Friday, March 27, 2009

Killer imps

The Royal College of Art on one of the days I visited (beautiful weather unforeseen)

Last week and the week before, I had the privilege of joining the Design Interactions department at the Royal College of Art (RCADI -- previously mentioned here) for several sessions as a Guest Lecturer. It was an exhilarating and exhausting experience with a brilliant group of people, and I loved every minute of it. One of the many benefits of this valuable chance to weave our idiosyncratic version of futures into their idiosyncratic version of design was that it forced me, or enabled me (or some combination of those) to become considerably clearer on how the two play together.

The lecture I delivered on 12 March at RCA was titled "Design Interactions with Futures". Our point of departure was my observation that, when it comes to the intersection of design practice and futures practice, we can for analytical purposes discern two principal tendencies, facing in different directions. One is futures in support of design, and the other is design in support of futures. (I'm continually surprised by how hard-won, how long in coming, such basic insights can be -- and how blindingly obvious in retrospect.)

Those categories denote pretty much what you would expect. Futures in support of design describes work in which the exploration of one or more future scenarios is finally subservient to the creation of products, services, or whatever. Examples might include the design probes conducted by companies such as Philips, Nokia and Whirlpool; or the concept designs produced by Adaptive Path, such as the Charmr diabetes treatment device, and the Aurora web browser. All of these use an extended time horizon, therefore unhooked from certain present-day constraints, to facilitate more creative exploration of the artifacts that might become possible in the short- to medium-term. They are all, however, ultimately about making things.

Intuitively enough, design in support of futures, by contrast, describes that type of practice where design output is not an end in itself, but rather is used as a means to discover, suggest, and provoke. This territory, where design aspires to contribute to The Great Conversation reaching well beyond the community of design practitioners itself, is host to such concepts as "critical design", "design for debate" (both terms long used by RCADI masterminds Tony Dunne and Fiona Raby), and "discursive design" (a phrase I first encountered in this recent Core77 article). It's also a much better fit for the work that Jake Dunagan and I, with our various collaborators, have been doing for the past several years via FoundFutures and elsewhere. Whether they take the form of "theory objects" (which is not a bad descriptor for the types of things RCADI students often make), or of less fragmented, more immersive "experiential scenarios", design in support of futures and its ilk are all about the conversations and insights made possible by manifesting futures tangibly in various media.

I don't want to overdo the distinction between these two, because clearly concept designs informed by futures may enable exploratory conversation or debate, just as critical design artifacts intended to spur conversation may lead to products. (The first example of an ambiguous melding of the two that comes to my mind is the output of the so-called "design led futures" program at Victoria University of Wellington, recently blogged here.) Indeed, the mutually informing, overlapping, properties of these two modes of work for me simply highlight how fruitfully chaotic the design + futures intersection can be.

Since sharing the above ideas in London, I've had occasion to take this strand of thought a little further, particularly in relation to the similarities between the experiential futures work we've done and the practice of "Design for Debate" developed by Dunne and Raby.

Paola Antonelli is senior curator of design and architecture at New York's Museum of Modern Art, which hosted the remarkable exhibition Design and the Elastic Mind last year, featuring the work of these critical design pioneers as well as several of their students. Earlier this week, in an article for SEED magazine, Antonelli wrote: "Design for Debate does not seek to produce immediately 'useful' objects, but rather meditative, harrowing, always beautiful object-based scenarios." Here's Dunne and Raby themselves on Design for Debate...*

Design today is concerned primarily with commercial and marketing activities but it could operate on a more intellectual level. It could place new technological developments within imaginary but believable everyday situations that would allow us to debate the implications of different technological futures before they happen.

This shift from thinking about applications to implications creates a need for new design roles, contexts and methods. It?s not only about designing for commercial, market-led contexts but also for broader societal ones. It?s not only about designing products that can be consumed and used today, but also imaginary ones that might exist in years to come. And, it?s not only about imagining things we desire, but also undesirable things -- cautionary tales that highlight what might happen if we carelessly introduce new technologies into society.

In conversation with the design duo over lunch last week, when they mentioned the distinction between applications and implications, it leapt out at me. Traditionally, design practice has been preoccupied with the former, whereas theirs, and that of their Design Interactions students, is more concerned with the latter. And it seems to me that this maps rather well onto what we examined a moment ago: "futures in support of design" amounts to an orientation to applications, while "design in support of futures" can be seen as pointing towards implications.

Applications are necessarily convergent -- concerning that part of the design process where ideas, intentions and constraints culminate and are distilled into solutions, embodiments of the exploration process. Implications, on the other hand, are intrinsically divergent, multiplicative, compound; not only are there alternative futures, but there are first, second, and third-order effects (and so on, as far as you care to go) for any given innovation or development you might name.

What futures uniquely contributes to the exploration of implications is a framework for the systematic exploration of these contingencies; ways of managing the mess of possibilities.

In exploring design applications, the futures component is by definition more instrumental. It is oriented to opening up new markets and product lines, and so is less apt to surprise or challenge in profound ways. It is preoccupied with the superficial "litany" layer of discourse, perhaps sometimes scratching the "social" layer too, as identified by academic futurist Sohail Inayatullah. Where the focus is on exploring implications, though, design is a vehicle by which futures are freed to unfold, and to take us where they will. Well-designed interactions "with" and experiences "of" future scenarios may help unearth, whether by challenge or gift, deeper dimensions such as desires, norms, and values. Put in terms of Inayatullah's framework, this entails addressing the worldview layer, and sometimes, maybe even touching our bedrock layer of metaphor and myth. That ideas about the future can be designed to be encountered and engaged affectively, as a part of the continuum of lived experience, rather than just linguistically and cognitively, as in a classic philosophical thought experiment, is essential. The key challenge, then, for those of us interested in this dimension of the design + futures conversation, is to figure out for any given scenario(s) which of the endless potential implications -- the folds and eddies we can detect in possibility space -- are the most potent, game-changing or significant, and to use these as triggers to take the contemplation of possible, probable and preferred futures to the deeper layers.

To put it another way, our lot (whether as "critical futurists" or "critical designers") is not to sniff out killer apps, but to acquire an instinct for identifying killer imps.

* These question marks appear in the original, in place of apostrophes. I was about to "correct" this formatting accident in the quote when I realised that it was entirely appropriate.

Related posts:
> Object-oriented futuring
> Tribal futures
> Morphing art and design into advertising
> Open Source futures and design
> Design led futures

9 comments:

Jennifer Jarratt said...

Hi Stuart
Interesting that we were tracking in this direction that you have so brilliantly evoked & explained at the APF Gathering at Pasadena Art Center College of Design last week. You and the RCA folks took it to a higher, maybe more philosophical level. The folks from Oz at Pasadena suggested they might want to make the same connections between futurists & designers in Oz. We may be looking at a complete new framing of futures work- a new cycle of futures thought that doesn't depend so much on technology and things.

stuart candy said...

Jennifer, thanks for sharing this thought. I'm taken with the idea of a "new cycle of futures thought" -- and action. It does have a sort of cyclical sense about it, being partly familiar and partly new at the same time.

But I'm tempted to qualify your observation that its chief characteristic is that it "doesn't depend so much on technology and things". Presumably you mean that this emerging practice is not preoccupied with simply forecasting the new tools and technologies coming our way. I think that's true. Still, part of what's exciting to me about this area of research and methodological innovation (design in support of futures, etc) is that it allows for a much more accommodating definition of what "technology" can mean (including, so to speak, social and discursive technologies). And it also seems to include a more flexible, that is, not so materialist, continuum of "things" on which we can place tangible foresight objects as a subset of the more abstract category of "theory objects" (which includes semantic attractors, like catchy terms and phrases). I don't think it's just futures that's in the process of transforming here, but discourse as a whole.

You know, in a way it's unfortunate that the APF event happened to coincide with this other commitment for me -- I know I'm sorry to have missed out on all the design + futures discussions in Pasadena. At another level, though, it's encouraging that there's so much going on at this intersection concurrently!

Jennifer Jarratt said...

Stuart
Yes, that sentence "technology and things" wasn't fully thought out. When I get excited about new connections and ideas, I get incoherent. Thanks for exploring it anyway!

The other intersection (which John Mahaffie & I are exploring) is what you mention as "theory objects", which we see as reframing - coming from the work of Lakoff and others. We believe the moral and emotional impact of framing the future is at least as important as an abstract forecast.

Design has also been in its own box, assigned to certain tasks in society and not others. Boxes, IMO, tend to resist busting open. It may be that now is an opportunity to make those new connections.

For me, your work at RCA validates this. I'm sure Lloyd and Cindy will think so too. Lloyd and Cindy opened the boxes of design & architecture to us in Pasadena, you've taken it a step further into futures life design. Lloyd talks about solving "wicked" problems - well we've got those!

stuart candy said...

Thanks again Jennifer. Yes, I'm looking forward to further discussions with both Lloyd and Cindy, as I know they've been paying close attention to these areas too.

On the theory objects / framing issue, you may have seen my recent post which talked about reframing contemporary images to evoke possible futures (by the way, this is a special talent of Belgian photographer Bram Goots, partner of our futurist colleague Maya van Leemput). But I think you're referring to something slightly different from that -- the affective dimension of how futures images are framed, beyond the "abstract forecast"; and I agree, this is extremely important. You also mention moral impact. It would be great to hear more about what you and John have discovered so far about these types of framing.

vahid v. motlagh said...

Hi Stuart,

I liked the idea of "design in support of futures". I might add that, as James A. Dewar pointed out in Assumption-based Planning, it is a well established notion among scenario builders that an "embellished" version of an unlikely event will tend to be seen as more likely to occur than would an unembellished version of the event, primarily because the embellishments themselves make the events seem more realistic. Such embellishments which have been shown by psychological researchers to be related to "conjunction fallacy" do not need to be only verbal in the sense that they should be reflected in some lengthy scenario text versus a short one, but also can embody some rich elements of art and design. So "design in support of futures" by "embellishments" would render the futurist possibility space more attractive to the extent that people will perceive it more realistic before going on with any further conversation and contemplation.

stuart candy said...

Vahid, thanks for stopping by. You raise a very interesting point.

One of the ways future scenarios work is by overspecifying scenaric detail, so to speak. The story contains far more elements than a prudent "forecast", and that's the point -- it enables exploration by tentatively assuming the world in more detail than can be reliably foreseen. Arguably, then, to translate scenarios into tangible forms via design practice takes things even further in this direction.

Put in psychological terms this could be seen as deliberately leveraging or exploiting a cognitive bias; namely, as you point out, the conjunction fallacy. We add detail to make the scenario appear more vivid, hence more probable than the bare bones, abstract version of it might. For some time (in language rather more philosophical than psychological, perhaps) I have been saying that future artifacts and experiences can assert their potential reality with a force that is much more difficult to deny than a similar proposition in purely verbal form.

Now, both you and I find this a perfectly acceptable solution to the difficult problem of having people seriously engage possibilities that could otherwise seem quite remote and irrelevant.

But we would be wise to acknowledge that it is fraught with ethical complications. As we well know, narratives, as well as imagery and designs embodying them, can be used to render certain supposed "possibilities" compelling -- whether terrorist threats, or sex crimes, or dandruff -- for purely commercial or ideological purposes, rather than that of exploration in good faith. Similarly, the fascist exploitation of spectacle in the mid-20th century led to decades of deep unease with its use for even quite legitimate purposes by the progressive left, to their great political detriment (as our good friend Stephen Duncombe suggests in Dream).

Very much depends, of course, on the details of who's communicating what scenario, to whom, when, and why. But even at the general level we can say this: to dwell on one possible future alone (whether on grounds of expectation, fear, or desire) lends itself more readily to concerns such as those sketched above, than does the examination of alternative futures on an ongoing basis.

This does not mean it's necessarily possible or desirable to pluralise each and every single-future exercise. Some projects (including for example a pandemic influenza scenario we're doing for Hawaii) are about coming to terms with the details of a particular contingency. Others are about drawing attention to an under-examined chunk of possibility space.

But generally, if one is committed to alternative futures, instrumentally deploying imagination-bolstering details to help render them accessible and plausible, is an indispensable part of what we do.

Vahid, it would be fascinating to know of any futures work incorporating design that you do, or know about, in Iran.

AFcrew said...

Hi Stuart,

Good to read up on your design and futures experience. Great descriptor also your “killer imps”.

At the outset of yr post my attention was drawn by the phrase “our idiosyncratic version of futures”. I wanted to ask you to elaborate a little on why our version is idiosyncratic and also whose version exactly it is. Reading on of course your post actually spells out that “our version” (a version that concerns itself with imps rather than apps) is the critical version.

So now I’m trying to figure out what it means and if it is helpful to call critical theory in general idiosyncratic. Maybe this is not your kind of question, but if you have any thoughts on this, I'd be most interested.

Also, thanks for mentioning Bram's re-framing photography, you'll hear from me soon with more about this.

All the best, xx, M-

stuart candy said...

Hi AFcrew - or can I call you Maya? :)

What you’re asking about was not a turn of phrase I laboured over, and there's a risk the whole idea may evaporate if examined too closely, but...

"Idiosyncratic" here was meant to signal that, although our encounter brought design and futures together, neither RCA’s "design interactions", nor Manoa’s "alternative futures" should be mistaken for representatives of the main currents of industrial design or future-oriented thinking, respectively.

I can’t say whether the word is helpful as a description of critical theory in general.

With reference to the "we" implied by "our"… as you know, there’s the "we" dedicated to futureS in the plural (which is I suspect outnumbered by monofuturists, one way or another). Then, within futures studies and research, the version here in Hawaii is the approach Jim Dator has developed and taught for several decades, known in the academic futures community as the Manoa School. It is characteristically wide-ranging, and involves generating (often using the four "generic images of the future", or GIFs) broad accounts of alternative futures, usually set three to five decades out. These are typically more far-reaching and exploratory, and in that sense more politically challenging, than the more strategic, decision-oriented, instrumental scenarios produced in the Royal Dutch-Shell/Peter Schwartz/GBN tradition. (I’m answering a question with a quick sketch, not doing a comprehensive comparison here – but I should add that these need not be seen as competing frameworks, since they have different applications; each is useful for its own purposes.) Although variants of the Manoa School -- and GIFs, whether called that or not -- are used by a widely dispersed group of generations of Manoa alumni, teachers and consultants, and their mentees in turn, it has not so far infiltrated the kind of hit business book you might find, say, in an airport. So among futurists “we” remain idiosyncratic, or in a minority, in that sense.

But I suspect the more pertinent “we” is probably the offshoot of the Manoa tradition which Jake Dunagan and I have been developing, the experiential manifestation of alternative futures, or “experiential futures”.

These questions of terminology and lineage lend themselves to the kind of endless discussion that I prefer to avoid, but I hope that helps clarify what I was getting at. Another thing, while we’re on the subject, is that although I sometimes use the term “critical” I don’t necessarily think that it is necessarily to be preferred, either -- with its 01968 air of defiance that seems to condemn all thought that travels under that rubric to perpetual outsiderdom.

Still, there is in all this a sense of constant questioning, striving for something else, opening space for new perspectives. Ashis Nandy calls futures "a game of dissenting visions". Perhaps it’s not so much that these ideas or frameworks of practice (in either futures or design) should be seen as idiosyncratic in themselves, but rather that they are at least allies, and at best generators, of idiosyncrasy.

AFcrew said...

Hey Stuart,
Yes AFcrew that's me, thanks for your reply. A double thanks because I do understand you prefer not to be be drawn into lengthy discussions of terminology. To read you confirm 'not main current' and 'minority'at the same time you turn down perpetual outsiderdom is helpful, that's what I was trying to think about.'Generators of idiosyncrasy' is spot on too, thx, M-