Monday, October 31, 2011

The act of imagination

The imagination can create the future only if its products are brought over into the real. The bestowal of the work completes the act of imagination. ... [W]hen we refuse what has been offered to the empty heart, when possible futures are given and not acted upon, then the imagination recedes. And without the imagination we can do no more than spin the future out of the logic of the present; we will never be led into new life because we can work only from the known. ... The artist completes the act of imagination by accepting the gift and laboring to give it to the real (at which point the distinction between "imaginary" and "real" dissolves).

~Lewis Hyde, The Gift

An outstanding book, by the way. As is Hyde's follow-up, Trickster Makes This World.

Friday, July 08, 2011

Strategic Foresight and the Design MBA

An element of a crowdsourced scenario development exercise
run by guest presenter Noah Raford  |  Photo: Riaz

Last year I was invited to teach a brand new class, Strategic Foresight, in the Design MBA at California College of the Arts in San Francisco.

A while later DMBA's Chair Nathan Shedroff asked each faculty member to contribute a brief article to a collection serving as a showcase and snapshot of the program -- which is unique in U.S. business education -- two and a half years after its founding in 02008.

That collection, Design Strategy in Action, has now been published. My piece introducing some of the basic thinking behind the Strategic Foresight class can be found here (pdf hosted by ResearchGate).

Feedback is welcome.

I'll take this opportunity to reiterate the acknowledgements appearing in the print edition: I am grateful to Dr Jay Ogilvy for being a delight to teach with, and to guest speakers Jamais Cascio, Napier Collyns, Dr Jake Dunagan, Erika Gregory, and Noah Raford for their excellent contributions to the inaugural Fall 2010 class. I would like to acknowledge Nathan Shedroff and Teddy Zmrhal for providing exceptional support and freedom as I developed the Strategic Foresight syllabus, Dr Wendy Schultz for highly valued input during that process, and finally Professor Jim Dator for his incomparable example as a futures teacher.

  Christie presents an experiential scenario about social media  |  Photo: Riaz

(Update 08aug16: replaced old article link to pdf as published and laid out in book.)

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Posthuman cities

...unevenly distributed.

At the dawn of the twenty-first century, following an unknown event, mankind disappears from the planet. Nature gradually regains its rights over urban areas, giving birth to a new landscape.
At a time when we have become aware of the fragility of nature, and are increasingly concerned about ecology, global warming, and the future of the planet, I wondered how all these man-made super-structures would evolve in time. Angkor is sublimely poetic, overgrown by the forces of nature and evoking a long lost human civilisation….why not Dubai, Shanghai, New York, Rome, Paris next?… What will become of these urban landscapes, these megacities, this civilisation of ours, now possibly at the height of its strength, but one day vowed to disappear, as did the Mayans or the Khmers?

This is by no means a pessimistic end-of-the-world type vision. On the contrary, it is the vision of a world that is quite idyllic, a new-found Garden of Eden, full of life, colours, shapes and poetry, where the freedom and unpredictability of nature has supplanted the hierarchy of angles and organized spaces.

The quote comes from an artist statement by French photographer Chris Morin, introducing his collection of posthuman cityscapes entitled "Once upon a time… tomorrow", which opens next week in a Paris gallery.

This strain of colourful post-collapse imagery (clearly located well after the last-human-gasp sepia of The Road or Children of Men, but with a dash of 12 Monkeys whimsy thanks to the displaced zoo animals) has a soothing, explicitly Edenic quality that by now feels familiar (see Related Posts below).

But I'm never quite sure what to make of it. Is an emerging interest in the delightfulness of posthuman landscapes better read as a sign of adaptation, or one of resignation? Or, perhaps the significance is more in the spectacle of its stabilisation and recuperation as yet another aesthetic genre being bundled off to market. (In case you're tempted, these images, ten of each in giant prints of 1m x 1.5m, are selling at €3000 apiece.)

This ideational territory has seen a fair bit of traffic in recent years, since Alan Weisman's 02007 non-fiction [sic] bestseller The World Without Us, and shortly before that, Collapse by Jared Diamond. It's not clear to me if M. Morin realises that this ground has been covered before -- a google search for the artist's name together with the Weisman book title (in English, and also in its French edition, Homo Disparitus) currently yields zero hits. However, it's curious to see this meme making the rounds, and although most of the international images in this set (such as those below) to me veer well into a sort of new age, post-collapse kitsch, Morin's Parisian visions (see above) seem to have more to say.

Then again, it may be that I'm responding less to a difference of content than to a difference of tactic, the very localisation of images of the future. Certainly I think that, as with imagining impacts of climate change, place- and community-specific appropriation, exploration and concretisation of otherwise abstract futures propositions circulating globally is a key part of what these conversations need in order to move forward.

[Via Rue89. All images and the quote above from Chris Morin's website.]

Related posts:
> Posthuman New York
> Post-apocalypse Tokyo
> The Afterlife of Buildings
> London after the rain
> Not drowning, thriving
> Second Nature
> Climate change for fun and profit
> Mapping c-change
> Oil and water

The Tao of Steve

Or: Utopia as a direction, not a destination.

This is a video of a talk about utopian activism by United Statesian artist, activist, and friend-of-this-show Steve Lambert, whose work has previously featured at The Sceptical Futuryst. (Remember the New York Times Special Edition? That's the stuff.)

There's a lot that I like about this talk, about the approach and sensibility it describes, and most of all about the practice it's based on.

I like the idea of eliciting and making vivid representations of urban experts' images of the future, digging past their reflexive responses -- "more trees, more transit" -- to engage deeper and more unexpected notions.

I like the use of absurdity and humour inviting audiences to rationalise or problematise for themselves proposals offered up playfully, so as to have them "participate in dreaming these different solutions".

But above all, I like the approach which says that activist efforts should engage people "where they are, and in language they understand" -- "spanning out" of galleries and art culture into pop culture. This is a pragmatic creativity in communication which sees all media, and any ingenious way to highjack the semiotic stream with an infusion of goodwill and imagination, as fair game.

Why do I like it? Because I agree with the rationale behind it.

We need to do this because marching and saying 'no', and 'don't', and 'stop' aren't working any more. We live in a culture, and we need to participate in that culture. We need to work with other groups, work together, in order to use culture tactically.

The tactical recruitment of cultural and psychological affordances to "recalibrate our sense of reality" around the potential realisation of the futures we prefer is powerful, necessary and overdue.

It is also more fun, as well as more ethical, than putting up with the crappy way things are.

Related posts:
> Dreampolitik
> Guerrilla futurists combat war on terror
> San Francisco's awesome future
> Sponsors of Utopia
> Sometimes it doesn't belong in a museum
> An experiential scenario for post-revolution Tunisia

Friday, April 01, 2011

An experiential scenario for post-revolution Tunisia

N.B. Not an April Fool's Day gag. Just, y'know, to be clear.

Image via Tuniscope

Overthrowing a dictatorial regime is a staggering feat of popular imagination and courage.

But what about the morning after the revolution? Everyday life is bound to be something of a let down.

Video via*

After recent epochal events in Tunisia -- the so-called Jasmine Revolution (or the Sidi Bouzid Revolt, as it's known in the Arab world) in which President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was ousted -- an astonishing but so far largely unknown coda was the galvanising role played by a transmedia experiential scenario campaign, spreading a near-term vision of a prosperous and democratic country worth getting back to work for.

This story comes from a local ad agency, Memac Ogilvy Label Tunisia, that has just won gold in the 'Integrated' (i.e. transmedia) campaign category of the Dubai Lynx Awards which recognise excellence in advertising in the Middle East and North Africa:

Tunis, January 14th 2011. Tunisians put an end to 23 years of brutal dictatorship. It was a moment of intense hope. But we were all too soon brought back to reality. The entire country went on strike and economic activity was soon left to a standstill. … We needed to find a way to encourage the people to get back to work and start rebuilding the country we had all fought for. … So we decided to show everyone how bright our future could be if we all started building it now. … During a whole day, the media acted as if it were June 16th 2014 and presented Tunisia as a prosperous, modern and democratic country. … The media content spread to social media via and people began to imagine wonderful futures and called everyone for action. #16juin2014 hashtag was n°1 top trend topic on Twitter all day long. At 6pm, the debate was everywhere on TV, radios, blogs… Getting back to work quickly became an act of resistance.

Digging into the details becomes slightly tricky if you don't understand French (I do, sorta) and Arabic (I don't), but elements of the '16 June 2014' campaign can be found online. For example, there's a downloadable four-page future-dated issue of La Presse de Tunisie, which invites comparisons to the wonderful New York Times Special Edition from a few years back.

La Presse de Tunisie, 14 June 02014
Image via Tuniscope

Political cartoon (front page, below the fold):
'Grandad, who is ben ali?'
'Oh, just a mistake of youth...'

Screenshot from news report on the intervention

Another example: at the moment, the 16 Juin 2014 website centrally features an in-scenario news report about a "Shopping Festival" (as I learned by auto-translating the video title from Arabic) in the west-central town of Kasserine, including what appear to be interviews with prestige fashion figures Giorgio Armani and Marc Ecko. Considering the chaos and brutality unfolding in that agricultural town just weeks before this campaign rolled out in mid-February, we can start to apprehend just how bold a notion this is. (I'm put in mind of the 'Darfur 2020' poster we've discussed here previously, which plays on a similar incongruity.)

I'm thoroughly impressed with the scope and vision of this campaign, which heavily underlines the world-shaping potential of the arts and technologies of narrative, applied prospectively.

While it could be said to raise some deep questions about the current reception as well as long-term viability (not only in Tunisia, but also elsewhere) of this particular genre of political and economic vision as an answer to the people's woes, I don't know remotely enough about Tunisia's current situation to comment cogently on the impacts and merits of these particular stories at the moment -- although I'm very curious to hear from anyone who does.

Meanwhile, those with ideological concerns about the character of this vision can take comfort from the fact that the campaign actively invites people to contribute to the conversation. The top banner on the website reads, 'Participate -- what are your ideas for the Tunisia of tomorrow?'

In any event, I am just delighted to find out about this. Conceptually it's among the grandest and most inspiring of imaginable applications for journalistic future artifacts, transcending conventional advertising to approach something I've been harping on here for years -- the possibility of a hybrid practice of politics, design and foresight, whereby we manifest for ourselves, in vivid detail, those scenarios diagnosed as most necessary to catalyse desired social change.

Related posts:
> Guerrilla futurists combat war on terror
> Dreampolitik
> The Darfur Olympics
> The currency of Burmese dissent
> Four future news clips from MIT
> Tomorrow's headlines

(* Broken video link fixed 11nov18 // Thanks @dabitch for the post over at featuring the above video, and @justinpickard for passing the link along!)

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Four future news clips from MIT

The following four videos are fictional newscasts from different versions of 2 November, 02037.

"Global Market Place"


"Technology Savior"

"One World Order"

Here's background from the FFFatMIT Channel on YouTube, where they were posted this week:

They are all part of the Future Freight Flows project run at MIT's Center for Transportation and Logistics (CTL) for the National Academies. Four separate future scenarios were developed over the course of a year through a series of focused expert panel sessions, practitioner acid testing, and industry wide surveys. The key driving forces and critical uncertainties were identified and formed the basis of the underlying scenarios. While originally designed to be used for freight transportation planning, they can be employed for a wide variety of different planning purposes.

Now, the fact that these are designed to support discussion about transportation made an impression on me because in the past fortnight, I've attended two vastly different events around this, heh, fast-moving industry. One was an upstart tech-geek unconferenceTransportationCamp West in San Francisco. The other was a staid, orderly gathering of transportation planning academics that has been running for over half a century, the Transportation Research Forum in Long Beach. The contrast between the cultures, rhythms and energies of the two events could hardly have been more striking. Yet one thing they had in common was that participants lacked a common background and framework for thinking both creatively and systematically about the broad futures or contexts in which the industry could play out. (That's no dig at folks involved with either event, just a comment on the fact that alternative futures thinking is still not yet widely known or understood in our culture, even in domains where it's most needed.)

So to me, it is heartening to see the Future Freight Flows project adopting scenario planning as a deliberate methodological response to the uncertainties inescapably attendant on the decades-long time horizons of infrastructure investments, and the wide variety of parties that they affect:

It is important to point out that this project will not develop the "official version" of the future for the US freight transportation system to be used by all decision makers.  As mentioned above, the system is too large and complex and faces too many uncertainties for this to be possible.  Also, the planning and assessment of policy and management strategies should be an on-going process involving as many stakeholders as possible -- not a one-time event.  Therefore, the project will not simply provide a static list of actions that a federal, state, or local Department of Transportation (DOT) planner should undertake to prepare for the future.  Instead, it will provide a set of customized tools and procedures that can be adopted and immediately implemented by the various decision makers across the stakeholders.

More about the underlying logic of these scenarios (which bear the hallmarks of a GBN-style two-by-two matrix as their generative protocol) can be found here.

The videos themselves, while clearly more Cambridge, Mass. than Hollywood, include a laudable attention to scenaric detail; "ticker" headlines, in-world advertisements and props, and not least, the choice from the outset of a specific, ordinary date in the future for which each of these clips manifests an alternative universe.

Future news (video, print) is of course a time-honoured and widely used way to economically convey a bunch of diegetic (in-scenario) exposition.

But scenario storytelling is indeed all about the detail that scaffolds an engagement with potential worlds to come. It's excellent to see signs of an increasingly experiential, media rich, and thoughtful approach to communicating such narratives making its way into the main stream.

Related posts:
Good news for people who love bad news
Guerrilla futurists combat war on terror
Future news-flash: your vote counts
> The value of hypothetical currency
> Humans have 23 years to go

(Thanks Loic and Teddy!)

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Beer-flavoured design fiction

And now for something completely different.

This evening, I purchased from my friendly neighbourhood outlet a six pack of beer. I was just approaching the counter with my selection already in hand, from a reliable local brewery, when at the last moment, spurred by curiosity, I switched it for one I'd never seen before. In part it was attractive pricing, in part it was the label promising delicious double-hopped goodness, and part of it was perhaps subliminal -- and mainly a personal response, I'm sure; this is a dubious basis for mass appeal -- in that this new beer had the same name as one of Radiohead's best, now largely forgotten, pre-OK Computer songs.

Black Star, a Double Hopped Golden Lager ostensibly from Whitefish, Montana, was at first taste unobjectionable, although less aggressively flavourful than the India Pale Ales, etc, to which many U.S. microbreweries have accustomed my palate. A suspicion began to form that I may have fallen prey to a cunning subterfuge recently deployed by America's Big Three -- Budweiser, Miller, and Coors -- to capture a slice of the growing independent market (as documented in the 02009 film Beer Wars). The scheme is to create pseudo-microbrews, sold with indie-sounding brand names under the banner of far-flung locations, thus duping the would-be beverage adventurer back into the oligopolistic fold.

So I googled Black Star. The aspect of their history that caught my eye, and the reason I blog this, is that in the '90s the beer was supported by a couple of ad campaigns based on artificial histories for the product, and using in-world documentary as part of the story. In 01994, a two-part Ken Burns-style history of Black Star was written by legendary ad-man Hal Riney, and voiced over by veteran actor Hal Holbrook. This 'documentary' plays as if looking back on a half-century of history, from several decades into the 21st century. Below is the first part, which has slightly less future in it than the second (both are amusing and quite well done).

A still earlier series of three ads [1] [2] [3], presented by John Corbett, went out under the disappointingly explicit title 'the make-believe history of Black Star beer' (c'mon, don't break the universe!).

So what, then, amid all these fictitious past and future artifacts, of my concerns about the beer's bona fides? Well, Black Star is indeed a product of the Great Northern Brewing Company, based in Whitefish, Montana, although the label I have next to me says 'Brewed and bottled by Great Northern Brewing Company, Milwaukee WI' (which set off my alarm bells, that city famously being home to Miller Brewing Company). At any rate, the brew was first introduced to an Oregon test market in the early 01990s, was out of production for most of the '00s, and then relaunched in 02010. But incongruously, the label claims 'a family tradition of unique brewing since 1856'. A bit of research turned up a San Francisco Examiner article from back in 01996, which helpfully deconstructs the company's 'instant history'. (Just add water... malted barley, and hops. And a bunch of marketing.)

In general, I find it extremely interesting the way both history and future narratives are recruited to provide a sense of substance -- for both fun and profit -- to something that would otherwise lack it. I don't mean to speak of this specific product in isolation (and this post is intended neither to criticise nor to promote it), but the case throws into relief, both in its consciously satirical ('make-believe history'; mid-21st century mockumentary) mode, and in its seemingly earnest ('since 1856') mode, the ubiquity and importance of the back-stories about the things we interact with, and choose to consume.

As the saying goes, when truth and legend collide, print the legend. To this we might add: if there isn't an adequate legend, make one up. (Can we really doubt that there's a good deal of that in how 'actual' history gets made, or rather, canonised?)

In his January presentation at the launch of the landmark design fiction show Made Up (which is still open for a few more days, check it out if you can) at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Bruce Sterling highlighted the wide variety of activities which can be co-located on the landscape of 'design fiction'. His definition of that activity, offered for the first time there, was 'the deliberate use of diegetic prototypes to suspend disbelief about change'. Consider that this includes not only the designed artifacts and media spinoffs of vividly portrayed futures, but it also comfortably accommodates playfully counterfactual, as well as patently false, histories.

A potent brew.

Which leads me to suspect, not for the first time, that there's far more design fiction woven into everyday life than we might at first imagine.

Related posts:
> Don't break the universe
Amusing anachronisms
> Killer imps
> Chocolate, beer and futures

Monday, March 14, 2011


It seems to be a commonplace that having one’s first child means crossing a threshold, from entertaining a relatively abstract interest in the longer-term fate of the world, to being genetically invested, having skin in the game, so to speak.

I don’t have any children yet myself, but over the past few years, as various relatives and friends a few years my senior have begun nesting in earnest, I am increasingly intrigued by a key tension inherent in becoming a parent. On the one hand, there is a sense in which a new parent’s focus narrows as their child’s well being assumes paramount importance; on the other hand, that same well being depends ultimately and inescapably on the state of the wider world the youngster inherits.

So I thought it could be interesting to provide a way for people with very young children to be prompted to cast their thoughts forward to a specific date in which their child has a concrete stake. This would be a gesture towards reconciling parental concern, responsibility and love for their offspring, with a commensurate interest in the bigger picture.

In the photo above is Andrew, born 6 July 02010. Other things being equal, he should graduate high school in the (Northern Hemisphere) Spring of ‘28. Thus he sports the inaugural ‘Class of 2028’ onesie, lovingly, if incompetently, decorated by me, at his parents’ baby shower last June.

This may be a meme worth spreading. So, get your ‘Class of 02028’ and 'Class of 02029' paraphernalia here at the Futurewear Cafepress shop. I'll donate any proceeds to The Long Now Foundation.

Update (16mar11): In line with Long Now convention, the designs on sale now use five digit dates.  Also, 'Class of 02027' has been added, enabling the current generation of toddlers to take advantage of this exceptionally wonderful line of merchandise. Cheers, Zander.

Note: Of course, a precisely correct prediction is not the point, but it's not a bad idea to think about it. So, a baby born today would most likely be 'Class of 02029' in the U.S. (a calculator to help the confused). In Australia, where the calendar year is in sync with the school year, you'd add 17 or 18, depending on your state's convention, to the year of birth.

(Thanks Sara, Mike and Andrew!)

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Artifacts from the present

A few weeks ago, I started working with Chris Baker over at Wired on some upcoming Found features, and it seems to be heightening my filter for sights with an 'artifactual' quality; objects that look and feel like artifacts-from-the-future, that to me are somehow surprising or odd, and seem to say a lot about the time and place we live in.

Photo taken at Walmart checkout, Long Beach, California, 27 February*

A Dunaganian riff: curious how engaging particular media shapes -- even highjacks -- the thought process.

Like when you used to fall asleep, not counting sheep, but arranging tetris shapes behind your eyelids. Or when you catch yourself unintentionally composing tweet-length bon mots about a situation while it's happening. Or when your brain slips silently into photographic mode, composing a shot that captures it all, despite having no camera to hand.

Related posts:
> Future-framing images
> World Without Oil photo essay

*thanks to Maurice Conti, who lent me his iPhone for this shot

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Revisiting The Catalogue

To file under just-in-case-you-haven't-seen-it: British video artist Chris Oakley's brilliant short film The Catalogue (02004).

Preferring to let the thing speak for itself, I won't describe the content, but just want to note that I find it raises an interesting line of thought about the difference between, on the one hand, the modes of visual and narrative representation that make a complex system or technology legible and communicable (especially in prospect, when it doesn't yet exist), and on the other hand, how it might actually work in practice, which may be altogether different.

Drawn to my attention back in January '06 by longtime design collaborator Matt Jensen, I think this video failed to appear previously here at the sceptical futuryst mainly because I didn't start the blog until a few months after that. But a couple of weeks ago, in discussion with Liam Young (of the fabulously interesting Tomorrow's Thoughts Today) I found myself singing the praises of this -- I'm tempted to say classic -- video artifact-from-the-future.

[Update 30nov16: video embed fixed.]

Related posts:
> Surveillance Supreme
> Permission Culture
> Neill Blomkamp, visual futurist

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

The legacy of the Biofuture Robot Dog

Image: SPOD

Earlier this month, in conversation with the effervescent Dawn Danby (a regular contributor to the recently retired enviro-blog WorldChanging), she happened to mention a design competition run back in 02002 by science fiction author and design-fiction-impresario-to-be Bruce Sterling, in cooperation with scenario planning kingpins Global Business Network. Ah, design and futures: two great tastes that taste great together.

Said competition, staged by Sterling via the green-tech Viridian list (wound up in late '08, but still in full swing six years earlier), revolved around producing a concept design for a Biofuture Robot Dog:

This is a biofuturistic, green, way out-there ribo-bio-bamboo 'dog', which is transorganic, biomimetic, Viridian, enzymatically postindustrial, and tissue-engineered.

It needs to enter some commercial and cultural space which actual dogs and contemporary robots cannot reach. What does a biofuturist paradog do for tomorrow's consumer? What kind of society buys these gizmos?  Why do people make them, what are they for, what kind of future world would support this device? Try to suggest some convincing answers – answers that can snow real live venture capitalists!

And it's a toy. That's of vital importance. The target is the age 9-12 demographic. It's not for war, terror, prison, or home security, tasty though those sinister applications may be. We want parents buying this. It needs to jump right off the shelf and into their loving arms.

At the risk, perhaps, of muscling in on the beat of Matt Novak over at Paleofuture, who performs the post-post-ironic public service of collecting and blogging images of futures past, I want to add this competition's entries to the early canon of online experiential scenarios (a.k.a., in deference to Bruce, "design fictions" -- which he recently defined as "the deliberate use of diegetic prototypes to suspend disbelief about change" -- on which more anon).

As it turns out, Dawn and collaborator Paul Waggoner won the contest with their contribution, SPOD (Super-Personalized Obedient Dawg), which, together with other competition finalists, can still be found online, thanks to the wonders of the Internet Archive's Wayback Machine. Almost ten years old now, this and other playful concept designs remind us that, while the web has changed a great deal in the past decade, the manifesting of hypothetical future possibilities in a contemporary design idiom, as if they already existed in the present, is a communicative strategy evolving in step with whatever media happen to be at our disposal.

Related posts:
Viridian is dead. Long live Viridian!
Killer imps
> Greener gadgets
> Object-oriented futuring
> Design fiction is a fact