Tuesday, July 09, 2024

What if we could sing better futures to life?

Notes from our collaboration with Brian Eno on using music to grow public imagination.

This post is about a new initiative in progress – something I’ve really enjoyed working on, and have great hopes for as it unfolds.

Sing Wild Seeds is a project about having musicians and audiences pre-enact preferred futures together.

Conceptually, it springs from a question along these lines: how might music-making be combined with experiential futures towards developing our collective ability to imagine and shape desired change?

Institutionally, it’s a collaboration between the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) and Earth/Percent, both independent UK-based social change organisations, dedicated respectively to accelerating the “transition to a more equitable and just future”, and “unleash[ing] the power of music in service of the planet”.

Also centrally involved is Earth/Percent founder Brian Eno, a celebrated musician, producer, and expert collaborator in multiple artforms, whose extensive experience facilitating individual and group creativity has helped form the foundation for this effort.

To say a bit more about the idea behind the experiment – or series of experiments, really, as I’ll explain – the focus is on harnessing the promise and pleasures of worldbuilding on one hand, and musical co-creation on the other, to help people not just think or imagine but play and perform their way into future possibilities. 

If this strikes you as different from the commonplace framing of futures in support of “strategy” or “decision-making”, you’re right. In a sense, this is upstream of those, aiming at some of the background or cultural context within which conscious decision-making occurs. And in a different sense, it’s downstream, in the detail of lived experience, a part of what I call the futures of everyday life.

This goes to a motivation that’s long been key to our practices of and arguments for experiential futures, towards developing a distributed cultural capacity, social foresight.

As I wrote in The Economist many years ago:

Driven by the irrepressible human urge to bring our inner worlds to life, the culture of public imagination is set to make a leap: in coming years we can expect to see more and more companies, governments, advocacy organisations and communities creating and sharing experiential futures. The sooner we learn to use and democratise collective imagination to dramatise our alternatives, the more powerful will be our capacity to shape change towards just and worthwhile ends.

Sing Wild Seeds could be seen at once as a datapoint exemplifying this forecast coming to pass, and as a conscious contribution to taking it further.

It’s a matter of what my collaborator Cassie Robinson of JRF, who initiated the project, has inspiringly framed as imagination infrastructures, a kind of “soil work”, gardening towards conditions favourable for certain kinds of things to grow. (I also find the cognate idea of acculturation a helpful rendering of this approach, and an important complement to organisational reflexes towards institutionalisation.)

We’ve worked together on several occasions over some years, but Cassie and I began talking about this particular project late in 02023, on the back of a series of conversations about social foresight and collective imagination.

We launched Sing Wild Seeds in March this year, with a hybrid online / in-person event in two parts: I gave an introductory presentation on foresight and experiential futures practices for a cohort of interested musicians, assembled from Brian’s network, then he and I had a conversation to begin exploring a bit more of what the possibilities might look like within our chosen design space.

Cultivating public imagination through music is an appealing creative prospect, and also a good practical challenge.

Our approach has been not simply to have musicians integrate richer or more deliberate futures imagining into their existing creative practices – because while helping professional music folks make “songs from the future” is super interesting, Sing Wild Seeds has a more ambitious and fundamentally more participatory notion at its heart.

The idea is to expose musicians to futures ideas and methods, and then to support them in devising site- and event-specific experiments where they in turn will engage live audiences in real time, co-creating and performing songs from the futures that they’d like to see (and hear) come to pass.

This comes with an inbuilt complexity; synthetic and nested.

Nested because the project has entailed devising and running a participatory process to help prepare the musicians in turn to devise and run their own participatory processes, particular to them, with later audiences elsewhere.

Synthetic because it has meant figuring out a way to mesh the musical gifts and creative preferences of a cast of songwriters / performers with two other sets of practices that in most cases are unfamiliar; one to do with the granular imagination and articulation of preferred futures, and the other to do with facilitation and process design.

Tackling this combination was an exciting prospect, and maybe just a little daunting, since not only were the particulars of the musicians’ own sensibilities and orientations impossible to plan for in advance – the ways artists write songs varies enormously – but the ultimate design parameters, practical elements of context in which they would eventually run something themselves (location, duration, format, audience size, cultural composition, etc), would not be found out until later either.

Last month, then, while I was in the UK, we held two in-person workshops at Brian’s studio in London, to try out some ways of helping folks navigate and identify the most promising sectors, for each of them, within the vast design space of potential project-experiments.

The wonderful designer Sarah Drummond was enlisted to co-facilitate, and to support the musicians going forward as they craft their experiments to carry out with festivals and other partners over the next few months. (Sarah is an exceptionally intuitive and adept facilitator; we’ve known each other for well over a decade but hadn’t a chance to work together directly before – and what a pleasure!)

I’d suggested that we offer this face-to-face project development workshop not once, but twice, on different dates, in order to reach a wider pool of potential collaborators, and also to enable a bit of reflection and iteration between runs. This structure worked well, allowing Sarah and me the chance to simplify and better integrate our process for take two.

It’s too early to start talking outcomes, but I doubt if it’s ever too early to start trying to learn from an ongoing process, so I’ll just remark briefly on a few aspects of the foresight part of the project.

I chose two contrasting points of departure for engaging our musician friends in futures imagination and songwriting ideation. One was quick, and deliberately time-pressured; a combinatorial prompting activity using The Thing From The Future card game (second edition). The other was more leisurely, taking the form of a guided meditation or daydreaming exercise; the sort of approach that my colleague Oliver Markley calls mental time travel.

The pair of contrasting tempos aimed to elicit different kinds of creative response: imagining fast and slow, you might say.

From the outset, in relation to the mental time travel exercise, I was specifically interested in going beyond guided visioning. The sense of sight often implicitly overrides all others when it comes to imagining alternative and preferred futures, so we invited guided listening, too – having folks attend especially to their auditory experience, along with other senses, during their inner journeys.

We used a time horizon of 30 years (02054) the first time, and 50 years (02074) the second. Although we were able to give the activity a bit more breathing room in workshop two, on both occasions, from the reams of notes that people took upon returning to the here-and-now and opening their eyes, and the animated conversations that followed, there was clearly much more to explore.

In relation to the card game, both meetings were highly generative, but the second provided an opportunity to fine-tune the prompting a bit.

With participants clustered in small groups of 2–3, one member was asked to select a card on behalf of their group, to indicate the type of preferred future or world that they would be creating a song from (e.g., a “fair” future, a “decolonised” future, and so on). The theme or aspect of that world which each person would focus on for their song was individually drawn from the deck at random (e.g. farming, the ocean, love, cities). And finally, I assigned to the musicians not just the generic output “song” as the future thing for them to create, but instead gave each one a particular kind of song to make from within their chosen future (e.g. anthem, show tune, folk song, etc).

(The Thing From The Future has been compared to, and at its inception over a decade ago was directly influenced by, Brian Eno’s own classic creativity-enabling card deck, Oblique Strategies, so there was a highly satisfying coming-full-circle quality in getting to deploy it with musicians in his studio!)

In addition, following one of Brian’s specific creative mandates that arose in workshop one, we ventured to insist on strict parameters: people had to finish a song corresponding to their personalised prompt within five minutes, then actually sing it.

While obviously the product of a highly compressed creative process, the resulting first-draft compositions from both gatherings truly exceeded expectations. They included a chanted exchange between different species seeking to peacefully inhabit the same planet, a future ballad about farming, a children’s song celebrating science, and a call-and-response performance recounting how humanity saved the oceans.

Modest as these beginnings are, there’s something potentially significant here as a kind of prefigurative politics (see TFOEL p. 220) in the use of music, not just as a social medium – which thankfully has been part of human society since time immemorial, and which has nothing necessarily to do with futures content per se – but on top of that, as a way into shared imagining of new possibilities.

We can make out a kind of double prefiguration: the desirable-in-itself investment in solidarity or community-making by creating and performing in a group, coupled with the roleplay-like composition and singing of lyrics deliberately formulated to bespeak, concretise, and summon the futures we hope to bring into being.

Politics is perhaps too small a word. If this doesn’t sound like a recipe for magic, I don't know what is.

The very first public deployment for Sing Wild Seeds has just taken place – at Britain’s legendary Glastonbury Festival, in an experiment led by the marvellous Genevieve Dawson (pictured at the top).

Many thanks are due to Cassie Robinson, Sepi Noohi and Magda Maculewicz from JRF, to Cathy Runciman and Becky Young from Earth/Percent, to my star of a process design and facilitation partner Sarah Drummond, to Brian Eno for generously hosting these gatherings, and to all our musical participants to date.

No doubt there will be more to say as these wild seeds take root.

Experiential Futures: A Brief Outline
Introduction to Experiential Futures in The Economist
> Dreaming Together (from the book Made Up: Design’s Fictions)
> What Is the Value of Futures and Foresight? (a Q&A with the RSA)
> Imagining Transitions (interview by Rob Hopkins)
> The Futures of Everyday Life
> Inside a bold new experiment in public imagination (on UNTITLED Festival)
> Participatory Futures for Democracy (see “acculturation”)
> Gaming Futures Literacy (PDF – from the book Transforming the Future)
> The Thing From The Future (see also Situation Lab website)
Anything but Text (post anticipating XF from 02006)
Historical pre-enactment

Note 1: All photos by the author. Note 2: A bookmark: to write up an assignment I once set for my (non-musician) graduate students at KAIST – creating and performing songs from various futures for Korea.

Sunday, June 30, 2024

Sharing Experiential Futures with governments around the world

I was recently honoured to deliver a virtual masterclass seminar to a global audience of public sector futurists, through the OECD’s (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) Government Foresight Community, or GFC for short.

The seminar was called Whatever It Takes: Supporting Strategic Conversation by Design. Briefly:

In order to be effective, foresight practitioners need to adopt a multidimensional approach to foresight. This means being able to distinguish and use what I posit as the three dimensions of foresight – difference (which is basic to thinking about change over time), diversity (essential to all scenario generation processes and to the field’s core philosophical shift from “future” singular to “futures” plural), and depth (often neglected in the field, but now addressed by the family of approaches known as Experiential Futures, or XF). XF practices are about providing immersive, interactive, embodied and emotionally engaging glimpses of alternative futures through design, media and the arts: whatever it takes. With this powerful set of methods, we are better equipped than ever to engage foresight in all its dimensions, for strategic and dialogic decision making, public policy, collective imagination, and cultural transformation.

The OECD has just posted video of the presentation, and it’s embedded above. My title “Whatever It Takes” is a nod to Yale information designer Edward Tufte’s philosophy of achieving communicative goals by hook or by crook (see The Futures of Everyday Life p. 110).

A lively conversation followed, but since their policy is to protect the possibility of open dialogue via the Chatham House Rule that part wasn’t recorded. 

This was the second masterclass to be offered in the series, the first having been given late last year by my friend Aaron Maniam from Singapore, now at Oxford’s Blavatnik School of Government

It’s a significant opportunity they’ve spotted and initiated here; convening folks around big foresight questions and best practices from government and beyond. For those interested, the GFC was described to me by its OECD organisers as:

a network of public sector foresight practitioners from around the world. It includes OECD Member countries, but also non-OECD governments as well as some experts and practitioners from other international organisations, civil society, academia and the private sector. The purpose of the Community, and the speaker series, is to improve the practice of foresight within governments.

My sincere thanks to Rafa┼é Kierzenkowski and his team for hosting me, as well as for this series in general, which is now several months and several more contributors further along. I place great value on the chance to demonstrate for such an audience not only the importance-in-principle, but also the possibility-in-practice, of producing more multidimensional, compelling, and impactful futures work in the public sector – where I started my career.

I'm told that this whole series, together with supporting materials, will soon be available via a new webpage for that purpose, and I'll update this post when that happens.

> Experiential Futures: A Brief Outline
On Getting Started in Experiential Futures (for The Omidyar Group)
Adding Dimensions to Development Futures with UNDP
Exploring Technology Governance Futures with the World Economic Forum
Introducing Experiential and Participatory Futures at the BBC
Bringing Futures to Stanford d.school
> Participatory Futures for Democracy 
Three Dimensions of Foresight (for Columbia University DSL)
What Is the Value of Futures and Foresight? (for RSA)
> What Is Futures Studies? (for WEF – external)

Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Look out, Banksy

Hello, Bristol!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hello Again, World!

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, January 31, 2023

The Power of Utopia

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

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

Video of the full conversation is embedded below.

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

Saturday, December 31, 2022

Participatory futures for democracy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is a very exciting development.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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