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)