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

Friday, July 31, 2020

Knowledge Base of Futures Studies


Just published this month is The Knowledge Base of Futures Studies 2020, the latest in an edited series collecting key works in foresight over time.

The original version of KBFS was released in 01996, the same year I first encountered the futures/foresight field; the most recent update came out in 02005, the year I went to study with Jim Dator at the University of Hawaii's 'Manoa School' of futures. So it's been a long while, and a huge amount has changed in the field over that period.

I'm excited to have two pieces in this collection, both coauthored with terrific colleagues –– Kelly Kornet and Peter Hayward. Both articles are adaptations of work previously published, and speak to aspects of how the field has evolved over the past decade and a half towards more participatory, playful, experiential and inclusive modes.

The Polak Game (aka "Where Do You Stand?"), written with Peter, is about a classic workshop and classroom game in the futures field, which Hayward invented, inspired by the remarkable work of Dutch sociologist and proto-futurist Fred Polak. The game offers a user-friendly structure for facilitating far-reaching conversation among foresight students and clients, introducing "images of the future" as a basic property of both cultures and individuals, thus helping pave the way to more advanced tools and frameworks. It first appeared in 02017 as a peer-reviewed article in the Journal of Futures Studies (JFS).

Ethnographic Experiential Futures (EXF), written with Kelly, introduces a framework for hybrid design/futures research and practice that is all about making images of the future more legible and concrete, and seeing what one can learn from doing so. The piece sets out a practical structure and set of prompts for devising projects and interventions, with a view to promoting the availability of a more diverse and deeper array of scenarios for consideration, in all sorts of contexts, ultimately in service of developing a social capacity for foresight. It first appeared in 02019 as a peer-reviewed article, Turning Foresight Inside Out, in the JFS special double issue on Design and Futures co-edited with Cher Potter.

Fifteen years is a long time, and to be fair not all of the changes that the futures/foresight field has seen are (or could be) reflected in a selection which, as this version's co-editor Andy Hines points out, was subject to real constraints. But there are over 500 pages of material from contributors around the world, and I'm looking forward to digging in! Meanwhile the next edition, we might hope, will appear sooner rather than later, and will also seize the opportunity to push even further in surfacing the tremendous diversity of views and approaches to futures research, scholarship and practice from all corners of a burgeoning and multifaceted global conversation.

Well done to the three dozen contributing authors, and to editors Richard Slaughter and Andy Hines, for this valuable contribution! While previous editions were sometimes hard to find, this new collection is electronically available directly from the publisher, the Association of Professional Futurists.

Related:
> Ethnographic Experiential Futures / full-text pdf from KBFS 2020
> The Polak Game / full-text pdf from KBFS 2020
> Design and Futures book release / full-text pdf
> Transforming the Future book release / full-text pdf
> Ghosts of futures past
> A History of Experiential Futures

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

When reality outruns imagination


I wrote this reflection a few months ago, just after the COVID-19 pandemic was recognised as such. Now posting here to make it easier to find.

***

A key purpose of futures practice is to invest thought in possible contingencies, so that when something unexpected suddenly happens you are better prepared.

COVID-19 is a vivid illustration of both the importance and the limits of foresight. Let me tell you a story.

This story is about how the first serious game funded by the CDC came about –– a near-future pandemic simulation, back in 02009 –– and how it was overtaken by real events. And what we learned from that.

In 02007, my colleague Jake Dunagan (now at Institute for the Future) and I were both grads in the futures program at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. In our work there, at the Hawaii Research Center for Futures Studies, we had already designed and run immersive scenarios, set in the year 02050, to engage lawmakers and public in the state’s sustainability planning process.


We then started experimenting with other approaches we hadn’t seen in futures work before, but that seemed worth exploring too. One thing we tried was doing physical installations and encounters in public to bring possible worlds to life, which we called guerrilla futures. It drew inspiration from some early interventions by The Yes Men, tactical media and culture jamming √† la Adbusters, Brazilian forum theatre pioneer Augusto Boal, some then-recent alternate reality games, and also, well before any of the above, Situationist d√©tournement.

We developed scenarios for our favourite neighbourhood, Honolulu’s Chinatown, through conversations with residents, and then collaboratively translated these futures into experiences in the streets.

One was about the cultural changes gentrification might bring to the area.


Another explored the potential meaning for Chinatown of China’s geopolitical rise.


The last scenario was about a deadly flu outbreak. It came partly from our research into the history of the Chinatown district, which at the turn of the 20th century had been burned down after being struck by an epidemic of bubonic plague.




This experiential scenario was specifically designed to echo history, in order to help generate connection to and discussion about future possibilities. Outbreaks, like earthquakes, happen periodically. They can’t be completely avoided; only mitigated through effective anticipation, preparation and response.

The gentrification scenario landed our guerrilla project, FoundFutures: Chinatown, on the front page of the state's daily newspaper. It seems we had staged it plausibly enough that some people briefly thought Starbucks, TGI Fridays, and overpriced luxury lofts were really moving in.


But it was the pandemic scenario that caught the attention of the Hawaii Department of Health (DOH). They came to us and asked how experiential futures might help prepare the population. We started exploring, and the DOH set about the slow process of seeking grant funding.

A year on, they had received a grant from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and still wanted to collaborate. By then, late 2008, I was working as a Game Master on Superstruct, “the world’s first massively multiplayer forecasting game,” an online social platform staged by IFTF and designed by Jane McGonigal, Jamais Cascio, and Kathi Vian. Superstruct was seriously groundbreaking, engaging thousands of players internationally in imagining themselves a decade later –– “real play rather than role play” –– telling stories collaboratively to extend humanity’s survival horizon in-world.


Especially with this successful alternate reality game (ARG) as a newly-minted reference point, the health department loved our pitch: an online pandemic flu ARG with added real-world discovery vectors on the ground in Hawaii; future artifacts installed in public places to boost awareness, participation, and ultimately, resilience.

The core design team set to work –– me, Matthew Jensen, and Nathan Verrill, with Jake Dunagan helping out as permitted by his new full-time job at IFTF –– and we quickly identified the overarching storytelling challenge at hand; one set to make or break the whole project: How could we help our audience with no living memory of a precedent, most anyone under 45, to connect viscerally to what it feels like to live through a pandemic? By this point, early in 02009, there had not been one in more than 40 years –– the 'Hong Kong Flu,' in 01968.

We constructed our in-game scenario around a hypothetical, peer-to-peer, Hawaii-based disaster response org called Coral Cross, which had been founded, in our telling, after a devastating hurricane hit the islands in 02011. This part was sort of modelled against the real example of Hurricane Katrina (02005), to help people connect to the stakes. But it posited a constructive, emergent use of social media –– still very new in 02009. We basically planned to have people roleplay online within that frame.


We also had to produce near-future media assets to put on the diegetic (in-world) Coral Cross website. These would be aimed at helping players grasp the strangeness, and seriousness, of being able to catch a deadly disease from a doorknob. The hypothetical pandemic was inherently challenging to us, too, because of course we hadn’t had that experience either.


So one day in April 02009, I'm at the East West Center directing a film shoot for the project: a press conference set in 02012, three years into the future, where the Hawaiian Governor’s office announces the WHO declaration of a fully-blown, level 5 pandemic of this imaginary in-game disease.

In the midst of filming, a text message appears on my phone from Matthew, then working from Chicago. One word: “Oink.” Plus a link to an obscure report about an emerging swine flu strain apparently showing up in Mexico and California.

Everyone agreed this was a very strange coincidence.

The disease spread. Within days it had graduated to the front pages of newspapers all over the world.

And the major push we had put in to making this unfamiliar experience of a pandemic more imaginable was instantly made redundant by reality.

For me and the project team, this was just about the most bizarre and unexpected conceivable turn. An elaborately constructed "what if" that we had spent months plotting out, unprecedented in the past 40 years, was now being outstripped by events in real time.

I was reeling.

We were still some weeks out from launch, and quickly realised: our plans, this project, absolutely had to change.

We contacted our clients at the health department, who at first tried to reassure us it would be fine to stay the course. We politely insisted otherwise. Fortunately, soon enough everyone was on the same page: it would not be responsible, or even make sense, to run a live social online game about an imaginary pandemic against the backdrop of an actual one.

We had to move quickly. What’s the only thing that can spread faster than a virus? Information.

Our elaborate hypotheticals went out the window. “Alternate reality game” morphed into “emergent reality game.” While still a playable pandemic preparedness campaign, we were now racing a real disease, H1N1 swine flu. The new plan: harness unfolding events to fuel engagement. We rebooted the whole effort to have it revolve directly around helping players learn how to avoid getting sick and spreading illness.

The new Coral Cross launched some weeks later. Players everywhere registered, earned “vigilance” for engaging the medical quiz content we had prepared with expert CDC guidance, and shared their views on the delicate, serious ethical dilemmas around allocating an eventual vaccine.



H1N1 marched on. However, it was gradually becoming clear that, thankfully, mortality rates were well below those feared at first.

This welcome news had a dark underside. Concern was activated, only to be followed by an experience for many no different than a regular flu season. The medical establishment, in good faith, had cried wolf, and the wolf duly arrived! –– technically it was a pandemic –– but instead of a terrifying monster, this toothless creature had limped into town. We were left wondering: was the net effect maybe in fact less preparedness?

Hawaii DOH and the CDC were awesome to work with. They were also incredibly happy with the project as, we were told, their first experiment with a "serious game". Many players showed impressive, genuine, heartening engagement.

And yet.

As you know, last week the WHO declared COVID-19 a pandemic. Not influenza, of course, but for our purposes, a similar enough breed of fiasco. I’ve been flashing back to Coral Cross the past few weeks, and I’ve been asked about the project and its lessons.

First, making Coral Cross was I think the first time I’d personally learned or thought much about the catastrophic 01918 Spanish Flu, as well as the best practices for avoiding sickness, etc. A decade ago, sneezing into cupped hands was still pretty standard polite practice.

Second, it is a genuinely humbling, quite surreal, and deeply ironic experience to have a well-meaning initiative that is all about thinking ahead and resilience get blown out of the water while it is diligently being set up. As ever, “The best laid schemes of mice and men…”

But I think the main lesson is this: Pandemic preparedness is not a one-shot proposition. Neither, for that matter, is community resilience. Nor is the capacity for foresight more broadly. These things require habit. Collectively, they are cultural. Society critically needs an ongoing, collective, plural, high quality forward view.

I look at it in terms of three dimensions: difference, diversity, and depth. We must address not just the difference of a single (however currently-likely-seeming) scenario, though that's as far as many folks go. We also need a diversity of alternative futures, constantly updated. And depth, reckoning with what these entail as lived experiences.

Granted, this is a tall order. But it is also what over half a century of futures/foresight practice and education are all about. Our community is worldwide, not just in one particular place, culture, or department. Many hands have helped to develop, hone and share these skills. (Note: not everyone with "futurist" in their bio necessarily knows about the field, history, methods, etc) If new to you, let me invite you to explore.

To be clear: current urgencies need urgent attention. In addition: we need to cultivate wiser, more farsighted and systemically-literate habits of mind, as individuals, as organisations, and yes, as whole societies; a distributed capacity that some of us call social foresight.

I know it can be done at those smaller scales, because I've spent more than a decade and a half doing it. Meanwhile, what we must do collectively is increasingly clear. Whether we will step up is currently an open question.

“History is merely a list of surprises. It can only prepare us to be surprised yet again.”
–– Kurt Vonnegut, Slapstick

***

(Originally shared on Twitter, then LinkedIn.)

Related:
Three Dimensions of Foresight
> Hawaii 02050: Ghosts of futures past
> Coral Cross is coming / Coral Cross concludes
> Boing Boing post from back when this happened

Sunday, May 31, 2020

The Future Can't Wait

Photo by Matthew Abbott for the New York Times

I wrote this piece in the first week of January. It appears in the just-published Summer 2020 edition of Design Journal from the Smithsonian Design Museum, Cooper Hewitt, in New York. It’s hard to believe how long ago the start of this year feels, and how quaint my obliviousness, stuck in amber, to the string of crises that have unfolded since — the COVID-19 pandemic, oil market chaos, historic levels of unemployment, and in the past week, demonstrations across the United States. Our context has shifted again and again, but I think the argument is reinforced by all this change.

***

Eden is burning.

A small coastal town in Australia has become a household name in the past twenty-four hours, besieged by raging bushfires colouring land and sky a surreal martian red, and causing residents to flee for the ocean, the safest refuge in a world aflame.

Today, under unprecedented emergency orders from the Prime Minister, the navy arrives to help with evacuation. The fires in Eden and dozens of other places have already torn through an area the size of Switzerland.

This is all a few hundred miles northeast of where my wife and I, both Australian, are on our annual pilgrimage back from the United States. Right now our family group is standing on the deck of another navy vessel, a World War II minesweeper, long ago decommissioned and turned into a small maritime museum. Normally the backdrop would be a spectacular Melbourne skyline. Instead we see a grey curtain that looks like fog, but isn't. The smell of smoke is unmistakeable. The ongoing catastrophe is at once bodily present and utterly remote from our pleasant after-lunch walk.

A museum guide leads us to the crew quarters, pointing out a framed black-and-white photo of grinning sailors crammed into this space. I try to picture daily life during the war: dozens of servicemen eating, arguing, and playing Mahjong endlessly, spending their nights in hammocks strung from the low ceiling. The central purpose of the exhibit is of course to help visitors connect to this earlier time - but even standing here, surrounded by historical paraphernalia and listening to stories from our knowledgeable guide, one struggles to imagine the lived everyday reality of a vanished era.

As with the present-day experience of others, especially in circumstances very different or distant from our own, so too when it comes to history. Considering it from afar is one thing; really comprehending it is another.

Thinking about the future confronts this same problem, intensified. No one knows exactly what the future holds, so unlike the past or present we have no direct evidence to compare with what is in our minds.

Yet the collective task of properly engaging alternatives is among the most important we face. Fortunately we now have more effective ways to do it than ever before.



Prompted by the Second World War and the Cold War that followed, a pragmatic set of approaches for navigating large-scale change and uncertainty has arisen over the past few generations. The near-unthinkable stakes of nuclear conflict forced governments to develop big-picture "what if" scenarios, and investigate how they might influence events toward preferred futures, and away from nonpreferred ones.

In the 01970s, oil companies and other organisations started exploring the advantages of an institutional capacity to think ahead. Parallel to these developments in the corridors of power, a more grassroots and humanistic tradition of futures workshops and education was also emerging, studying the "images of the future" held by individuals and groups, and how to understand, critique, and create them.

"Future" singular became "futures" plural. A new transdisciplinary field was born, known variously as strategic foresight, futures studies, or simply "futures." Now, paying intellectual attention to possible futures is a positive step, but it does not in itself guarantee an appropriate impact on present-day decisions. The bushfires blazing in southeastern Australia are a case in point. They have captured global attention as a kind of postnatural disaster: something long foreseen, and shaped directly and indirectly by collective choices, but for years not taken seriously in a political sense. This long-fuse, seemingly far-fetched scenario, well outside of anyone's lived experience, has now burst forth and is wreaking havoc in real time.

How then can we connect to possible, probable, and preferred futures viscerally, such that they feel real enough to make a difference, now? This vital question has become a focus for a community of practice building on foresight's foundation. At conferences and festivals, in classrooms and city streets, we are learning and using whatever it takes to bring futures to life, from physical artifacts, photo illustrations, and videos to online games and simulations, street art, guerrilla interventions, immersive theatre, and live-action roleplaying. In recent years in the design world, speculative design and design fiction (an analogue to science fiction, but oriented to physical rather than literary creations) have surged to prominence.

This whole array of strategies is called experiential futures. If one wants to bring potential realities to life, and have them register with the body and make a dent in current choices, then all experiences that help achieve that are part of this design space. They can be used to explore any question or topic, bring any world to life. Here are a few examples of projects we've done on the themes at hand:

For the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies biennial strategy meetings, future artifacts dramatised a potentially changed landscape of humanitarian need. What if displaced coastal populations began to mobilise politically, across culture and language barriers, around their common plight?

For the World Bank's Climate Investment Funds, and Institute for the Future, we imagined far-reaching changes in the US federal response, creating a future advertising campaign around it. What if, in the late 02020s, climate inaction gave way to large-scale military mobilisation? Strange echoes now of the deployments just announced in Australia.

For the Hawaiian state legislature, to support public engagement with a sustainability planning process, we placed hundreds of policymakers and constituents in a quartet of parallel immersive scenarios for the islands, set in 02050. In one room, governance had been restructured around precolonial values and traditions; in another was a naturalisation ceremony for climate refugees. And so on.

These are not predictions, but "what ifs" in four dimensions, aimed at improving the quality, accessibility, and impact of futures conversation. Miscellaneous approaches are coalescing into a systematic set of ways for humans to play productively with possibilities, and ranging beyond the standard technological questions by bringing life to often neglected social, cultural, economic, and environmental dimensions.

Becoming common practice brings the opportunity for deep impact. As well as spending time in the imaginary worlds of comic book heroes, for instance, we might spend time in potential future realities. We might debate and decide less on the basis of ideology and slogans, and more on the basis of collectively explored pathways and policies designed to shape them.

The museum has emerged as an indispensable platform for helping these developments along. If you haven't already encountered a major hybrid design/futures exhibition, at an institution like the Museum of Modern Art, New York, or the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, chances are you soon will. New facilities - essentially cultural institutions of foresight - like the Museum of Tomorrow in Rio de Janeiro, the ArtScience Museum in Singapore, MOD in Adelaide, and the Museum of the Future under construction in Dubai, have lately been established to let visitors encounter what could come to be, as much as what has been.

Museums have always enabled the cultures they are embedded in to remember what matters; but memory and imagination are two sides of one coin. In a volatile era, we need all the help we can get to bring both into currency. What of the past should we hold on to - but also, how might things be otherwise, in better and wiser times to come, and what role can we each play in finding our way there? The rise of experiential futures is fueled by cultural need, and though the need is different everywhere it shows up, it shows up everywhere.

An important societal transition is just getting underway. Collections of speculative future artifacts are a promising start, but wider horizons of experiential futures - immersive, generative, participatory, and large-scale - remain to be explored, growing the collective capacity for foresight through our cultural institutions.

Today, Eden is burning. As the smoke clears, this moment will pass from headlines into history, a newly minted past to learn from to the best of our ability. Already apparent among its lessons to take to heart is our urgent need to get much better at thinking and feeling through what might lie ahead, too.

The good news is: we can.

***

A full-text PDF of the article can be downloaded here. This Design Journal issue also includes contributions from climate and science writer Tatiana Schlossberg, Native Renewables executive director Wahleah Johns, and atmospheric scientist Katharine Hayhoe, and it can be found in its entirety here. My thanks to Pamela Horn for the invitation to contribute.

Update 01june20: Top image changed and introductory note added to mirror the post on Medium.

Related:
> Always Tomorrow Now, an interview with the Curator of the Museum of Tomorrow, Brazil
Experiential futures in The Economist
> Ghosts of Futures Past
> Experiential Futures: A Brief Outline
Integrating Foresight at the World’s Largest Humanitarian Organisation, a forthcoming piece on experiential futures at the international Red Cross/Red Crescent; this project was also discussed in a recent interview for IFTF's Foresight Talks (video)