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)

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