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 participants (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 02029.

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