me about urban settings is that they are less scripted. I find it important to be prepared to use unscripted places because most people, thoughts, decisions aren‘t necessarily happening where one has an invitation. When there is something that people should perhaps be considering, and they aren‘t aware of or able to enter the museum or workshop or boardroom or town hall where the conversation is officially convened, it can be useful to instead bring the conversation to them.

This is how our “guerrilla futures“ practice emerged. Formal, solicited projects often encounter roadblocks, and since you have to adapt to constraints in any project, it can be interesting to work with “found” challenges and opportunities instead.

Candy Chang: I’m interested in how places shape us. I studied urban planning and at the same time I made street art, which led me to think more deeply about public spaces. In a built environment where citizen’s flyers are illegal yet businesses can shout about their latest products on an increasing number of surfaces, we need to consider how public spaces can be better designed so that they’re not necessarily allocated to the highest bidder, but also reflect our needs as a community and as individuals. The places we share have a lot of potential to help us connect, reflect and make sense of our communities and our lives together. William Whyte’s The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces encouraged me to trust my real world experiences, and making street art gave me the moxie to just try things out and see what happens.

I’m an introvert, and the participatory public art projects start- ed out as a way to ask my neighbors things I was too shy to ask in person—or as a way for the quieter people to share just as much as the loud ones. Over time I realized these installa- tions had other benefits. They’re anonymous, so you can open up in ways you might not have otherwise. They allow people to easily participate on their own time. And they’re places where we can collectively reflect together. I think Stuart’s work does that well in his own way, and I admire his democratic approach to foresight work. I’ve been interested in creating safe spaces for honesty and vulnerability, and I like how Stuart is interested in making “safe spaces for dangerous conversations.”

SC: One doesn’t really get anywhere very interesting with futures until one starts to entertain possibilities that deeply challenge current ways of thinking. I’m invoking the spirit of philosopher Alfred North Whitehead here (“It is the business of the future to be dangerous”) as well as my mentor, Jim Dator (“Any useful statement about the future should at first appear to be ridiculous”). A company may be facing some change in the market that no one in it recognizes; a government may need help even to see, let alone respond to, unexpected shifts in the political landscape. In any case, the “dangerous conversation” confronts that which is uncomfortable and vulnerable, and therefore marginalized, but potentially transformative. Likewise for other kinds of community, and for individuals. Creating a safe space for that means first of all finding ways to suspend the very powerful reflex of avoiding such sensitive topics.

One of our earliest experiential futures projects was for the State of Hawaii, almost a decade ago, to kick off a sustain- ability planning process across the islands. Together with Jake Dunagan, and with the help of others at the Hawaii Research Center for Futures Studies, we immersed 550 people, ordinary citizens and elected representatives alike, in four alternative versions of the islands in the year 2050. One of the four was set in the wake of a global economic implosion in the 2040s, followed by an interval of chaos before the United States military intervened to maintain law and order. With the old economic and political regime discredited, they reinstated the monarchy that the U.S. had overthrown in 1893.

As an experiential scenario, then, participants entering the room found themselves cast as climate change refugees being naturalized as citizens of the so-called “Democratic Kingdom of Hawaii,” a military governance regime with a veneer of local culture. Here the experience provided a container in which some potentially discomfiting prospects could be engaged: you’re already in the scenario by the time the rational mind starts to mount intellectual or political objections. As we say, it’s better to be surprised by a simulation than blindsided by reality. Such a conversation may be difficult, but it can’t hurt you nearly as much as not having it can.At other times, offering hospitality to dangerous ideas can take the form of adopting processes designed to include people and elicit views that might otherwise (if often unintentionally) be left out. For many years I’ve used Open Space Technology, a participant-centered way of running meetings of almost any size, and organizations like the engineering firm Arup, as well as the Singaporean government, the leadership of Oxford University, and the team behind the regional Burning Man event in Australia were all able to overcome initial discomfort with the emergent character of the process to explore their potential contexts and choices more freely and more effectively than usual.

BB: Who are your projects for?

CC: They’re for everyone—or at the very least for me! They’re a way to satisfy my curiosity. My projects are more psychological now, but they started out very civic-minded. When I lived in New York City, I learned about Jane Jacobs and how she rallied her community to prevent the Lower Manhattan Expressway from being built in 1962. It still shocks me to think how different New York would be today if the Lower Manhattan Expressway happened, because the “slums” Robert Moses tried to clear out are now some of the greatest neighborhoods in the city. It made me think about all the cities that could have been, and how all the cities that we have today depend on who gets involved. When we make democracy more accessible, we make places that are more loved, more cared for and more meaningful to us for the rest of our lives. If we believe in greater democracy, our unbridled creativity is now required to design the situations in which this can happen.

That’s what I like about Stuart’s immersive, thought-provoking scenarios for residents to contemplate and kick around and challenge. It’s fun and engaging. There was a lot of talk in my urban planning classes about participatory planning as if we were holding the doors back to an excited, well-informed mob. In reality, there is no crowd on the other side of the door. Many people have an ambiguous understanding of civic processes, and many others are simply turned off by them. I’ve been to many community meetings that are so dreary, only the angry neighbors are excited enough to show up. There are a lot of opportunities to re-imagine civic engagement so that people are inspired to get involved in shaping the future of their community.

SC: A colleague asked recently whether thinking about the future is a privilege or a right. Unfortunately, it’s actually a luxury. Many may have the motive, but few have the means or the opportunity. But this is not how things ought to work. Normatively, thinking about futures is everyone’s right. My work is interested in making futures more available, accessible, habitual. It’s about urging people to claim their license to spend time and creative effort there. With this broad mission in mind, participation can look very different from one engagement to another.

I think this work is for people willing to ask questions and entertain new ideas about the future. That’s less a demographic than a psychographic—or better, a mindset—that you try to bring out among whoever comes along, by providing opportunities to think differently.

Another aspect of “who is this for,” is that currently I do a good deal of work in an education setting. OCAD U has the world’s first academic program in design and foresight, that’s what drew me there. It’s exciting to help spread this practiceto where practitioners are trained. This lets us access a higher leverage point in the system—how emerging designers are acculturated. You try things out by setting briefs and developing methods, then see how a range of different minds adapt and work the process through. The classroom becomes a lab, and students—bringing their own backgrounds and concerns, intentions and publics—extend experimentation into places one might not think or choose to go oneself. I find this a more generative way to work than just doing my own stuff all the time, and it also ultimately makes the work “for” a wider and more flexible constituency.

BB: Are your projects provocations, or something else?

CC: Each project is an experiment that challenges what our public spaces are fundamentally made of and how they might better reflect what we value as human beings. After I lost someone I loved, I went through a long period of depression.I made the Before I Die project as a way to make sense of my grief and find consolation with my neighbors. Their responses helped me more than they will ever know, and I’ve learned just how universal our struggles and desires are after reading responses from Before I Die walls in over 70 countries. I saw even more struggles in the Confessions project. From my experiences, people are yearning for safe spaces to be honest and vulnerable with the people around them. It’s cathartic and consoling. You’re not alone as you’re trying to make sense of your life. You’re not the only one who feels like they’re barely keeping it together.

During one of my gloomiest periods of existential confusion,I found a lot of comfort in a book called The Middle Passage by Jungian analyst James Hollis. He said, “In the end, we are only tiny frightened animals, doing our best to survive amid other tiny frightened animals.” This always consoles me. I returnto this sentence when I lose perspective, and it’s somethingI remember when I consider our communities. Our personal anxieties extend into our public life and many of the conflicts in our communities come from a lack of trust and understanding. There are a lot of barriers to opening up and while the barriers remain, it’s easy to forget the humanity in the people around us and become impersonal, and even adversarial. These personal, anonymous prompts offer a gentle first step towards honesty and vulnerability in public, which can lead to trust and under- standing. These are essential elements for a more compassionate society. They’re essential elements for social cohesion.

SC: A provocation can spur thought when it succeeds, but sometimes it generates rejection. There’s probably a need to invite or seduce as often as to provoke. I’m interested more and more in projects—and Candy has done many of these wonderfully—that enable people to generate their own ideas, as opposed to responding to ours.

The Thing From The Future, for instance, is a card game that my Situation Lab co-director Jeff Watson and I designed. People have used it as a tool for warming up to strategic conversation, for design ideation and prototyping, and as a partygame played for fun. This combinatorial prompt generator, as you understand how it scaffolds imagination, becomes very adaptable and useful. We recently released the game undera Creative Commons license so players can customize it more easily to their local contexts and needs. I like projects that offer frameworks for participation and produce surprises. Instead of specifying an experience in every detail, they offer conditions that invite others to grow their own.

BB: What does the future mean to you? Is it a worry, an invitation, something else entirely?

SC: Ashis Nandy calls futures a “game of dissenting visions.” It’s a gift of sorts, a psychedelic playground where we can make new perceptions and actions possible, and incubate real and far-reaching change.

Another brilliant cultural commentator from India, Shiv Visvanathan, invites us to see the future as a commons. I love this idea. Public imagination is the ultimate renewable resource; we are still learning how to use it wisely.

CC: The future is something I’m excited to shape with others. I’m interested in the relationship between public space and mental health. The urban historian Lewis Mumford once wrote that the origin of society, the reason we came together in the first place, was not just for pure physical survival but also for “a more valuable and meaningful kind of life.” Some of the first gathering places were graves and sacred groves. We gathered to grieve together, worship together, console one another and wonder together. I think one of the greatest missions of modern cities is emotional communion. Not only does this serve fundamental needs of the human spirit, it cultivates compassion and trust, which are vital for civic respect and collaboration. I’d like to expose more of our interior world in public so attention to mental health becomes less stigmatized. I’m currently creating a public device for philosophical reflection that is inspired by the I Ching.

I’m also intrigued by how we deal and don’t deal with death. After anthropologist Ernest Becker wrote the book The Denial of Death in 1973, a theory emerged called terror management. In a nutshell, it argues that legitimate anxiety about our impending deaths was solved by creating cultures that provide comforting arrangements, including the hope for immortality. Immortality can be literal, as in heaven or reincarnation,or symbolic, as in publishing a book or having children. Our current cultures try to give us meaning and value, but they can also distract us and take us away from the deep encounter with ourselves. This helps to remind me that culture is man-made and we can change it.


LEAP Dialogues –– all 360 glorious pages of it –– is available to order here.

(Update 14jul16: pdf of the above interview can be found here.)

> Designing futures
> Architectural time travel
> Strategic foresight meets tactical media
Dreaming together

Wednesday, May 11, 2016


What if you could reap the health benefits of spending time in nature––for productivity, creativity, and stress relief––without even leaving your office?

All this is coming soon to a cubicle near you.

Canada's largest architecture and design trade show recently saw the global launch of a new product called NaturePod™.

Each unit provides intensive personal exposure to sounds, imagery, and (selectively) smells of various natural environments. The system gently guides the user through its Natural Resonance Imaging® technology, which maps the brain's real time responses to specific stimuli. A helpful Relaxation Status Display appears in the field of view throughout.

Capitalising on the latest findings in environmental neuroscience, the product's Toronto-based creators claim that their patented personal wellness system brings restorative benefits equivalent to, or even greater than, nature in the raw.

At IIDEXCanada, all a new user had to do to get started was adjust the Pod Body to their particular dimensions, and calibrate the Pod Headset's stereoscopic display to their personal IPD (interpupillary distance), before immersing in one of three demo environments: a lush valley mid-summer, snow-covered mountains in winter, or a temperate forest in spring.

Of thousands in attendance at this annual design exhibition and conferences––which included summits on Healthcare, Wellness, and Accessibility in the built environment––many who got to try NaturePod™ first hand were immediately enchanted, and prepared to buy or lease the devices on the spot.

But frankly, reactions were mixed. A few declared their horror at the idea that anyone might try to substitute a new gadget for the experience of forest.

Even so, no one appeared to have any difficulty believing that this was a real product being offered to mitigate the chronic disconnect of modern urban dwellers from the experience of nature.

In fact NaturePod is design fiction––for now.

It's an experiential foresight project in the public interest; a scenario set five years into the future but brought to life today, created by a team of graduate students from OCAD University's Strategic Foresight and Innovation program, and led by me under Situation Lab auspices.

Neither a prediction nor a preference, but a provocation, we wanted to use design and performance to invite consideration of how our relationship to nature in cities is changing, and contribute to a dialogue about potential differences between our current direction, and what we might collectively want.

The people in the video above are responding to a direct experience, not to a hypothetical question.


"Powerful critical design does not present itself as critical design. Powerful design fiction does not present itself as fiction."
- Matt Manos



A few hints about the future setting were planted, including a full-page advertisement in the Show Catalogue announcing the release of the product in Fall 02021, but we were shooting for present-day realism in the encounter. The aim was to let folks come to their own genuine conclusions about the whole idea before the hypothetical status was revealed. The story told in the video has the same structure.

This unusual project grew out of a Time Machine, an Experiential Futures module that I created in 02013 and have taught each semester for the past three years at OCAD University.

That particular run of the Foresight Studio course, just over a year ago, was co-taught with the marvellous Suzanne Stein. One group of our students––Bergur Ebbi Benediktsson, Nourhan Hegazy, Jennifer McDougall, and Prateeksha Singh––spent the semester exploring the futures of humanity's relationship with the environment. When it came to the Time Machine, their response was ingenious; they created a "Nature Deficit Disorder Clinic" from 02040. In this experiential scenario set a generation from today, daily contact with nature is rare. The deficit is both ubiquitous and medicalised. People try to mitigate it with oxygen supplements and exposure to simulated forest, gauging their progress via brain scans.

A top Canadian environmental advocacy organisation, the David Suzuki Foundation, had served as this group's external partner throughout the class, and at their request we re-staged the NDD Clinic on Earth Day 02015 for the Foundation's employees and industry partners. Among the attendees was Canada's head of marketing for Interface, Inc.

Interface is a rather remarkable company. (You might know them from the documentary The Corporation, and especially the influential voice of their late founder Ray Anderson.) They're the world's leading carpet tile manufacturer, and also a global trailblazer in corporate sustainability. By no means is this a typical combination.

They engaged Situation Lab to create an experiential scenario to nudge their customers and others towards a deeper conversation about humanity's changing relationship to nature in the built environment. The same highly talented group of four graduate students came aboard to adapt the original concept for a totally different context: instead of a room-specific, 20-minute immersive installation for a captive audience of 20-30 members, we were to make this experiential scenario available to thousands of people over two full days at one of the largest expositions of its kind in North America.

Now, in the architecture and interior design world, it turns out that there is already lively discussion underway about (E.O. Wilson's term) "biophilia" in a design context, for instance in the 02015 report, Human Spaces: The Global Impact of Biophilic Design in the Workplace.

Biophilia refers to the "instinctive bond between human beings and other living systems"; a bond variously accommodated or cheerfully ignored by present urban and building designs. We designed NaturePod as an experiential contribution to both broaden and deepen the conversation. What are the implications for our wellbeing of trying to close the nature gap using increasingly sophisticated imitations? Where might that lead?

While evidently exercising a degree of creative licence to prototype possibilities from half a decade out, our imaginings were tied to real research. Readers curious about the current science behind these developments in nature simulation and related themes can find plenty of material for further investigation (for example: de Kort et al, 02006Kahn et al, 02008Kahn et al, 02009Kjellgren and Buhrkall, 02010;  Valtchanov, 02010; Valtchanov et al, 02010Valtchanov and Ellard, 02015).

What I love about the project is that this visionary company took such an unusual step, sponsoring a guerrilla futures intervention to urge industry and public engagement with issues that matter and affect everyone. (To the extent that corporate entities have engaged in experiential futures or speculative design previously, the results have tended toward the shamelessly commercial and trite, as Noah Raford has persuasively argued.)

NaturePod™ comes almost a decade after the first experiments in what we've come to think of as a special strand of publicly-oriented foresight work. Guerrilla futures combines strategic foresight and tactical media to produce unexpected encounters with possible worlds (see FoundFutures, for instance). Injecting possibilities into the present lets us think and feel new potentials, not "merely" hypothetical, in a mode of exploration squarely located where serious investigation meets play. (See Chapter 5 of The Futures of Everyday Life for more.)

This may be a first for corporate use of experiential futures / design fiction in guerrilla mode, and it is our hope that it provides a bracing contribution to design conversation far and wide.

Thanks and bravo to Interface, and to our marvellous design team: Berg, Jennie, Nour, and Prat! Huge thanks to all participants, assistants, volunteers and supporters; full project credits appear beneath the video.

Stills by Connie Tsang.
Videography by Filip Vukcevic.

Strategic Foresight meets Tactical Media
> The Futures of Everyday Life
> Guerrilla futures performance at South by Southwest
> FoundFutures: Chinatown

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Foresight is a right

Artwork: Mural by the Community Qolla Ayllu Cutimuy of Villa Elisa, La Plata, Buenos Aires[source].


A while back, a futures student posted on one of our community email lists a question that I've kept coming back to in my mind.

Is thinking about the future a right or a privilege?

This is interesting because it gets at a central paradox that one inhabits as a futurist. On the one hand, it's clearly a right. As human beings, whatever our physical limitations may be, we enjoy – as we must – a capacity to roam freely in the imagination. To hope, to dream, to explore. What could be more basic? (Zia Sardar's splendid 01999 collection, Rescuing All Our Futures, acknowledges and builds on this notion, looking at it primarily though a critical cultural and decolonial lens.) Consider too our historical situation: enmeshed in a fast-changing world, being able to think ahead is apparently a prerequisite for successfully navigating that change as individuals and as communities. So, yeah: foresight is a right.

On the other hand, foresight is evidently a privilege. Many people are so overwhelmed with the concerns and pressures of the day-to-day that the idea of spending time engaged with the longer term outside of the occasional daydream is a barely imaginable luxury. People are unaccustomed to thinking futures and tend to discount them: it was this recognition that prompted our first steps ten years ago towards what became Experiential Futures practice. Also, professional futurists are still a rare species, numbering in the hundreds worldwide. A majority of companies, universities, and governments lack proper mechanisms for incorporating foresight into their work. Similarly in the realm of education; despite basic education itself now being a global norm, few students even get to find out that the foresight field exists, let alone study it. Foresight is also a privilege.

A paradox then: normatively foresight is a right, descriptively it's a luxury. It's something everyone should be able to do, but in reality few have the opportunity. We need to close this gap, and there are some encouraging signs that things may be moving in the right direction.

There's Teach The Future, a project of long time futures educator Peter Bishop, "to establish futures thinking as a natural component of secondary, post-secondary and professional education". This wonderful initiative builds on a half century-old pedagogical tradition in futures studies, seeking to make it available to all.

There's the proposal by strategic consultant Jeff De Cagna that a Duty of Foresight be embraced by association boards alongside their existing legally established duties of care, loyalty and obedience. Law being part of my background, I find this very interesting: a legal obligation to think ahead more methodically could be quite a powerful measure.

This month (April 02016), there was a promising court decision where a federal US judge found in favour of a group of young people, aged between 8 and 19, seeking to sue the United States government for inaction on climate change, in light of harm to both their own interests and those of future generations.

And there are also assorted experiments with formal mechanisms embedding foresight in state governance. Some years ago Bolivia passed the Ley de Derechos de la Madre Tierra (Cormac Cullinan's wonderful book Wild Law covers this earth-centric legal territory very well). Sweden now has a Minister of Future Issues; her name is Kristina Persson. Finnish Parliament has a standing permanent Committee for the Future. In just the past week, my colleague Noah Raford shared the news that the Dubai Future Foundation has been established through a waqf, or perpetual charitable trust, "to shape the future of the strategic sectors in cooperation with the government and private sector".  Many jurisdictions have seen proposals or undertaken efforts towards various institutions of foresight – which, covered properly, would be a much longer post.

Admittedly this is all a bit impressionistic. We could stand to be rather more systematic about tracking signals towards what Richard Slaughter usefully described twenty years ago as social foresight; a collective capacity to engage the long term [full text].

It is more than a decade since Andy Hines, now head of the futures program at University of Houston, proposed an "audit for organisational futurists" [full text pdf] to implement and monitor progress within organisations. Perhaps the time has come for the field to take steps towards a larger-scale foresight audit – a Foresight Census, to monitor the shape of these activities and spread of capacities around the world.

Foresight is indeed a right, it seems to me. But we are extraordinarily fortunate to be part of an era in which it is also, Inshallah, becoming a norm.

> Dreaming together
Crimes against future generations
> Questioning hyperopia
Generational change
> Politicians discussing global warming

Thursday, December 31, 2015

Journalism from the future

[Update 30jun16: added El-Erian article on Brexit.]

I recently joined the advisory board of a startup called Scout, a crowdfunded project out of Seattle that's "accelerating the creation of a better future through stories, conversations, and prototypes". In other words, the initiative is about developing a platform combining journalism and science fiction. A discussion with Scout's co-founders Berit Anderson and Brett Horvath about how those two traditions come together reminded me of something I've been meaning to share here.

Every now and then, there surfaces a piece of writing that uses the formats and tropes of nonfiction reportage to explore a future scenario diegetically. Such writing can dramatise a point of view on the future(s) to great effect. To say it's diegetic means that it's framed "from" or "within" the hypothetical, as opposed to the more common, and literal-minded, mode of explicit speculation about what could or "will" happen from the vantage point of today.

Conventional prospective or speculative journalism holds the future at arm's length, pontificating. Diegetic reporting actually goes there. It's journalism's version of the "artifact from the future".

Now, scenario writing for formal foresight processes often uses a similar communicative gambit. Still, I find it refreshing when real journos and writers use their skillsets and bully pulpits around the mediascape to tackle this territory. Not to denigrate the efforts of *cough* well-meaning futures types, but when a writer has mastery of those forms and genres which authoritatively mediate developments in the wider world (or seem to), it gives an enormous boost to their readers' capacity to entertain a hypothetical context.  This can range from breaking-news reports to long form historical analysis. In any event, part of what makes future journalism tick is the same thing that can make asserting possibilities in materiality so effective: it brings the future to life.

Another vector to this post comes from The Economist, which a few months ago launched The World If..., a welcome (nay, overdue) effort from a mainstream media brand to systematise some kind of imaginative engagement with possibilities. But in selecting the format they missed a big opportunity. Instead of using their own journalistic idiom to perform future events and analysis, compellingly demonstrating to readers the cultural, commercial, political and strategic implications of each "what if", the articles peer at the possibilities from an armchair planted firmly in the present.

So for those occasions when scenarios are best communicated in writing, we should seek to get a better handle on what works, and why. Below is a starter list of diegetic "journalism from the future" articles. What could be called "future longreads" are starred. *

By the way, let us distinguish what's covered here from a cloud of related approaches which deserve examination elsewhere:
Newspapers from the future: a classic, even clichéd way to mediate a future scenario, but with good reason. Cases range from the Yes Men's brilliant 02008 real-world intervention The New York Times Special Edition, to Near Future Laboratory's recent paper about the future of football, to the famous prop in Back to the Future Part II [as per the pic at the top of this post; and while it's true that this isn't exactly an example of what this post is about, BTTF Day was just recently – so there we are].
Scenarios: Stories produced by futurists specifically for strategic conversation-prodding purposes often incorporate diegetic, and frequently first-person, accounts of future events. Like this.
Future headlines: These are a staple of shorthand scenario-writing (see Ogilvy and Schwartz, Plotting Your Scenarios, p. 9).
Video/audio news reports: there are a lot of these around, the main lesson of which to date appears to be that they are super hard to do well. The best might still be Orson Welles's brilliant 01938 War of the Worlds radio broadcast, which is very nearly an experiential scenario (it's discussed at length in terms of its effectiveness and ethical calculus here, pp. 272 ff).
Diegetic future documentary: see here.
Entire books framed as documents of a future or alternative present: a favourite example, offhand, is Michael Crichton's Andromeda Strain, the verisimilitude and plausibility of which are bolstered with in-story textual artifacts such as scientific journal references. Five centuries earlier, Thomas More's Utopia did something similar (see here pp. 266-267).


Alan S. Drake, The Oil Drum
USA 2034: A Look Back at the 25th Anniversary Year
Set in 02034 (published 02007)

Mohamed A. El-Erian, Bloomberg
Imagining the U.K. and the EU Three Years After Brexit, 02019 (02016)

James Fallows, The Atlantic
Countdown to a Meltdown, 02016 (02005)

Niall Ferguson, Time
The Nation That Fell To Earth, 02031 (02006)

Jeff Goodell, Rolling Stone
Goodbye, Miami, 02030 (02013)

Rebecca Solnit,
The Age of Mammals: Looking Back on the First Quarter of the Twenty-First Century, 02026 (02006)

Michael Rogers, NBC News
Synthetic actors: an interview from the future, 02022 (02005)
What is the worth of words? 02025 (02006)

Bruce Sterling, Wired
Dispatches from the Hyperlocal Future, 02017 (02007)


This is a stub; no doubt there are many more instances around. I'd be happy to add (and credit) suggestions that readers may share.

> Death of a President
A history of experiential futures
The New York Times Special Edition
> Video reports from the future
Four future news clips from MIT
Humans have 23 years to go
> The Future of Church

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Dreaming Together

Below is the text of an article I wrote for Made Up: Design's Fictions, a collection edited by Tim Durfee and Mimi Zeiger at the Art Center College of Design.

Artwork: Willie Riley Japanangka, Bush Plum and Snake. [source].


In my first year of university, I remember reading Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. One passage in particular leapt out at me:

It is impossible to convey the life sensation of any given epoch of any one’s existence – that which makes its truth, its meaning, its subtle and penetrating essence. It is impossible. We live, as we dream – alone.

Something in my eighteen year-old mind resonated with this expression of fundamental existential loneliness which I suspect everyone feels to a degree as they come of age. But these words haunted me for years, and I’m not entirely sure why. It may be that I was grappling with this paradox: Are we truly condemned to live and dream alone? All of us?

Much more recently I read a novel by Arthur C. Clarke, Childhood’s End. It’s a terrific story, and has stood up well over something like fifty years; although here, as always, there’s nothing so characteristic of an age’s thinking as its science fiction. Clarke is of course most famous for co-writing with director Stanley Kubrick the epic 01968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey. Of all sci-fi writers, he strikes me as remarkable for the way his imagination burned to achieve escape velocity from the culture of his era – not to mention his species; to dream a way out into truly different times and places, and take us there.

It was reflecting on Clarke’s feats of imagination that got me to wondering about the odd fact that our brains are not temporally bound. There’s no physical limitation preventing us from cognising wildly different and yet fully coherent life-settings in detail. Anatomically, human brains across the planet, and over tens of thousands of years, haven’t really varied much. Yet the variety of worlds – landscapes, cultures, languages, values, technosocial setups – that the human brain has managed to host, to create and navigate, has been enormous. The very fact that each of us today carries in mind a model of our personal context and surroundings at this historical moment, a world in many ways unimaginable to our ancestors, underlines that in principle we’re capable of imagining equally disparate possible worlds of the future – even if we generally don’t. It’s what our minds are surrounded and scaffolded with that makes all the difference.

“Unimaginable” is not absolute, it’s situational. The reason that this matters, I suggest, is that it points to a missing piece in our modern technoculture: I think we have a chronically impoverished practice of public imagination. Yes, there’s Arthur C. Clarke, and Godzilla, and Star Trek, and many other speculative entertainments before and since; but for “serious” purposes – governance, politics, and the “real” worlds we shape using those processes – we simply have not developed a habit of imagining and sharing the long-range scenarios at issue in any concrete way. Meanwhile the massive failure to understand our power as a species and to exercise it with anything approaching strategic foresight, let alone wisdom, is producing epically hairy environmental, economic and other consequences that are increasingly plain to see.

This is not a new line of thought. Noting the curious imbalance that we have countless thousands of history specialists and yet pay scarcely any serious attention to the rest of time, it is now over eighty years since the stupendously influential author H.G. Wells (The War of the Worlds, The Time Machine, The Invisible Man) called for Professors of Foresight. Some inroads have been made on that front since; indeed the entire scholarly field of futures studies, also known as foresight, speaks to the need highlighted by Wells in 01932.

Nigh on half a century has passed since Alvin Toffler observed, in a classic article which led to his 01970 bestseller Future Shock, that we have no “heritage of the future”. This observation goes right to my point about the need for an overall cultural capacity, toward which an academic field has proven to be only a partial solution: our inherent and permanent lack of a future “heritage” means we have to work hard to create one. And although certainly a challenge, the creation of tangible compensations for our lopsided temporal inheritance can certainly be done, as the emerging practitioners of experiential futures and design fiction are now learning.

It seems to me that the stakes and eventual possibilities for these hybrid forms of design are far greater than one might suspect from watching highly produced videos on the thrilling future of glassware, or prototypes of nifty gestural computer interfaces.

For when it comes to the process of public choice – the way humanity supposedly shapes its destiny in our ostensibly most “developed” communities – we congratulate ourselves on the accomplishment of democracy, and fret endlessly over its procedures; the whos and hows of voting; the rituals of deliberation (the weighing of alternatives) and decision (the killing of alternatives when we make a choice). But regardless of who votes, what is the real meaning of any such choices if the alternatives among which we are selecting are underimagined, or clichéd – or simply absent?

Whatever their personal shortcomings, I locate the problem not with political candidates but in the scandalously uninspired fodder used to generate public conversation. So where might we look for a solution?

My friend Natalie Jeremijenko, an engineer and artist, has described her work as being about the creation of ‘structures of participation’, a phrase I use often because to me it captures what good futures work does, too. Foresight practice involves creating structures of participation for co-imagining. Likewise, the task of governance is bound up with the design and use of structures of participation for collectively shaping the common good. To my mind, those appear in quite diverse forms and at different scales, ranging from the design of a meeting or conference, to the design of a political/legal system like the United States of America, and also to the design of a political and experiential futures intervention like the one I’m about to describe.

With foresight and design colleagues I have been doing experiential futures since 02006, and its roots and influences go back much further. Of all interventions that I know of in this vein, the most exciting to date is one I heard about shortly after it occurred during the Arab Spring. It is a significant illustration of the faculty of public imagination.

In January 02011 Tunisia ousted President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, ending a 23-year dictatorship. Immediately the economy started tanking – the revolutionaries hadn’t known they would succeed, and didn’t have detailed plans for next steps. With a backdrop of economic suspension and a political vacuum, what followed might have been as bad as what had gone before. What did in fact happen next was rather extraordinary.

A month after the revolution, for one day in February 02011, several newspapers, television and radio stations across the country reported as if it were June 16, 02014; three years and four months into the future. They reported stories from within a hypothetical future Tunisia enjoying newfound stability, democracy and prosperity.

Social media activity swarmed around the #16juin2014 hashtag (and for the first time led the national conversation to trend at number one on French Twitter), and critically, the mood and situation began to change as people imagined and debated the destiny of their country. The intervention also helped spread the call for Tunisians to get back to work, a key step towards recovery in the wake of the upheaval.

This remarkable story should prompt many questions, but the one we’re most interested in here is: how might a sustained commitment to structures of participation for public imagination work in other contexts at scale?

For instance, what if standard political brand-oriented advertising expenditure were curbed, and candidates instead had to produce feature documentaries not about, but “from” the future that their policies envision?

Most places have a library or museum dedicated to preserving their past; how about a public building dedicated to immersing visitors in an ever-evolving array of experiences of what the community could become one generation from today?

Or why couldn’t we set aside a public holiday each year, dedicated to staging a Festival of Possible Worlds in the streets, parks and piazzas of great cities around the globe?

Let us return to where we began. It is true that at some level, our personal experience can be only ours. But I no longer fear that we are condemned to dream alone.

I think that humanity is fundamentally psychedelic – quite literally: mind-manifesting – and that the history we collectively choose to live out in years and decades to come will depend on how well we cultivate public imagination, through experiential futures, large-scale participatory simulations, transmedia games, and the like.

I believe we can dream together, now. And I suspect that to the extent we rise to the challenge of good governance for the 21st century, that’s exactly what we will be doing on a regular basis.


> Video of the short presentation at Institute for the Future's ReConstitutional Convention on which this piece was based.
> Pdf version of the above including references. The full title is "Dreaming Together: Experiential Futures as a Platform for Public Imagination". (Note: The text was completed as shown here in mid-02013, except the version submitted for Made Up included the citations and endnotes found in the pdf, and did not include five-digit dates – that's tsf house style, yo. The editors have advised that the book's publication has been delayed several times. A link will be included here when it appears.)

The Futures of Everyday Life
> An experiential scenario for post-revolution Tunisia
A History of Experiential Futures 02006-02031
> Whose future is this?
The technology of public imagination
> TEDxFutures