Friday, August 19, 2016

Introduction to Experiential Futures in The Economist

This is a short article I published in The Economist's annual look at the year ahead, The World in 2016.

Part of a section called "Minds on the Future" included for the thirtieth edition of The World In, my contribution appears right between a piece by the chief economists of Google and IBM, Hal Varian and Martin Fleming, and another by Canadian science fiction novelist Margaret Atwood. That's good company for an introduction to Experiential Futures––in this case, outlined with reference to Time Machines developed with learners around the world, from Singapore to Mexico.


'Experiential Futures: Show and Tell'

Within a generation, those unable to afford time outside Toronto’s dense urban environment will resort to Nature Deficit Disorder Clinics, where they will get essential dietary supplements along with a virtual rainforest immersion and brain scan.‡

In Singapore, a popular museum exhibition will chart the startling social transformations over the previous few decades in romance, sex and marriage, including the introduction of state-subsidised love robots to maintain well-being across the population.

Mexico City will be subject to severe flooding, and a peer-to-peer emergency service called OperaciĆ³n 
Axolotl will emerge as citizens step up to meet each ­other’s basic needs.

By 2044, young people in North Carolina will face a critical choice at the age of 18: whether to let life’s slings and arrows take their natural course, or to accept the wonders of modern medical technology and become, in effect, immortal.

How can anyone possibly claim to predict all this, you may ask? Actually I’m not predicting that these things will happen—even though I witnessed them all first-hand.

As an experiential futurist my job is to create, and to help others create, transmedia situations where such possibilities can be thought, felt and used to make better decisions. In this practice, all media are fair game for bringing futures to life, from interactive performances to physical artifacts, from video to food: whatever enlivens a future scenario as a potential reality-in-waiting.

If Andy Clark, a cognitive scientist at the University of Edinburgh, is right, thought isn’t confined to the boundaries of our skulls. We think with our environments. The map or smartphone in your pocket is a deliberate extension of your thought processes.

We can design situations that help us understand possible futures by visiting them. How much more powerful this is than the white papers and slideshows that are the typical focus of future-gazing in boardrooms and at UN summits.

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.


The World in 2016 appears in print in 90 countries and was translated into more than 30 languages, with circulation of the English-language edition exceeding two million copies.

While approaching the tenth birthday of Experiential Futures, and half a decade after writing a doctoral dissertation on that topic, for this little description to reach such an audience feels like a valuable step towards public visibility and normalisation of a practice that I suspect is essential to the development of a collective cultural capacity for foresight.

Full text pdf is here.

‡ This Time Machine, created in the Foresight Studio at OCAD last year, eventually led to the NaturePod project for Interface Inc.

> Foresight is a right
> Build your own Time Machine
> Dissertation: The Futures of Everyday Life
Dreaming together
> Journalism from the future

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