Friday, April 05, 2013
I did the following interview for Desktop ("Australia’s most read monthly design culture magazine") late last year. The text appears below as it did in print, with a few hyperlinks added. Editor Heath Killen asked the questions.
What sparked your interest in the future?
I guess I've always had wide ranging interests, but the future is a curious generalist's playground - because it's everything that hasn't happened yet. It defies disciplinarity, inviting you to think in an especially integrative way. Analysis after the fact lets you isolate something and look at all the forces that acted on it. In contrast, looking at things prospectively requires appreciating the dynamic relationships between things (across disciplinary boundaries) and the various alternative ways that they could play out, because the future's contingent in a way that the past is not.
I discovered the actual field of futures studies - also known as foresight - indirectly, through my mother, who taught high school for many years. Her usual subjects were geography and economics, but at one point she was given an opportunity to teach portions of a pilot course in futures studies in Queensland. I was in year 11, at a different school, but came across the course reader at home one day and got really interested. A year later, the biennial conference of the World Futures Studies Federation happened to be taking place at the University of Queensland, so I got in touch to ask if I could attend, and they said yes. All of this meant I was exposed to a the work and community of scholarly futurists unusually early; well before I'd decided what to study at uni. So it had time to percolate, which I think was a great benefit. It's easier to integrate futures into your thinking before you get too socialised into the confines of disciplines. For that reason it’s really great to teach futures to younger students.
How would you define the role of a futurist to someone who has never heard of it before?
There's not an especially high degree of consistency across the futures field, so I can't presume to speak for all futurists. I usually describe the work simply as being to help people to think (and feel) about things that haven't happened yet . Edgar Degas said that "Art is not what you see, but what you make others see." Similarly, I regard professional foresight work as being about enabling the circumstances in which people can have their own insights. You're providing scaffolding for the exploration of possible worlds. On that basis, in whatever organisational or governmental or community setting, you can then start crafting and implementing appropriate anticipatory strategies, both to shape and to prepare for those scenarios.
Your personal blog is titled “The Sceptical Futuryst”. What does that mean exactly?
That title comes from two things. My first degree was in the history and philosophy of science. Among the founding texts of the scientific era was Robert Boyle's The Sceptical Chymist, published in 1661. When I started my blog in 2006 I adopted the anachronistic spelling "futuryst" as a sort of reference to Boyle's book, which had a nice ring to it.
The more important reason is an attitude towards the work: I'm suspicious of people who claim to know what the future holds, and I like to encourage thoughtful engagement with futures in the plural. There's far too much sloppy thinking - including tolerance of baseless assertions and predictive nonsense primarily designed to position the speaker as a formidable-sounding authority - and I think we're well overdue as a culture to up our game around the quality of foresight.
Futures is about the rigorous application of history and imagination to inform wiser decisions today. Real futurists, I think, own up to the work being about having a considered impact, yet with enough humility to recognise the ever-present unknowns in the mix. I guess I'm sceptical about futures trying to legitimate itself according to scientific (enlightenment era) values, but then I'm also wary about science doing the same thing! The best scientists and the best futurists I suspect actually have very similar attitudes.
What drew you to working at Arup, and what’s involved in the average day of a futurist in a design studio?
I felt Arup would be one of the few places in the world where one can really work at the intersection of foresight and design on issues and projects at quite a large scale. While writing my doctorate about that foresight/design intersection, I came to believe that it was a direction seriously in need of further exploration in order to address the wider cultural need of more effective, embedded forethought. This is grounded in my view that foresight and design are actually the same process - one of creative and iterative optimisation within constraints - just at different scales of time/space. Foresight can help design by providing valuable context while design can serve foresight by making it more concrete.
My average day is not necessarily all that different from many of my engineering and design colleagues. There's always a mix of external consultation projects at various stages of completion, there are meetings and emails; always quite a lot of communications to maintain relationships, both internal and external. The substance of the projects can be bit different when dealing with longer-range possibilities, but we're a design organisation and as I've suggested, foresight can be seen as a context for (or big-picture instance of) design. Projects we've done in the past year range from working with the leadership of Arup in Australasia, or of our clients such as the Sydney Opera House; to helping the City of Melbourne crowdsource a digital strategy [video]; to testing the thinking behind the Singaporean government's national sustainability vision for 2030.
The actual relationship between the two fields of design and foresight has become especially interesting since about the mid-00s. Organisations like the Association of Professional Futurists and the World Future Society have emphasised design in the themes of recent gatherings. Meanwhile, the design community is getting quite interested in futures. Two examples of the latter from personal experience: in 2010, I was brought in to develop a Strategic Foresight course for the MBA in Design Strategy at California College of the Arts; and last year AIGA (American Institute of Graphic Arts) gave me the unexpected privilege of delivering the closing keynote at their annual conference [video]. Programs such as the Design Interactions department at the Royal College of Art, or the Masters in Strategic Foresight at Ontario College of Art and Design are hybridising the fields in very promising ways. There is much still to do in both directions, but in a nutshell, designers and futurists are tuning into and beginning to learn from each other. It’s quite an exciting process to be part of.
Has the way in which we think about the future changed in the 21st century? What forces do you think have changed our view of the future, and what implications do you think that has for progress, innovation and culture?
It depends who you mean by 'we'. The future looks different everywhere, which is an important reason why Arup has a Foresight presence in each region around the globe. And the variations around futures aren't geographic only. I've always been struck by the strange fact that you can be having the best day of your life while the person next to you might be having one of the worst. To grasp that properly is to reveal the nonsense of 'utopia' and 'dystopia', because it clarifies so starkly that those two terms are really ideal types or literary/narrative tropes, as opposed to really useful categories for understanding actual times and places, whether past or future. Real histories and real lives are always a complex mixture of positive and negative things. So we interpret 'utopia' and 'dystopia' literally, at our peril.
In Western public culture, or at any rate the Anglosphere, I agree with the starting premise of Stewart Brand and the Long Now Foundation, namely that it seems harder and harder to think well about the long-range future. The changing signal-to-noise ratio which many have observed in our 21st century all-you-can-eat information diets makes it, paradoxically, both more difficult and more important to think well about what could happen.
Progress is a hugely vexed term so I won't get into that here. To boil it down: Innovation without foresight is dangerous. Foresight without innovation is pointless. We get by unthinking increments to places we would never have chosen to go. Yet zooming out to take in bigger patterns on the longer view - the forest rather than the trees - affords insights that you can't get up close. Of course, what you really want is to be able to toggle at will between those zoom levels.
The word “future” itself comes loaded with connotations and expectations. At this point in time, what issues are the most pressing and important that we should be addressing when we think about the future - particularly when it comes to design?
At the risk of going seriously meta, I'd say designers need most of all to improve their futures literacy. Eliel Saarinen said many decades ago that it was important to design things for their next larger context ("a chair in a room, a room in a house, a house in an environment, an environment in a city plan"). That's a spatial argument, but the temporal counterpart to Saarinen's point is harder to get and to apply, because it involves engaging in nested layers of abstraction, which are more and more difficult to concretise or visualise the further out you go.
But if anyone can synthesise and prepare those layers of change-context for human consumption, the design community can. It's been my observation that, given the opportunity, designers immediately "get" and can put futures tools to practical use. However, in the absence of some systematic exposure to and experience with those tools, their intuitive or autodidactic approaches only take them so far. At this point there's half a century of sustained work in foresight as a field, both scholarly and applied, so reinventing the wheel - or worse, ignoring that it exists altogether - increasingly looks just plain silly.
Some very promising ways to apply design in the service of shaping better worlds are emerging, as we prototype fragments of future scenarios to make them more immersive, imaginable and immediate. That's what my work on "experiential futures" has been about, and it's also what the emerging practice of "design fiction" aims to do. These are perhaps the most direct answers to the temporal version of Saarinen's challenge.
Where do you think designers are leading us into undesirable futures, and how can they themselves do better futures work?
Unreflectively serving those with the deepest pockets is an abrogation of an ethical duty to exercise our own best judgment about what worlds we really want to be part of and also to leave behind. Any assumption to the effect that mysterious forces will somehow make the product of thoughtless decisions into delightful collective outcomes is a delusion we can no longer afford.
Jim Dator wrote a wonderful piece quite a few years ago which included a list of qualities that would be desirable for doing good futures work; summed up in the term 'aiglatson', which is 'nostalgia' backwards, so it connotes a sort of yearning for the future. To my mind such yearning is not about disregarding or devaluing the present. It's about a certain way of being in the present which is always subtly oriented to the possibility of making something better.
In my view the 'product' of foresight done properly is what could be called (echoing Antonio Gramsci), optimism of the will. This can be contrasted with optimism of expectation. Doing futures work cultivates in oneself, and ideally in one's companions, an awareness of how things could be different, and with that, a sense of one's increment of responsibility. Candide travelled the world with his mentor Pangloss urging him to expect "everything for the best in this best of all possible worlds", and then he returned home, a little wiser, concluding "we must grow our own garden". You don't need Panglossian optimism to be engaged, and growing your own garden is - I like to think - about rendering a service to the wider world, not making a place in isolation from it.
What futures teaches you is, then, "gardening" change in the domains available to you. I think the best futurists help to activate the gardener in people.
‘Designing futures’, Interview by Heath Killen, Desktop, No. 289, Dec '12/Jan '13, pp. 22-24.
Thanks to Heath and his colleagues!
> Design is a team sport
> The Unthinkable and the Unimaginable
> Travelling without moving