Wednesday, December 19, 2018

On Getting Started in Experiential Futures

The Omidyar Sessions, Part 2

This post concludes an edited transcript of a webinar I did recently for The Omidyar Group. The first part was about some of the strategic purposes and elements of foresight work; this second part deals with organisations venturing into experiential futures. Both represent my responses to practical questions posed by folks working for various impact philanthropy entities in a range of broadly intrapreneurial roles, but the key points may be applied to a wide range of contexts.


People are asking about the usefulness of immersive scenarios, and also about the creepiness of certain examples.

The first thing is to recall that “immersive” is not the only possible scale of this work. That’s important because making something immersive can be a pretty high bar, in terms of labour and time, and potentially other kinds of resources, like expenditure of political capital to try it for the first time in an organisation. So experiential futures is not only about immersive experiences where you inhabit a future, or a set of them, for a period of time: that's just one end of a spectrum. At the other end are things at a smaller scale, easier to produce; artifacts from the future. These are closer to the kinds of assets produced all the time within organisations to communicate ideas and fertilise conversations, but they come out of this approach of “how do we make something from the future?” All this falls under the design-space umbrella of experiential futures.

The other point to note is that creepiness is only one possible tone that an experiential scenario – object or immersion – might evoke. A project like NurturePod might be creepy to some people, but an intervention like the Tunisia 02014 scenario wasn't creepy at all; it was super aspirational, and even (against that backdrop of extreme turbulence) almost utopian. So again, in the same way that we should be careful not to overidentify the immersive end of the design spectrum with experiential futures more broadly, because there's a lot more options than that, we should also be careful not to overemphasise certain moods or genre conventions, because there’s certainly not just one flavour of future out there.

And I think that is part of the utility. As an experiential futures practitioner, someone who has been mapping and using it over the last dozen years, and coming to understand its potential, I operate from a recognition that there’s a vast amount of variation for us to work with. Any kind of future that you may want to have people think about, or to think about yourself, can in principle be mediated in any number of artifacts or situations. Whereas traditional futures practice has usually used a very narrow set of strategies.

My students recently completed an assignment at Carnegie Mellon, a class of 40 designers, where in teams of four or five, each team turns a classroom into an immersive scenario that that the entire class group steps into and spends 15 minutes in. We call these rooms Time Machines. (This is inspired by H.G. Wells, who was not just a founding figure in speculative storytelling, but a founding figure in futures. Wells invented the idea of the time machine in the late 19th century.) Our use of the term refers not to a device, but to a space designed to think and feel with. The students don't have a huge amount of time or resources to do this, so notwithstanding what I said before about immersiveness possibly being more demanding, it doesn't necessarily have to be. It really depends on what you're trying to do.

This mindset (experiential, transmedia) invites you to going through the process of figuring out who you are trying to reach, and what kind of vectors you have to them. Say that it's the leaders or founders of some large organisation, and that they are super busy people and you're lucky to get a 15 minute appointment. This tells you something about the kinds of ways that you may be able to engage, or the kind of impact that you will need to design for. In this case maybe one option would be to make something to send them or put under their office door. They could open an envelope and find this physical thing from the future. Then it's not a room they have to be physically transported to, which could be really hard to organise.

Part of the value of having the wide design space of “experiential futures” lies in actually thinking through the options, because it forces you to figure out what is important about the futures conversation that you want to have, with the people you want to engage, and how you hope to move the needle in that encounter. Is it to get them to take some problem more seriously? Or maybe the topic is something they obsessively discuss, but the longer-term thinking around how it could evolve is limited, because they lack high-quality hypotheticals to work from. So maybe that's a clue to the interventions you could be doing. Thinking through the design space is in itself a potential value, and the action that follows can be that much more tailored and intentional.

In the case of me and my colleagues, all this experimentation started with workshop or process design. So before we ever imagined the approach of creating hypothetical artifacts and bringing futures to life in a performative way, like many futurists we used to run workshops where the standard settings would be for people to read a scenario we'd written, and then respond to it based on the mental model that it conjured for them. And that can be quite effective in some ways, but it always relies on a certain level of what we might call systems imagination, which is not a ubiquitous skillset. To read something about how the world, or a community, could be wildly different 20 years from now, and be able to think and feel that through properly, is not a task that everybody finds easy. (In fact, it often doesn’t work at all, in terms of leading to the kind of strategic and operational changes that it is supposed to prompt.)

We realised that we needed to make a greater effort on our side, so that less effort would be required on the participant or audience side, in order to get to higher quality, more granular, more viscerally grounded conversations about alternatives. My dad used to say, “hard in the writing, easy in the reading,” and I think this is useful not only for writing, but for any kind of communication. You as a practitioner have to put the hard yards in on your end, particularly if you want to engage people who aren’t always thinking about this stuff, or who are time poor. Everybody's got reasons to put the futures conversation aside and deal with the urgent things in front of them. But by creating experiences that enliven the hypothetical, whether they be immersive, or tangible, or interactive like a game (these are all part of the same design landscape), you create different types of portal into strategic conversation and raise the chances of high quality engagement. This is part of the job.

Turning to the ethics question, which comes up especially around guerrilla futures and staging what-ifs that present as-if real, it's really a case by case matter. I don't think the extremes of “always” or “never” are useful. “It's never okay for people to feel for a moment like something is happening that is not happening” would prohibit even, say, surprise parties. And the “always ok” end isn’t right either. “It's just a hypothetical, what’s the worst that could happen?” Well, potentially a lot of harm. (This is why shouting fire in a crowded theatre is illegal.) And circumstances change. Just recently we had the 80th anniversary of the War of the Worlds broadcast from Orson Welles and the Mercury Theatre, an amazing moment in the history of media. This was a 1938 radio dramatisation of the H.G. Wells story about an alien invasion, which was taken seriously by some proportion of the population across the U.S., because it sounded just like it might have played out on radio at the time if there really had been an alien invasion, where your regular programming is interrupted and so on. This was a first, so they didn't necessarily know beforehand that it would create the kind of turmoil that it did. But when the same strategy was adapted for broadcast in Spanish in Ecuador in the 1970s, the people who did that couldn't say they didn't know, and I think somebody was killed in in the panic that ensued, and that's not defensible. It has to be a case by case thing, rather than always or never.

Somebody else has asked, if we were to apply experiential futures to our work, when and where would we use it?

You could tie it in to the strategy generation process discussed earlier, using engagement with alternative futures to generate options: have the people in the room take the scenario seriously enough to come up with ideas about what could be done either to make more likely the things that they’d like to see happen from that scenario, or make less likely the things that they wouldn't want. Using the experience and its emotional affordances as a way to create motivation to engage in that discussion over that longer time horizon, instead of it being like, “Oh, that's 20 years away, too far to worry about it.” That why immersive scenarios can be so striking: done right, they kind of collapse the distance, temporal and psychological. People in the room get angry, or excited, or sad about things being hypothesised as happening decades from now. And the time horizon for the scenarios, how far out you're inviting people to think, is also a really important and context-sensitive variable. If it's too close then you're not stretching into the variety of things you may need to deal with. If it’s too far out, there’s the risk of snapping the bonds of credibility, and you kind of check a box, “Okay, we talked about 2050, can we please come back to reality now?” Judging where the sweet spot is, between too far and too near, is part of the art of this work.

And then there’s a question here about opportunities to integrate futures and systems practice. Well, in some senses they are already integrated. Many practitioners, including me, see futures as the deployment of a systems mentality and way of thinking about change. Systems and futures are not these two completely separate things, “Oh, golly, how do we mesh them?” They actually have a lot of shared history. For example, The Limits to Growth report from 01972 is a landmark of systems literature and of futures literature, which is not a coincidence because they have some common roots. Still there’s lots of opportunity for continued integration.

One last thing about the variety of ways experiential futures can be deployed. I mentioned it as a prompt for discussion of possible strategies, or for testing existing strategies. It could be used as a way of exploring particular issues or points (what ifs) in the possibility space, on a more ad hoc basis, rather than a fully-fledged systematic one (multiple future rooms staged in parallel).

And experiential approaches can also be used as a way of bringing to life, for deeper scrutiny and discussion, the futures that are already in the room, or in the culture. There's a framework that a colleague of mine, Kelly Kornet, and I have developed called Ethnographic Experiential Futures (EXF). It begins with inquiring into the images of the future that a particular population or person has: What do they worry about? What do they hope for? What do they expect? This is called Ethnographic Futures Research (EFR), and it goes back to the 1970s. You draw them out on those things sufficiently to produce, or really co-create, a scenario; asking a bunch of questions to help structure the thinking. Then you “experientialise” it by taking these scenarios and turning them into artifacts or experiences. Then you might loop back and put artifacts from those futures in front of them, or put them in a space where those futures are dramatised. “Remember that conversation where you said these words about how the future might look, or what you're worried about, or hopeful for? How does it look now?” Or, it could be that you do the ethnographic interviews with the leadership of an organisation, manifest their imagined futures, and then put a wider constituency into these mental models brought to life, as a basis for deepening the conversation. So there are different ways that this stuff can be deployed for organisational strategic purposes, as well as for citizens.

I hope that these brief touchpoints we've had are starting to trigger some thinking that might be useful, and offer ways of amplifying what you’re trying to do, by adding experiential futures elements.


(Thanks again to TOG's S&C team, and everyone who contributed time, energy, and excellent questions during this phase of our collaboration.)

Experiential Futures: A brief outline
> The Experiential Turn (with Jake Dunagan)
> Dreaming Together
> The Original Time Machine Assignment
> Time Machines in The Futurist
Time Machines in The Economist
> Guerrilla futures ethics (The Futures of Everyday Life, Ch. 6)
> Ethnographic Experiential Futures (EXF)

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

An artifact from Australia's future

The apology to the Nauru Generation, November 02068.

It may not always be obvious in the writing here –– apart from my favoured spelling –– but I was born and grew up in Australia, and despite spending most of my adult life outside the country, have never lost the accent.

In my view there are two great and lamentable stains on the Australian polity, a pair of relationships between the official centres of power in the settler society, and their Others.

The first is the foundational and ongoing dispossession and genocide of the country's indigenous peoples. The second is the callous and inhumane treatment of undocumented immigrant arrivals by boat.

These tragedies have in common a disregard of the basic interests and humanity of both groups. They are symmetrical horrors, but any resemblance is not purely coincidental. The two are joined at the root.

Any country founded on colonial imposition harbours at some level unaddressed and sublimated guilt on the part of settlers, especially the "first" white ones, starting with the very fact of their/our presence and carrying through a monstrous historical litany. Policies today punishing people who want in, but don't look like us, can be seen as an ugly and pernicious case of referred pain in the body politic, or as the vernacular has it, kicking the cat.

Australia is not the only country in the world with this kind of baggage. But perhaps it is becoming more obvious there, or more publicly so, how these pathologies are related.

At the start of last month a performer named Sammy J released a short video through the website of the national broadcaster, ABC. Although he is best known as a comedian, this three-minute clip was not in any sense comical. It showed him taking the role of a future Australian Prime Minister, and apologising in Parliament in the year 02068 to the victims of the (longstanding, since 02001) zero-tolerance policies towards asylum seekers arriving by boat, and the offshore detention facilities established to hold them on the island of Nauru, in the South Pacific.

Just about any Australian citizen or semi-interested observer is bound to recognise right away the analog in recent history to this imagined future event. The 'Nauru Generation' mentioned here is heard as a parallel to the indigenous Stolen Generations of all-too-recent Australian history, and the premise of a belated official apology unmistakeably points back to the long-awaited apology to indigenous peoples delivered in Parliament in 02008 by then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.

We've previously seen here at The Sceptical Futuryst many cases of future documentary fragments, and for that matter feature-length treatments of political prospects. We've come across near-future newspapers making near-utopian developments tantalisingly tangible; and also the specific strategy of using future artifacts to dramatise potential regret in an effort to prompt world leaders to take effective climate action at the COP 15 summit in Copenhagen in 02009 (apparently it didn't work, though the Paris Accord has since taken steps in the right direction). We've even seen change at the scale of a whole country spurred by an transmedia experiential scenario, bringing an aspirational possibility to life, in Tunisia's Arab Spring campaign #16juin2014 (which seemed to succeed, up to a point). And we've looked at artwork imagining an Australian Aboriginal monarch on the national currency.

I don't recall previously seeing this particular approach; a stand-alone video fragment of the political process (if you're in the U.S., think C-SPAN) to comment on present controversies.

People often ask about whether hope or fear, preferred or perilous, is the more strategic and effective type of future to dramatise or discuss.

I don't think there is a one-size-fits-all answer. Speaking generally, for one thing it isn't always clear whether a certain eventuality is positive or negative. Those describing or portraying it may feel one way, and find that others see it in an altogether different light.

Actually, for any posited changes there might be a range of responses. (This was deliberately the case for the changes explored via our recent experiential scenarios NaturePod and NurturePod, for example.) Embedded ambivalence can be a useful approach when using the lenses of possible futures to look at people's various present-day perceptions and values around changes unfolding now. Whether expected or not, divergent reactions to a scenario, experiential or otherwise, may be instructive.

Leaving aside the question of what happens to trigger it in any given case, one might still ask which of the two responses as elicited is the more effective; is hope (and similar) or fear (and similar) the more useful emotional territory? This is a slightly sharper question, but again, I find it more fruitful to see different moods as a palette of conversational or deliberative affordances, than to try categorising certain registers as better or worse overall on some universal yardstick.

I've written this partly to sort out some of my own thinking, without having looked at any commentary on the video, so I don't know how it has been received. However the version posted here has logged over 850,000 views to date (and it's not the only one online), which for Australian political commentary suggests a decent level of resonance and virality.

What I had already seen and read of Australia's offshore detention centres left me aghast, and for readers unfamiliar with the backstory here, the New York Times reported just yesterday that a lawsuit has been filed against the Australian federal government, claiming that the migrant detention camps amount to a crime against humanity.

But I think the perspective offered in this future video artifact might conceivably be useful regardless of where one sits on this issue, or on the political spectrum.

An official apology from the year 02068 invites viewers today to consider how future people, two generations from now, might regard the policies of the present. Asking this type of question could be a helpful reflex in relation to many current cultures and policies, wherever and whenever you may be in the world; not only in Australia, not only on this issue, and not only at this moment.

I want to add that fifty years seems a much longer period than we need in order to reasonably picture political regrets coming home to roost in this case, although I expect the choice of a distant temporal vantage point was likely meant to underline how slowly the current (conservative) government is catching on to the moral and historical import of these policies.

Still, especially with that generous time horizon, it's disappointing that the incidental glimpse of Australia's Parliament in half a century is noticeably less diverse than today's (a white bloke again at the helm, but no visible minorities in view), and nothing else in the scene seems to hint at changes in the national political landscape. Even if this were meant as a broader comment on institutional inertia and how infuriatingly slow to change the governance layer can be, this seems a missed opportunity. (My guess is that it's just a standard instance of Cascio's first rule for how not to write scenarios: change only one variable.)

But to return to the question of specific emotional charge: part of what is interesting to me about this future video is that, as someone who wants to see the harms of these policies acknowledged, stopped, and remedied without delay, this particular scenario comes as a complex mix of awful and hopeful.

It portrays the right thing being done, but after waiting far too long.

(Many thanks to Eddie Harran for the tip.)

> Dreaming together (external website)
> On the money
A Climate of Regret
> Foresight is a Right
> Future documentary
Guerrilla futurists combat war on terror
> An experiential scenario for post-revolution Tunisia 

Friday, November 30, 2018

On Foresight in Organisations

The Omidyar Sessions, Part 1

This year I've been doing some work with the fabulous folks at The Omidyar Group, a collection of impact philanthropy organisations and initiatives blessed with an in-house team of excellent, greater-good-oriented humans skilled in systems and complexity practices.

At the team's annual planning retreat some weeks back, I joined to facilitate a deeper exploration of the potential value that a foresight/futures orientation and toolkit can bring to planning and strategy. We also recently met in Washington DC with a larger community of practitioners from across TOG for a workshop about experiential futures, and in a follow-up webinar soon after, had a chance to dive into some practical questions people had surfaced on reflection.

This post is one of two, from an edited transcript of that online follow-up. I'm sharing them here because they have a practical focus and may be of use for folks newer to these areas. At the bottom of each post are some links for further reading.


Let’s start with the question about how to operationalise futures to support practical decisions and make it useful in organisations.

Our gathering in Washington DC focused on a particular aspect of practice which I had been asked to highlight, experiential futures. This is an emerging set of approaches to doing futures work with design, performance, film, and materiality, all these media and modalities that have not traditionally been used so much. What does it look like when you infuse foresight practice with those diverse ways of connecting with people and mediating ideas? We looked at many examples, and also practised a bit using The Thing From The Future card game.

Prior to this is a whole body of futures literature and practice that is not oriented towards being animated experientially, but that is still focused on making a difference to how decisions are made, and helping people navigate change. The experiential turn in futures builds on a previous half century of work, conceptual infrastructure, methods, and so on. I gather that people here have some experience with scenarios, so that’s a good place to begin.

We can never know precisely what the future is going to hold. But scenarios can help provide a way of moving forward in our thought and decision-making processes despite that fact. It's a move that can be made in many different ways, because there are at least a couple of dozen different ways of generating scenarios, and of course, each can be used to make particular scenarios for any number of topics. So it's a really large design space or activity space we're talking about, and there's a lot of literature and prior practice.

I'm going to make a generalisation about all that scenario work, that it's a way of systematising our navigation of uncertainty, by parsing what I think of as the possibility space into a series of alternative hypotheses about how change could unfold.

Scenarios describe those different hypotheses, different theories of what could happen in the domain you’re interested in, be it the political scene in the United States, or artificial intelligence in healthcare, or whatever. Since we don't know exactly how change is going to turn out, there is a need for for a contingent, plural, multiple-scenarios approach, and that need becomes more obvious the further out in time we try to cast our gaze.

Scenarios for strategic conversation in organisations or communities can be used to test the robustness of existing strategies or to generate new options, or both.

To test current strategies (policies, priorities, plans, actions), whatever they may be, you take each of the scenarios in turn and say, “How would we fare if this is what happened in the wider world while we did these activities?” That is, you test or “wind-tunnel” current efforts by putting them against the backdrop of those different hypothetical worlds and seeing how they would hold up.

Scenarios can also be used to generate strategies. Whatever the scenarios are about, whatever time horizon they are on, you ask “inside” each one, what does success look like here. What would you wish you had done, if by the year 2030 or 2040, the domain you’re operating in had unfolded in this direction? Also, what could be done along the way, if anything, to steer things towards conditions in the scenario that you like, and away from things you want to avoid? Ask these same questions in each scenario, and you end up with lists of actions that might be good to take, either to influence what may be in your control, or address what happens outside your control. You can create a portfolio of candidate strategies from those lists. “Well, it looks like almost no matter what happens, X, Y, or Z, here are the things that we should be doing that will stand us in good stead.” Then there are contingent plans: “If the world (or the country or the market; the relevant context as framed) began to move in that direction, then here are the things that we should think about rolling out.”

In using scenarios to generate strategy, you end up with a strategy portfolio that can include a range of things that are good to do no matter what; things to do if X or Y happened; and things to do if Z were to occur.

So that’s the structure of the logic: using futures to interrogate strategies that you already have, on one hand, or generate new options, on the other. Since the organisation that you're working in obviously already exists, what's really helpful may be a combination of the two things. Take the strategies already in place; our program priorities; how we're allocating resources over the next several quarters or years –– and in light of these alternative theories of how change might unfold, ask what else we could or should be doing.

Then you have to place bets, essentially. Organisations and communities do this anyway, but they don't necessarily do it informed by thoughtful consideration of the longer term.

It perhaps becomes obvious in light of this that you need some capacity to keep track of how change is unfolding in real time. Not just a set of scenarios (experiential or not), but some way to monitor the signals today that scenario X or Y might be starting to trend. This points the way to an underlying argument, and certainly the place I'm coming from, that what you really want is to instill and augment an ongoing capacity for foresight. It's not such a great idea to just make a special big deal of doing scenarios once; what is needed is a persistent process for describing and using alternative images of the future, that are being updated as the world changes. (You don’t take just one reading of your bearings as you steer a ship, because everything is in motion; navigation requires constantly reading of changing conditions and updating plans accordingly.) As certain possibilities come into view, you start taking them seriously; when other possibilities that once seemed viable wither on the vine, at some point you let them go, and their accompanying strategies, if they are no longer relevant.

What I think organisations (and governments, and societies in general) really need is this distributed capability, which some of us in futures practice call a social capacity for foresight, or social foresight.

In organisations, this would include having a periodic opportunity or cyclical structure for revisiting the multiple-scenario outlook, recognising that the futures are changing just as the present is. But then on top of that, you also have a kind of shorter loop, a day-to-day practice of scanning for change in the present as things arise.

This goes to the connection between tools for futures sensing and the maintenance of policy or strategy. We've talked a bit about how scenarios can be used to test or generate strategies, but in terms of monitoring signs that suggest what should come forward in the weave, or moved back, you need to have a good evolving map of the present, too.

Here is where scanning practices enter the picture (environmental scanning; horizon scanning; these are semi-interchangeable terms). Scanning is about looking at the operating environment to see what is coming down the pike. And so if you have a scenario set that includes, as part of the analysis, things you need to look out for –– relevant trends and emerging issues, and their implications –– then someone in the organisation would be keeping track of what's going on, and looking at the list of triggering factors accompanying the scenario sets, and saying as those signals materialise, “now that this new technology is available, or this election has concluded, or this demographic is entering the workforce, we may need to be doing such and such.” And you are collectively poised to act because you invested in a foresight capacity, considering the necessary steps ahead of time, instead of being surprised and put on the back foot.

This is how you tie the existence of an up-to-date scenario set to the existence of an up-to-date picture of what is going on in the world, and what it's trying to tell you. The scanning function is less about the grand process of creating the map, and more about the essential day-in day-out work of tracking the journey.

It’s worth underlining that foresight and futures practice as a whole is more than just generating and using scenarios (I'm steering away from the term “scenario planning” someone mentioned earlier, because there's a whole deficit model in the planning paradigm that I think is problematic.) In my experience there tend to be more people that are aware of that particular method, scenarios, than are aware of foresight practice and the wider set of methods. Having the wider set is much more helpful than having just one tool, and it’s important to avoid conflating this one thing that we could do with the whole array of things that we could do. Different contexts call for different methods, techniques and actions.

Still, in any case an effective organisational foresight capacity calls for some form of scanning, scenarios and strategies. All three are essential.


Stay tuned for Part 2, which is about the practicalities of experiential futures.

(Thanks Becky, Rob and all!)

Further reading in the field:

> Scenarios and strategy: Van der Heijden (n.d.)
> Scanning: Conway 2009
> Foresight process: Dator 2009; Voros 2003
> Foresight methods: Glenn and Gordon 2009; Curry 2015
> The Thing From The Future: Candy 2018
> Social foresight: Slaughter 1996; Candy 2010 (Ch. 7)

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Experiential Futures: A brief outline

From hypothetical to hyperthetical...

I recently wrote a short intro to Experiential Futures (XF) for designers interested in transition-oriented practice. XF is a big topic, so other approaches and formats have their place – a plain-language one-pager from The Economist; a book-length treatment in The Futures of Everyday Life; an interview from earlier on in its development but this post gives a more up-to-date brief encapsulation of the overall concept, and the evolving design space it refers to, with pointers to further reading.

To design is to grapple with the future. To design for civilisation-scale transition, even more so. The trouble with ‘the future’ is that it doesn’t exist. It’s a construct, a stew of more or less examined assumptions and interpretations carried over from the past, blended with extrapolations of trends and emerging issues in the present, inflected through hope and fear to produce fantasies and imaginaries projected into various quarters of the possible, probable, preferable, and their opposites. 
It turns out that the troubling nonexistence of the yet-to-be is also an opportunity. Pages unwritten await their authors. The futures in our minds may sometimes pretend to us that they simply reflect on and respond to the outside world, but they are a technology of discourse and agency, a special subset of imaginative storytelling. While seeming merely to be inspired by observed change, they are in fact covertly shaping it. 
Experiential futures refers to a set of approaches to make alternative futures present. The juxtaposition of ‘experience’ and ‘future’ is a deliberate contradiction: the here and now, the impressions of senses and mind, 1:1 scale reality as we experience it moment to moment; all this set against an inherently abstract notion of the to-come, by definition absent, forever at a temporal remove. XF seeks to make productive use of that contradiction, and harness the energy of its friction, by collapsing the distance, rendering absent and abstract futures cognitively and culturally tractable. 
An experiential scenario is a future brought to life. It’s a tangible ‘what if’, more textural than textual, and a way of thinking out loud, materially or performatively, or both. Seeking to collapse temporal distance and offset our habitual discounting of future events (Ainslie, 2001), XF angles for ‘what ifs’ real enough to trick the body into taking them seriously. Its contours are generous, taking in “the gamut of approaches involving the design of situations and stuff from the future to catalyse insight and change” (Candy, 2015, p. 18). XF “involves designing and staging interventions that exploit the continuum of human experience, the full array of sensory and semiotic vectors, in order to enable a different and deeper engagement in thought and discussion about one or more futures, than has traditionally been possible through textual and statistical means of representing scenarios”. (Candy, 2010, p. 3) 
As a lens, it is an invitation: how might you take your idea –– any idea –– of a future and bring it concretely to life, now? This move may be motivated by a wide diversity of agendas from the exploratory to the evangelical, the entertaining to the educational (Candy, 2010, p. 114). Any reason to think or feel into any future is a reason to mediate it, make it experiential. The matter of interest is not the design of artefacts per se, but the design of circumstances for thought (which may manifest as or incorporate artefacts). Less contents than context; less stuff than situations; less the things themselves than the conversations, insights and actions they enable. In each case, the latter implies and includes the former as appropriate.
"We must make our freedom by cutting holes in the fabric of this reality, by forging new realities which will, in turn, fashion us. Putting yourself in new situations constantly is the only way to ensure that you make your decisions unencumbered by the inertia of habit, custom, law, or prejudice--and it is up to you to create these situations." (Graeber, 2015, p. 96) 
Some experiential futures examples from among many (for more see Candy, 2010; Candy & Dunagan, 2017):
• A product that immerses its user in a simulation of natural environments, apparently promoting the health of stressed-out urban office workers in the early 2020s, launched and demonstrated in the midst of a large (real, present-day) interior architecture trade show (Alter, 2016).
• A technology for babysitting infants in a virtual pod, presented in a present-day art museum, but surrounded by the accoutrements of a commercial sale context (product specifications, price banners, brochures), as one might find them in an electronics store in the next decade (Furness, 2017).
• A special future edition of the New York Times, reporting from the following year and embodying a fulfillment of progressive/liberal fantasies, handed out to commuters in the streets of Manhattan (Lambert, 2009). 
The view through this lens is the capacity to regard the effective engagement with futures as about the generation or construction of scaffolding to think and feel with. The entire sensory and semiotic context of the body is the relevant canvas – and not just for the individual, but also for groups. ‘The Time Machine’, a room where you can inhabit a pocket of (say) the year 2040 for (say) 20 minutes, is one example of a pattern for immersive scenario creation that becomes possible through this lens (Candy, 2013; 2014). 
Consider the philosophical concept of the ‘extended mind’ (Clark & Chalmers, 1998; Dunagan, 2015): thought isn’t contained exclusively inside our skulls, but it occurs in and with our environments. This view could be adopted as a frame for examining all sorts of ordinary, existing practices, but it can also be taken further. If a notebook or whiteboard is a convenient prosthesis for memory, an experiential scenario is a prosthesis for imagination. It is a provisional, localised, and made-to-order ‘mental ecology’ (Bateson, 1972). The manifestation an imagined future context (see Imaginaries*) variously in forms tangible, material, interactive, playable and performative, provides a wealth of opportunities to think and feel with beyond producing the most eloquent report. Experiential futures uses the idioms of reality to mediate hypothetical as hyperthetical, something more than just a thesis; an almost-real place. 
Media theorist McLuhan’s concept of the anti-environment may be useful here. The anti-environment relates to the environment in a sort of dialectical figure/ground relationship whereby the former highlights the unnoticed or taken-for-granted properties of the latter (the fish out of water realises with a jolt, at last, what it has been swimming in). “It is useful to view all the arts and sciences as acting in the role of anti-environments that enable us to perceive the environment.” (McLuhan, 1967, p. 42) 
So: all possible futures (literally an unimaginably vast space of stories one might tell) multiplied by all possible situations and stuff from within each. This represents a dazzling astronomical superabundance of theoretical design possibility. It is both wildly transdisciplinary and transmedia in character. That does not mean that the result or the ideal is an all-encompassing, extravagant gesamtkunstwerk: it is simply a medium-agnostic design opportunity. Simplicity will often be best, but it is perhaps the “simplicity on the other side of complexity” (reputedly prized by Oliver Wendell Holmes). It’s more a matter of producing circumstances than a report, a video, or a telling artifact: any one of those things may indeed turn out to be the best thing for the job, but noting and avoiding unjustifiably mediumist assumptions is key. 
All of the above brings into focus the critical need for thoughtful and critical attention: what futures to choose to manifest in this way, when we consider transitions? Prototyping or performing something random that is purportedly ‘from the future’ might seem worth it as a lark, the first time or two, but sooner or later the mere conceptual novelty of long-range prototyping for its own sake has to wear off (Candy, 2018, p. 243). What is left is perhaps a closer attention to which futures, in whose interests, with what effects. Deeper questions. More critical questions. Opportunities to do better.  
• Ainslie, G. (2001). Breakdown of Will. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Alter, L. (2016, 9 May). Get your hit of nature inside your home or office with NaturePod. Treehugger.
• Bateson, G. (1972). Steps to an Ecology of Mind. San Francisco: Chandler.
• Candy, S. (2010). The Futures of Everyday Life: Politics and the Design of Experiential Scenarios. PhD dissertation, University of Hawaii at Manoa. doi:10.13140/RG.2.1.1840.0248

• Candy, S. (2013). Time machine / reverse archaeology. In C. Briggs (Ed.). 72 Assignments: The Foundation Course in Art and Design Today. Paris: PCA Press, pp. 28–30.

• Candy, S. (2014). Experiential futures. The Futurist, 48(5): 34–37.
• Candy, S. (2015). The thing from the future. In A. Curry (Ed.). The APF Methods Anthology. London: Association of Professional Futurists, pp. 18–21.

• Candy, S. (2018). Gaming futures literacy: The thing from the future. In R. Miller (Ed.). Transforming the Future: Anticipation in the 21st Century. London: Routledge, pp. 233–246.
• Candy, S., & Dunagan, J. (2017). Designing an experiential scenario: The people who vanished. Futures, 86, 136–153.
• Clark, A., & Chalmers, D. (1998). The extended mind. Analysis, 58(1), 7–19.

• Dunagan, J. (2015). Who owns the extended mind?: The neuropolitics of intellectual property law. In M. David & D. Halbert (Eds.). The Sage Handbook of Intellectual Property. Los Angeles: Sage, pp. 689–707.
• Furness, D. (2017, 1 August). Here's a baby VR headset for the parents of the future. Vice Creators Project.
• Graeber, D. (2015). The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy. Brooklyn, NY: Melville House.
• Lambert, S. (2009.) Best case scenario. Fillip 9.
• McLuhan, M. (1967). The relation of environment to anti-environment. In F. W. Matson & A. Montagu (Eds.). The Human Dialogue: Perspectives on Communication. New York: The Free Press, pp. 39–47.


Designers are increasingly turning attention to designing for transitions –– in contrast to a traditional focus on the adjacent possible.

This piece is part of an article I wrote with my colleague at CMU School of Design, Dan Lockton, aiming to highlight a range of terms and practices that could be useful for designers keen to work on bigger issues and longer time horizons. More specifically our focus was on existing approaches that might help with the "vision" aspect of transition design; imagining and articulating how things could be otherwise, later in time.

(Dan's brilliant research and scholarship deals often with questions of how design relates to imagination, metaphors, and mental models – check out his work here.)

Our article, "A Vocabulary for Visions in Designing for Transitions," assembles a sort of preliminary lexicon; seven entries each introducing an existing "lens" to invite the designer to approach the vision/transition space differently, with a short "why have we included this?" rationale appended. The other concepts outlined are Backcasting, Circularity, Dark Matter, Imaginaries[*], Lenses, and New Metaphors.

The full article appears in slightly different forms in Proceedings for DRS 2018 (the text above comes from here; the Design Research Society Conference held in Limerick, Ireland in the summer), and in a special transition-flavoured edition of the Argentinian design journal Cuadernos del Centro de Estudios en Diseño y Comunicaciónedited by Terry Irwin, and featuring splendid work by many of our colleagues on related themes.

See also:
Dreaming Together (from the book Made Up: Design's Fictions)
> Experiential Futures in The Economist
Interview: Imagining Transitions
> Ethnographic Experiential Futures
> Foresight is a Right
> The Futures of Everyday Life

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 …


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.

> 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)