Monday, July 02, 2018

Imagining transitions

An interview by Transition Network founder Rob Hopkins for his upcoming book on imagination.

This yew tree in the grounds at Dartington in Devon, England, a stone's throw from where Rob Hopkins and I had our conversation, is thought to be around 2000 years old (Photo: Stuart Candy)

The week before last I was in Devon, England, to deliver the closing keynote for the Transition Together Symposium co-hosted by Schumacher College and Carnegie Mellon School of Design.

I was thrilled that the first evening's invited speaker was Rob Hopkins, founder of the Transition movement, which was well represented at the symposium. I'd first learned about transition towns many years earlier, attending the London premiere of a future documentary called The Age of Stupid where Rob's collaborator Shaun Chamberlin had launched a book about the movement. So I was well aware of Rob's work on transition towns, but he and I had never met before.

In his talk Rob had shared a few words about his exciting book in progress on the subject of imagination, and afterwards he asked if we could do an interview as part of that project. So the next morning, on a gorgeous summer's day at Dartington, we got together to explore our shared interest in the cultivation of public imagination.

The interview appears below, slightly abridged. A full transcript, together with the audio recording, can be found at Rob's website.

***

RH: What is a professional futurist?

SC: Someone who helps people think about things that haven’t happened yet. Usually on a longer timescale than tomorrow morning or next week or next year. More the systems that we’re embedded in, the industries, the organisations, the communities, the countries, the planet.

How would you evaluate the state of health of our collective ability to think positively and constructively about the future?

From my point of view, futures literacy is distressingly low. But the good news is that it’s learnable. The capacity to imagine, the capacity to narrate, and from there to live into alternatives, is actually very high.  Because we’re very plastic, humans are. But you have to put effort into it, and I don’t think that’s really what our institutions have been geared at. It’s not really what our schooling has been geared towards.

It’s not just in education. Our political conversations are paradoxically on the one hand very results oriented – like, “How do we know that this policy is working, or is going to work in order for us to want to pass it?” – then, on the other hand, extremely rhetorical, and gestural and not particularly evidence-based but more affinity-based. We tend to vote for the people who seem to be on our wavelength, rather than evaluating them on the quality of their ideas, or their ability to convincingly show us that those ideas might lead us in collective directions that we want to go. So, in short, there’s a lot of room for improvement!

[Related post: Quality in futures thinking]

One of the people that I interviewed was Henry Giroux, who uses the term, the ‘Trump dis-imagination machine’. He talks about the various ways from his perspective the Trump administration directly sets out to undermine and erode that sense of imagination. One of the ways he talks about it is about the past. He says that actually when you rewrite the past, and say well, the slaves all came here in pursuit of the American Dream, and you twist and change the past, you then change how we’re able to think about the future. What do you see that connection between the past and the future?

Orwell nailed it in 1984, that who controls the present controls the past, and who controls the past controls the future. That essentially the horizons that we’re able to imagine for ourselves in times to come correspond in a way to the ways that we read the present and the past that we’ve come from. So the manipulation of historical understandings, and the legislation, or the propagation of certain types of media who say, “there is no problem with racial inequality. That’s in the minds of the leftie malcontents.”

That has as a corollary a certain disdain – not just disdain, I need a stronger word than that – for progressive agendas that are looking to right past wrongs as a prelude to a future of equality and justice, and co-creative thriving.

[Related post: Foresight is a right]

If we want to bring a sense of the future as a delicious, nourishing, thriving, happy, connected, nurturing, beautiful possibility… If we want to give people a flavour of that in a world where that doesn’t even seem to be considered, certainly not in the mainstream media that people encounter… If we want to give people sips or a good drink or a feast of that …

A smorgasbord.

A smorgasbord of possibilities. From your thinking and research, where do we start?

The tradition I work in operates on the future as a plural space. So the fact that it hasn’t happened yet means that it could be many different things. And the opportunity that that affords us is the chance to imagine multiple alternative futures. Not just the delightful ones that you’ve referred to, but fearful ones, and concerning ones, and things we want to avoid as well.

But in a sense it’s a practice of mapping narrative alternatives in order to be able to navigate with them so that we have a vocabulary for the kinds of societal possibility that we seem to be moving towards or away from. So the way that this traditionally has been done is writing and discussing alternative scenarios. What kind of London, what kind of United States, might there be 20 or 50 years from now? And what are the kind of prospective historical logics, scenaric pathways that could unfold around us? And then in light in those alternatives, what can be done today to make more likely the things that we like, and less likely the things that we don’t?

The more recent addition to that perspective is the activation of the arts, of design, of theatre and performance, and in a way of materiality beyond the page in front of you, and the words on the page, to bring those futures to life.

So what my practice has been about, and the reason I’ve found my way to being a design professor, is bringing futures to life in the present, as a way of creating higher resolution mental models to think and feel with that inform our action today.

Could you give us a flavour of some of those?

This area of practice we call ‘experiential futures’ to highlight the addition of these dimensions of experience on top of the cognitive and intellectual engagement of a well-wrought thought experiment. One of the first projects that my colleagues and I did in this vein was for the state of Hawaii where I was a graduate student at the time. We put 550 people into four different versions of Hawaii in the year 2050.

[Related post: Ghosts of futures past]

So the rooms were created like a theatre set, almost?

That’s right. What I’ve been doing with my collaborators, and clients, and students for the last dozen years is designing and staging experiences of possible futures for all sorts of different contexts, and then also creating tools that help people do this for themselves, so that it isn’t just an expert undertaking. It’s democratising it.

[Related post: The Experiential Turn]

Once people had gone through the four scenarios, how did they then digest and reflect on what they’d experienced?

Great question, because the digestion and reflection part is as important as the experience itself. When one begins doing this type of thing it can be tempting to imagine that if you stage a sufficiently compelling and well thought out and polished and excitingly performed, etc., etc. immersion, that that somehow works its magic on people automatically and they’ll leave transformed.

And that’s not necessarily untrue. We’ve all been to plays or films where there isn’t a debriefing session afterwards but it still worked some kind of magic or some kind of change on us. Maybe we’ll process that with our friends or family members, or in the ambient cultural discussion around that cultural artefact later, but for these kinds of more localised interventions, where the people in the room – there may be 20 of them or there may be a couple of hundred – having a conversation which helps people process what’s just happened and notice some of the details that they missed and understand what was going on in the minds and in the bodies of the people next to them, as well as themselves, that becomes really important.

The project I describe was a prototype. In retrospect, it turns out to have been a prototype for a sort of modular design brief which I’ve been running with my students in various places around the world for the last six years or so, called ‘The Time Machine’. So the Time Machine is not a device. It’s a room that you turn into a future time. And the design task is to make the room feel like a seamless experience of the future that you’re trying to have a conversation about.

[Related post: A Time Traveller's Story]

So that’s just one single future?

One at a time, yeah, that’s right. You visit and spend time and immerse and, if you like, bathe in a particular future, and then you come back to the present and talk about it. So to answer your question about how do you debrief on this, half of the challenge is to create the experience that feels like you are time travelling, and then the other half is to have a high quality conversation about it where you surface the things that people were alarmed or excited by, where you ask them to cash out the lessons, whatever those might be, for action in the present.

That’s a facilitated conversation, and of course facilitating a quality conversation where you draw out the quiet ones and try not to have the loud ones dominate the room, that’s an art in itself but it’s a fairly well established art, whereas experiential futures are a bit more of a recent addition. But they pair well.

[Related post: NaturePod]

In the Transition movement it’s one of the things that really interests people, that question of how you bring the future out.  Is it something that requires extensive training or are there elements of it that actually anybody could do anywhere with a bit of thinking and a few people?

More the latter. Creating good immersive experiences does take a bit of practice, but it’s not necessarily expensive or that difficult. The first time we ran the Time Machine activity for a class was at the National University of Singapore. It was a week-long intensive course that I ran with some friends of mine, Aaron Maniam and Noah Raford, and we only had five days with the students and the first three days we spent orienting them in futures thinking and tools, including scenario creation, generating four alternative scenarios for whichever domain they were dealing with.

There were different groups. One dealt with the futures of love, sex and marriage in Singapore. One dealt with the futures of education. One dealt with the futures of – I want to say the judicial system – so they all had different domains, but we were providing the pedagogy, the underlying tools, and then the last day and a half, they had to take one of the stories they’d created during that week and turn it into an experience in the classroom. This is one of the reasons why the Time Machine, as a kind of modularisation, has been educational. Not just for the students doing it but for me and my co-instructors and so on, seeing dozens of these things being made, often in really short order.

[Related post: Introduction to Experiential Futures in The Economist]

They may have two or three weeks, if they’re lucky, of lead time, but if it’s a class, they’re only meeting once a week, and then however much they’re meeting outside of that, and then the scale of the experience is usually between twenty and thirty people. But what is interesting there is that twenty or thirty people multiplied by a couple of times a night … I’m jumping ahead a little bit here, but I want to tie this to the Transition discussion, I think basically in order to normalise the high resolution performance and materialisation of possible futures, we tend to think of doing this at multiplexes, or through cinema, but of course you can reach a lot of people through a theatrical mode.

If you have four or five Time Machines running simultaneously and people move from one to the next, then in an evening they’ve experienced four or five versions of their community. Let’s say they visit four or five versions of Totnes, set in 2040, and then they have a conversation about what this all means. In pretty short order you could get – particular at the scale of a place like Totnes – you could get a decent proportion of the population that has those as shared mental models. And they’re not drawing them from Hollywood or generic imaginaries that have been devised a long way away just for the purpose of entertaining them.

It’s rooted here.

Yeah, it’s rooted in those places based on the histories and cultures, and even the specific location where the Time Machine takes place. That’s the kind of futures thinking I think we need. So anyway, that’s a little bit of a glimpse of how I think something like this might scale, as a community based design practice.

[Related post: Ethnographic Experiential Futures]

But for a first step, well, I mentioned the projects that we work on that are about tools for others. So there’s a game that my colleague Jeff Watson at the University of Southern California and I designed a few years ago when we were both in Toronto, and it’s called ‘The Thing from the Future’. It’s a card game which is basically scaffolding for the imagination to enable and invite people to generate very diverse, but very specific ideas for things that could exist in possible futures. And they can tell stories about them, or if you have …

Objects?

Yes. Objects, or cultural fragments, actually. I’ll show you, I’ve got some cards here. But the first edition of the card deck was made as the ideation engine for a design jam, which we ran in Toronto for forty people or so. And for the first hour and a half they played a bunch of rounds of the game. Came up with hundreds of ideas for things from the future that could exist, and then spent the second chunk of time physically prototyping these things and then we filled up a vending machine with artefacts from the future all created in one day by the participants at this event. Some of whom had design backgrounds and many of whom did not.

So that’s a pointer towards a kind of practice that doesn’t have to be highly elaborate or resource intensive, but can lower the barrier to building a relationship. A non-fearful relationship with concrete alternative futures.

[Related post: The Thing From The Future, First Edition]

It’s a bit like what you do in improv.  There’s a lot of that sort of, ‘Yes, and’ about this.

Yeah, I heard a story recently about the jazz great Charles Mingus working on a film with psychonaut Timothy Leary. Mingus said, “You can’t improvise on nothing”. And this is an important point when we reflect on what our imaginations are doing, they are improvising on the materials that we feed them. And improvising often not particularly well on fairly worn and clichéd materials.

When we start to attend to imagination as something that can be cultivated and improved, like a muscle that we can get into shape by using it, that begins to suggest ways of working together, not just individually, to create more imaginative spaces, more imaginative conversations.

Limits are essential, and they’re always present even if we don’t realise they are. That’s where recognising that when we reach into our minds for an image of the future, particularly an image of the future that is different from what comes most readily, or what seems to be most likely, that we need to provide ourselves with the materials that let us create those images.

[Related article: Gaming Futures Literacy: The Thing From The Future]

A question I’ve asked everybody is if it had been you, and not the current incumbent who had been elected the President in the US a year and a half ago, and you had run on a platform of ‘Make America Imaginative Again’ and you had felt that actually what was needed was, rather than having an national innovation strategy, we needed a National Imagination Strategy, which said we need imagination to run through schools, through public life, through policy making, through everything, what might President Candy do in your first 100 days in the Oval office?

I think the instilling of imagination throughout a society doesn’t come from intervening in one spot. But the three main sites where things seem to be most lacking to me are in politics, media and education. Those are the three institutional areas of deficit. I think probably education is one of the most readily addressable because the whole point of education is to programme and prepare, instil in your emerging citizens the capabilities you think they’ll need.

I would probably start with an educational initiative that would put the ‘A’…  You will have heard of STEM, ‘Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths’, to STEAM, putting Arts in their rightful place right in the middle of that combination. But specifically, or more specifically than that, futures as a capability is learnable. I came across it myself first when I was 16 years old, in high school, and it wasn’t too late. But it would have been handy to have been exposed to it even earlier I think.

That is an education level intervention, requiring futures education, that could make a significant difference quite quickly. We’re doing it organically, on an opportunistic basis, at the moment. One of my jobs at Carnegie Mellon at the School of Design is to integrate futures into the design curriculum, with the underlying premise there being that if you’re going to be designing things, you should be capable of thinking well about the kinds of futures that you’re designing for, and against.

And those layers of temporal and systems context need to be fluidly navigable by a good designer at this moment in history, and perhaps in general. Maybe this is a sort of maturation. A growing into of the implications of our plasticity as a species as we realise that we are shaping the world around us, so let’s do it knowledgeably, and knowingly. That’s the first thing, the education.

Then the other two fronts, the media and politics, it might be tricky to do in the first 100 days, but requiring and encouraging – maybe modelling this – political candidates to demonstrate the futures that they are intending to bring about. Rather than hitting the campaign trail with just slogans and appealing to personality and identity, they have to create let’s say documentaries from the future that show how their policies would play out. That would be incredibly interesting and provide a much richer basis for evaluating the quality of the imagination and the systems thinking of the people who are appealing to us for our votes.

Then the media thing, well, that’s harder to intervene in and I’m not sure that legislating is the way to do that, but creating instances of the kind we were talking about earlier, the community level experiences of possible futures for the places where we live, that would be worth investing in. If it were the United States, the National Endowment for the Arts, which of course has been gutted and devalued systemically for quite a while. Investment in people’s ability to bring futures to life in the present to experience I think would be effort well spent.

[Related article: Dreaming Together: Experiential Futures as a Platform for Public Imagination]

Do you have any last thoughts around imagination and the future and anything you wanted to say on that that I haven’t asked you the question to set you off on?

My motivation is about encouraging and enabling a social capacity for foresight. I didn’t dream that up out of nowhere –– like I said, I work in a tradition that for over half a century has been specifically focused on how we can use the future, or use plural futures to make change more effectively. But also, I would add, more humanely and more justly, in a more enlightened fashion.

If we look at the terrain of intervention as being what Gregory Bateson called ‘a mental ecology’ – an ecology of mind – how do you create situations, which might be at a room scale, or might be at a city scale, how do you create situations that elevate people’s capacity and willingness and ability to be imaginative? And further, to deploy those towards imagining particular futures?  Alternative futures.

Not just the hopeful ones, because I don’t think we can live on a diet of hope alone. A healthy mental ecology, like other kinds of ecology, the index of that is its diversity. You need a diversity of alternative futures to be present and available to people as the materials with which to navigate their options. That’s a critical part of transforming governance in our lifetimes.

***

Thanks again to Rob Hopkins; and we'll be sure to keep up with news of the book as it progresses.

Rob's interview with another keynote speaker from the Transition Together Symposium, commons researcher and P2P Foundation founder Michel Bauwens, is here.

See also:
> The Futures of Everyday Life (PhD dissertation)
Syrian refugee girls imagine their futures
Designing Futures (Interview)
The technology of public imagination
Design is Storytelling
Death of a President (Essay on future documentary)
The act of imagination

Saturday, June 16, 2018

An Experiential Futures Interview

Unearthed from the archives...

Professor John Robinson (University of Toronto) playing The Thing From The Future with teammates at Utrecht University's Experiential Futuring Summer School (Photo: Stuart Candy)

For the past few days I've been in Leeuwarden, in the north of the Netherlands, for an 'Experiential Futuring Summer School' piloted by the Urban Futures Studio from Utrecht University. Last night we arrived in London, where the V&A Museum recently opened The Future Starts Here, a major exhibition that runs until November and showcases "more than 100 objects as a landscape of possibilities for the near future". Last week Jake Dunagan and I introduced city leaders from around the United States to futures practice, with a special Cities Edition of The Thing From The Future card game, in Boston at the annual US Conference of Mayors. (It followed a similar event we ran for American mayors at South by Southwest in March.) The weekend before last was spent with European civil servants in Brussels for the EC Joint Research Centre's conference FTA2018, who showed what seem to me unprecedented levels of interest in experimenting with design and games to support policymaking. Last month I gave the opening keynote at Primer, the second annual gathering drawing hybrid futures/design practitioners from around the world to the San Francisco Bay Area, on the back of a burgeoning series of 'Speculative Futures' meetups. (The word speculative is redundant here: certainly not all speculation is about the future, but all futures thought is necessarily speculative.)

Whatever it might be called, there's a flurry of activity at the intersection of futures and design. After many years of quiet gestation in mostly isolated pockets, and of bringing these ideas to the attention of countless previously uninitiated groups, it's exciting to find a growing number of folks experimenting and enthused; an increasingly networked awareness and momentum; a sense of emerging community.

At these events we often also find some amount of grappling with terminology and framing, which takes me to how these areas have evolved over the dozen years since we started working in this space –– before we had so many instances to think with, let alone a vocabulary for it. I'm reminded of an exchange from 02012, when futurist Trevor Haldenby interviewed me via email as part of his Master of Design research project at OCAD University, with the working title 'Transmedia Narratives and Experiential Scenarios'.

Our interview covered several topics that remain relevant, and seem useful to share given the growing interest in these spaces. A little context for the (lightly edited, links added) exchange below: this was the same year that Trevor and collaborators founded The Mission Business, with the focus of his MDes project – the final version is here – being their groundbreaking interactive theatre campaign ZED.TO. I didn't yet know that my next step would be to Toronto for a professorship at OCAD; at the time I was still heading up Foresight and Innovation for Arup in Australasia. The end of 02012 was two and a half years after The Futures of Everyday Life, and a year before Tony Dunne and Fiona Raby published Speculative Everything, at which point the frame of 'speculative design' really started entering currency.

TH: How do you refer to your work? What is the history of the term?

SC: I most often use the terms experiential futures and experiential scenarios. The former refers to the whole area of practice, as a methodology. The latter refers to particular projects or interventions based on specific stories. They bear a very similar relation to one another as do the terms sans 'experiential'; i.e., the second is a subset of the first.

There are plenty of cognate terms currently floating in the same semantic cloud. The term 'tangible futures' is useful because it's intuitive. 'Immersive futures' also. 'Critical design' seems mainly to be about stretching the intellectual legitimacy and contributions of design, a worthwhile aspiration that is associated with some very interesting work (Dunne & Raby and their protégés). 'Design fiction' turns out to be a semantic honeypot luring design-minded folk into a worthy mode of experimentation, combining speculative story with a designerly interface to materiality; although to date, in practice it has been excessively tech- and object-focused. It has also by and large not yet escaped the techy subject-matter preoccupations of its cousin, science-fiction prototyping. The scope of futures needs to be far wider than gadgetry; the rub's in the manifold rippling consequences of change, especially in the complex ineffable and multifarious nontechnical facets of life as we experience it. Imaginings that start with technical objects seem too easily also to end there, indulging a desire to oversimplify, so I suggest there's a reductive thinking here that we need to challenge ourselves to surpass. In any case for that narrower purpose, the evocative (if bulky) term 'artifacts from the future', borrowed from Wired magazine, is the one I tend to use.



There are also such polysyllabic options as 'object-oriented futuring' and 'diegetic prototyping', the former I've written about a bit and the latter having been picked up from David Kirby by #defi boffins Julian Bleecker and Bruce Sterling. To my mind, all of the above have their place while being less encompassing than 'experiential futures', which I prefer because a nascent practice - which is what I think this was when I was writing my doctorate on the subject; and in many ways still is - needs an overarching conceptual frame pulling it together. The reference to experience is a deliberate choice of an accommodating substrate or canvas incorporating designed objects, encounters in the flesh, etc. (I also appreciate and sometimes use other design terms like 'interaction design' and, even if it's much less common, 'situation design'.) But the choice of 'experience' is meant to include basically anything that you as a futures practitioner, artist or agent provocateur can cause or catalyse. It applies equally well to an object in hand, an advertisement in the newspaper, a role-playing game, a documentary snippet from the future, and more.



I don't know when I started using the term experiential futures but it would probably have been in conversations with collaborator Jake Dunagan in around mid-02006, and then 'thinking aloud' at my blog, as those ideas developed. It was in fact the blog's tag cloud that progressively (and somewhat to my surprise) demonstrated that my set of interests were gravitating towards art and design. A 02009 guide to communicating climate change for laypersons included the term 'experiential scenarios' as a key communicative strategy for simultaneously addressing both heart and mind, and yet oddly that guide neither explained the term nor provided any examples of it in action. Which suggested to me that this was an intuitive enough concept to resonate, but one without a lot of substance or examples assembled behind it as yet, so reinforcing a leaning towards using it as a master concept in my dissertation and elsewhere.

Who are you trying to reach with your work? Who is your intended audience?

Broadly I am interested in experiential futures as a way of addressing the culture at large. It is time to make deeper, more visceral and grounded thoughts and feelings about possible futures accessible to audiences wider than those that most traditional futures work has aimed or managed to reach.



That said, the answer really depends on the project. In a client relationship the client is generally the key audience (unless they are hiring you to try to reach some other constituency, and even then…). An intrapreneurial situation, ie where one is an internal change agent for a large organization, can probably be thought of as a special subset of the client-type relationship. For those more 'public' projects with broad access and impact as a goal, there might be a vaguer answer – 'whoever's open-minded or ready enough to notice'.

In any event as the above suggests it may be useful to recognise that for any project there's often more than one audience, and by this I don't refer only to the obviously variable demo- and psychographics of individuals on the receiving end, but rather to contexts of encounter. E.g. In the case of guerrilla futures interventions, there are primary and secondary audiences (e.g. see The Futures of Everyday Life p. 245). The secondary audience, who hears about it later rather than experiencing it first hand, will likely be affected in quite a different way. It's not the direct experience, but the 'story of the story', so to speak, which can reach a much wider audience and thus indirectly propagate ideas about the future well beyond the experiential encounter. Also note that a big difference exists between an expected/solicited and unsolicited/unscripted encounter. My 'favourite' audience, or the context of encounter that I find most interesting, is probably the audience of the guerrilla futures intervention, i.e., those who stumble across an unsolicited experiential scenario. This is because it is both the largest and least thought about, and so seems at this point to harbour the greatest untapped potential.

What effect do you hope your work will have on them?

This is the more important question. The ideal impact is to "recalibrate their sense of reality", in the phrase of Steve Lambert describing the New York Times Special Edition. (See dissertation p. 205)



In terms of the classic trio of possible, probable and preferable futures (popularised in and usually attributed to Amara's 01981 trio of articles, although it appeared in Toffler's Future Shock more than a decade before), the most basic, 101-level intervention is to challenge people's sense of the bounds of the possible.



To catalyse or kindle within someone an inquiry into their own understandings about the future – what they consider to be possible, probable or preferable within the system in question – is the goal. To pluralise their perception of what can be, and nudge them towards questioning and then acting into the future(s) they prefer. A futures-activated person develops an optimism of the will (to borrow Gramsci's term from another context) as opposed to optimism of expectation. It is about engagement with possibility and rather than passive acceptance of 'the future' provided by their cultural context (whatever it may be).

I don't presume that a single work or encounter can do that alone, but that's the current or course of development, individual and cultural, to which I'd like to contribute.


Could you describe the design process associated with your work?

I have done a brief diagram of it before (dissertation p. 170) but the reality is not necessarily as neat – a clean conceptual description is inevitably part wishful thinking.



The goal of the process is to put people in circumstances whereby they're invited and enabled to think and feel into the potential and implications of a putative reality that does not (yet) exist. They do not have to buy it hook, line and sinker; the point is more commonly to invite them to test it out. So, creating those circumstances means alternating between the conceptualisation of your creation at several levels of abstraction: the logic of the scenario, and the accessibility and comprehensibility of the experience provided (part of which is furnished by the context of the encounter which you may not be able to fully control, but which you can certainly try to co-opt). Aspects of this process are captured well by a phrase of futurist Riel Miller which he uses to describe scenario production: 'rigorous imagining'. The rigour that you need to bring to the imagining is increased when you're trying to manifest it palpably in experience, rather than leaving it in the splendid abstractions of text or statistics, which are the most common modes of scenaric representation.

When Jake Dunagan and I ran an experiential scenario co-creation process over three days for the Emerge event (at Arizona State University in March 02012), we used a typology of subject (theme), story (narrative and genre), situation (concrete experience, medium and encounter). By necessity this was hastily distilled for the event, based on six or more years of working together on similar projects over more generous timelines. We basically prepared a subject in advance: the experience was to be about a disruptive archaeological discovery in Phoenix, to do with the disappearance of the region's pre-Columbian inhabitants. We also had the rudiments of a situation organised; having secured permissions from the university to set up a (supposed) archeological dig on campus, in which some kind of monumental artifact (deliberately TBD) would be unearthed, and then turned into a video about that discovery. We didn't know what the story would be, however, or how it would tie the subject to the situation. We had some ideas (to do with paleogeoengineering, and previously undiscovered dimensions to the sophistication of the 'Hohokam' civilisation). But the process we went through during those three days proved a surprisingly successful compression of experiential scenario production, albeit one oriented at least as much to history as to the future, which for us was also a bit of an experiment.

[Dunagan and I went on to describe this project, The People Who Vanished, at length in an article finally published last year in Futures journal, including the layered typology which evolved into the Experiential Futures Ladder. The movie development analogy below is also taken up there.]

In film (at least Hollywood narrative feature film), there is generally a progression from general to specific through the following steps: treatment, story, script, film. Getting the story right generally means at some stage fairly early on writing out a treatment of some sort – but a statement of the state of the world, and how we got from here to there. I won't attempt here to map experiential scenario production on to this model exactly, but what it illuminates I think is that there's a nested series of increasingly detailed and reality-like (simulacral) representations, bridging the 'experiential gulf' so to speak (see dissertation Ch. 2), and the whole design involves a lot of running up and down the 'ladder of abstraction' (or across the bridge, perhaps?), tying the broad premise of the scenario to the details of the experience or interaction that they (the 'audience') have, and that you and your co-conspirators, the producers of the experience, can feasibly produce.

I consider a fundamental trick as being to maintain the integrity of the world you are trying to recruit people into imagining. 'Don't break the universe', as we like to say. (See dissertation ch 4 on this, and also the 'tip of the iceberg' design principle.)

What is the role of 'making' in your work?

I'm not primarily a maker and that's not an aspect I emphasise, because I think the sense in which it's usually used is distinctly secondary in this work. In short, 'making' (like hacking) is generally about the adjacent possible, while 'experiential futures' are usually about the not yet possible. (Similarly; 'simulation' usually refers generically to something that could happen at any time in the present, like a natural disaster, or a plane ride; in contrast experiential scenarios speak from potential historical situations that are yet to unfold.)

That said, aspects of the ethos of making – proactive experimentation through prototyping; action learning – are at the broadest level among the main reasons for producing experiential scenarios in the first place. Not to be too cute, but 'making' parts of possible futures to see what they feel like and what you can learn by doing so, is a central rationale for this whole strand of work.

What is the role of 'story' in your work? Do you think that stories play a significant role in helping people understand possible futures?

The role of story is critical in futures at large, but I think it is hugely undervalued. Many in the profession seem to be so keen to bolster their credentials in terms of analysis and plausibility (understandably, against the backdrop of a dominant scientific/managerial paradigm) that the fundamentally narrative and interpretive qualities of foresight work risk being sacrificed to these other concerns. The result is as simple as it is unfortunate: overwrought, poorly told, uninteresting and unimpactful storytelling – the fundamental problem with which is that it doesn't recognise itself as storytelling. There are fewer really good storytellers in the field than you might expect.

To put it another way, I suspect one of the main reasons for the field's lack of mainstream impact is that it has not properly recognised and cultivated narrative craft, and as a result most scenarios are appallingly written/constrcted stories with correspondingly 'low yield' (a great term borrowed in this context from GBN cofounder Jay Ogilvy).


Do you identify as a practitioner of any of the above? (design fiction, tangible futures, critical design)

The language is unsettled: it's a newish thing, and that's the way newish things are. I have views about the terms some of which I've shared above, but the main thing I identify as is a futurist who is trying to extend or raise the rigour, creativity, visibility and impact that this strain of work can have.

Whose work in your field do you particularly admire? Do you have any favourite projects or practitioners? Who has influenced your work?

The chief advocate for futures-type work and design coming together has been Bruce Sterling. Bill McDonough and Bruce Mau have both influenced my uptake of 'design' as broadly construed by both of them.

My favourite projects are the New York Times special edition, perhaps superseded by the post-revolution Tunisia project.

The greatest influence of an academic futurist on my work has been Jim Dator. My most influential discussions with colleague collaborators have been with Jake Dunagan, and our sometime design collaborator Matthew Jensen (then Chief Creative Officer of Natron Baxter Applied Gaming).



Erika Gregory (formerly of GBN), Jason Tester (formerly of IFTF) and Jane McGonigal (IFTF) have all done great work previously or concurrently to my own experiments into this area.



I have enormous interest in the films of Neill Blomkamp (District 9 plus various amazing short films), Michael Winterbottom (Code 46, etc) and above all Peter Watkins (The War Game, Punishment Park, Gladiators etc) for their use of diegetic, documentary-like storytelling techniques evoking putative futures or alternate worlds as real.

What do you see as the most significant challenges facing practitioners of strategic foresight, futures studies, and scenario planning today?

The futures field has been around for about half a century, but in my view has not had the mainstream impact that it should have by now.

In practical terms, I find it illuminating to consider the tensions between psychology of what often attracts people to work in the field (fascination with the new, in many cases) with the formation of an effective field, in terms of community or praxis (which requires some degree of interest in and patience with what has come before). The square wheel is constantly being reinvented by would-be futurists (Jake Dunagan's observation), which represents a vast amount of wasted effort; maverick thinkers seem to have a hard time pooling their efforts, acknowledging their predecessors and peers. And the same personality type produces independent practitioners whose efforts can get easily attenuated into ineffectiveness, because no one is equally good at all three of product, sales, and finance (to borrow a broader insight about business from Ernesto Sirolli). To come at it another way, these key functions and offers are most effectively marketed by people who necessarily don't do them well at the level of substance.

Another challenge is that this is by definition hard work, but that's probably bleeding obvious. The work is by definition about leaning into the unorthodox, the unfamiliar, the unacceptable. Hence the perennial 'Futurist's Catch-22'. 'Life in futures work entails constant labour on the frontier of acceptability. Those whose thinking would benefit most from a plural futures perspective are sceptical or uninterested, while those predisposed to be aware and interested for that reason do not need it as much.' (dissertation p. 211)

Breaking this cycle involves luring a wider audience into deeper contemplation of the future. This is a large part of the rationale for emphasising design and storytelling in futures work: make it compelling.



Do you think it is more important for foresight and scenario planning practice to be defined by rigor, or vigor – controlled and scientific use of methods, or active freeform engagement with new audiences and stakeholder groups?

You need the latter in order for the former to matter.

Related:
> The futures of everyday life
> Quality in futures thinking
> Designing Futures (Interview for Desktop magazine)
> Impacting the Social (Interview for LEAP Dialogues)
> A future of design (Talk from the future by Trevor Haldenby at Autodesk)
> A history of experiential futures 2006-2031 (Paper co-authored with Trevor Haldenby)

Saturday, June 09, 2018

A Time Traveller's Story


This talk provides a short introduction to the experiential futures practice of designing and staging what I call Time Machines - immersive scenarios of possible worlds at 1:1 scale.

I've now run the Time Machine as an assignment with many groups in cities around the world – Singapore, Mexico City, and Toronto, among others. A short piece which appeared in The Economist describes several Time Machines created in experiential futures courses. A longer article from The Futurist provides a bit more background, although there have been four more years of experience and iteration since then.

Background to the talk: I spent last year as a visiting professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and this presentation was given at the 40th edition of the city's PechaKucha Nights in March 02017. (As some readers may know, PechaKucha is a format in which 20 slides are shown for 20 seconds each, advancing automatically, which keeps things nice and brisk.) Why am I blogging this now? I received this video months ago, but it had an audio issue that I finally had a chance to fix yesterday before posting.

Background to the topic: Time Machines have their roots in the four parallel experiential scenarios which we created for the Hawaii 2050 kickoff back in 02006. The process was subsequently modularised through teaching, first via a guerrilla futures experiment with undergrads at the University of Hawaii at Manoa in 02008, then projects in the Strategic Foresight course of the Design MBA at California College of the Arts in 02010 and 02011, and then a prototype assignment culminating the intensive futures course at National University of Singapore in 02012. In mid-02013, I contributed an assignment to a published collection about the cutting edge of art and design teaching, and first used the Time Machine framing there. Later that year, having started as a professor in OCAD University's Master of Design program in Strategic Foresight and Innovation, we introduced Time Machines as an end-of-semester studio project, where it became a staple. At SAIC last year, I ran two design/futures courses; one was on making documentary films from the future, and the other concluded with the 02016 election-related guerrilla futures project that's described in the talk (it went on to win an award from the Association of Professional Futurists last summer). I've had the privilege of being in something like 50 Time Machines to date, most recently at Carnegie Mellon School of Design during the academic year just ended.

A proper effort to capture the practical lessons from all this for design and futures is on the way.

Special thanks to PechaKucha Chicago organisers Peter Exley, Sharon Exley, and Thorsten Bösch. An alternative recording for the same talk, focusing on the slides, is at the official PechaKucha website. My previous PechaKucha talk, from 02012 in Melbourne, is posted here.

Related:
> Build your own Time Machine
> Time Machines in The Economist
> American Futures
> The Futures of Everyday Life
> Future documentary
> Travelling without moving

Monday, April 30, 2018

Transforming the Future


Last week a book was published by Routledge and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) called Transforming the Future: Anticipation in the 21st Century.

Assembled by my colleague UNESCO futurist Riel Miller, it documents an ambitious effort to develop a framework for Futures Literacy, via dozens of engagements with diverse communities all around the world over several years. The research is ongoing; this volume presents the story so far.

What it means to be ‘futures literate’ …[is] emergent. People’s fictions about the later-than-now and the frames they use to invent these imaginary futures are so important for everyday life, so ingrained and so often unremarked, that it is hard to gain the distance needed to observe and analyse what is going on.

[Anticipatory assumptions] are the most basic component of anticipatory activities: these assumptions are necessary for all ‘uses-of-the-future’ because ‘imagination’ can only be elaborated on the basis of the underlying assumptions.

The research is concentrated on how to define and assess the extent to which someone has or can become futures literate by collecting evidence of her capacity to understand the nature and role of the [anticipatory assumptions] needed to ‘use-the-future’ in practice.

My own contribution to the collection, 'Gaming Futures Literacy: The Thing From The Future', springs from our work with UNESCO a few years back, which included producing a special (bilingual French/English) edition of The Thing From The Future to distribute to delegates at the Youth Forum held in Paris in 02015. The introduction, condensed:

Amid pervasive uncertainty and accelerating change, one of our great challenges, and opportunities, is to make high quality engagement with the yet-to-be more widespread.

The good news is that our repertoire of uses of the future, the set of available ways to map and manifest possible paths or waypoints ahead, is far from exhausted. Exciting vistas have recently opened up with foresight’s ‘experiential turn’ towards fuller exploration of design, media and games.

This chapter presents a case study of an experiential futures card game called The Thing from the Future, reflecting on it as a method for popularising and demystifying futures, and explaining the design mechanisms that make it tick. While undoubtedly a limited tool (like all tools), its potential significance as part of a wave of efforts to spread Futures Literacy which are actually enjoyable to use may give heart to those in search of new ways towards distributed anticipation and social foresight.

The whole chapter ‘Gaming Futures Literacy’ is available here.

A short video about the larger Futures Literacy Labs project was released by UNESCO last year, and can be found here.

And finally, thanks to Innovation Norway, the book Transforming the Future is available in full here.

Related:
> La Chose du Futur à Paris
> The Thing From The Future
> The Polak Game, or: Where do you stand?

Saturday, March 31, 2018

Quality in futures thinking

Diagram by Lloyd Walker

I recently received an email from my friend Steve Lambert, an artist whose work we've previously touched on here, here and here. (Also the co-founder with Stephen Duncombe of the Center for Artistic Activism.)

Steve was writing with a question – a good one. Characteristically his message got right to the point.

Subject: Futurist question

Hey Stuart,

Who, besides futurists, think long term about the future? And specifically not in the frame of capitalism and how they can make money – but about how to shape the world for the better? Who does a good job?

SL

I felt this could make an interesting topic for wider conversation and put it to the Association of Professional Futurists email list.

A lively discussion followed, but two contributions stood out, and their posters gave permission to share them more widely. (By default, these conversations are private to encourage participants to speak among themselves more freely.)

One fantastic contribution was the diagram above, offered by the brilliant Austin, Texas-based consultant, designer, and futures veteran Lloyd Walker.

The other highlight came in response to someone wondering aloud about the relationship between the academic and professional variants of futures practice. Futures professor Jim Dator replied:

Futures practice without academic underpinning is smoke and mirrors.
Academic pretense of futures without practical experience is mirrors and smoke.

Related:
The Tao of Steve
Designing Futures
> Guerrilla futurists combat war on terror
> San Francisco's awesome future
> Dreampolitik

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Design is Storytelling

Design is many things: it's the giving of form, the shaping of experiences, and – oh, alright then – the solving of problems. In a broader sense, it is the distribution of ingenuity, translating ideas and intentions into realities. And in this light, design is also a matter of mapping and expanding possibility's horizons: telling new stories, and so conjuring paths to new worlds.

Design is Storytelling understands this. It's a new book by Ellen Lupton, senior curator of contemporary design at Cooper Hewitt (the Smithsonian Design Museum in New York), which is also the publisher of this slim and skilfully curated volume of ways to practice design in narrative mode.


At Situation Lab we're delighted that our imagination card game The Thing From The Future appears in the book as a key example of a design fiction tool. Design fiction is an object-oriented speculative idiom long developed and documented here as part of the wider transmedia landscape of experiential futures, which in turn deals with bringing future narratives to life by all means necessary.

In Lupton's words:
Many design projects are conceived as speculative proposals for the future. Exotic concept cars and lavishly art-directed videos for tech companies celebrate the wonders of growth and innovation. Other veins of design fiction are more critical. ...

The Thing from the Future, created by Stuart Candy and Jeff Watson, is a game that helps teams and individuals build stories about the future. ... The game can be played with groups of students or in community-based workshops as a co-creation activity.

[It] is a storytelling machine. Turning the design process backwards, it uses signals from a distant world to inspire new thinking. Candy calls this process reverse archaeology. [link] The results can be humorous or provocative as well as practical. The game stimulates serious conversations about social and environmental sustainability.

Design is Storytelling shares several examples of #FutureThing prompts, generated using the original four-suit edition, together with some witty sample responses that are playfully illustrated by Jennifer Tobias (see p. 51).


The book is filled with useful tools, and this game is not the only explicitly futures-related one: there's also the cone of plausibility (aka cone of possibility, aka cone of uncertainty; pp. 43-45), and the 2x2 matrix, a widely used process for scenario generation (pp. 46-47).

I want to acknowledge the relevance of Lupton's storytelling-centred collection to work that we've plotted here since 02006, and take the opportunity that the book presents to consider, from a personal vantage point, how I've seen design's self-understanding evolving to take advantage of the potential in the design/futures intersection which has been our focus throughout that time.

It's heartening to take stock of how things have changed.

When I first started teaching futures to design students, as a guest lecturer in Tony Dunne and Fiona Raby's Royal College of Art program early in 02009 (while completing a PhD on futures and design), there was precious little awareness of futures thinking or methods apparent in design education anywhere. Except for some pioneering hybrid practitioners, such as Lloyd Walker, Cindy Frewen, and Jason Tester, there seemed scant overlap between the two worlds (although no doubt precursors and parallels will keep coming to light). My introduction of foresight concepts and methods to design students at the RCA –– not least the cone of possibility itself* –– tapped a kind of latent energy on both sides that heavily influenced my decision to bring futures thinking more systematically to designers.

The next year, Nathan Shedroff asked me to create a foresight course in the Design MBA at California College of the Arts. Strategic Foresight is now a core part of the curriculum (the class is usually run by Jake Dunagan). The scenario-generation phase for that first time I ran the course was led by Jay Ogilvy, a former Yale philosopher professor and cofounder of Global Business Network, who at GBN had created a step-by-step process for teaching 2x2 scenario generation. Thanks to GBN's influence, and I believe in large part to Jay's pedagogy, this had become the most widely used way of creating scenarios for organisations around the world. It's gratifying to find Jay's methodological contribution recognised in Design is Storytelling (p. 47). Readers interested in the approach of a hybrid consulting futurist and philosopher should seek out his excellent book Creating Better Futures (OUP, 02002) and more recent journal article Facing the Fold (Foresight, 02011).

At the end of 02011 I delivered the closing keynote at AIGA's annual conference, a terrific platform for bringing futures-related ideas to wider attention in the design community. The talk was a little weird, but it helped opened up multiple continuing conversations and collaborations.

And meanwhile, OCAD University took the groundbreaking step of offering the first foresight-focused program in a design institution, the MDes in Strategic Foresight and Innovation (SFI). In 02013, OCAD U lured me away from Melbourne and a full-time consulting role at Arup, to Toronto, where I was the first external tenure-track SFI faculty hire, brought on as the program doubled in size to accommodate both full- and part-time cohorts. There, collaborating with wonderful colleagues Greg Van Alstyne and Suzanne Stein, I integrated experiential futures approaches (design fiction, live action roleplaying, etc) into the core curriculum, and led seven iterations of the Foresight Studio over three years. SFI is easily the largest graduate program at Canada's biggest art and design school, and it has by now unleashed well over 100 hybrid design/futures folks into organisations around the country and the world.

At the same time, Carnegie Mellon University's School of Design has been integrating a form of systems literacy throughout the curriculum, under the banner of transition design. This effort, initiated by Head of School Terry Irwin with Gideon Kossoff, Peter Scupelli and Cameron Tonkinwise (who is now at UNSW), has incorporated a futures perspective since its inception [pdf link]. It has been gradually rolled out across the CMU design curriculum, top to bottom, over the past several years. December wrapped up my first semester on faculty, where I taught the Senior Design Studio alongside Terry Irwin and Stacie Rohrbach, and we formally brought transition design ideas to undergrads for the first time.

Our students tackled a variety of wicked problems (food, water, gentrification, air quality, and so on), mapping their contours historically and in the present before using futures tools to examine alternative pathways for the coming decades, and generating stories (visions) for the year 02050 to inspire design interventions for the long term. Methods and heuristics we covered included the cone of possibilities, scenario generation, and design fiction / experiential futures (i.e., methodological staples that have found their way from futures to the pages of Design is Storytelling); as well as some others as yet less widely known in the design world, like environmental scanning and three horizons.

Currently, working with colleagues including Peter Scupelli (who has now taught futures at CMU for some five years), Dan Lockton, Molly Steenson, Terry Irwin, and many others, I'm working on braiding a foresight thread through the undergraduate design curriculum. The intention is for it to become part of the standard repertoire of competencies used by and expected of 21st century designers.

So it's nearly a decade that my colleagues and I have been working to deliberately infuse futures methods into design education; and there are of course many other strands in this bigger story alongside the ones I can recount from first-hand experience. But this is a personal story that reinforces Ellen Lupton's core insight: design's storytelling – and worldbuilding – potential, though always present, has lately been moving from marginal to something much more central.

There's a wealth of further fuel for that fire in Design is Storytelling, both futures-flavoured and not, and the book manages to be both highly attractive and, in the best sense, utilitarian, while documenting a moment in time where design's recognition of its narrative possibilities and responsibilities only continues to grow. Check it out.

Related:
> The Thing from the Future
> TFTF UNESCO French/English edition
> Reverse archaeology 02013 / 02008
> Object oriented futuring
> Strategic foresight and the Design MBA
> Introducing futures at the RCA 

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Where we begin and end

Last week, I got married. My darling and I floated down a river outside Melbourne with two of our oldest, dearest friends.

We each chose something to read aloud to mark the occasion.

Of all the things I might have thought to read, I'd selected part of a personal essay by the great Ursula Le Guin.

On the morning of the ceremony, immediately on waking I found a different idea in mind, and ended up writing something myself to say later that day instead.

But Le Guin's words came back to me yesterday when I learned that she had died.

They seem appropriate to share now.

Dogs don't know what they look like. Dogs don't even know what size they are. No doubt it's our fault, for breeding them into such weird shapes and sizes. My brother's dachshund, standing tall at eight inches, would attack a Great Dane in the full conviction that she could tear it apart.

Dogs don't notice when they put their paws in the quiche. Dogs don't know where they begin and end.

Cats know exactly where they begin and end. When they walk slowly out the door that you are holding open for them, and pause, leaving their tail just an inch or two inside the door, they know it. They know you have to keep holding the door open. That is why their tail is there. It is a cat's way of maintaining a relationship.

A lot of us humans are like dogs: we really don't know what size we are, how we're shaped, what we look like. The most extreme example of this ignorance must be the people who design the seats on airplanes. At the other extreme, the people who have the most accurate, vivid sense of their own appearance may be dancers. What dancers look like is, after all, what they do.

For old people, beauty doesn't come free with the hormones, the way it does for the young. It has to do with bones. It has to do with who the person is. More and more clearly it has to do with what shines through those gnarly faces and bodies.

We're like dogs, maybe: we don't really know where we begin and end. In space, yes; but in time, no.

When I was thirteen and fourteen I felt like a whippet suddenly trapped inside a great lumpy Saint Bernard. I wonder if boys don't often feel something like that as they get their growth. They're forever being told that they're supposed to be big and strong, but I think some of them miss being slight and lithe. A child's body is very easy to live in. An adult body isn't. The change is hard. And it's such a tremendous change that it's no wonder a lot of adolescents don't know who they are. They look in the mirror—that is me? Who's me?

And then it happens again, when you're sixty or seventy.

My mother died at eighty-three, of cancer, in pain, her spleen enlarged so that her body was misshapen. Is that the person I see when I think of her? Sometimes. I wish it were not. It is a true image, yet it blurs, it clouds, a truer image. It is one memory among fifty years of memories of my mother. It is the last in time. Beneath it, behind it is a deeper, complex, ever-changing image, made from imagination, hearsay, photographs, memories. I see a little red-haired child in the mountains of Colorado, a sad-faced, delicate college girl, a kind, smiling young mother, a brilliantly intellectual woman, a peerless flirt, a serious artist, a splendid cook—I see her rocking, weeding, writing, laughing—I see the turquoise bracelets on her delicate, freckled arm—I see, for a moment, all that at once, I glimpse what no mirror can reflect, the spirit flashing out across the years, beautiful.

That must be what the great artists see and paint. That must be why the tired, aged faces in Rembrandt's portraits give us such delight: they show us beauty not skin-deep but life-deep. In Brian Lanker's album of photographs I Dream a World, face after wrinkled face tells us that getting old can be worth the trouble if it gives you time to do some soul making. Not all the dancing we do is danced with the body.

Ursula K. Le Guin, 2013. The Wave in the Mind: Talks and Essays on the Writer, the Reader, and the Imagination. Boston: Shambhala, pp. 163-170.*

* My abridgment. No words altered.

Related:
> The act of imagination
Dreaming together
Auld Lang Syne (aiglatson edition)