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

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Future interfaces

World Builder, a lovely short by visual effects specialist Bruce Branit, takes on a substantial and heady topic: it basically imagines the future of imagining itself. (Branit is a highly accomplished digital artist -- you might recognise his handiwork on recent episodes of TV's Lost, for example, as featured in his current showreel.)

This ten-minute video, which apparently took a day to shoot, followed by two years in post, set me to thinking back to Michael Schrage's 02000 book Serious Play, which is about the importance and development of prototyping practices:

As prototypes become ever more powerful and persuasive, they will compel new intensities of introspection. To paraphrase philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, they will become conceptual machine tools for postindustrial innovation -- not because we are now gifted with finer imaginations but because we have better instruments for imagining and rehearsing the future. [p. 36]

I would go further than Schrage does here, by suggesting that "prototypes" do serve as prosthetic extensions of imagination: if the net effect is improvement in our imaginative capabilities, what does it matter whether this is traced to external rather than internal changes? Either way, though, the point is the intense consideration, whether introspective or collective, enabled by thinking aloud through various media. Schrage also says:

[T]he value of prototypes resides less in the models themselves than in the interactions -- the conversations, arguments, consultations, collaborations -- they invite. [p. 20]

Seen from that angle, the interesting thing about this kind of video lies in the conversations it seeds, or helps grow. What sorts of new design approach (World Building applications, gestural interfaces, and so on) will this vision, however indirectly, enable? While Schrage's interest lies in prototyping and innovation as practised within commercial organisations, we can see how the principles of its value extends beyond that limited setting when the "prototypes" are, so to speak, Open Source, or accessible to the public.

In this case, we have a sort of stand-alone concept video for a holographic interface; but sometimes similar prototypes are embedded in popular films or television shows. Kevin Kelly, who blogged about the video earlier this month, noted:

Like the famous Apple Navigator film from decades ago, or ATT's You Will series of ads, or the Minority Report's scene of transparent gesture interface, this fictional depiction is convincing and inspiring. I want one now.

Indeed, some interaction designers have recently been paying attention to the connections between interfaces portrayed in science-fiction on the one hand, and real-life technological innovation on the other. And, while I can't say I know a great deal about that topic, these seem to be important transreality sites, places where (what are originally created as) explicitly fictional images of the future bleed into the present. Future interfaces, in more ways than one.

The only thing is -- and it's not a complaint, just a curious aspect of watching this film -- I couldn't shake the feeling that someone was advertising at me. Was this an extended commercial for flowers? A plug for a service of some sort, say, UPS? Or perhaps something broader and slightly more self-referential, like a graphics card or microchip? After a while it hit me: of course, it is an ad; a ten-minute ad, for the considerable talents of the fellow who made it.

As we've seen before here, self-promotion and public service can find a synergy when it comes to elaborating and disseminating well-wrought images of preferred futures for general consumption.

Related posts:
> Object-oriented futuring
> Public service and self-promotion meet on the adaptive path
> Reality prototyping
> Design fiction is a fact
> Neill Blomkamp, visual futurist

(via The Long Now Blog and Kevin Kelly)

Monday, March 23, 2009

Alternative afterlives

The cover of Sum (U.S. edition)

While in London last week, I was given a new book which came with a glowing recommendation: Sum by David Eagleman. I got through it in a few short train journeys, and it's an astonishing read.

Written mostly in the second person ("You find yourself in a great padded compound...") like a choose-your-own adventure or role playing gamebook, it consists of forty short stories or thought experiments -- the genre is neither one nor the other, but both -- each embodying a different cosmic dénouement. That is, in the same way that storytellers sometimes propose a series of alternative endings for a narrative, this collection does that for life itself, by offering alternative afterlives. If this concept strikes you as self-important, dull, or contrived, as an experience, it was none of those things for me, and indeed such a misapprehension provides all the more reason to get hold of a copy. Also, if (like me) you are fascinated by Matters of Ultimate Concern but left cold by most traditional, religious and institutional responses to such mysteries, it is an outstanding read, by turns funny and moving, playful and profound, and important without being self-important.

I'll leave it to you to find examples, if you want them, so I can focus here on the approach and tone of the book. It's highly original, and yet reminiscent of such diverse sources as the magical-realist thought experiments of Jorge Luis Borges, the now-light, now-dark cosmic wit of Neil Gaiman or Douglas Adams, and the philosophical vision, schematic-yet-personal, of Jim Carse's Finite and Infinite Games. In the stories there are shades of The Twilight Zone, The Truman Show, The Matrix, and more -- but I fear that merely to list such references does a disservice to the author, perhaps through too many comparisons conveying an impression of work that is excessively referential and diffuse, when in fact it has a beautiful, focused sense of its own agenda and voice. What Sum has in common with the above may be certain of its themes, and especially its willingness to engage in imaginative, big-picture speculation with a sensibility that encompasses or synthesises both the ironic and the romantic, both good humour and deep seriousness.

In intent, perhaps most of all the book reminded me of the late, great psychonaut Terence McKenna, many of whose theories (Timewave Zero, psychedelic mushrooms as alien intelligences, etc) appear to have been designed not necessarily to convince his audience of their truth as such, but rather to prove how outlandish the various ideas are that it is not only possible, but also (given how little we truly know about the universe) plausible to believe. As John Lennon put it, "Reality leaves a lot to the imagination."

And I learned today (via a blog entry at Amazon) that this is a theme which Eagleman -- a neuroscientist -- intends to take up in his next book, Why I Am A Possibilian. The notion of Possibilism (Possibilitarianism?) seems to me to provide an amusing and much-needed counter-meme to the narrow faux certainty of Singularitarianism, and I shall look forward to the follow up with great interest.

Meanwhile, I urge regular readers of this blog -- in all likelihood, veteran Possibilians themselves -- to seek out Sum wherever you can find it. Like any well-wrought set of future scenarios, each story (hypothetical outcome) can be read as entirely consistent with what is known, or believed, about the past and present so far, while simply positing different next steps. And, like the artful exploration of alternative futures, the juxtaposition of these many alternative afterlives evokes a sense of possibility space in multiple dimensions which makes it far more than merely the sum of its parts.

Related posts:
> Kurzweil's dangerous idea
> On the scalability of small opportunities

(Thanks, Brian!)

Friday, March 06, 2009

Future-framing images

"Grey goo — a hypothetical end-of-the-world scenario in which out-of-control self-replicating robots consume all matter on Earth while building more of themselves"

The sculptures pictured above are by U.S. artist Roxy Paine, and these images come to us via a beautiful online gallery of sorts: but does it float. I went there looking for something else and found this.

However, what I love here doesn't reside exactly in the art itself, but in the dimension added to it through the associative caption about nanotech, copied in at the top of this post. This seems to be a contribution of site co-curator Folkert Gorter (whose name I've just recognised; he's the designer of the Space Collective website, previously blogged here). At a stroke, his imaginative label recasts the misshapen products of Paine's SCUMAK (Auto Sculpture Maker) as artifacts from a nanotech future. Instead of (or in addition to) seeing what may originally have been a comment on the automation of art, we're invited to see fragments of some kind of lab experiment in self-replicating machines gone horribly wrong.

This seems a sort of inversion of the perceptual shift from ostensible reality to sculpture which we saw here a few days ago.

Now, since attempting a full-scale experiential realisation of a future world is not only impossible, but also unnecessary (recalling the Borgesian map that's the same size as the territory), from the point of view of a futures experience designer aspiring to manifest more with less is a good rule of thumb. I have said a word or two before about the iceberg principle that my collaborators and I use in crafting future artifacts: if there's another way, why make the whole iceberg? "The more effective-yet-cheap a prototype can be, the more efficient and pared-down a model it is for the scenario in question." In other words, the trick is to discover, then create, the most revealing possible evidence of the future world you are trying to convey.

Among future-artifact design desiderata, cheap and easy is, if not best in any absolute sense, probably better than expensive and difficult. (As usual, Cascio nails the point, in a post about artifact production on the cheap over at Open the Future: "do not underestimate the memetic power of good photo editing skills and a quality color printer". Some examples.) What more elegant solution in this vein than simply to relabel, recontextualise and thus reorient perceptions around some extant element of the mediascape? The still images captures something of the world, and a new caption may recapture it to a different end.

A term I want to suggest as apt here, borrowing a little from Lakoff's linguistics, is reframing the image. With a well-wrought future-frame around it, an old image may be put to work anew, in our minds and discourse, serving as a makeshift theory object for our collective contemplation. We've seen this strategy at work before in the World without oil photo essay.

But a different angle on it comes from an observation David Byrne made several years ago [my emphasis]:

In thinking about graphic design, industrial design, and what might really be the cutting-edge of design, I realized it would have to be genetic engineering. Dolly (God rest her soul) represents the latest in design, but it is, in her case, design we cannot see. Dolly looks like any other sheep, which is precisely the point. The dogma of some graphic designers is that their work be invisible. This perfection has been achieved with Dolly.

Notwithstanding the fact that Dolly has already passed into history, the cloned sheep image helps illustrate the type of creative operation I have in mind: Consider a picture of a regular sheep (yes, any sheep will do). Now imagine that it's a clone; add that label to it in your mind. The label -- or maybe what I really mean is the narrative for which it stands in -- recontextualises the image, futurising it, transforming it, semiotically, and thus experientially, into something else. Byrne's idea of "design we cannot see" invites a different way of looking. However, rather than scanning for invisible "facts" that we might suppose are "really there", we could instead scan for invisible potentials, future-frames, hidden stories, with a view to excavating them. What possible narratives might be read and infused into the images we find around us?

The juxtaposition of a future-framing narrative with a present-day image seamlessly retrofits the image as a glimpse of a scenario yet to come. The limitation is that it confines us to extant imagery, and there's surely much more to be imagined and created that doesn't have a ready precursor or analogue among ingredients presently available. Still, as a genre of futures exercise -- practice in a certain way of seeing -- it strikes me as interesting; and with this, I'm forced to wonder whether the cheapest and most elegant future artifacts aren't perhaps these ones that, so to speak, already exist. Since the reperception consists in a minimalist linguistic-imaginal feat, rather than in the creation of novel sensory percepts, this is perhaps the apogee of the iceberg principle (less is more).

I'd love to hear from anyone who happens to find, or create, other examples of this principle in action.

Related posts:
> World without oil photo essay
> Signs o' the times
> Introducing Space Collective
> Cheap prototypes, valuable insights
> Evidence
> Object-oriented futuring
> More found futures

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Amazing = mundane

Last October, standup comic Louis C.K. appeared on Late Night with Conan O'Brien and did an inspired four-minute rant about the paradoxical state of the world. Titled after his central observation in the bit, "Everything is amazing, nobody is happy", the clip has recently gone viral (e.g. via Vanity Fair), and its several appearances at YouTube (1, 2, 3) have together attracted over one million views so far. This ballooning popularity is due, we may surmise, to two things. 1. It's hilarious. 2. His view resonates.

The human alchemy which so rapidly transforms technological wonder into ennui has several consequences.

First, it is part of the way our technology layers over the generations: each is born to a new normal (a process described beautifully by Douglas Adams).

Second, it helps explain how things can seem to have been "going to hell for as long as anyone can remember" while in many ways improving overall in the long run (Paul Saffo).

Third, it suggests that futures work that attempts to leverage the principle of dazzling people ("Flying cars! Underwater houses! Flying houses!") may be questing in the wrong emotional register.

Here we come to the core issue, from a futurist standpoint. As Jamais Open the Future Cascio wrote not long ago:

Changes rarely shock; more often, they startle or titillate, and very quickly get folded into the existing cultural momentum.
The folks in [a future] scenario don't just wake up one day to find their lives transformed; they live their lives to that point. They hear about new developments long before they encounter them, and know somebody who bought an Apple iLens or package of NuBacon before doing so themselves. The future creeps up on them, and infiltrates their lives; it becomes, for the people living there, the banal present.

So, rather than plundering the landscape of possible futures for their potential to startle, this line of thinking suggests that it may be truer to our subject matter if we try to convey the ordinary, quotidian quality of varied ways of being in the future (for which purpose, the already staggering variety of the past and present set a fine precedent: there are a million different ways to be bored). But there's a real art to this. Making the extraordinary seem ordinary is an uncommon feat.

The most successful science fiction films, in a narrative or artistic sense, tend to suffuse whatever novelties they introduce with a lived-in quality that lends the texture of truth. The first work to spring to my mind in this category is Alfonso Cuarón's masterful Children of Men, about which this writer has said:

The reality of the hypothesis, or put another way, the plausibility of the scenario (the mechanism of which is never properly explained in the film) was asserted with such fluidity, confidence, and integrity of detail -- just the way we encounter the real world, which is crammed full of people accepting complete absurdities as wallpaper -- that I found myself drawn in, having to meet the story on its own terms.

The study of futures provides valuable arguments and heuristics for both "making the strange familiar, and the familiar strange". (I don't know who first suggested his provocative formula, but it has relevance for many endeavours, not least art and anthropology.) Devising and communicating what we might call "everyday futures", is an example of the former operation, and I agree with Jamais about our collective room for improvement there.

The latter, however, is no less important. Louis C.K. is looking for laughs, not social analysis, but the insight works either way. He's right: Everything is amazing. To stand back from this every day -- to discern in it not only the banal, but at one and the same time the beautiful and the bizarre -- is to stand in awe.

We are told of a Chinese curse that says "May you live in interesting times". I wonder if it makes things better or worse not even to realise when this has come true.

Related posts:
> Don't panic
> In praise of Children of Men

(via The Long Now Blog)

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Tribal Futures

...meets Open Source Design

Image via Tribal Futures website

Over at her blog The Future of Self-Knowledge, designer Jessica Charlesworth writes about her recent involvement as an "embedded reporter" for a class project in the Royal College of Art's fascinating Design Interactions MA program. Tribal Futures was a four-week collaborative effort between the RCA students and the user-experience group at Vodafone, with support provided by the mobile network company. According to the brief [pdf]:

The development of mobile telecoms so far has been about personal technologies -- there is little successful development or marketing to groups, although as social animals much of human activity and culture plays out in them.

Social theorists predict that traditional units of society such as the family are becoming less dominant, and instead -- elective, tribal groupings are on the rise.
The project's enquiry will focus in on the mundane and the extremes of our behaviour in groups and propose design interventions to support, subvert and celebrate our tribal connections.

We encourage you to extrapolate the current trends in mobile, social and other technologies in terms of their failures as well as successes, and examine what technologies [sic] intended and unintended consequences might be.

Magical nihilist Matt Jones of Dopplr (and formerly, Nokia), who was also involved with the project, clarifies that these terms were "deliberately wide and intended to steer us all from thinking about mobile phones". Accordingly, the variety of outputs was impressive -- as was degree of development that students were able to achieve in four weeks. Overviews of each piece of work can be found here.

Among my favourites are The Singing Flock by Louise O'Connor, who was inspired by the "fluid self-choreography" of starlings -- see the image at the top of this post -- to imagine an online improvisation space, which would display the voices of physically dispersed musical collaborators as flocking birds...

Ben Faga's web 2.1: humility through humanity imagines that vital bodily activities might be relayed, via Web 2.1 Underwear and other sensory apparatus, to our anxiously waiting networks...

And Dearbhaile Heaney's Constructive Hold Spaces would create transient communities and audiences out of the disparate individuals who happen to be stuck on hold in a telephone system at the same time...

Now, if you take a look at the Tribal Futures site, you'll find that each student's output (description, concept designs, drawings, etc) contains a link, in the bottom left-hand corner, back to his or her contributions to the group's research blog, the learning space for the project that Jess was brought in to help populate.

I really like this, and I want to use it as a springboard to draw out an element in the mix here which, at first blush, has less to do with the themes of mobile networks and tribal groupings, and more to do with the fact, as well as the manner, of this graduate design program unleashing its project work on the world. (Not everything that follows pertains specifically to this program, but it's a line of thought spurred by it.)

Of course, shows of students' work have long been a crucial initiation rite for intrinsically outward-facing professions like design and architecture, for the sake of exposure to potential employers and clients, as well as broader audiences (recall the recent example here about design-led futures). But at the risk of stating the obvious, as of quite recently it has become extremely simple to integrate the pedagogical process with the broader conversations and purposes to which a program may be committed. That is to say, not only end-of-semester assignments, but also things done en route (including content sharing, brainstorming, note-taking, and discussion -- all project-development activities which are often undertaken electronically) can be made public as part of The Bigger Conversation, too. Indeed, that's more or less what we did for my experimental future-jamming class last year, via a publicly-accessible class blog that documented students' learning as we went along, and especially as tangible elements of alternative Hawaiis (circa 02038) were conceived, produced and installed out in the world.

But the argument is not confined to an academic setting. Nor need the sharing necessarily occur right alongside the creative process (rather than being made available ex post). One example can illustrate both points: certain Hollywood feature films are developed under conditions of the strictest cloak-and-dagger secrecy, but the clear trend since well before the advent of DVD has been for increasingly exhaustive behind-the-scenes materials to be gathered or generated as part of the production process. These are incorporated either into extras with the home video release (on-set interviews, making-of featurettes, commentaries by cast and crew), or into movie tie-in products sold separately (coffee-table books featuring production artwork, costume and set designs, and on-location tales from the trenches).

To be clear; our claim here is not that public inscriptions along the designer's road are always and everywhere possible, or even desirable. Indeed, constraints routinely affecting commercial design contexts, such as confidentiality due to competition, or security concerns, or a simple desire to work away from prying eyes, may make it preferable for some designers not to talk about how the sausages are made.

Rather, the point is simply to note the increasing viability, and potential utility, of the by-products of the creative process being made more widely available (particularly, but by no means exclusively, around complex collaborations). It seems to me that the more comprehensively the journey can be recorded, so long as the material remains reasonably navigable, the better it stands to serve the cause of collective learning in the long run.

I am reminded of a post from a few years ago by the Near Future Laboratory's Julian Bleecker, who noted the importance of designers sharing their creative exploration:

The process and practice of moving from idea to final version is all too often a process of making the richest part of creativity illegible.

Why? Because oftentimes we don’t treat the practice of constructing objects and things as a kind of theorizing in itself.
I think capturing and even sharing widely ... these articulations at even embarassing [sic] stages would go a long way toward enrolling semantic objects into the larger ecology of social beings.
[I]n the knowledge ecology that is made possible by the world of connected thought -- the Internet -- creativity, innovation, making stuff that makes for more habitable, sustainable worlds is a massively multiplayer game.

It seems to me entirely sensible that the bigger processes and social challenges in which the design community is implicated are aided by lifting the curtain to reveal more behind the scenes activity.

Let's return to the context which prompted these thoughts: the Design Interactions program is well known for its dedication to a distinctive set of emerging strands, or approaches to research, in design practice; among these are design futures, design for debate, design fiction, and critical design. (Here I should note the current controversies and debates over terminology within the field. In a interesting recent piece by Bruce M. Tharp and Stephanie M. Tharp at the widely read industrial design website Core77, a four-part typology for industrial design is suggested, each type being determined by the designer's main intention. Using the language proposed there, the approaches named above could reasonably be characterised as a combination of experimental and discursive design, as opposed to responsible or commercial design.) Still, regardless of precisely what we call them, there is a clear idea in all this that the outputs (designs, artifacts) themselves are not to be regarded as finished objects, but instead, or more importantly, as catalysts for further thought, discussion, and exploration. In that sense, then, they are deliberately, strategically tentative.

A relatively open attitude towards sharing the creative process by which they are generated is in fact an extension of the spirit of the whole undertaking: since even the finished product isn't, traditionally speaking, a "finished product", earlier stages of the discussion form an equally legitimate part of the conversation. This ethos is entirely in keeping with a commitment to educative, publicly-oriented and catalytic uses of design practice. In other words, we could say that in addition to the above characteristics, it's also Open Source.

It is a curious and felicitous side-effect of this intellectually generous modus operandi that the program and its students could be said themselves to be modelling a key behaviour for the development of future "tribes" -- i.e., voluntary affinity groups based around shared (in this case, design) sensibilities, commitments, ideas, and passions. In other words, their relative transparency and online openness towards the wider world may make this group a particularly fine example of a 21st century tribe in action.

And, to bring us full circle, Jess's role as an embedded reporter -- or if you prefer, tribe scribe -- embodies this Open Source commitment, as well as the 21st century affinities idea, rather well. Her designated contribution is, one could say, to serve as a conscious agent, cyber-archivist, and advocate for the collective identity and memory of the group, via the documentation and preservation of its discovery process, for both internal and external audiences' contemporary and future reference.

A quick word about Jess, whom I met at the New Sciences of Protection: Designing Safe Living conference held at Lancaster University last year (where she was also the designated -- and very European-sounding -- programme rapporteur). Jess is an alumna of the fascinating Design Interactions MA, and protégée of critical design pioneers Fiona Raby and Anthony Dunne. She has also, among other interesting things, founded a hypothetical organisation called The Futures Association for Therapy and Entertainment, or The FATE Institute, "a fictitious future forecasting institute that acts as a vehicle to generate personalised future forecasting services". It explores "the cross fertilisation between three methodologies of future forecasting; ancient divination, corporate futurology and predictive gene testing" (a frighteningly plausible ménage à trois involving science, pseudoscience, and good old fashioned quackery).

It is with great thanks to her and to Fiona that I announce the happy news that I'll be joining the current Design Interactions group in London for several sessions later this month, to help introduce them to futures and its usefulness in supporting design exploration -- and vice versa.

I can't wait to meet the rest of the tribe.

Related posts:
> Future-jamming 101
> Object-oriented futuring
> Design-led futures
> The MacGuffin Library
> Open Source futures and design
> Public service and self-promotion meet on the adaptive path

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Crime scene

The Bigger the Searchlight the Larger the Circumference of the Unknown
Harland Miller (02008) | Regents Park, London
Image courtesy Flickr user Herschell Hershey

"Up until you realize it's not real, it's not a sculpture. But when you realize it's not real, it becomes a sculpture, and your brain has to think of it in a new way."

~Nigel Schofield, quoted in Katie Kitamura, "The Art Factory", Wired 17.02, February 02009 [p. 87, print edition]