Monday, June 17, 2019

Critical activism

Anab Jain is a leading light of experiential futures practice. She is cofounder with Jon Ardern of the London-based "vanguard foresight and design organisation" Superflux, whose work has rightly earned attention and admiration far and wide, with projects like Mitigation of Shock (an installation), Instant Archetypes (a tarot deck), and Drone Aviary (a film, and more).

Image from Mitigation of Shock by Superflux, an installation at CCCB portraying a small London apartment adapted for climate change in 02050 (02017)

We first met in 02009, just a few years into our own first experiments with experiential futures, following a talk I gave on that topic at the Long Now meetup in London one evening during my time visiting 'Design Interactions' at the Royal College of Art. This was the highly influential MA program led for a decade by the wonderful Fiona Raby and Tony Dunne from which Anab had graduated back when it was still a degree in 'Interaction Design' –– prior to the 02008 landmark MoMA exhibition Design and the Elastic Mind, which contributed much to the visibility of the work of not only Dunne and Raby but also their mentees, in what they called at the time 'design for debate' and 'critical design', and well before 'speculative design' framing coalesced (as mentioned by Anab below), a development of the past five years or so.

Superflux got underway in 02009, a few months after we'd met in London, and Anab and Jon were among the first designers to set up shop in a way that engaged the tradition and practices of the futures field not just explicitly (using the language) but substantively too (really using the tools). For instance we recently collaborated on introducing foresight to International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) via experiential scenarios deployed at IFRC's biennial strategy meetings.

This post is an abridged version of a conversation appearing in the recently published Journal of Futures Studies special issue Design and Futures, Volume I.

Anab's sense of the work as "slow critical activism" really resonates with me, and her candour here, talking about the behind-the-scenes challenges of maintaining a design/futures business that is both viable and principled, is super generous and helpful, I think, for the many newcomers eager to figure out how they can practically make this sort of thing a part of their work lives.


SC: How do you situate your practice in relation to futures and design?

AJ: I think we are situated somewhere in the middle. We have a two-pronged approach. We do foresight and horizon scanning – that big, meta-level stuff – but we simultaneously ground it with material explorations, ethnography, research, prototyping.

Obviously we come from a design/art background more than futures. Our schooling was often about what the implications of a certain technology on society might be. And over the years, we’ve studied the more traditional futures methods a bit, not quite as much as a futurist would.

SC: What are some projects or initiatives that you’ve been involved in that you consider exemplary of your approach?

AJ: Our approach has changed a lot. We often used to work around a technology, so we would pick something like quantum computing or optogenetics, and try and understand what its potential is, but also poetic implications that the scientists or the technologists might not have explored.

And we’ve moved from that to thinking more socially, politically. We’re very interested in the implications of living with climate change, so for a recent project, Mitigation of Shock, we really wanted to understand how to bring that future that is so abstract around climate change - especially in the Western part of the world - making it real and conceptually visceral, but also not dystopian.

SC: So you’ve been at it...

AJ: Nine years.

SC: I’m interested in how you imagine the work that you’re doing against the backdrop of an increasing number of people operating at this intersection. If there is a “you are here” point on a map of bigger activities going on, where do you locate yourself?

AJ: Oh, that’s a good question. We keep asking that ourselves.

'Speculative design' has become popular, the term; although we have never actively used that term so far. We are afraid of labelling the work we do within a specific discipline, because for us it’s changing all the time, and we want to have the freedom to change. So we just call ourselves designers, or artists even.

Where people are interested in our work, or want to commission us or hire us, they are not thinking about us as speculative designers or critical designers either. They’re thinking: "We need to think about the future, but we don’t know quite how to make it visceral enough to get people to understand the consequences."

Outside of the world of design, not so many people care whether we call what we do speculative design or not. Some people call us a think tank, some people call us a research unit, some people call us artists.

SC: What are you grappling with in relation to these practices at the moment?

AJ: Lots! We’ve gone from being tiny to growing quite a bit, and then, recently decided to consider more carefully where we go next, and stop just producing project after project after project. I think we are trying to understand what meaningful change looks like for us.

We keep getting emails from people, and we know that the work affects people and gets them to think differently, but how can we materialise it without using this language of evaluation and impact and measuring? Because these are not things that can be instantly measured. Something that you’ve done to provoke people could affect them and get them to think differently after years –– but how do we begin to surface that?

I see it as a form of slow critical activism. If our work becomes a catalysing force for people to imagine things they would not have been able to imagine otherwise, that’s powerful. But then what? We are at that stage right now.

Currently I think our work is moving in two directions: one, with people whose idea of the future we may not agree with personally, but who have a lot of power and influence to affect change at a large scale. Our work with them focuses on helping them consider broader, unintended consequences by enabling them to think differently and more broadly. Secondly, we work in the public sphere, triggering public imagination.

Organisations who have power and influence and can actually affect decisions around climate change or education, are so outcome driven, that their key question around any futures always seem to zoom in on: What are the outcomes we get, and what’s the impact, how will this affect our strategy?

SC: And what do you tell them?

AJ: We don’t really have a clear answer. We can say, okay, we did this with the UNDP, and that led to the opening of this completely new department where they’re thinking about alternative financing. Or we did this, where it affected a decision or policy change. Examples are few and far between where there is a clear, linear, obvious trajectory of 'impact'.

People want concrete stuff, and the thing is, there isn’t a concrete answer. There isn’t a concrete outcome, to be honest. The outcome is the process by which you will start shifting your thinking.

SC: What do you think are the most important things for people who are interested in this area of work to be aware of?

AJ: One of the questions I always get is, "How do you actually make money, and who are your clients?" and it’s like, it doesn’t seem plausible that we could even be doing work and be paid. We’re not set up to be making profit, but we are alright!

We could earlier this year have gone easily from eight to twenty people. But we realised that scaling in numbers is perhaps the wrong way of thinking about 'growth' for our studio, and the scale lies in the nature and ambition of each project, and the way it can influence a decision or change perception. The bespoke nature of our work means we cannot adopt a cookie cutter approach to our services. No brief is ever the same. And having a flexibility of staff and overheads to support such work is very important. We might have big ambitions, but it’s not dependent on the scale of our practice.

For a designer, it’s so tempting to have 20, 30, 40 employees, to become 'the office'. It is in the model. I am often asked: "How big are you? How many employees do you have?" And they will actually decide whether to give us work or not based on my answer. So yes, sometimes it’s tempting to scale because scale is a seen as a visible sign of success.

SC: I really like this unwillingness to settle for an inherited definition of success. Instead it’s striving for a certain quality of impact, or a certain kind of cultural presence.

AJ: We tried it, and we’re both not managers. Well, we do have to now, but we really enjoy the actual craft of storytelling, making, building, designing and all of that. So we want to find a way we can continue our practice.

SC: Have you ever done a futures process for your own organisation?

AJ: No! We should, shouldn’t we?


The full version of the conversation as published in JFS can be found here.

Thanks again Anab!

> Design and Futures, Volume I
> I Design Worlds (Liam Young in JFS)
> Experiential Futures: A brief outline
> On getting started in Experiential Futures
> An Experiential Futures interview
> Ghosts of futures past
> Killer imps (RCA Design Interactions)

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Bringing futures to Stanford

I recently did a 'mini-residency' at Stanford, aimed at bringing futures concepts and methods into the (aka Hasso Plattner Institute of Design).

Instigating the collaboration was Lisa Kay Solomon, a designer-in-residence; co-author of a leading book on designing and facilitating strategic conversations, Moments of Impact; an alumna of Global Business Network's influential scenarios practice; and a wonderful friend and colleague I first worked with when we were both professors in the Design MBA program at California College of the Arts (CCA) in San Francisco.

Our point of departure was a shared understanding of how design can become more effective in shaping change when harnessed to concepts and frameworks from the futures/foresight field, enabling engagement with more diverse and longer-term possibilities.

The larger project of integrating foresight with design, actively putting the two practices and communities in dialogue, has been central to my work since the mid-02000s (much of it documented one way or another at this blog). It was at the heart of my doctoral project in Hawaii, as a futurist at Arup, as a professor at CCA, and then at OCAD, ArtCenter, and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, as well as many visits and projects with other institutions over the same period.

It's now also central to my day to day at Carnegie Mellon University. Helping emerging designers work with large-scale transitions in mind, we're embedding futures methods into every design program; undergrad, grad, and PhD.

The Journal of Futures Studies (JFS) special double issue on Design and Futures, just published in open access, is another big step in this more than decade-long exchange of design/futures practices.

Lisa sums up the motivation beautifully:

The future doesn’t have to be something that happens to us. By embracing a posture of long-term thinking, new processes that make futures concrete and accessible, and a wider set of practices that collaboratively question, imagine, and communicate new possibilities, we can catalyze a new movement of futures-centered designers to shape a better tomorrow for generations to come. [emphasis in original]

So we worked together over some months to figure out how to make a short visit bring what we hoped would be the greatest value to the widest range of people.

On my first evening at Stanford, we did a deep-dive with some key folks into how futures and design can connect.

Next, I ran a day-long workshop with around 40 attendees from academia, education, nonprofits like the World Economic Forum, and businesses like Salesforce and Microsoft; a mix of locals and participants who flew in for the occasion. We stepped through an intensive introduction to futures concepts and approaches, including The Thing From The Future as a warmup, and centring on the Ethnographic Experiential Futures (EXF) process, co-created with my colleague Kelly Kornet (and recently published in that JFS special issue), as a guiding structure. Riffing on EXF seemed apropos because the framework was partly inspired by and explicitly builds on some important and underutilised futures work –– Ethnographic Futures Research, a pioneering 'anticipatory anthropology' method developed in the 01970s and 80s –– by the late Robert Textor, who had been a professor of anthropology at Stanford.

Teams get used to dropping down the experiential futures ladder using The Thing From The Future, then focus on a single member's future scenario, elicited in more detail using EXF. (Photos: Stuart Candy)

Divided into small groups, each selected one of their number as a "futuree", whose mental model of a future scenario that they deemed both possible and important to consider was then surfaced and elaborated through a semi-structured interview process into a more fully-fledged scenario, which the team then translated or dramatised in a five-minute experiential scenario staged at the end of the workshop. That is, each used design to breathe life into the specific imaginary one of their members. The idea was to give people a chance to practise creating and staging experiential scenarios, starting with a vague imaginative outline and dropping down the experiential futures ladder to specific, concrete and compelling instances of how these futures might look and work in action at 1:1 scale. Processes using this same structure can be –– and have been –– used for concretising images of the future of individuals and groups for all sorts of purposes spanning the political, strategic, therapeutic, educational, exploratory and entertaining.

A fantastic panel of respondents joined us for the workshop's closing chapter, to share in and probe at the participants' experiential scenarios –– Sarah Stein Greenberg ( Executive Director), Scott Doorley ( Creative Director), Olatunde Sobomehin (Founder/CEO of StreetCode Academy), and Nathan Shedroff (Executive Director of Seed Vault, and in a previous life the founder/director of the Design MBA at CCA where Lisa and I had first met as faculty).

Each working group designs, dramatises and discusses a short experiential scenario based on a future supplied by their randomly selected "futuree", and then the panel responds. (Photos: Stuart Candy)

The day went out with a bang. For the evening event, The Future's Happening, Lisa and colleagues had orchestrated an array of participatory futures-themed activities, attracting hundreds of seasoned design/futures practitioners and curious new initiates from around the Bay Area. We also had a panel discussion, which she moderated, featuring three visitors to the school who each brought different perspectives on how futures and design can come together. Lisa has just published a series of articles emerging from this terrific, far-reaching conversation, each focusing on the contributions of one of the panellists: Olatunde, me, and Long Now Foundation Board Member Katherine Fulton (whom I'd first met years before, on stage, when we were paired up for the Long Now's Long Conversation event).

The Future's Happening was an incredibly exciting and energetic occasion – since then receiving a volume of overwhelmingly positive feedback. Invigorated and encouraged by all this, we are now working on next steps for integrating futures further.

The Future's Happening, an evening with a couple of hundred attendees from around the Bay Area, included hands-on activities as well as a panel discussion. (Top two photos: Stuart Candy | Bottom photo courtesy of Lisa Solomon)

Meanwhile, in a nice synchronicity, David Kelley –– a founder of the and also of IDEO, and as it happens, an alumnus of Carnegie Mellon University –– spoke at our CMU School of Design commencement ceremony last month.

He addressed the graduating cohort on some of the disciplinary 'superpowers' that he sees designers as having in spades: "Painting a picture of the future with their ideas in it"; "being routinely innovative [and] comfortable with ambiguity", and a "holistic, human-centred approach [that] really lowers barriers for other people to come in and collaborate along with us".

The message to the grads culminated with a provocation about these newly acquired superpowers:
Design has moved from the kids' table to the adult table, very recently. ... So my challenge to all of you is, how are we –– how are you –– going to use this new position to make a better world?

This ethics-based call to action is important and timely. It's a message that the design community, fortunately, seems prepared to discuss more and more often; recognition of its powerful, if often under-examined, role in shaping worlds. And the emergence of futures as a transdisciplinary companion to design practice, not just 'thinking', provides a lot of practical ways to answer that call more effectively.

Involved in the futures field since the 01990s, I realised many years ago that it needed to connect to other, more embodied, kinds of practice in order to become truly effective as a cultural force. As I said when Lisa inquired about the background to this hybrid work during our panel discussion:
The beauty of bringing together design and futures methods is that it takes these conceptual infrastructures developed in the foresight field over the last half century, these handrails for thinking differently at a conceptual level, and knits them to the language of materiality, of making things real with design. You bring the kind of top-down of futures together with the bottom-up of design, and they meet in the middle in this glorious way. Each one contains something in its DNA that the other has historically lacked.

It's coming to be much more widely appreciated that futures and design hold a key to aspects of each other's further development, in education and practice alike. And it was very exciting to have this chance to help an influential institution, one that I've long admired, and that has done so much to mainstream awareness of design, take steps in this direction of putting futures in a place where it has potential to do so much good, as a core competency in design education.

Many thanks to Lisa, Sarah, Scott, and all at the and beyond who made this remarkable confluence possible! And here's looking forward to the next...

> Design and Futures, Volume I
> Design is Storytelling
> Bringing futures to the Royal College of Art (02009)
> Strategic Foresight at California College of the Arts (02011)
> Experiential futures at OCAD (02017)
> A Vocabulary for Visions in Designing for Transitions (Carnegie Mellon, 02018)
> Ethnographic Experiential Futures (pdf)

Friday, May 31, 2019

I Design Worlds

Architect-worldbuilder Liam Young currently runs the Master's program in Fiction and Entertainment at Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI_Arc) in Los Angeles. He's an influential practitioner and articulate thinker from the design/futures ecotone, and I love how he adapts and exploits architectural logic to expand the array of strategies available for thinking and feeling through near-future possibilities.

Still from the short film Where the City Can't See (dir. Liam Young, 02016)

We first met almost a decade ago, although as it turns out, spent formative years in the same part of Australia and had mutual acquaintances in high school. We've had occasion to mind-meld periodically over the years; like the time I joined his and Kate Davies's nomadic Architecture Association studio, Unknown Fields, for a 02012 edition rumbling across in the Southwest of the US in a big yellow school bus, which concluded at the Burning Man festival in Nevada, where the two of us collaborated (together with orchestra conductor Daniel Stewart) to stage a mobile audio installation called Augury. In 02015, we were invited to present in an experimental public lecture series that paired speakers back-to-back, Shipping Architecture, at the University at Buffalo's School of Architecture and Planning. And more recently, we had a chance to catch up at the First Futurological Congress, hosted in Berlin by the Dubai Future Foundation, last summer.

Today's post comes from a conversation that we had there. It's an abridged version of an article just published in the Journal of Futures Studies special issue on Design and Futures, Volume I.


SC: How would you describe your practice in relation to the intersection of futures and design?

LY: I’m trained as an architect, so I am interested in the architectural, urban and global implications of emerging technologies. I don’t design buildings but rather I design, imagine, speculate, and construct worlds. The world is the medium in which I prototype futures. It’s a very spatial way of thinking about future narratives. I predominantly explore these worlds through the medium of film. For me films are a way of disseminating these worlds to audiences.

So that’s where my own practice sits in the context of design/futures practices. It differentiates itself by thinking about worlds as the medium of operating, as opposed to products, characters, buildings, and so on.

SC: How standard or non-standard is that, to be an architect thinking in terms of a world rather than a building?

LY: For the most part architects think in terms of buildings as singular objects on a site, but in many ways, we are trained to think through worlds. I think it’s the great disappointment of architecture that most architects waste their time just designing buildings.

SC: How would you situate your interests in the wider landscape of design and futures, this intersection much explored, and dabbled in, over the last decade?

LY: I’m interested in moving outside of that territory of the design-futures nexus, and in co-opting, not forms of design media, but forms of popular media, and encoding within them these critical questions about what the future means.

If we really value what we do in futures, and we think it’s important, we should be thinking much wider than the design futures market. For me, that was about working with popular mediums that we typically dismiss as being lowbrow or mainstream pulp, such as film, video games and TV.

It’s our duty, I think, generationally, to seed these cultural mediums with ideas that we think are important, so that people can start to engage with them. I think that’s a real critical role that the architect, speculative designer or futures thinker can play.

SC: A brief example of a project you’ve done that leans into this space you’re sketching out?

LY: Working with author Tim Maughan I made the short film Where the City Can’t See. It’s the first narrative film made entirely with LIDAR scanners, the surveillance system that driverless cars use to read and understand the world.

We are interested in what it means to literally have constructed a millimetre-precise virtual model of the entire world.

So we made a film as a vehicle to explore what it might mean to live and operate within the context of a city that can see everything. Where do the spaces of exception exist in this form of city? What is the equivalent of a warehouse rave, a wilderness zone, a site of transgression? What does it mean to be a member of a subculture in a city of ubiquitous surveillance? We developed a working prototype for a new kind of hoodie that disguises the body from these scans. It creates a form of digital camouflage or glitch that allows the wearer to disappear to the eyes of the machine. We worked with a choreographer to develop a vocabulary of dance movements that would disguise the proportions of the body to the systems of body detection algorithms. And these ideas aren’t just a story or a plot point, they are working prototypes that happen to be sited in the medium of film.

SC: You emphasise that this is something that works. How important is the feasibility of the prototyping?

LY: I’m interested in a level of believability, or realism, which makes the narrative, the story, the prop, feel urgent or visceral or inescapable.

SC: Believability is about perception. Making it seem real doesn’t require that it be real on closer inspection.

LY: True, but making it real-real is one reliable way of engendering that level of believability or empathy. For it to be plausible and create an emotional engagement, I think is the most important thing at the core of all this. But we like to work with the technology in very real ways because it gives us another way that we can disseminate the world we’ve designed.

A whole raft of press was produced around Where the City Can’t See totally independent from the nature of the film itself. We were on Gizmodo, on BBC, all these places, talking about digital camouflage. Then it hit the film festival circuit and had another kind of cycle, separate from the props within it, based on the storyline and the visuals. It just allows it to operate in a whole range of different contexts, and connect to a broad range of different audiences.

SC: Technological realism or feasibility is a higher bar of a sort, also limiting how speculative you can be. Tell me about that trade-off for you.

LY: I don’t want to go into the realms of fantasy. With my speculative work I want to be in that sweet spot between not here yet, but not far enough away that it can be dismissed as pure fantasy.

SC: Being on the crest of a wave that’s going to break no matter what is more powerful in some ways, but if worlds are the medium, and they are what’s at stake, we need enough lead time to make a sort of societal choice between those worlds. There are limits to the usefulness a speculation can provide when it’s on the verge of happening regardless of whether or not you do the project.

LY: Yeah, it’s not exclusively the space in the spectrum where I would operate, but it’s a place that I think personally I can contribute to the most because of my training. What architects can do quite well is synthesise technology and culture. It’s one of the very few disciplines where you have classes in engineering and coding, but you also have classes in philosophy and critical theory.

What we do with these types of projects is engage with the technology at the point where I think it’s most interesting, which is often the point where it becomes democratised or widely accessible. Tim and I talk about this great quote from science fiction author William Gibson, “The street finds its own uses for things.” Technology becomes interesting when it hits the street and moves outside the dominant discourse into a subcultural space. We like to take that leap and prototype the new forms of culture that these technologies produce.

It’s not exclusive. It’s not to say that this is the best space or only space where speculation works. It’s just that these technologies, before culture technologies as I describe them, have arrived before our cultural or ideological capacity to understand them. I think a film like Where the City Can’t See or one of our other projects In the Robot Skies are really important to make right now.

SC: I agree with you, and I think that need exists partly because the longer-range speculation hasn’t happened either. We’re talking about layers of under-served futures discourse.

LY: That’s exactly right. In the context of driverless cars, these things are happening. Ford, GM, all these companies are already billions of dollars in. Now we’re making films about driverless cars because we know they’re coming, and we want to be prototyping cultural and ideological positions around their imminent arrival. But I would have much preferred to have been in the room 20 years ago at Ford: “Let’s do some forecasting here, let’s prototype some stuff, let’s see if this is a good idea first.”

Now you can’t walk into an architecture school anywhere in the world without seeing a driverless car studio, where they’re thinking about what it means for urban life, what it means for the street. Architects should have been doing that 15 years ago.

SC: Architects, designers, policymakers...

LY: Everyone.

SC: You quoted Gibson a minute ago. He also famously said, “The future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed.” The present, the future coming into being, is a process. There are stages; before the trend, the emerging issue; it’s over the horizon, and then little by little, becomes a kind of imminence. So there is a spectrum of places to intervene in the onrush of potential. What you’re doing is closer in, and that needs to happen. Meanwhile the futures field generally probes further-out possibilities and time horizons, which are traditionally underexamined even in areas like design and policy. I’m interested in how the whole range of design and media practices can make these things feel real enough to bother to have the discussion before you have to have the discussion. Because with longer lead times, larger world-shaping choices are available.

LY: Yeah, exactly. All these types of projects need to happen, basically.

SC: So for futurists interested in design, designers interested in futures, what lessons are there to be shared from the intersection?

LY: I think that in this space we have to be talking about audiences for the work.

To really think about where our projects land is fundamental to the act of producing them. Let’s not be design futurists, let’s operate as design futurists within policy, within government, within academia, within Hollywood, within the video game industry, within infrastructure. I think that’s a real key for me.

Design futures is a practice, not a discipline. Its greatest strength is not siloing it as a thing that’s legitimate in itself, but looking at it as a methodology that can find traction in a whole range of different disciplines outside of itself. And I think that’s where we’re at with it right now.


A longer version of the conversation with Liam, as published in the Journal of Futures Studies, can be downloaded here (pdf).

> Design and Futures, Vol. I
> Shipping Architecture (video)*
> Critical activism: An interview with Anab Jain (pdf)
> Experiential futures: A brief outline
How to Build a World (video)

(* Apparently this has been online for years – didn't know that until today. Unfortunately the audio isn't great.)

Thursday, May 02, 2019

Design and Futures, Volume I

Exciting news: a project years in the making has been published!

Together with my colleague Cher Potter of the Victoria & Albert Museum and University of the Arts London, we've been co-editing a special issue of the Journal of Futures Studies, about the intersections of Design and Futures.

This is an interdisciplinary garden I've been working in for about a decade and a half, and on which I completed what I understand was the first doctoral dissertation, back in 02010. It has been booming in recent years: witness the ascent of design fiction, experiential futures, speculative design, design futures, strategic design, speculative enactments; and their various ties to transmedia storytelling, alternate reality games, worldbuilding, larp, and immersive theatre. It's exciting and gratifying to see so much activity in this hybrid space.

JFS is an open access journal published electronically and in print by Tamkang University, Taiwan, usually quarterly, going back to 01996. It's also where I published my first piece in an academic journal, about establishing Open Space as a method for foresight practitioners, in 02005.

Cher and I received far more expressions of interest, from scholars and practitioners all over, than we could accommodate, and still the effort ballooned to fill two back-to-back issues, becoming in the process the biggest themed project the journal has put out in its 23-year history.

Below is our introduction to Design and Futures, Volume I, a collection of five peer-reviewed journal articles, and six manifestoes and interviews from an amazing array of contributors.

The whole thing can be found and accessed, for free, at the Journal of Futures Studies website.

Our hope is that anyone with a practitioner or academic interest in design/futures relationships will find value in the work; a labour of love by many hands.


Introduction to the Special Issue: Design and Futures (Vol. I)
Stuart Candy and Cher Potter, Guest Editors

As Nobel Laureate Herbert Simon famously observed: “Everyone designs who devises courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones” (Simon, 1996).

Designers and futurists, it turns out, have a great deal in common. This mutual recognition is reaching critical mass as each comes to appreciate how their respective traditions have much to offer to making urgent change in the world, and even more so, together.

It is increasingly acknowledged within the futures studies community that operating with a largely verbal and theoretical bent over the past half century has afforded too little impact on actual future-shaping behaviours. Meanwhile, those in the design community recognise a need to interrogate higher-level consequences – the futures, the worlds – that their products, systems and other outputs help produce.

Part of what bringing design and futures into sustained dialogue does is to allow each field to become more fluent in a second language which is the other’s native tongue.

How may designers systematically map out preferred futures, and what frameworks might futures studies furnish to help them? Conversely, how might futures scholars and practitioners adopt designerly modes of exploration, working more materially, visually and performatively to instantiate and illuminate possibilities?

‘Design and futures’ together offer ecosystemic and embodied approaches to shaping our collective prospects, informed by a diverse range of practices.

We are excited to have been working with the Journal of Futures Studies over several years to bring readers a special double issue dedicated to ‘Design and Futures’.

In this first issue, Vol. I, we have five peer-reviewed articles: Stuart Candy and Kelly Kornet introduce a new framework engaging communities and individuals in tangible forms of speculation. Ramia Mazé argues for the significance of how political dimensions suffuse futures thought. Cher Potter, DK Osseo-Asare and Mugendi M’Rithaa analyse the worldviews embedded in a makerspace platform in Accra, Ghana. Jake Dunagan offers an account of teaching experiential futures, written in collaboration with a whole class of graduate students. Anne Burdick shows how a multilayered experiment around developing a storyworld, characters, prototypes, and plot, delineates a rich design space scaffolded by a simultaneously narrative, conceptual, and material brief.

Powerful shorter contributions by speculative designers James Auger and Julian Hanna, design futurist Anab Jain, Hollywood worldbuilder Alex McDowell, architect Liam Young, design scholar Jamer Hunt, and the geographically-distributed Decolonising Design Collective round out a remarkable first cross- sectional scan of design and futures perspectives.

In the next issue, Vol. II, curators, strategic designers, policymakers, and philosophers join the conversation.

As guest editors of this special edition, we wish to thank all authors who submitted articles and essays, and also the peer reviewers who so generously gave their time.

Our own practices originate in futures and design studies respectively, but we have both been actively ‘hybridising’ for a while now. In promoting such entanglements more widely, we aim to offer readers across both communities, and well beyond, insight into how disparate perspectives and tools, in combination, can challenge, remix, and strengthen each other, as well as open on to further exchange.

Of the immensely exciting community weaving that is underway where futures and design meet, these pages represent just some initial strands. We foresee many more to come.

Simon, H.A. (1996) [f.p. 1969]. The Sciences of the Artificial (3rd ed.) Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, p. 111.


The second half of the JFS special issue Design and Futures, including peer-reviewed articles, essays and interviews from around the world, is coming soon.

> I Design Worlds: An Interview with Liam Young
From killer apps to killer imps
Ghosts of futures past
Designing futures
The Futures of Everyday Life
> Design is a team sport

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Participation design

I was revisiting earlier today a podcast conversation between two people I much admire –– an episode of Team Human recorded by writer and host Douglas Rushkoff with security and privacy architecture consultant Eleanor Saitta.

Rushkoff's first book Cyberia (01994), for me as a teenager in Australia, was a gateway to a whole lot of things I'd never heard of before. I've followed his work for about 25 years, and we've met a few times over the past decade. Saitta, whom I first met when we spoke on a conference panel in Singapore together in 02013, blew my mind over breakfast, in I think our first face to face conversation, by putting me on to Nordic Larp, a big topic to dig into more at some stage. She coedited the excellent Knutpunkt book The Foundation Stone of Nordic Larp (02014), a great entry point if that topic piques your interest.

So there's this exchange towards the end of their discussion that has come to mind more than once since I first heard it.


Douglas Rushkoff: [You have written about] our determination to maintain this illusion of individuality and selfhood in the face of an increasingly networked reality. In one of your essays, There is no Future, which is a way of saying that the future distracts us from the present that we're in, you say:

Our production of narratives runs very deep. We create the "self" as a distinct entity, different and separate from the world, and create a narrative about how that self has interacted with the world through its history. This, even, is where the problems start. We try to live in that narrative, instead of in the real world. The self we create doesn't really exist, and the narrative we create is more fiction than real.

Eleanor Saitta: And I should caveat that by saying: Creating and living in fiction can be an incredibly powerful tool for political change –– as long as you know what you're actually doing. As long as you you remember that you're doing this thing.

This is something that I've argued at a completely practical level. It's really interesting to look at the toolkits that people use to design, for instance, social networks. “Experience design” –– the experience that they're talking about there is the individual experience, and that is the thing that is designed.

DR: Right, UX/UI [user experience and user interface design] is the individual user. It's not community experience, collective experience.

ES: There is no practice of, the phrase that my friend Andie Nordgren uses is 'participation design'. And this is looking at a participation frame that says, yes, we have a set of personas, and they have their individual interests, but the participation actually happens between personas, and between different parts of the community, and that's the thing that we actually really care about designing.

It's useful to consider individual experiences, and certainly every system has interactions that are individualistic, but a lot of what is interesting [lies in between these].

If you've got the in-house wiki for some organisation, there's the person who always starts pages, there's the person who cleans up pages, there's the person who is really unlikely to start a page, but will absolutely go through and flesh out all the details and find the citations. And those are participatory roles that are happening between people, and you want to encourage and shape those interactions. And trolling and griefing and all of these things; these are also participatory roles that we want to discourage.

But there isn't a design discipline that focuses on those things, those interactions, those participations, as the first-class structures.


(Starts ~54 mins in.)

I've transcribed this to share here because it's interesting in its own right, and partly also as a bookmark: the fact it has come to mind multiple times seems to be tugging at some threads that are important and that I hope to tease out properly in another post. 

For now I'll just say that this idea of 'participation design' rhymes with approaches we've been working with around 'structures of participation' (Natalie Jeremijenko), 'designing for emergence', and 'situation design' (including, over the past five years, and thanks to Ella, live action roleplaying games).

Engendering circumstances in which we can usefully speculate and improvise, it turns out, is all about this design terrain made up of the spaces between people.

> Dreaming Together (pdf)

Thursday, January 31, 2019

The latest

Lots going on at the moment, and so I've posted a persistent /now page, to update every so often as a snapshot of what we're getting up to around here!

Obama Foundation Design Workshop, Hawaii, 6 January 02019
Photo courtesy of The Obama Foundation

Some recent highlights...
  • VERY EXCITINGLY we concluded a series of workshops for the Obama Foundation held in Honolulu, Hawaii in January, to help design and launch a new Foundation program supporting the efforts and initiatives of emerging leaders from across the Asia-Pacific region (pic above!!!)
  • Situation Lab has begun exploring with NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory ways to support and enable the imaginative forays of folks that formulate new space missions (pic below!!!)
  • We've completed an experiential futures project on climate action with the World Bank Climate Investment Funds and Institute for the Future, and look forward to sharing more soon...
  • The long-gestating Journal of Futures Studies Special Issue on Design and Futures, co-edited by me and Cher Potter from the V&A Museum, is coming out in a bumper two volumes. We're thrilled at a lineup of contributors that includes philosopher Timothy Morton, curator Paola Antonelli, designers like Anab Jain, Dan Hill, the Decolonising Design collective, and a wide range of academic and practitioner contributors, both established and emerging.
  • Building on our collaboration with the United States Conference of Mayors –– together with Civic I/O and Governance Futures Lab at Institute for the Future: last year Jake Dunagan and I introduced futures thinking to mayors from across the USA at South by Southwest in Austin, Texas, and followed up at the 88th annual mayoral conference held in Boston, Massachusetts. This March we're back at SXSW to keep futurising American mayors. 
  • In the coming weeks and months I'm heading to invitational workshops at the Santa Fe Institute (New Mexico) and the Lorentz Centre (Leiden, Netherlands), and running engagements at the Skoll World Forum (University of Oxford), North Carolina State University, and Stanford d.School. With lots of exciting experiential futures action in the offing there are more details at /now –– and further news to follow. Stay tuned!

Situation Lab visit to the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, 28 January 02019
(right, USC Sitlab Director Jeff Watson)