Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Look out, Banksy

Hello, Bristol!


I’ve just arrived for a month in the UK, where I’m excited and honoured to be a Bristol Benjamin Meaker Distinguished Visiting Professor at the University of Bristol.

Within this hybrid role, crafted to be part visiting professorship and part artist residency, my project is called From Experiential Futures to Social Foresight.

It’s about working with colleagues to share and explore experiential futures (XF) practices to use design, media and the arts for grounding ideas about futures in everyday life – and thereby helping shift our organisations and public cultures towards deeper, more diversified, and wiser embodied engagement with alternative possibilities.

Activities here through mid-June include a Public Seminar hosted by the Pervasive Media Studio, an XF Masterclass for researchers at the ESRC Centre for Sociodigital Futures, and Advisory Sessions with individuals and groups from across the university and wider community.

Something a bit ambitious that we’re also doing is the Bristol Immersive Futures Jam – a live, face-to-face, weekend-long experiential & participatory foresight intensive, including a collective worldbuilding and making process, as well as a public activation with additional guests. Basically we'll be concretely imagining, physically staging, and having conversations about how life here could look decades or generations from now.

This builds on work I’ve done with groups in Singapore, Canada, Mexico, and various parts of the US – most recently through a wonderful artist residency late last year with the immersive theatre community in Denver, Colorado.

It's the first time we’ve offered the process in the UK.

The Bristol Immersive Futures Jam (Fri 31 May 5PM – Sun 2 June 5PM), which calls for a commitment to participate across three days, is fully booked up. But folks who may be interested in joining the waiting list for the whole event, or who wish to join only for the activation / time travel part on Sunday 2 June, can register their interest here.

The Public Seminar (Fri 31 May, 1–2PM BST) may be attended in person at the PM Studio / Watershed, or viewed live online here.

I’m most grateful to my University of Bristol hosts Dr Paul Clarke, Prof Keri Facer, and especially Prof Helen Manchester of the School of Education, and really looking forward to all the future-shaping we'll get to do together.

Related posts:
Killer Imps – Bringing futures to the Royal College of Art (02009)
> Dreaming Together (02015)
Introduction to Experiential Futures in The Economist – outlines some of our Time Machines / immersive scenarios (02015)

Hello Again, World!

Over a year has passed since our previous post, which is easily the longest hiatus at The Sceptical Futuryst since things got underway at this address, long long ago, in 02006. But the stately peace and quiet that may seem to have settled over this ageing blog, its layers of digital dust, belie the busy and productive times that have been speeding by since early 02023. The signs of life might be sparse, but don't be misled.

So with a ton to catch up on, stretching back to that date and beyond, and especially since Twitter's sad implosion into X, I've been experiencing a mounting writerly constipation that for me comes from doing too much work stuff without making the time to reflect and share. I need to get things out of my head and into the world. That process in itself, quite apart from whatever happens or doesn't in terms of audience response, helps me move on to new thoughts.

What I want to do is ramp things back up here, and alternate for the next little while between posts about collaborations and questions currently taking up my attention, and posts on some completed projects and associated learnings that have been quietly accumulating in the background. I might put some of those on Medium or elsewhere, too. The post right after this one, about spending a month with collaborators in Bristol, England, is in this category of what's happening at the moment. It comes from something I shared today in a largely similar form on LinkedIn. 

Blogs aren't exactly peaking right now, and I don't quite know yet how this platform best serves or makes sense for what I'm up to (let alone what you all out there are doing) in the year of our lord 02024 – and I want to emphasise that working that question out is a distant second in motivation for doing this to just getting some more stuff written – but I'm interested to learn, and grateful for your interest in joining me.

Tuesday, January 31, 2023

The Power of Utopia

One of my favourite engagements of the past year was a panel about The Power of Utopia with accomplished artistic activists Terry Marshall (co-instigator of Intelligent Mischief, a creative studio dedicated to “unleashing Black imagination to shape the future”), and Cory Doctorow (bestselling science fiction author and journalist whose work includes How to Destroy Surveillance Capitalism and Walkaway, among many other titles).

The Center for Artistic Activism (C4AA) hosted the event as part of its Revolutionizing Activism series, a brilliant resource for agents of change to practise infusing radical imagination into present action. Afterwards, the organisation shared some key takeaways from the event under the title How to strengthen the vision of your advocacy.

Video of the full conversation is embedded below.

Related:
> Imagination Is a Commons: An experiential futures project for UNDP (02021)
> Ethnographic Experiential Futures / EXF (02017)
> FoundFutures: Chinatown: Green Dragon (02007)
> Critical activism: An interview with Anab Jain (02019)
> The New York Times Special Edition (02008)
> Future documentary (02016)
> Guerrilla Futures: Strategic foresight meets tactical media (02014)
> Dreampolitik: On the political importance of impossible dreams (2008)
> The Tao of Steve (02011)
> Guerrilla Futures C4AA webinar (02017)
> The School of Worldbuilding (02019)

Saturday, December 31, 2022

Participatory futures for democracy

The White House just took a big step towards making futures thinking a more common practice.

As the year comes to a close, some great news for foresight and public imagination from the Biden-Harris Administration: the Fifth U.S. Open Government National Action Plan (NAP) was released this week, and it includes a move for participatory and inclusive futures engagement over the next two years.

The new plan, developed in a collaboration between the U.S. federal government and partners in civil society, has a cross-cutting theme of “advancing equity and inclusion for underserved communities”.

It sets out around 30 federal-level commitments that seek, among other things, to ensure public access to government data, information and research, to involve citizens in the work of government, and to transform service delivery. As the introduction notes, “While U.S. support for open government has always been crucial, it is especially vital today. . . . at a time when the principles of equality and democracy are threatened across the United States and around the world.”

There’s a lot more to the document, but of particular relevance to the foresight/futures community is a specific commitment to “pilot new forms of public engagement to inform policy and program implementation”, with a strategy for pursuing this in the form of a framework that “will engage diverse and inclusive public participation to better define and imagine emerging challenges, opportunities, and possibilities for our shared future”.

The effort is to be spearheaded by the General Services Administration (GSA), an independent agency of the U.S. government set up in 01949 “to help manage and support the basic functioning of federal agencies”.

In other words, the White House has just officially promised to engage the public in imagining alternative futures –– with a view to this feeding into national policy and implementation.

This is a very exciting development.

I have already noted at this blog the “tremendous expansion in awareness of and interest in futures/foresight work”, and remarked on mounting evidence that “the conditions for social foresight are ripening, with experiential and participatory futures approaches migrating and spreading across contexts –– from academia and activism, to arts and culture, to business, politics and governance.”

Futures/foresight as a field, or family of practices, continues to progress on institutional and cultural fronts alike. Some of the most promising steps, I think, come when the strategies of institutionalisation and acculturation coincide. (A hat tip here to my friend Honor Harger, a futures-oriented artist/curator, for helping me appreciate these as a complementary pair.) And as I've been saying for quite some time, the bigger story or context for foresight practitioners, whatever their practice and whoever their clients, collaborators or students happen to be, lies in finding ways to advance futures not solely through formal processes of organisations and governance, but through ordinary thinking and action –– the futures of everyday life.

In this U.S. government plan we find, at the very least, another encouraging signal of progress towards augmented participation, distribution, inclusivity and visibility for alternative futures.

But as the plan starts to be concretised and carried out in months to come, in the ideal, it might just prove to contain the seeds of greater things.

I’m pleased to have played, at the request of a colleague leading the charge at GSA, a modest part here by providing light advisement and enthusiastic encouragement to help get this commitment approved in black and white.

I also find it heartening to note the rationale for this aspect of the plan:

“Stories of possibility can provide opportunities to express emerging challenges and opportunities through creative and engaging narrative. At their best, stories can inform our collective imagination and create inclusive space for meaningful conversations — and then drive action to choose new possibilities.”

Hear, hear. Something long understood to be self-evident in futures circles, namely the central importance of images of the future to shaping the world we end up in, is coming to be more widely grasped.

In related news, a report called Imagining Better Futures for American Democracy, by Suzette Brooks Masters and Ruby Hernandez, was released just a few weeks ago by Democracy Funders Network. I found myself in excellent company as one of the interviewees for the project. And as it turns out, some of the steps now being prepared by the federal government appear very much in line with the key recommendations coming out of that research: to strengthen the positive visioning ecosystem by investing in infrastructure and relationships; model what’s possible and fund experimentation; and strengthen narrative systems and amplify positive, futures-oriented content.

Finally, and in a similar vein, my coauthor Filippo Cuttica and I were thrilled to learn this month that our work to help introduce foresight at the BBC, which culminated in the recent publication of a toolkit called The Futures Bazaar, seeking to bring these ways of thinking to wider publics around the world, has been recognised by the professional futurist community as a Most Significant Futures Work of the year – taking home the award for advancing Inclusive Foresight.

So as 02022 comes to an end, here's to a 02023 filled with inclusive co-creativity, narrative invention, public engagement, meaningful conversation, and concrete action towards the preferred possibilities that result!

***

The full text of the Fifth U.S. Open Government National Action Plan is available in html and pdf. Thanks and godspeed to the public servants responsible for making it happen.

Related:
> Foresight is a Right
The Futures of Everyday Life
What Is the Value of Futures and Foresight?
> Where Do You Stand? Or, The Polak Game
> Welcome to The Futures Bazaar
> Introducing Participatory and Experiential Futures at the BBC
> Exploring Technology Governance Futures with the World Economic Forum
> Using the Future at NASA
> UNTITLED: A Bold New Experiment in Public Imagination
> American Futures at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago
> Knowledge Base of Futures Studies

Tuesday, November 22, 2022

A new collection on Speculation in Design

The University of Pennsylvania's Weitzman School of Design has published the latest edition of its periodical LA+, an interdisciplinary journal dealing with landscape architecture –– and more, as the name hints.

The topic and title this time out is SPECULATION, a multifarious and richly intersectional theme on which contributions appear from Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg, Javier Arpa Fernand√©z, Min Kyung Lee, and Ytasha Womack, together with many others, all marshalled by the issue editor Christopher Marcinkoski and editor-in-chief Tatum Hands.

I had the pleasure of taking part in the project via a conversation with a wonderful transdisciplinary practitioner of landscape architecture and media arts, professor Aroussiak Gabrielian of University of Southern California's Architecture school. As a taste, below is one of my favourite questions posed by Aroussiak, and the thoughts it prompted.

***

AG: I’m wondering how you feel about the pitfalls in speculative design, given the criticism it has received for being speculation for speculation’s sake or that its focus has been very techno-scientific, or product driven – pushing forth the same capitalist system by inventing objects that we might consume in the future.

SC: Yeah, I think that those are definitely ways the work can fail to live up to its potential. Sometimes, especially early on, practitioners might find themselves using an excess of whimsy on one hand, or an excess of capitalist realism on the other. To me, both are ways of missing the mark, but I think it would be unfortunate if that were to lead some observers to think that the whole enterprise of using design and the arts to explore futures is without value. That would be a grand-scale throwing out of the baby with the bathwater. It’s possible to write bad poetry, too, but that doesn’t mean all poetry is bad.

I would say that some of the criticism drawn during the recent wave of speculation in design, while fair enough, is really responding to a sort of belated unleashing of creative energy that was previously stifled by a so-called human centered, but, let’s be honest, capital-centered, paradigm where the use of imagination is highly constrained, and aspirational only within tightly defined limits. You take those constraints off, and people go wild. That is actually kind of cool to watch, but is it the end state for the practice? I don’t think so. Once people have gotten some of that initial rambunctious energy out of their system, there is a sort of getting of wisdom in play. You can see this with [card game] The Thing from The Future. To start with, many players revel in the license to run free, be silly, and have fun. Then, after a while, they start to get a little bit more critical and search for ideas with more substance. The novelty of the very idea of something ostensibly coming “from the future,” perhaps exciting enough in itself to begin with, wears off, and players start to want to know more about what future it’s from, and how it might work, and how it’s different from what they’ve heard before, and whose interests it represents. This is part of why, having created the game, Jeff [Watson, cofounder of Situation Lab and professor at USC School of Cinematic Arts] and I kept adapting and modifying it, and using it with different groups to help push the general vogue for speculation past this initial flare-up of excitement and crappy ideas that we all tend to have when first invited to roam freely in the space of alternative futures.

To try to make the year 02050 matter right now is an important but difficult task. There’s no objective referent for a 02050 scenario – in contrast to trying to bridge into the shoes of someone historically or in the present, where you can at least partially ground-truth things. The inbuilt speculative challenge of futures is that they are not just epistemically but ontologically indeterminate. They are up for grabs. So we need to realize that when we’re making a hypothetical world specific enough to wrap our body-minds around, we’re making it artificially specific, just in order to be able to think and feel into it. We have to take the ability to inhabit this “what if” with a big grain of salt, because it’s not a question of getting it right or not, in a predictive sense; it’s a question of how rigorously and usefully we are deploying imagination to enable new perceptions and possibilities in the present.

***

If you're interested in the theme of speculation, as so many designers have been recently, check out the full piece (Futuring: A Conversation) and the collection as a whole (digital or print).


Related:
> Design and Futures (ebook and paperback)
> Critical activism: Anab Jain of Superflux
> I design worlds: Liam Young of SCI-Arc
> Using the future at NASA: David Delgado of NASA JPL
Gaming futures literacy: The Thing From The Future (pdf)
> An experiential futures interview 
> Designing futures: An interview
> Design is a team sport
> Killer imps: Bringing futures to designers at the Royal College of Art

Tuesday, October 18, 2022

Welcome to The Futures Bazaar

The Futures Bazaar: A Public Imagination Toolkit is published by Situation Lab & the British Broadcasting Corporation

(Update 20dec22: The Futures Bazaar has been named a Most Significant Futures Work of the year by the Association of Professional Futurists! Winners of the 02022 #IFAwards were announced here. Many thanks to APF for this recognition in the Inclusive Foresight category, and gratitude again to our BBC collaborators and all who contributed to the project, listed in this post and also in the kit itself.)

Picture a wild and wonderful place where all alternative future possibilities co-exist at once, and can be physically encountered in real life; a kind of multi-dimensional exchange, where tangible objects are put on offer from countless possible worlds.

This crazy setting is not just an idea, but somewhere I’ve visited — twice, actually. And you can, too.

The Futures Bazaar: A Public Imagination Toolkit, created and written together with my fantastic design futurist colleague Filippo Cuttica, has just been released by the British Broadcasting Corporation and Situation Lab. It’s available to download for free from the BBC here.

Thinking concretely about times to come is harder and rarer than it should be. That’s why this is an open access public imagination toolkit. It’s designed to help make such thinking a bit easier and more common.

The Futures Bazaar toolkit is basically a turnkey framework for setting up a co-creative gathering or design jam where participants transform everyday objects brought from home into unique things “from” alternative futures, to provoke, amuse, and inspire each other. Every participant helps imagine and produce these future artifacts, and every artifact tells a story.

You know, the toolkit is itself a sort of artifact, with a story of its own.

A few years ago, before the pandemic, we staged the first Futures Bazaar for the away day of the whole design side of the BBC.

It was great. There was zaniness. There was creativity in spades. At the end, there was even beer on tap. More about this wild experiment we did with BBC designers can be found here.



Other things equal, perhaps that would have been the end of it. But soon afterwards, I ran a second iteration in my required design futures course at Carnegie Mellon. (This time, no beer.) It seemed like an appropriate way to introduce a roomful of undergrad designers to the idea that any item can mobilise an array of associations and tell a range of stories. Playing with the signs and sensemaking of material artifacts in this way proved a neat on-ramp to broader vistas of experiential futures practice.

Both bazaars went so well that the process seemed to be crying out to be shared with a wider audience. Then Covid-19 struck, and everything went on hold.

However, as time passed, and the pandemic wore on, the widespread need that prompted this project in the first place — the need to support shared spaces of imaginative engagement — has become only more obvious, and more urgent.

In order to adapt and distill the Bazaar design into a toolkit, Filippo and I spent months working on how to make organising one of these events as intuitive as possible, without us being in the room. Our aim was to enable any motivated gathering, equipped with a basic projector setup, some printouts, and ordinary household objects, to imagine countless possible worlds and bring them to life on the spot. 

The Futures Bazaar can now be run by anyone, anywhere. It is for players of all ages, in all fields. It is intended for use in public and private organisations, government bodies, schools, and nonprofits alike.

It offers a chance to expand horizons, explore new ideas, and develop capacities for foresight, creativity, and storytelling, all in just a few hours. It can be set up as a stand-alone event such as a company away day, or within a larger workshop, course, or event series.

Conceived in the traditions of experiential futures and participatory design, it might be part of a journey — as at the BBC itself — towards building foresight capability, engaging alternative futures in more open and creative ways, or it can be used more for fun — teambuilding through worldbuilding.

The toolkit is made up of three elements: Manual, Slides, and Printouts. The Manual (a complete guide for use in hard copy or on a tablet) helps you plan your own event, the Slides (to display on any large screen or projector) help you run it, and the Printouts (ready to go in either colour or B&W) are for distributing to participants on the day. All this has been packaged into a single zipped folder containing the full set of PDF documents for download here.


This project has been able to take advantage of some of the experiments and learning at Situation Lab, the creative research unit that I’ve run for the last nine years. The toolkit incorporates elements from our award-winning game The Thing From The Future, and it also builds on the participatory design events that we at Sitlab carried out with Extrapolation Factory; the Futurematic design jam series, held in the mid-2010s in Toronto, New York and Los Angeles.

The kit’s acknowledgements section tips the hat to the many folks who made this publication possible, but above all, The Futures Bazaar toolkit is dedicated to the memory of my dearly missed friend and longtime collaborator Jeff Watson of the University of California’s School of Cinematic Arts, co-creator of The Thing From The Future and co-founder of Situation Lab. The invention of openly available, playfully framed, creatively enabling frameworks and designs was among his great gifts, and an inspiration throughout the project.

Filippo and I, with our talented collaborators at the BBC, are delighted to be sending this toolkit forth into the world, hoping it will travel, and be taken up far and wide. We can’t wait to find out what people get up to with it.

If The Futures Bazaar sounds like something you might like to run, you can go ahead and download version 1.0 of the kit right now. If there happen to be folks in your world who might enjoy it, please share this article or the project link with them. We plan to make additional guidance available for those interested, so following Sitlab, Filippo or me on Twitter would be a good way to keep up with the latest news and announcements.

The world can be a frightening and unpredictable place. This project is not going to solve all its problems. But we are in earnest when we say that we think the capacity to imagine is key to shaping the futures, and this kind of collective play is key to imagination.

So get playing… we look forward to seeing you at the #FuturesBazaar! ✨ 

The Futures Bazaar invites you to expand horizons, explore new ideas, and transform everyday objects into things from the future

***

This article previously posted on Medium. A variant appeared at Situation Lab.

Related:
Gaming Futures Literacy (article on The Thing From The Future)