Tuesday, April 06, 2021

Exploring Technology Governance Futures with the World Economic Forum

A snapshot from the Influence 2035 experiential scenario

This week, the World Economic Forum is hosting its first ever Global Technology Governance Summit (GTGS), convening some 3000 leading technologists, academics, businesspeople, policymakers and political representatives to discuss the sprawling array of fast-moving challenges in this space.

From privacy breach scandals to the Trumpian rise of batshit-crazy conspiracy thinking, the chaotic gaming of stock prices, to misinformation-fuelled mob lynchings, and the weaponisation of online platforms for campaigns of xenophobia or personal vengeance (the latter was the subject of today's feature story on the New York Times Daily podcast)... These are just some recent examples that spring to mind. The pattern is the point. Countless spot-fires, zoomed out, start to look more like a full-blown conflagration.

Anyone who has paid even the scantest attention to such developments might discern a phenomenon also noted long ago by a founding figure both in speculative fiction and in the futures/foresight field*, H.G. Wells, in a BBC radio broadcast from 01932:

“All these new things, these new inventions and new powers, come crowding along; every one is fraught with consequences, and yet it is only after something has hit us hard that we set about dealing with it.”

To shift from a reactive stance to a more proactive or anticipatory one requires changes that are not just political or institutional in nature, but cultural and psychological as well. This is no less true in relation to technology governance than any other topic. As Wells was arguing almost a century ago, collective forethought is essential –– but broadly, it is not a habit we seem to have cultivated with much care or success.

The GTGS event gets underway today, technically hosted from Japan, but taking place entirely online, thanks again of course to the continuing Covid pandemic.

As it does so, a group of graduate designers in our Experiential Futures (XF) class at Carnegie Mellon University have just launched a special set of digital experiential scenarios –– websites and media from the futures to shed light and open up horizons of the topic to explore.

Each site created by XF participants offers a playful rabbit-hole delving into how the world could look decades from now –– in the 02030s, 40s or 50s –– and a provocatively high-resolution glimpse of how some key issues in technology governance might play out.

The usual caveat bears repeating: experiential scenarios should not, unless they are actually offered as such, be treated as predictions or preferences, but instead approached as possibilities to think and feel with. What new questions, potentials, or vantage points can they help us consider?

The storylines and themes contained in these particular projects all build on and respond to the Technology Futures report published yesterday by the World Economic Forum and Deloitte, which was shared with us in draft last month.

***

Tech Tea
Tech Tea, a podcast hosted by AI-wrangler Willow and dark web journalist Melanin, focuses on the darker side of the metaverse. Join them as they dive into the recent controversy surrounding powerhouse Global Virtual School.

This podcast from the year 2050 expands on Maiah’s story from the education LEnS of the Technology Futures report.

by Alice Chen, Karen Escarcha, Amrita Khoshoo & Hannah Kim

Influence 2035
Influence 2035 is an event bringing together panelists to discuss the gig landscape. Join us for candid stories from full-time content creators to data providers and robot admins. Click “Attending” on our event to learn more.

This project explores the extreme trends of gig-economy and influencer work appearing in the story of Maple featured in the Technology Futures report.

by Jianzhe Gu, Sanika Sahasrabuddhe & Catherine Yochum

After-Math
After-Math is a global consultancy committed to helping individuals, teams, and organizations regain independence from virtual influence and data-toxicity in order to rediscover the world around us.

This website for a speculative consultancy in the 2040s synthesizes trends, personas, and artifacts from all four scenarios in the Technology Futures report.

by Adam Cowart & Russell Singer

Wikipolicy
Wikipolicy is the policy arm of Wikimedia. Our 2032 Year-in-Review Report shows how we manage accountability, transparency, and logics of care in algorithmic and participatory policymaking advancements.

Seeking to right past wrongs, in this future Wikipolicy is headed by Frank, a former technology executive and character featured in the Technology Futures report.

by Rachel Arredondo, Kylon Chiang, Esther Kang & Jack McClain

Outliers Data Talent
Every company is a data company. Outliers Data Talent connects yours with the data providers you need, from providers of biometrics to location history and more. Top providers are booking fast, so reserve your data talent today.

This hypothetical agency builds on the story of Maple / information LEnS scenario, where job-seekers provide a vast array of personal data around the clock to interested companies in exchange for pay.

by M Kuznetsov, Alex Polzin & Maddy Sides

***

Well done indeed to all these Experiential Futures students! Many thanks to the World Economic Forum's Ruth Hickin (Strategy Lead, Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution) for the opportunity to contribute to the conversation in this way. Finally, much appreciation to our recent guest respondents, Michelle King, Leah Zaidi and Jake Dunagan, for incisive and sensitive pre-launch project feedback. 

We hope these digital experiential scenarios will be of interest and value both to event attendees, and to many others invested in these important topics. If you find them useful, whether individually or as a set, please feel free to share.

***

Update 06apr21: I had mistakenly recalled the number of event participants as being around 1000; the Forum tells me that the correct number is closer to 3000.

* This is the same broadcast popularised by futurist Richard Slaughter as Wanted! Professors of Foresight.

Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Adding Dimensions to Development Futures with UNDP

Last week I helped to launch the United Nations Development Programme's annual innovation event, Istanbul Innovation Days (IID), using an experiential futures process and format created for the occasion.

Back in January, they had come to me with a challenge: how might experiential futures practice be brought to bear for the event's Opening Session? Due to Covid everything was to be run online this year; this kickoff was planned as a panel conversation about global development's futures, live in video chat, with the head of UNDP and invited speakers around the world.

Mission accepted: I proposed to interview all the panelists in advance, one on one, then design and send an artifact from the future to each, to arrive at their homes by the week before the event. After more than a year on Zoom, thanks to the pandemic, my hope was to breathe some dimensionality into our talking-head squares.

Each artifact would draw inspiration from ideas about the future shared with me by the speaker in our pre-conversation, and would try to picture a far-reaching shift in relationships and power, manifested institutionally, affecting whatever we mean when we say ‘development’.

So, what happened? 

Sophie Howe, Welsh Commissioner for Future Generations, the first person in the world to hold that remarkable cross-cutting role, emphasised the critical need for a “holistic view” in governance. I wondered: how might next-level holistic, inclusive decision-making look?

Sophie received a bilingual Welsh/English mailer from Wales’ Parliament of All Beings in 02056, notifying her that animal wellbeing data indicated consent to move to the next phase of Rewilding in her neighbourhood in Cardiff.



Nanjira Sambuli, a powerhouse tech justice advocate from Kenya, when we spoke registered the absurdity of a few Silicon Valley tech bros ruling platforms that mediate our relationships all around the world, noting “the dream to democratise, decentralise” and “take on the giants”.

At home in Nairobi, she received a letter written to her as a Board Member for RECODE Africa (REclaim community, COoperativise platforms, DEvolve governance), with a T-shirt for its 3rd Annual Festival in 02030, after Twitter ownership has been taken over by users & workers.


Roman Krznaric, author of The Good Ancestor, told me about the importance of “political innovation” dealing with the “decision making structures” underpinning development at all levels. So what might such transformational change look like on the ground?

Based in Oxford, Roman received a thank you for serving in the 02032 Oxfordshire Ancestors’ Assembly (modelled on Japan’s current “Future Design” process), and a robe as ritually worn by participants when deliberating the potential impacts of their decisions on future generations.



Marcela Sabino, Head of Innovation at Brazil’s Museu do Amanha (Museum of Tomorrow), evoked a scenario in which we relate to corporate entities as legal persons very differently: “Companies have to be held accountable for what they're doing.” The question becomes –– how?

In Rio de Janeiro, Marcela received a screenprinted poster, one in Portuguese and one in English, advertising the public execution/dissolution of a corporation that in 02036 has been convicted of ecocide by the International Criminal Court.

Achim Steiner, head of UNDP, observed that by the later 21st century what we currently know as the United Nations “will have to be significantly different. . . . But the fact that we will need a governance platform on which to come together is absolutely essential.”

At home in New York, he received a hand-calligraphed copy of “The Words Spoken Before All Others”, aka the Haudenosaunee Thanksgiving Address, adopted in a ceremony at Onondaga Lake as the Opening Invocation for the General Assembly of the United Peoples, on 22 April 02070.




When the day of the panel itself arrived, I had the pleasure of moderating the conversation, with Luciana Mermet, UNDP Resident Representative in Bolivia. The speakers didn't know yet what the others had received, so we had everyone use their future artifact as a portal through which to introduce themselves and their ideas to the conversation.

The Deputy Foreign Minister of the Republic of Turkey, Faruk Kaymakci, also joined the session, as a distinguished “Future Steward”, sharing remarks on and helping draw connections among the perspectives offered.

It’s a minor miracle how it all came together. The future artifacts arrived in multiple locations around the world, our Internet connections held up, and almost 700 people joined in to listen, chat and ask questions. If you're interested, the Opening Session is available to watch in its entirety here:

This was an exciting piece of a much bigger conversation, about decolonising and reimagining development for the 02021 edition of IID. It was also an encouraging way for a new experiential futures* format to add both a third dimension (physicality) and a fourth (direct engagement with time) to a 2D medium. I half-jokingly dubbed the format a "4D Panel", and it would certainly work as a replicable structure –– if anyone decides to give it a go, please get in touch.

The other thing to mention about the format is that it is scaffolded using Ethnographic Experiential Futures (EXF) –– a framework that my colleague Kelly Kornet and I derived from a set of precedents for exactly this sort of purpose –– to make it easier to generate customised projects that pair culturally-specific futures research with design-led experiential outcomes. There's more research in the pipeline, so stay tuned.

This post is a quick one based on a thread shared on Twitter earlier today, and I plan to include more details of the project in a proper write-up in due course. For now, though, much gratitude to the many amazing folks who made this possible.

* * *

UNDP Objects of the Future (4D Panel) –– #IID2021 Opening Session –– Project Credits and Acknowledgments

Co-designer and lead artist:
Ceda Verbakel

Robe co-design and construction:
Lindsay Goranson

Calligraphy:
Catherine Marsceau

Welsh translation:
Angharad Withers
Sarah Elizabeth Siân Withers

Portuguese translation:
Jacques Barcia

Screenprinting:
Max Emiliano Gonzales

Documentation photography:
Matt Geiger

Special thanks to the following research informants, advisors and sounding boards:
Jacques Barcia
Ginny Battson
Cennydd Bowles
Jonathan Chapman
Jake Dunagan
Jasper Grosskurth
Jonathon Keats
Michelle King
Peter MacLeod
Sheila Ochugboju
Ollie Palmer
Hannah Muthoni Ryder
Ella Saitta
Wendy Schultz
Sian Sheu
Danny Spitzberg (@BuyThisPlatform)
Maya van Leemput

None of these fine people are responsible for my misunderstandings, errors or other sins

Thanks for generous logistical assistance:
Leonard Kinyanjui (Nairobi)
Sheila Ochugboju (Nairobi)
Siri Krznaric (Oxford)
Kate Raworth (Oxford)
Nina Barbuto (Pittsburgh)
Rich Pell (Pittsburgh)

Thanks also to Jill Chisnell, Trebor Scholz, Brad Towell, and Cameron Tonkinwise

Thanks for additional design explorations to Myrna Rosen and Amrita Khoshoo

Framing by Carol Whitehead
T-shirt production (PIT) by Clockwise.io
T-shirt production (NBO) by Mattel Printing
Shipping by FedEx East Liberty & Monroeville PA

4D Panel members and artifact inspirers:
Sophie Howe
Roman Krznaric
Marcela Sabino
Nanjira Sambuli
Achim Steiner

4D Panel Future steward:
Faruk Kaymakcı

UNDP Innovation liaison:
Milica Begovic

Thank you to Kelly Kornet for co-authoring the Ethnographic Experiential Futures (EXF) framework which scaffolded this project

Thank you to Robin Wall Kimmerer for inspiring the artifact for Achim through her brilliant book Braiding Sweetgrass (see “The Sacred and the Superfund”)

Thank you to John Stokes for kind permission to use the text of the Haudenosaunee Thanksgiving Address. © 1993 Six Nations Indian Museum and The Tracking Project. ISBN 0-9643214-0-8

Extra special thanks to Ceda Verbakel, wonderful partner, fellow traveller, and problem-solver-in-chief

* * *

* Or design fiction, speculative design, etc –– call it whatever you like really –– but know that experiential futures, more recently dubbed design futures in some quarters, has its own genealogy and contours grounded in decades of futures work; lots to dig into for the curious!


Related:
Foresight is a Right
> Dreaming together
The Spirit and the Letter
> Design is storytelling
1-888-FUTURES
Introducing experiential futures at the BBC
> Ethnographic Experiential Futures article / KBFS / original post
> Syrian refugee girls imagine their futures
> Using the future at NASA
> Bringing futures to Stanford d.school
> Wanted: 25,000 Miles of crime scene tape
Design and Futures open access book / intro to Vol. I

Friday, October 30, 2020

Introducing Experiential and Participatory Futures at the BBC

How do you develop foresight capacity inside an organisation, and experiential futures especially?

It's a question that comes up a lot. 

Recently I've spoken with government agencies from the UK, Denmark, and Australia, whose leaders all reached out for advice on growing their capability in these spaces.

The RSA (the Royal Society for Arts, Manufactures and Commerce) has just published a report on "Realising the Value of Futures and Foresight"; I was glad to contribute when the researchers got in touch a few months ago.

These are exciting signals 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.

This post is about a fun project that also represents, I think, an exciting milestone in that journey.

A long, long time ago, in a pre-COVID otherworld –– last year, that is –– I had the privilege of collaborating with the British Broadcasting Corporation on an effort to bring futures thinking and practices into the design side of the organisation.

With the brilliant Filippo Cuttica leading the charge (Filo is BBC's UX Principal for Ethical Experiences; he is also part of art collective IOCOSE), and supported by a formidable in-house design posse, we devised a process for introducing around 200 people to the space of alternative futures.

Since our participants would mostly be designers of various kinds, we were resolved that these ideas should land with folks not just in theory, but in the most embodied way possible. So at an away day for the whole design side of the Beeb, hosted in Manchester's grand old Alfred Hall, I gave a keynote address to get some shared concepts and background into the collective mind, and then we transitioned to bringing alternative futures to life, on the spot.


Being quite excited about the event, I took a *lot* of pictures, including all the photos in this post
(except this one of me speaking, obviously... which was taken by Filippo Cuttica)

Everyone had been invited to bring in junk from home –– old shoes; defunct appliances; all sorts of things that they would otherwise have thrown out –– to serve as raw material. The group spent the afternoon in small teams, reinterpreting these "found" items using our card game The Thing From The Future as scaffolding for imagination, and then physically transforming them into a crazy array of artifacts from alternative futures. At that point they put their wares "on sale", across dozens of stalls set up in the style of a bazaar or flea market, complete with a special currency created for the occasion that let everyone ultimately "vote" on their favourite designs.

Lo and behold: the Futures Bazaar! A surprisingly coherent container for a mad hodgepodge of material ruminations. The video produced by the BBC team (at the top of this post) really captures the glorious chaos of the day. 





This co-created centrepiece, the Futures Bazaar itself, was complemented by a range of interactive demos organised onsite by BBC media tech unit Blue Room, including an adapted version (pictured below) of our experiential scenario from a few years back, NaturePod, featuring 3D video footage that the team had recently ventured out to a forest near Manchester to record.


It was exciting to build, in scope and ambition, on previous design jam deployments of The Thing From The Future. And turning household refuse into design fiction gold is an inherently satisfying form of creative alchemy, especially at scale. Scores of people, all playing and making their way into the futures together.

To revisit this work now, after more than half a year of working remotely, I find myself really missing the energy of co-creating in person. (It seems most of the time, I manage to avoid thinking about that; covid-coping reflex.)

But what makes a process like this tick, and how does it contribute to developing foresight capability?

I see two key factors driving it. The first is clear constraint. The second is permission to play. In a sense these pull in opposite directions, and that's the point. There's a productive tension in the middle, a sweet spot for creative, surprising generativity, neither too scripted nor too loose. Military drills have clear parameters, but also a tendency towards the predictable, this being of course among their main aims. On the other side, a young child's doodling may manifest a kind of pure play, but one scrawling sketch can look very much like another, and another, and another. Paradoxically, extremely open processes can produce results comparable in their unsurprisingness to extremely planned ones.

In jazz or theatrical improv, it's when the improvisers consciously adopt or, if they're really skilled, feel their way into a shared set of enabling constraints, "finding the game", that things start to click. The signal-to-noise ratio leaps. Pleasurable surprises appear. Embracing the convergent forces of constraint and the divergent forces of play in balance takes us somewhere interesting –– in this case, a gleefully absurdist and thoroughly engaging mode of co-creation.




Several layers of productive constraints are operating here. These include, naturally, time itself; we broke a fairly complex set of tasks into distinct stages, which sharpened focus, brought urgency, and raised energy levels. Another is the overall premise, "make a future artifact with this thing", paired with the specific semiotic or interpretive potential of any given object: each item that participants had brought from home could plausibly be "cast" as many future things, but not as absolutely anything. More granularly, beneath the "future thing" umbrella, the structure of a Thing From The Future prompt offers a kind of future to consider, as well as a theme, a particular context of society or human endeavour, to help the imagination along. A player might incorporate a found object into a prompt something like the following:

"In a {REGIMENTED} future, there is a {pair of old slippers} related to {JUSTICE}. What is it?"

Which might end up generating something like this:



Okay, you might say. People seem to be enjoying themselves and being creative. But so what? How does this help with the development of an organisational foresight capability?

A general answer is that many, if not most, organisations need play more than they realise. Workplace cultures often implicitly devalue and sacrifice, intentionally or not, anything unusual, subversive, humorous or nonstandard. This makes for infertile contexts, inhospitable to new ideas, and perhaps to diversity on other dimensions too (cultures, backgrounds, values). In my experience it's common for organisations to be more brittle, blinkered, and reactive than they might think they are, and to that extent, more vulnerable to changes in their operating environment that they have not made room to consider.

Foresight practice, a conversation space that's deliberately much broader than forecasting (an important subset of it), requires some openness to the non-extrapolative and non-obvious –– viz. Dator's second law: "Any useful statement about the futures should at first appear to be ridiculous".

More specifically, this particular kind of play arguably helps lower the bar to having more serious, strategically load-bearing conversations about alternative futures. I've written elsewhere about how The Thing From The Future is designed to operate, so won't reiterate that here, but as the celebrated designers Charles and Ray Eames used to say, "Toys are not really as innocent as they look. Toys and games are the prelude to serious ideas."

Am I saying that this is "the right way" to introduce futures thinking into organisations? No. It was, however, a great way to do it here, partly because this specific organisation is full of creatives, makers, and storytellers. Also, the context of an away day made a bit of fun welcome, even essential. We understood that participatory, playful and hands-on elements needed to be foregrounded here, and so they were.

In a more corporate, bureaucratic, or self-serious context, such as strategic conversation for a government department, supranational outfit, or large business, other approaches might be more suitable. Less out-on-a-limb for the participants while still inviting their engagement with future possibilities physically, emotionally, and narratively.

The Future Is Now project, which we advised as well as helped implement at the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), the world's largest humanitarian network, mobilised experiential futures approaches in a number of important ways, in order to introduce, enable and integrate foresight throughout a vast organisation. It ended up fuelling an unprecedented level of futures awareness and activity, now shaping strategy at the global level, as well as within many national societies. (We can look at that case more in another post to come.)

Well, that all sounds very nice in principle, you may say, but we can't do most of these physical interventions or collaborations at the moment –– what about the pandemic?

So, part of the reason we called experiential futures "experiential futures", since first plotting out and arguing for this much-needed broadening of foresight practice a decade and a half ago, is that the relevant canvas is huge. It's not about a particular medium or context of deployment. As large as the space of "possible future artifacts" may be –– and I have argued that it has to be much larger than the set of "all human artifacts ever created in history"; if history has happened but futures have not, then the latter space is bound to be ontologically multiple, encompassing the aggregated contents not of just one historical timeline, but countless potential ones –– the point is that there's no reason, for our purposes, to be exclusively interested in objects, or even in physical, face-to-face encounters, important as those are. This is tied in with why the frames of "design fiction" and "speculative design", while both valuable vectors for popularising a subset of experiential futures' possibility space among designers and the design-curious, can sometimes get in their own way a little bit.

The relevant issue for organisations or cultures recognising a need to navigate change more effectively than they have in the past is not "how do we make objects that speak about futures?" It is also not, "how can speculative design or design fiction or help with our policy/strategy challenge?" Nor is it even "how can experiential futures help with x or y?", which reifies a constantly-evolving collection of practices that spring from and must continue to be fed by what seems to me to be the key underlying question: "what can we do to navigate change more effectively?" Any experience that helps people to grapple with possible futures and to take wiser action in the present is in scope. Experiential futures simply designates a possibility space where the challenge is ultimately to make better collective choices among all available options, and the means for realising these are whatever you can come up with.

On this view, the ongoing covid-19 pandemic and its limitations are just another set of enabling constraints. It doesn't much matter if you can't meet in person; do immersive future exhibits with social distancing, or for one person at a time. Send stuff through the post, or by email. Or create digital experiences, or audio ones with no screens in sight. We recently did a hybrid drama/design course on devising theatre in pandemic conditions, which included online live action roleplaying games. We've staged Zoom-native, as opposed to in-person, Time Machines (more on that soon, too). A bunch of us around the world just ran the first edition of a decade-long annual festival program of experiential futures, all created and carried out under covid-19 pandemic constraints. And so on.

People ought to be exploring alternative futures in the highest-impact ways available, especially with the devastating consequences of a conspicuous failure of effective foresight rippling, or rather ripping, through our daily lives, globally, right now.

Filo Cuttica says this in his excellent write-up of this foray into experiential futures:

If there’s one lesson to take away from the pandemic, it's the importance of looking ahead. And not just "looking ahead", but "feeling ahead". By imagining together in structured ways, and creating the experience of change before it happens, rather than while it's happening, we have a hope of planning, and even affecting our future. ...

The idea [of this event was] to introduce the team to a seemingly obvious, and yet hard to grapple with idea: that the future hasn’t happened yet, that we can play an active role in shaping, but that before we can collectively choose what should happen, we ought to explore what could happen.

As noted at the top; it's great that more and more institutions are realising how embedding an augmented futures capability might be valuable. At the BBC, with this effort an internationally significant organisation spanning cultural and governance sectors has taken some deceptively playful first steps down an important path, and I'm excited to see where it might go.

If this sounds like something that your community or institution should be exploring, but you aren't sure what to do next, try the links below for a start.

***


Thanks and congrats again to Filo, to his team and their network of wonderful colleagues, and not least, to their awesome bosses at the BBC for supporting these efforts. I also want to mention prior work that in some ways made this delightful experiment possible, especially the series of participatory futures events that Jeff Watson and I (Situation Lab) organised years ago with our good friends Elliott Montgomery and Chris Woebken (Extrapolation Factory); Futurematic Vending Machine at OCAD, Futurematic: Canal St at NYU, and 1-888-FUTURES at USC; as well as the Discoverability Media Jam for the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) with Rich Lachman at Ryerson University, and the Posteridade design jam staged with Marcela Sabino and her team at the Museum of Tomorrow in Rio de Janeiro.

Related
Dreaming Together | pdf from the book Made Up: Design's Fictions
UNTITLED: A Bold New Experiment in Public Imagination | Medium
> On Getting Started in Experiential Futures
Bringing Futures to Stanford d.School
Using the Future at NASA | pdf
Augmenting Cities with Niantic and Knight Foundation
> The Thing From the Future | pdf about the game design
Time Machines 
> NaturePod
> Theatre in Pandemic | full syllabus on Medium
1-888-FUTURES with Extrapolation Factory

Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Theatre in Pandemic

"Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next." — Arundhati Roy

***

A group of Theatre in Pandemic participants test out a new streaming platform


This summer, together with my colleague Nica Ross from Carnegie Mellon's School of Drama, we staged an experimental research course called Theatre in Pandemic.

It took place against the backdrop of not only the COVID-19 crisis but also a national and global effort to confront police violence and structural racism.

Both call for radically different approaches to theatre, but seem to pull in different directions. The former made working in the same physical space impossible. The second demanded heightened attention to questions of power and consent; the terms of co-creation between artists as well as the terms of encounter between artists and their publics. In other words, one set of conditions militated against building the strong connections and trusting relationships that are central to theatrical art-making, while the other brought the importance of those same connections and relationships into the sharpest possible focus.

The result of our grappling with that challenging contradiction was one of the most experimental and exciting classes I've ever taught.

The syllabus started as a skeleton that we deliberately left under-specified so as to enable adaptation and emergence in the fleshing out. It included Fluxus scores, online larp, ritual design, transmedia ideation, critical examinations of media and their enabling constraints, and a whole lot of play.

That is, we put aside the temptations (and hazards) of trying to replicate on Zoom any kind of theatre as we knew it before. Instead, we set out in search of new possibilities through experimentation and games, resulting in a set of design briefs and performances for a pandemic-prompted "playable theatre".

An outline of our six half-day sessions or 'episodes' perhaps gives a sense of the arc.

Episode 1: This is Theatre Now
• In-Class Action: Pass Around a Shared Object
• Weeklong Action: Create a Score

Episode 2: Building Worlds Together
• In-Class Action: Play a Live Action Roleplaying Game
• Weeklong Action: Design a Ritual

Episode 3: Mediums and Media
• In-class Action: Research and Experiment with online tech/art projects
• Weeklong Action: 60 Second Play

Episode 4: A Play and a Project
• In-Class Action: The Thing From The Future
• Project Launch: The Final Action

Episode 5: Studio Time

Episode 6: Final Action

Gratifyingly, and as hoped, the three projects produced by our dozen participants were wildly different from one another.

Queerantine 2020 by Lyam Gabel, Lenora Gant, and Petra Floyd
A user-navigated web-based archive with mixed media content, both contextualising and telling the story of a triad of people trying to navigate the criminal justice system, queerness, academia, and life in a pandemic.


PBC by Zeja Copes, Sean Leo, Maggie McGrann, and Carey Xu
A live-streaming, 360-degree cut-up play incorporating the words of James Baldwin, Michelle Tea, Hua Chunying, and CNN to create a conversation at the intersection of diverse lives, conflict and care.


S.99520 by Davine Byon, Major Curda, Rachel Kolb, and Cynthia Xu
An online larp (or live action online game, aka ‘laog’) in which United States Senators and industry lobbyists persuade, bribe and cajole each other in the closing minutes before the crucial vote on the Bill for the Green New Deal. Hosted on the web-based virtual space and conferencing platform gather.town that stylistically emulates an 8-bit video game, the participants navigate their way around the game space to find each other, activate video chat, and engage in high-stakes negotiations.


Thanks in part to the interest that folks showed in what we were doing when I tweeted about the course a few months ago, we've open-sourced the Theatre in Pandemic syllabus, complete with all reading and media resources, in-class and weekly 'actions' or assignments, plus additional links and commentary, as well as a demo reel of the participants' efforts (see below).

My experiential futures practice and classes have for many years drawn on theatrical modes, including immersive theatre, live action roleplaying, and guerrilla performance –– and as it happens my first ever pay cheques, at 13, came from being in a professional production of an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical. But this was the first chance I've had to collaborate with the School of Drama. It was a blast.

Our hope is that others might find some leads or inspiration in these documents of our struggle to connect, co-create, and reimagine collaborative art in a very challenging time.

Meanwhile, much gratitude to Nica and to all our participants.


Related:
> Theatre in Pandemic: An Experimental Syllabus at Medium
Impacting the Social [pdf]: A conversation with Candy Chang and Bryan Boyer
> The Time Machine [pdf]: Immersive futures assignment brief
Experiential Futures: Stepping into OCADU's Time Machine [pdf]
> Designing for Emergence / Why Christchurch Should Not Plan for the Future [pdf]
> The Long Now course at CMU
> Future Documentary course at SAIC
American Futures course at SAIC
> Adopt-a-Vision / Experiential Futures at OCAD
> The Futures School at NUS [video]
Strategic Foresight course at CCA
> Intro to Politics course incl. Guerrilla Futures at UH
> In Memoriam / Guerrilla Futures intervention at SXSW
Design is Storytelling
> When Reality Outruns Imagination
> Immersive scenarios for Hawaii 02050 in 02006 and revisited a decade later

Friday, September 18, 2020

Inside a Bold New Experiment in Public Imagination

They say the future is unwritten. It’s also UNTITLED.


An exciting global initiative in support of public imagination kicks off this week with the launch of the festival UNTITLED (17 & 18 September 02020). It’s being staged online through the shared efforts of an alliance of activist and changemaking organisations from around the world, and coordinated by the Finnish nonprofit Demos Helsinki.

This is the first in a series that’s planned to run each year through 02030. As one of the founding curators I have to admit that this is an unusually turbulent and in many ways inauspicious-seeming historical moment for attempting to get a visionary collective action off the ground. But as you might imagine, that’s part of the point.

I ‘sat down’ virtually with one of the prime movers of UNTITLED, Demos Helsinki founder Roope Mokka, to capture the story so far and take a snapshot of how things look on the eve of this ambitious event.

***

SC: Roope, we had an exchange a couple of years back about a project you were working on with a set of 1.5 degree climate lifestyle scenarios — and you were wondering how to ‘get experiential with foresight’. Things have changed a lot since then! Tell us the story behind this initiative — how did it come about, and what’s motivating it?

RM: It really began with kind of an existential crisis in the think tank Demos Helsinki. To understand it one has to understand that we are an employee-governed organisation; we’re all ‘partners’, but we collectively own the organisation that employs us. What this means is that things such as impact are most valued, instead of growth of revenue, headcount, profit or other typical success goals for organisations that sell services.

A few years ago we came to see that, despite our ‘success’ (growing from 10 to 50 people, establishing international operations, and having ever-bigger strategic projects with ever-bigger governments, corporations and NGOs), we were still heading towards social and ecological collapse. Our impact measures were all going off the charts, but the world around us was falling apart.

At the same time we had been working on a large-scale societal vision and narrative project together with the Finnish innovation fund, Sitra. This was a unique opportunity to drill into what is particular in our age and its relationship to the future. One thing emerged above all, and that was that we are living in a new era, or even between eras, as Gramsci famously pointed out. Assumptions of the industrial era had proven false, and the post-industrial era had started everywhere but in the very structures that govern our life. The project came to be called Next Era.

So there was both organisational demand and a research basis for the need to reimagine the world around us. We decided that we had to set up a kind of platform where different organisations and people could come together and explore what the next society might look like. We also understood the need to go beyond projects, so we ended up initiating a ten year process. And this has to happen at a somewhat global scale, so that is part of what we are aiming for.

SC: Why the name UNTITLED?

RM: As we are talking about the ‘post-’world (be it post-liberal, post-normal, post-truth, post-industrial, post-capital(ist), etc) we remain the prisoners of the thing we aim to leave behind. The ‘don’t think of an elephant’ of our age is ‘don’t think of a post-capitalist era’.

Basically we lack images, names and ways to think about a world that has thoroughly transformed. We are more accustomed to betting on the future and competing in guessing what the future is, than doing the hard work of imagining and experimenting with what we imagine.

‘Untitled’ refers to the fact that we are incapable of naming and explaining what a world and human look like beyond all these ongoing transformations.


SC: This is one of the first large-scale experiments with a civically oriented public imagination or experiential futures program, and there’s sort of a theory of change built into it, isn’t there?

RM: We did not have a theory to start with, more of a ‘burning platform’. Now we’re getting there. In a nutshell it is: Refusing to go back to normal, imagining the unimagined, and experimenting with things that matter.

Our first assumption is that ‘transformation is one’; there are no separate sectoral transformations: post-capitalism — late capitalism — surveillance capitalism — crisis of capitalism––crisis of liberalism — decline of democracy — era of meritocratic autocracy — self-organisation — post truth — digital transformation — fourth industrial revolution — data economy — exponential technology — inner transformation — inner growth — awakening to holistic consciousness — deep adaptation — decarbonisation — climate crisis — post-fossil era — sixth wave of mass extinction — ecosystem collapse… these are all one. Or at least, they are only meaningful in relation to each other.

Some of us may have a preferred theory, vision or ideology that explains what happens when we follow one trajectory: for example, after capitalism comes a data driven planning economy; after liberalism comes meritocratic autocracy, and so forth. But these are fundamentally flawed ways of looking at the future. What is meritocratic autocracy after the sixth wave of mass extinction? Nothing.

If we start looking at these as one, we face a phenomenon of a different magnitude. Many old theories lose their ability to predict, as the premises of society, behaviour, economics and institutions change. From this two things follow: the fundamental categories disappear and new ones emerge. This has happened before; we speak casually about a nation, a worker, science, or money as if these have always existed.

What we are experiencing right now changes the fundamentals of who we are as human beings. In some sense, the material, social, economic, and technological transformations are piling up to an ontological transformation; a transformation in what we humans are. Understood this way, we should focus on imagination / the unimaginable. The word ‘transformation’ hints that something that already exists takes a new form, but that is not the case in ontological transformations, where many entirely new things emerge.

UNTITLED thus proposes a certain process of imagination and experimentation. It starts with refusing to go back to normal, continues with imagining the unimaginable, and leads to experimenting with others.

It’s a space for different imaginations, where people can build on each others’ imaginaries, and expand together their view of the untitled future.


SC: I remember we started the planning conversations back in January, before any of us had even heard the name ‘covid-19’ — the novel coronavirus itself was still untitled! How did the event evolve with the pandemic?

RM: This has been a helluva ride and it ain’t getting easier! Launching a global process that centers around a festival in 02020? We postponed the main event, lost some funders and members, and redesigned operations, from a 100% onsite festival with some online access, to a 100% online festival with a small site in Helsinki.

In a way though, covid has helped: there is no need to convince people that there is no going back to normal and the need to reimagine the world around us.

SC: What other events, initiatives or institutions have provided inspiration?

RM: We started by looking at the World Economic Forum and Burning Man in particular. WEF has got huge agenda power — it gives permission to the elites to speak about difficult issues such as climate change and economic injustice. Burning Man has a unique modus operandi, supporting a very large annual arts event in the Nevada desert, and seeding an array of local ‘burn’ events around the world, with only 80 or so employees.

We also looked at different portfolio projects, from accelerators to governments’ strategic experiments. And of course, tons of participatory foresight and experiential events.

Then we looked at founding meetings such as those of the Situationist International, the Club of Rome (which was apparently a horribly bad experience), the Mont Pelerin Society, and all kinds of stuff really! I think we all hate traditional conferences, summits and networking events, so that helped as well, in scoping something new.

SC: Give us an outline of the program for this first year. What do you think is most exciting about it?

RM: We have some 400 participants, from 30 countries and 11 timezones; 60 sessions of arts, imagination, conversation and experimentation. Some really interesting experiments have been lined up, from ‘housing with income’ to ‘universal basic hope’.

The program is entirely co-curated by the founding alliance and that is what makes it special. We share a vision but have many different perspectives on it.

The festival starts on the (European) morning of Thursday September 17th with a set of conversations as well as art and imagination workshops. The same afternoon, we come together for the Ceremony for All, to elevate and open our minds. In the evening (that’s morning for Americas and beyond) we continue with conversations + art and imagination sessions. At the end of the day we gather to reflect on what we imagined.

On Friday 18th we focus especially on the practical side of imagination with experiment workshops where we plan and initiate real life experiments — this is the true crown jewel of UNTITLED, and something that we hope will develop to set it apart from other communities of imagination. That evening we gather again to close the festival and celebrate the start of the UNTITLED decade.


SC: Where would this be in 02030, if it unfolds as you hope?

RM: Well in 02030 we have the last year of operation, and that means we should have gone through many phases. Most importantly we should have experimented with all important institutional forms that the new era requires. The world will not necessarily have completely changed as a result of this effort (like it did not change immediately after the Mont Pelerin meeting), but the basic principles of change are there. We should have also involved a reasonably large part of the world’s population in imagination and experimentation, otherwise we will fail for sure.

SC: So this is very much designed as an iterative experiment; what should we be looking to learn from the first iteration?

RM: Now we are testing how this combination, the exploration of the ‘unimagined’ through arts and conversation, and the initiation of real life experiments, works together. That is the hardest part of what we are doing, I think.

It’s also an online festival. Luckily no-one knows what that means, so it’s not something that you can easily fail in!

***

Registration for UNTITLED 02020 has closed, but folks can explore the website, sign up for the mailing list, follow @imagineuntitled on Twitter, or attend one of the ongoing Untitled Imaginary Society meetups, which are open to all. Futures permitting, the next edition of the festival will take place in June 02021.

Thanks to Roope Mokka for this interview, and kudos to the entire team of organisers and participants for making the event possible.


This post was previously published on Medium.

Related:
> Critical Activism (interview with Anab Jain)

Monday, August 31, 2020

The Spirit and the Letter

As the new school year gets underway I've been thinking about some of the reading that left an impression on me this summer. Tonight my mind goes to the collection Dreaming Too Loud by the remarkable human rights barrister Geoffrey Robertson, who is known for representing, among others, Salman Rushdie, Julian Assange, the Aboriginal Tasmanian Centre, and A.S. Neill's Summerhill School. His other books include Crimes Against Humanity: The Struggle for Global Justice and Who Owns History? Elgin's Loot and the Case for Returning Plundered Treasure. A man of uncommon moral clarity and a wickedly sharp turn of phrase, Robertson was once described as "the greatest living Australian" by the now much missed Christopher Hitchens.

I was in search of insight into the ingenious show that he used to host in the 1980s on Australian public television, Geoffrey Robertson's Hypotheticals (a cousin of the long-running Fred Friendly Seminars on PBS in the United States, and their roots are intertwined, as Robertson relates in his memoir). This brilliantly improvised quasi-roleplaying-game format for supporting public imagination and debate could sometimes be controversial –– the hypothetical transcribed in the book comes from an episode dealing with the politics of media ownership in Australia, which apparently ruffled the wrong feathers, and disappeared without ever being broadcast –– but this is just one facet of a long and colourful career illuminated from many angles in Dreaming Too Loud.

Among the themes of Australian history and society running through in the book is the abysmal treatment of the country's first inhabitants and the need for legal redress: "Restorative justice requires some atonement to indigenous Australians."

I was born in Adelaide, South Australia –– Kaurna Country –– although my family moved overseas when I was very young, and I have had too few opportunities to spend time there since, so my ignorance of the place is sadly extensive. Something I learned from this book is that the Letters Patent issued by the king of England in 01836 that founded South Australia, then the only state free of convicts in a country otherwise settled as a series of penal colonies, explicitly included the following condition:

Provided always that nothing in these Letters Patent contained shall affect or be construed to affect the rights of any Aboriginal Natives of the said Province to the actual occupation or enjoyment in their own Persons or in the Persons of their Descendants of any Land therein now actually occupied or enjoyed by such Natives.

As Robertson points out, almost two hundred years of studied disregard for the letter and spirit of the law were to follow. But this fascinating legal timebomb from the early nineteenth century, a potential basis eventually for the kind of sudden paradigmatic shift that international legal scholars call a Grotian moment, remained, like a cultural earthquake waiting to happen.

Introducing the article 'Give Adelaide Back', he notes:

Adelaide may have been an act of theft, but, unlike most colonial acquisitions, it might one day be returned –– if lawyers in the future can work out how to enforce the patent as the king of England and his Whig ministers, back in 1836, intended. This would provide an example of how, in the law, time past is present in time future.

Towards that end he ventures some legal formulations that might be helpful, including a 'Statute of Liberty', a counterpart to the United States Bill of Rights, which is something that the Australian Constitution has never included. Understandably this is a special point of interest and concern for a human rights lawyer. The proposed Preamble starts as follows:

Whereas the people of Australia, united in one indissoluble Commonwealth, declare it the democratic duty of their parliaments and elected bodies and government officials to uphold, protect and advance their hard-won liberties, and being:

Humble in acknowledging the first owners and occupiers of this unique continent, whose ancestors have walked about on its earth for many thousands of years before British settlement;

Sorrowful for the dispossession, discrimination and degradation they have endured and

resolved hereafter to respect their relationship with the land and to atone for past wrongs by future equity...

This proposed document appears in full elsewhere in the same collection, but Robertson has previously published a whole book setting out the argument, too.

A provision on the Special Rights of Indigenous People is suggested as follows:

Indigenous people have distinct cultural rights and must not be denied the right, with other members of their community:
i) to enjoy their identity and culture;
ii) to maintain and use their language;
iii) to maintain their kinship ties;
iv) to maintain spiritual and material relationships with the land and waters according to their customs of old.

Evaluating the specifics of these proposals is not my purpose here. What catches interest is their force and simplicity as prototypes of legal artifacts from the future –– we might say, time future crystallised in time present.

In the law words have a certain magic. They are used not merely to interpret but to map the very contours of the world. Among its affordances as a practice in our society, then, is the fact that if you can find the right words at the right moment, they can work like a spell. A skilfully woven thread tying past and present facts to tomorrow's legal logic can just about pull a future into existence. I don't know that this fully landed with me in law school –– and there's a bit more to it than that of course –– but after many years of working with all sorts of media and strategies to bring futures to life, I appreciate the potency and currency of words in the legal realm in a different way now.

I've also been tracking a long, slow loop through experiential futures back towards where I began in the law, and the challenges and opportunities of synthesising the two. What radically different arrangements in systems of law and justice might lie on the other side of the racial justice reckoning that we're moving through in America and other settler societies at the moment? In different ways, two enormously inspiring books I've also read in the past couple of months have ushered my curiosity further in that direction; Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer (thanks to my friend Michelle King) and Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson (thanks to The Ezra Klein Show).

This reminds me –– a professor I recently met from the law school at the University of Pittsburgh, Tomar Pierson-Brown, pointed me to a remarkable series of legal publications called Feminist Judgments that started in the UK a decade ago and set a pattern since borrowed by writers in other common law jurisdictions. Each collection presents a set of historic legal judgments, "using only the precedent in effect and the facts known at the time of the original decision", critically reimagined and rewritten through a feminist lens. I love the depth and detail of this mode of engagement, the counterfactual hypothesising with teeth, the committed performance of principle with far greater groundedness than much of what passes for speculation in some other contexts.

And here again, the summoning of a power in legal writing to dream alternative directions, and not just tell but show the truth of that vital activist and futurist dictum: other worlds are possible.

Related:
> Foresight is a Right
> An Artifact from Australia's Future
> On the Money
> The People Who Vanished
> Anything But Text
> Journalism from the Future
> Syrian refugee girls reimagine their futures