Friday, November 13, 2009

The Unthinkable and the Unimaginable

Update (25MAR10): Video of the lecture (minus the interesting post-talk Q&A, unfortunately), made available on YouTube courtesy of CCA, is now posted here too.

Update (6APR10): This presentation is also now downloadable on iTunesU, together with others in the same lecture series by presenters including designer Tim Brown, artist Guillermo Gómez-Peña, and critical theorist Donna Haraway. (Thanks to Garry Golden for unearthing this.)

Last night I had the pleasure of guest lecturing at the California College of the Arts (CCA) in San Francisco. The title was "The Unthinkable and the Unimaginable: Why Futures and Design are Getting Married". Our starting point came from a speech, ever on-target, by scifi-and-design prophet Bruce Sterling at South By Southwest back in 02006:

We’re on a kind of slider bar, between the Unthinkable, and the Unimaginable, now. Between the grim meathook future, and the bright green future. And there are ways out of this situation: there are actual ways to move the slider from one side to the other. Except we haven’t invented the words for them yet.

(This talk by Sterling, by the way, is a tour de force, even by his exceptional standards: check out the mp3 via BoingBoing, and full transcript via blogger Sean Harton. Sterling also did an excellent and, it seems to me, overlooked talk about the intersection of futures and design in this same CCA lecture series, back in 02006, highly recommended: video at

An outline of last night's presentation...

It is our critical collective need to be able to think the supposedly "unthinkable", and imagine the "unimaginable", that is driving the merger of futures and design practices. Futures provides a big-picture context and sense of the stakes for design work, and design brings concreteness and communicative effectiveness to futures. Together they can do far more than simply convey propositional content about possible futures; they enable otherwise schematic, affect-free, "flat" images of the future to be fleshed out, thought and felt -- in a word, experienced -- in a more profound way.

But the notions of unthinkable and unimaginable are just the extremes of a normative spectrum: dystopian (unthinkably bad) at one end, and utopian (unimaginably good) at the other. As important for our collective well-being as it is to engage these edge-cases, part of the offer of this union of design and futures thought/practice is to move beyond the long-standing and limited utopia/dystopia binary. We need to be able to think, and feel, the "possibility space" of alternative futures in more dimensions -- ones not pre-designated (often thought-stoppingly) as desirable or undesirable. To do this, we can use Jim Dator's four generic images of the future (GIFs): continue, collapse, discipline, transform. Dator's framework, which groups scenarios into sets of narratives based on the trajectory of change that they express, can be -- and for many years at HRCFS, actually has been -- deployed generatively to map and explore the "four corners of possibility space", providing a way to range imaginatively and yet systematically towards the outer limits of possible futures, before proceeding to home in on probable and preferable ones.

The meat of the lecture lay in examining a whole series of projects which exemplify the marriage of design and futures work. My focus was on those efforts I knew best, that is, in which I was personally involved -- mostly undertaken in Hawaii over the past four years in collaboration with Jake Dunagan and a variety of artists and designers (above all Matthew Jensen and Yumi Vong). Some of the projects discussed may already be familiar to readers of this blog -- the experiential futures produced for the "Hawaii 2050" kickoff; FoundFutures artifacts including Postcards from the Future and the Chinatown project; our intervention at SXSW '08; the show curated by Sally Szwed at CCA's own Wattis Institute, and more. These stand as part of an emerging breed of exploratory design/futures work that attempts, we could say, the coinage of some of those needful words Sterling references in the quote above. Except that an important part of this new vocabulary comprises not literally words, but rather objects and experiences, and the methodological approaches that help call them into being.

It was great to have an opportunity to discuss these ideas with such an attentive, curious audience, and I am told that this instalment of the CCA's Graduate Studies Lecture Series will shortly be available online. I'll post when that happens. Many thanks to Nathan Shedroff, Nathalie Kakone, Brenda Laurel and others at CCA who helped organise the event.

Also, while we're in update mode, I should add a word or two about what's been going on here at the sceptical futuryst. In the busy time since my last post, I've joined the Executive Board of the World Futures Studies Federation, passed my comprehensive exams and begun writing my doctoral dissertation, and unofficially relocated my base of operations to the San Francisco Bay Area. I have a load of material to blog, but dissertation-writing remains top priority for the time being. Still, I do expect to be able to post here more frequently than I have in recent times, so please do get in touch [stuart at futuryst dot com] if you spot anything that belongs in the mix!


John said...

Are you aware of the "Strategic Foresight and Innovation" program at the Ontartio College of Art and Design in Toronto, that is trying to be exactly this mix of design and futures (with a little business thrown in for good measure)?

stuart candy said...

Hi John, thanks for your comment. Yes, I heard about the new OCAD program earlier this year, and understand it kicked off in September. Looking forward to hearing how it develops -- it's certainly a promising approach.

The CCA's MBA in Design Strategy (chaired by Nathan Shedroff, who invited me to give this lecture) is pursuing a similar mix.

clem bezold said...

what is your dissertation on?
Clem Bezold

stuart candy said...

Hi Clem, it's about the design and politics of experiential scenarios.

Dissertation Writing Help said...

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stuart candy said...

Wow, spammers are getting crafty: vague connection to the post topic, flattery, the works.

crobisch said...

I was on UH's poli sci page the other day, and came across the futures studies program. I had never heard of this field before, and the description like a course in imagination and speculation. Needless to say, I was left feeling as though it was merely meaningful within academia. However, stumbling across your lecture made me understand how important experiential futures is to the collective society. I'm thoroughly interested and inspired to learn more! Can you suggest anymore lectures, articles, or books that can help me understand futures even more?



stuart candy said...

Hi Chris, glad to hear this struck a chord with you.

For more on futures studies generally, I'd suggest checking out Jim Dator's introductory futures course POLS 171 -- the syllabus is here, together with those for Dator's other classes. Some of the articles and books listed there can be found pretty easily on the web, while for others you might need to do a bit more legwork. (Actually, I think POLS 171 can still be taken online in its entirety.)

If you have access to a university library, try to locate Wendell Bell's "Foundations of Futures Studies", or Richard Slaughter's "Knowledge Base of Futures Studies" -- both good, multi-volume introductory texts.

For more on "experiential futures" specifically, this blog should provide the introductory material you're after.

If any of this raises further questions, hit me up again.

crobisch said...

Thanks, I appreciate the information! I found Jim Dator's POLS 171 syllabus the other day, and I've read several of his papers. Futures has definitely sparked an interest that I didn't expect! I'm going to attempt to locate those books, and I'll most likely take you up on the offer of answering my questions.

Thanks again,


crobisch said...


This might be a rather stupid question, but after reading some more into futures, mainly papers written by Jim Dator, I’ve began wondering about whether or not there is some sort of code of ethics for the invention & use of experiential futures. It seems to me that futures, like those you’ve been a part of, are a powerful rhetorical device, not that futures are necessarily aimed at ultimately persuading individuals to side with a particular argument, but nevertheless I’m still curious to know if there is something along the lines of Quintilian’s “a good man speaking well.” I can’t help but think that experiential futures can, and probably have been abused by those trying to further their own preferred future – I’m in no way suggesting you have done this. However, there is undeniably an ability within this field to propagandize groups of people through emotions & false logic – any number of past dictators could’ve implemented experiential futures as a means to their ends. I’m sure that this question is cliché & simplistic, but please be patient with me, as I’m merely trying to grasp the concepts.



P.S. if you'd like to reply to me via email feel free to do so - I'd hate to fill your page with my

stuart candy said...

Great question, Chris, on a very important topic. One of the chapters of my PhD dissertation deals with the ethical dimension of this work.

First consider the sorts of questions that relate to more common sites of rhetoric and persuasion, such as advertising, or political speechmaking. There are grounds for concern about falsehood, opinion or arbitrary ideological preference being presented as fact, or about people being talked into acting against their better interests. Similar issues apply to futures practice across the board (as you seemed to intuit), not just the experiential stuff. Although there, the potential for misleading, false, ideological, or propagandistic practice is perhaps that much more dramatic, literally.

It seems to me that there are at least two sets of ethical issues -- especially with experiential scenarios, because of the deliberately increased vividness or immediacy with which they "present" futures. One has to do with the dimension of possibility (including probability), that is, to what extent staging a scenario experientially might distort perceptions of potential, making stuff seem significantly more or less likely than it really is. The other has to do with the dimension of preferability, that is, where a scenario is presented so as to engender a certain kind of affective response -- anger, revulsion, eager anticipation...

In either case, probably the biggest concern would be (as in the other example domains of advertising and politics) where there's an intention to manipulate or deceive for selfish gain or to cause harm. But there's grey area when it comes to using experiential means to try to share a genuine belief or concern about a future scenario, in other words to activate an audience around one's sincere point of view. No dishonesty in that case, but there's still of course the potential for distortion on either the possibility or preferability fronts, or both.

An experience about encouraging exploration is likely to run less ethical risk than one intended to persuade. Exploration here means helping people to become aware of and query their own perceptions, and to draw their own conclusions, as opposed to leading them to a particular point of view. One way of activating exploration is through manifesting multiple scenarios, giving competing theories of the future their due, enabling people to consider and weigh multiple alternatives simultaneously. An experiential scenario intended to persuade obviously has a more directive agenda. By no means does that make it unethical, but it probably does make it more likely to be controversial. Take the recent billboard campaign urging global leaders to consider their legacy at the Copenhagen Climate Conference: to me that was a deeply ethical intervention. Someone unconvinced about the risks of climate change, on the other hand, would surely disagree.

Anyway the short answer to your question is no, there is no formal code of ethics in the futures field. In the absence of a systematic professional accreditation and disciplining system (like that for lawyers or accountants) it's hard to see how one could be implemented. And the wisdom and practicability of such a system has been much debated. (Note, by the way, that in volume 2 of the book by Wendell Bell I recommended earlier, he calls for a code of ethics for futurists (pp. 157-166), but this deals more with the ethics of professional and consulting relationships than underlying epistemic dilemmas.)

In any case, even if there were such a code it would not make the challenge go away: these dilemmas are built in to in the DNA of the work, of rendering imagined futures in more concrete form.

Thanks for the question, Chris, and I hope this helps.