Sunday, May 31, 2020

The Future Can't Wait

Photo by Matthew Abbott for the New York Times

I wrote this piece in the first week of January. It appears in the just-published Summer 2020 edition of Design Journal from the Smithsonian Design Museum, Cooper Hewitt, in New York. It’s hard to believe how long ago the start of this year feels, and how quaint my obliviousness, stuck in amber, to the string of crises that have unfolded since — the COVID-19 pandemic, oil market chaos, historic levels of unemployment, and in the past week, demonstrations across the United States. Our context has shifted again and again, but I think the argument is reinforced by all this change.


Eden is burning.

A small coastal town in Australia has become a household name in the past twenty-four hours, besieged by raging bushfires colouring land and sky a surreal martian red, and causing residents to flee for the ocean, the safest refuge in a world aflame.

Today, under unprecedented emergency orders from the Prime Minister, the navy arrives to help with evacuation. The fires in Eden and dozens of other places have already torn through an area the size of Switzerland.

This is all a few hundred miles northeast of where my wife and I, both Australian, are on our annual pilgrimage back from the United States. Right now our family group is standing on the deck of another navy vessel, a World War II minesweeper, long ago decommissioned and turned into a small maritime museum. Normally the backdrop would be a spectacular Melbourne skyline. Instead we see a grey curtain that looks like fog, but isn't. The smell of smoke is unmistakeable. The ongoing catastrophe is at once bodily present and utterly remote from our pleasant after-lunch walk.

A museum guide leads us to the crew quarters, pointing out a framed black-and-white photo of grinning sailors crammed into this space. I try to picture daily life during the war: dozens of servicemen eating, arguing, and playing Mahjong endlessly, spending their nights in hammocks strung from the low ceiling. The central purpose of the exhibit is of course to help visitors connect to this earlier time - but even standing here, surrounded by historical paraphernalia and listening to stories from our knowledgeable guide, one struggles to imagine the lived everyday reality of a vanished era.

As with the present-day experience of others, especially in circumstances very different or distant from our own, so too when it comes to history. Considering it from afar is one thing; really comprehending it is another.

Thinking about the future confronts this same problem, intensified. No one knows exactly what the future holds, so unlike the past or present we have no direct evidence to compare with what is in our minds.

Yet the collective task of properly engaging alternatives is among the most important we face. Fortunately we now have more effective ways to do it than ever before.

Prompted by the Second World War and the Cold War that followed, a pragmatic set of approaches for navigating large-scale change and uncertainty has arisen over the past few generations. The near-unthinkable stakes of nuclear conflict forced governments to develop big-picture "what if" scenarios, and investigate how they might influence events toward preferred futures, and away from nonpreferred ones.

In the 01970s, oil companies and other organisations started exploring the advantages of an institutional capacity to think ahead. Parallel to these developments in the corridors of power, a more grassroots and humanistic tradition of futures workshops and education was also emerging, studying the "images of the future" held by individuals and groups, and how to understand, critique, and create them.

"Future" singular became "futures" plural. A new transdisciplinary field was born, known variously as strategic foresight, futures studies, or simply "futures." Now, paying intellectual attention to possible futures is a positive step, but it does not in itself guarantee an appropriate impact on present-day decisions. The bushfires blazing in southeastern Australia are a case in point. They have captured global attention as a kind of postnatural disaster: something long foreseen, and shaped directly and indirectly by collective choices, but for years not taken seriously in a political sense. This long-fuse, seemingly far-fetched scenario, well outside of anyone's lived experience, has now burst forth and is wreaking havoc in real time.

How then can we connect to possible, probable, and preferred futures viscerally, such that they feel real enough to make a difference, now? This vital question has become a focus for a community of practice building on foresight's foundation. At conferences and festivals, in classrooms and city streets, we are learning and using whatever it takes to bring futures to life, from physical artifacts, photo illustrations, and videos to online games and simulations, street art, guerrilla interventions, immersive theatre, and live-action roleplaying. In recent years in the design world, speculative design and design fiction (an analogue to science fiction, but oriented to physical rather than literary creations) have surged to prominence.

This whole array of strategies is called experiential futures. If one wants to bring potential realities to life, and have them register with the body and make a dent in current choices, then all experiences that help achieve that are part of this design space. They can be used to explore any question or topic, bring any world to life. Here are a few examples of projects we've done on the themes at hand:

For the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies biennial strategy meetings, future artifacts dramatised a potentially changed landscape of humanitarian need. What if displaced coastal populations began to mobilise politically, across culture and language barriers, around their common plight?

For the World Bank's Climate Investment Funds, and Institute for the Future, we imagined far-reaching changes in the US federal response, creating a future advertising campaign around it. What if, in the late 02020s, climate inaction gave way to large-scale military mobilisation? Strange echoes now of the deployments just announced in Australia.

For the Hawaiian state legislature, to support public engagement with a sustainability planning process, we placed hundreds of policymakers and constituents in a quartet of parallel immersive scenarios for the islands, set in 02050. In one room, governance had been restructured around precolonial values and traditions; in another was a naturalisation ceremony for climate refugees. And so on.

These are not predictions, but "what ifs" in four dimensions, aimed at improving the quality, accessibility, and impact of futures conversation. Miscellaneous approaches are coalescing into a systematic set of ways for humans to play productively with possibilities, and ranging beyond the standard technological questions by bringing life to often neglected social, cultural, economic, and environmental dimensions.

Becoming common practice brings the opportunity for deep impact. As well as spending time in the imaginary worlds of comic book heroes, for instance, we might spend time in potential future realities. We might debate and decide less on the basis of ideology and slogans, and more on the basis of collectively explored pathways and policies designed to shape them.

The museum has emerged as an indispensable platform for helping these developments along. If you haven't already encountered a major hybrid design/futures exhibition, at an institution like the Museum of Modern Art, New York, or the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, chances are you soon will. New facilities - essentially cultural institutions of foresight - like the Museum of Tomorrow in Rio de Janeiro, the ArtScience Museum in Singapore, MOD in Adelaide, and the Museum of the Future under construction in Dubai, have lately been established to let visitors encounter what could come to be, as much as what has been.

Museums have always enabled the cultures they are embedded in to remember what matters; but memory and imagination are two sides of one coin. In a volatile era, we need all the help we can get to bring both into currency. What of the past should we hold on to - but also, how might things be otherwise, in better and wiser times to come, and what role can we each play in finding our way there? The rise of experiential futures is fueled by cultural need, and though the need is different everywhere it shows up, it shows up everywhere.

An important societal transition is just getting underway. Collections of speculative future artifacts are a promising start, but wider horizons of experiential futures - immersive, generative, participatory, and large-scale - remain to be explored, growing the collective capacity for foresight through our cultural institutions.

Today, Eden is burning. As the smoke clears, this moment will pass from headlines into history, a newly minted past to learn from to the best of our ability. Already apparent among its lessons to take to heart is our urgent need to get much better at thinking and feeling through what might lie ahead, too.

The good news is: we can.


A full-text PDF of the article can be downloaded here. This Design Journal issue also includes contributions from climate and science writer Tatiana Schlossberg, Native Renewables executive director Wahleah Johns, and atmospheric scientist Katharine Hayhoe, and it can be found in its entirety here. My thanks to Pamela Horn for the invitation to contribute.

Update 01june20: Top image changed and introductory note added to mirror the post on Medium.

> Always Tomorrow Now, an interview with the Curator of the Museum of Tomorrow, Brazil
Experiential futures in The Economist
> Ghosts of Futures Past
> Experiential Futures: A Brief Outline
Integrating Foresight at the World’s Largest Humanitarian Organisation, a forthcoming piece on experiential futures at the international Red Cross/Red Crescent; this project was also discussed in a recent interview for IFTF's Foresight Talks (video)

Thursday, April 23, 2020

Three Dimensions of Foresight

As the covid-19 crisis unfolds, many of us are looking to an extravagantly uncertain future with anxiety, as well as a new appreciation and appetite for whatever brings confidence and clarity to prospection.

How might concerned citizens engage in more effective futures thinking and storytelling?

Columbia University's Digital Storytelling Lab (DSL), led by a veteran experimental storyteller, my friend Lance Weiler, has responded to the pandemic by offering ingenious, collaborative, and free opportunities for hundreds of folks in quarantine and isolation all around the world to come together, imagine alternative futures, and manifest them through co-created digital story artifacts.

The project is called From the Futures. With this effort, Lance, Columbia DSL and team are tending a welcome oasis of collective creativity for our moment.

They invited me to help kick things off with an introduction to a framework related to the experiential futures space that the project inhabits and plots out. The slides embedded above distil that talk, "Three Dimensions of Foresight".

The three dimensions can be seen as corresponding to various manoeuvres or methods in the futures repertoire that typically require quite a bit of practice to master. But even for those trying experiential futures for the first time (which would include many From the Futures participants), they can also be mobilised right away via a series of practical moves towards storytelling more different, deep, and diverse than it might otherwise be:

Difference : let us seek seeds of change in the present that could be really transformative if they were to grow.
Depth : let us try to not just think, but also feel, our way into these imagined conditions by devising specific future artifacts and diverse media to bring the imagined possibilities to life as if they came to pass.
Diversity : let us operate generally in terms of plural futureS, but even if constructing a single scenario or possibility for a particular project, find what is fresh and uncommon for the ecology of thinkable and feelable futures, since a new story may be dramatically more valuable than yet another telling of one that we have already heard many times before.

The framework has its origins in my doctoral project on experiential futures. There I ventured an arguments about the need to build on, and systematically range beyond, the most common practices and methods of previous generations of futurists. I wanted to show that foresight practitioners could and should embrace a range of "experiential" (a deliberately big umbrella) approaches, in pursuit of the requisite realism and resonance to affect how we think and what we do in the present. Often this would mean seeking and evoking depth; making a future's details and implications available and graspable –– tangibly, sensorially, viscerally –– in ways usually lacking from the even most carefully researched, well written horizon scans or scenarios. This approach includes an assumption or acknowledgement that things at later points in time are bound to be as real, complex, and full of contradictions as the present. We should strive then to get "under the skin" of the futures we face, and engage them not in the abstract as intellectual constructs, but through evocative concrete experiences, as potential realities in waiting.

In this connection I wrote about the need for a "mundane turn" in futures practice (The Futures of Everyday Life, 02010, pp. 89–94), by analogy with an important shift of orientation that had already taken place decades earlier in cultural history, tying this quest for modest but evocative fragments, details and textures of worlds to come, to design and discussion in the present of artifacts or experiences that might exist in those futures (hence the phrase "futures of everyday life"). Among other contributors, Nick Foster's perceptive essay The Future Mundane, and Tony Dunne and Fiona Raby's influential book Speculative Everything (both 02013) carried these sorts of ideas further among design audiences. It has been satisfying to see the spread of futures-curious, design-led practices like design fiction and speculative design summoning new explorers and fellow travellers to this terrain.

The three dimensional lenses on futures practice came into sharper focus soon after the dissertation work, and they helped frame our first run of the Strategic Foresight course in the Design Strategy MBA program at California College of the Arts (02010). That course is outlined here. Since then, and refined thanks to audiences and student groups over the years, 3D foresight has become one of the main ways I introduce futures to newcomers.

For those who might like a more methodologically detailed overview of 3D foresight, with additional examples, I recently gave a lecture across campus at Carnegie Mellon's Human Computer Interaction Institute, How to think about the future.

Our video of the talk to From the Futures participantss (via Zoom) has already been shared, and Lance's written accounts of the initiative so far can be found in the posts Designing for immersion in Zoom and From the Futures: experiments in collaborative art and collective wayfinding in a time of ambiguity.

A wonderful sense of the swarming, emergent, hive-mind creativity that this process has helped to unleash, and to guide, is captured visually in the timelapse below. If interested in receiving updates or taking part yourself, head here.

> The Futures of Everyday Life (pdf)
> About the first Strategic Foresight course at CCA (pdf)
> A Brief Outline of Experiential Futures
> Design for the Next Context (Closing Keynote at 02010 AIGA Conference)
> The Experiential Turn (with Jake Dunagan)
> On Getting Started in Experiential Futures
> Design is Storytelling

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

U.S. Earth Force

Introducing the sixth branch of the American military, founded in 2029.

What happens when the world's richest and most powerful country puts its full weight behind efforts to address climate disruption?

Earth Force is neither a prediction nor a preference, but a possibility, a way of asking how climate action might look if addressed seriously at a federal level.

A belated response to the crisis, when it comes, could be all the more pronounced; making up for lost time.

To date the United States has waged war on various things including poverty, drugs, and terror. A range of responses and a mix of feelings may arise about the idea of adding global warming to the list.

Making space to sort through these responses, and their implications, is a reason to consider such possibilities in advance.

Grand as some of our collective challenges and actions might be, they will also play out in the most ordinary of contexts.

If this really happened, it would show up in all sorts of encounters in everyday life: at airports, sporting events, shopping malls, and school campuses. It would leave visible and tangible traces across all media, from cinemas to recruitment stations, news reports, and social feeds.

The medium of billboard advertising may be mundane, but the kinds of questions it can pose are momentous.

With well over half a trillion dollars spent each year on American military capability, what is the possible scope and impact of climate action at such a scale?

How might the militarisation of governance proceed once systemic issues like this start to be approached seriously on a whole-of-society basis?

When and in what ways will military culture adapt to engage with an unprecedentedly diverse and globally-minded wave of younger citizens, the “March for Our Lives” values of Generation Z?

I took all these photos of billboard sites within minutes by foot or bicycle of our house in Pittsburgh.

The idea was to explore some potential macro-changes of historic significance by crafting a number of local, micro-glimpses of what that reality might entail on the ground.

I also wanted to look at some of the tensions between national-scale and planetary-scale affinities, logics, and symbols.

The project speaks to the notion of duty in at least two different registers.

Our duty to the future is to rectify the catastrophic, systematic errors that we have known for some time are causing global warming.

Our duty to ourselves is to widen the horizons of imagination, debate, and action today.


A word of background: this experiential scenario was supported by Institute for the Future (IFTF) and the World Bank's Climate Investment Funds (CIF), as part of a project also involving a number of other commissioned artists working in various media, called Artists Imagining the Future of Climate Action. At IFTF's invitation, I pitched the concept in April 02018.
This story is about activating and amplifying the latent and hugely significant potential of a wildly well-resourced aspect of American governance and infrastructure. In our scenario, the U.S. Earth Force is established in the mid 2020s (alongside the existing Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and Coast Guard), with a view to gradually reducing and supplanting the need for conflict-based military forces by prioritizing global climate security. In terms of the RFP, this experiential scenario tells a ‘White Mirror’ story. It is a story about owning up to the most inconvenient of truths, and starting to turn the ship around.
As my research and thought process went along, the specific media, future artifacts and communications strategy for extruding the scenario morphed a bit, and the diegetic timeline pushed out to after the 02028 election. The central concept stayed the same. (Incidentally, a couple of months after getting the green light from IFTF, I began hearing about President Trump's plan to create a Space Force. Not that it matters particularly, but this project was not conceived or intended as a response to that idea.)

The resulting set of billboard images of the U.S. Earth Force recruitment campaign was completed in September 02018. A few weeks later, the IPCC Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C was released, decisively shifting the public conversation and ushering in over the following year a new phase of the climate movement that made Greta Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion household names. More recently, the covid-19 pandemic has of course altered the footing for climate action yet again.

This project was initially under wraps, to give its sponsors a chance to share the commissioned artworks first.

As the world marks the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, I'm sharing U.S. Earth Force with some hope that it may help in a modest way to enrich our collective capacity to imagine and initiate vital climate action in this decade.


Many thanks to branding consultant Devika Khowala and compositing consultant Matthew McGehee. For help with field visits and early design explorations, thanks to research assistants Helen Hu and Cathryn Ploehn from CMU Situation Lab. Special thanks for scenario and research advice to Michael DilaRosemarie ForsytheNils Gilman, Karen Grattan and Alex Steffen. Finally, gratitude to all at IFTF and World Bank CIF for vital support in the creation of this project.

This post was also published on Medium.

> Foresight is a right
> Ghosts of futures past
> A climate of regret
> Politicians discussing global warming
> Participatory cli-fi
> Mapping c-change
> Critical activism

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

21st century divination

This video was shot right after a workshop, devised and run with experimental philosopher Jonathon Keats, called New Divination Techniques for Generating Alternative Futures.

It was part of a large collective effort mounted by the international futures community late last year at UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation).

The Global Futures Literacy Design Forum took place at the organisation's headquarters in Paris and consisted of more than two dozen "learning-by-doing labs" curated, organised and facilitated by top futures researchers, teachers and practitioners from Oxford to Jamaica.

The event was open to the public –– I'm not sure of the final number of attendees, but some 600 folks registered –– and was explicitly aimed at demonstrating, celebrating, and extending futures literacy humanity’s capacity to imagine and use the future(s) in all sorts of contexts, for all sorts of purposes.

I was also involved in another session; Imagination and Creativity: Gaming the Future of Migration and Climate Change together with my fellow futurists John Sweeney (Qazaq Research Institute for Futures Studies), Anisah Abdullah (Strathclyde Business School), and Daniel Riveong (Futures Centre).

Thanks to the head of futures literacy at UNESCO, Riel Miller, I've collaborated with the organisation several times before, and I was excited when he approached me last year about the Forum.

Its key objectives were institutional on the one hand and disciplinary on the other: "One is to prepare the ground for a UNESCO Ministerial Summit on Futures Literacy in late 2020 by showcasing and refining a range of already proven techniques for integrating Futures Literacy into government activities. Two is to build awareness and networking related to the development and diffusion of Futures Literacy."

Here's the description of the our workshop on 21st century divination techniques that appeared in the event catalogue:

One of the greatest human foibles is our ability to find patterns in just about anything, imagining that random phenomena carry meaning. Might that trait, technically known as apophenia, also be one of our greatest gifts? In this experimental workshop – prototyped especially for this occasion by conceptual artist Jonathon Keats and experiential futurist Stuart Candy – participants are invited to re-visit ancient modes of divination and also to devise some new ones. Simultaneously playing with and against tradition, our aim will not be convergence and prediction, but to generate new and diverse possibilities for action by collectively exploring and exploiting some of our most powerful psychological quirks.

A note of personal context here: legitimate futures/foresight practice is at times misunderstood as or unfairly conflated with a kind of charlatanry. I've generally aimed to avoid adding any fuel to that fire by eschewing anything that smacks of soothsaying –– tarot, tasseomancy, astrology, and so on (well... except for this one time at Burning Man, when I agreed to play the Oracle... but that's another story).

The low level of futures literacy in the population at large often finds people projecting trope-riddled preconceptions and prejudices about what a futurist's job entails, and particularly assumptions revolving around a misplaced obsession with prediction, and it's already challenging enough getting people to engage seriously in thinking about possible futures without playing into their most unflattering assumptions.

However, I recognise that it's also possible to protest too much, and get trapped by personal policies that can become too rigid. So when Jonathon, a superb conceptual artist, experimental philosopher and writer whose work I've admired for years, proposed a collaboration around exploring the possibilities for 21st century divinatory practices, the spirit of his curiosity –– avoiding wild-eyed faith on one side or blanket disapproval on the other –– got me interested. I took a step towards getting over a long-ingrained aversion. As he pointed out to me in one of our pre-event design conversations, the air of suspicion, and even demonisation, that attaches to these practices in post-enlightenment Western culture might usefully be taken as a cue not to avoid, but to be curious about, what we're collectively avoiding or denying.

Jonathon and I are currently working to bring the process to other participants in other locations, so I won't say too much here in terms of workshop detail, but I think it's worth adding, as COVID-19 spreads around the world, that even those of us who have spent decades helping to prepare organisations for inevitable surprises, are challenged to reckon with the question of how effective, or otherwise, our efforts have been.

It seems about time for a dramatic, collective rethink of how we engage with future possibilities.

The full catalogue of UNESCO's Global Futures Literacy Design Forum is available in English and in French, and a range of additional videos describing other programs at the event can be found here.

> Barbershop Futures
> Transforming the Future
> La Chose du Futur à Paris
> Where Do You Stand?
> Using the Future at NASA
> When Reality Outruns Imagination (Coral Cross)
> On Playing the Oracle: Foresight 101 at TEDx (video)