Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Tribal Futures

...meets Open Source Design

Image via Tribal Futures website

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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