Friday, October 30, 2020

Introducing Experiential and Participatory Futures at the BBC

How do you develop foresight capacity inside an organisation, and experiential futures especially?

It's a question that comes up a lot. 

Recently I've spoken with government agencies from the UK, Denmark, and Australia, whose leaders all reached out for advice on growing their capability in these spaces.

The RSA (the Royal Society for Arts, Manufactures and Commerce) has just published a report on "Realising the Value of Futures and Foresight"; I was glad to contribute when the researchers got in touch a few months ago.

These are exciting signals that the conditions for social foresight are ripening, with experiential and participatory futures approaches migrating and spreading across contexts –– from academia and activism, to arts and culture, to business, politics and governance.

This post is about a fun project that also represents, I think, an exciting milestone in that journey.

A long, long time ago, in a pre-COVID otherworld –– last year, that is –– I had the privilege of collaborating with the British Broadcasting Corporation on an effort to bring futures thinking and practices into the design side of the organisation.

With the brilliant Filippo Cuttica leading the charge (Filo is BBC's UX Principal for Ethical Experiences; he is also part of art collective IOCOSE), and supported by a formidable in-house design posse, we devised a process for introducing around 200 people to the space of alternative futures.

Since our participants would mostly be designers of various kinds, we were resolved that these ideas should land with folks not just in theory, but in the most embodied way possible. So at an away day for the whole design side of the Beeb, hosted in Manchester's grand old Alfred Hall, I gave a keynote address to get some shared concepts and background into the collective mind, and then we transitioned to bringing alternative futures to life, on the spot.

Being quite excited about the event, I took a *lot* of pictures, including all the photos in this post
(except this one of me speaking, obviously... which was taken by Filippo Cuttica)

Everyone had been invited to bring in junk from home –– old shoes; defunct appliances; all sorts of things that they would otherwise have thrown out –– to serve as raw material. The group spent the afternoon in small teams, reinterpreting these "found" items using our card game The Thing From The Future as scaffolding for imagination, and then physically transforming them into a crazy array of artifacts from alternative futures. At that point they put their wares "on sale", across dozens of stalls set up in the style of a bazaar or flea market, complete with a special currency created for the occasion that let everyone ultimately "vote" on their favourite designs.

Lo and behold: the Futures Bazaar! A surprisingly coherent container for a mad hodgepodge of material ruminations. The video produced by the BBC team (at the top of this post) really captures the glorious chaos of the day. 

This co-created centrepiece, the Futures Bazaar itself, was complemented by a range of interactive demos organised onsite by BBC media tech unit Blue Room, including an adapted version (pictured below) of our experiential scenario from a few years back, NaturePod, featuring 3D video footage that the team had recently ventured out to a forest near Manchester to record.

It was exciting to build, in scope and ambition, on previous design jam deployments of The Thing From The Future. And turning household refuse into design fiction gold is an inherently satisfying form of creative alchemy, especially at scale. Scores of people, all playing and making their way into the futures together.

To revisit this work now, after more than half a year of working remotely, I find myself really missing the energy of co-creating in person. (It seems most of the time, I manage to avoid thinking about that; covid-coping reflex.)

But what makes a process like this tick, and how does it contribute to developing foresight capability?

I see two key factors driving it. The first is clear constraint. The second is permission to play. In a sense these pull in opposite directions, and that's the point. There's a productive tension in the middle, a sweet spot for creative, surprising generativity, neither too scripted nor too loose. Military drills have clear parameters, but also a tendency towards the predictable, this being of course among their main aims. On the other side, a young child's doodling may manifest a kind of pure play, but one scrawling sketch can look very much like another, and another, and another. Paradoxically, extremely open processes can produce results comparable in their unsurprisingness to extremely planned ones.

In jazz or theatrical improv, it's when the improvisers consciously adopt or, if they're really skilled, feel their way into a shared set of enabling constraints, "finding the game", that things start to click. The signal-to-noise ratio leaps. Pleasurable surprises appear. Embracing the convergent forces of constraint and the divergent forces of play in balance takes us somewhere interesting –– in this case, a gleefully absurdist and thoroughly engaging mode of co-creation.

Several layers of productive constraints are operating here. These include, naturally, time itself; we broke a fairly complex set of tasks into distinct stages, which sharpened focus, brought urgency, and raised energy levels. Another is the overall premise, "make a future artifact with this thing", paired with the specific semiotic or interpretive potential of any given object: each item that participants had brought from home could plausibly be "cast" as many future things, but not as absolutely anything. More granularly, beneath the "future thing" umbrella, the structure of a Thing From The Future prompt offers a kind of future to consider, as well as a theme, a particular context of society or human endeavour, to help the imagination along. A player might incorporate a found object into a prompt something like the following:

"In a {REGIMENTED} future, there is a {pair of old slippers} related to {JUSTICE}. What is it?"

Which might end up generating something like this:

Okay, you might say. People seem to be enjoying themselves and being creative. But so what? How does this help with the development of an organisational foresight capability?

A general answer is that many, if not most, organisations need play more than they realise. Workplace cultures often implicitly devalue and sacrifice, intentionally or not, anything unusual, subversive, humorous or nonstandard. This makes for infertile contexts, inhospitable to new ideas, and perhaps to diversity on other dimensions too (cultures, backgrounds, values). In my experience it's common for organisations to be more brittle, blinkered, and reactive than they might think they are, and to that extent, more vulnerable to changes in their operating environment that they have not made room to consider.

Foresight practice, a conversation space that's deliberately much broader than forecasting (an important subset of it), requires some openness to the non-extrapolative and non-obvious –– viz. Dator's second law: "Any useful statement about the futures should at first appear to be ridiculous".

More specifically, this particular kind of play arguably helps lower the bar to having more serious, strategically load-bearing conversations about alternative futures. I've written elsewhere about how The Thing From The Future is designed to operate, so won't reiterate that here, but as the celebrated designers Charles and Ray Eames used to say, "Toys are not really as innocent as they look. Toys and games are the prelude to serious ideas."

Am I saying that this is "the right way" to introduce futures thinking into organisations? No. It was, however, a great way to do it here, partly because this specific organisation is full of creatives, makers, and storytellers. Also, the context of an away day made a bit of fun welcome, even essential. We understood that participatory, playful and hands-on elements needed to be foregrounded here, and so they were.

In a more corporate, bureaucratic, or self-serious context, such as strategic conversation for a government department, supranational outfit, or large business, other approaches might be more suitable. Less out-on-a-limb for the participants while still inviting their engagement with future possibilities physically, emotionally, and narratively.

The Future Is Now project, which we advised as well as helped implement at the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), the world's largest humanitarian network, mobilised experiential futures approaches in a number of important ways, in order to introduce, enable and integrate foresight throughout a vast organisation. It ended up fuelling an unprecedented level of futures awareness and activity, now shaping strategy at the global level, as well as within many national societies. (We can look at that case more in another post to come.)

Well, that all sounds very nice in principle, you may say, but we can't do most of these physical interventions or collaborations at the moment –– what about the pandemic?

So, part of the reason we called experiential futures "experiential futures", since first plotting out and arguing for this much-needed broadening of foresight practice a decade and a half ago, is that the relevant canvas is huge. It's not about a particular medium or context of deployment. As large as the space of "possible future artifacts" may be –– and I have argued that it has to be much larger than the set of "all human artifacts ever created in history"; if history has happened but futures have not, then the latter space is bound to be ontologically multiple, encompassing the aggregated contents not of just one historical timeline, but countless potential ones –– the point is that there's no reason, for our purposes, to be exclusively interested in objects, or even in physical, face-to-face encounters, important as those are. This is tied in with why the frames of "design fiction" and "speculative design", while both valuable vectors for popularising a subset of experiential futures' possibility space among designers and the design-curious, can sometimes get in their own way a little bit.

The relevant issue for organisations or cultures recognising a need to navigate change more effectively than they have in the past is not "how do we make objects that speak about futures?" It is also not, "how can speculative design or design fiction or help with our policy/strategy challenge?" Nor is it even "how can experiential futures help with x or y?", which reifies a constantly-evolving collection of practices that spring from and must continue to be fed by what seems to me to be the key underlying question: "what can we do to navigate change more effectively?" Any experience that helps people to grapple with possible futures and to take wiser action in the present is in scope. Experiential futures simply designates a possibility space where the challenge is ultimately to make better collective choices among all available options, and the means for realising these are whatever you can come up with.

On this view, the ongoing covid-19 pandemic and its limitations are just another set of enabling constraints. It doesn't much matter if you can't meet in person; do immersive future exhibits with social distancing, or for one person at a time. Send stuff through the post, or by email. Or create digital experiences, or audio ones with no screens in sight. We recently did a hybrid drama/design course on devising theatre in pandemic conditions, which included online live action roleplaying games. We've staged Zoom-native, as opposed to in-person, Time Machines (more on that soon, too). A bunch of us around the world just ran the first edition of a decade-long annual festival program of experiential futures, all created and carried out under covid-19 pandemic constraints. And so on.

People ought to be exploring alternative futures in the highest-impact ways available, especially with the devastating consequences of a conspicuous failure of effective foresight rippling, or rather ripping, through our daily lives, globally, right now.

Filo Cuttica says this in his excellent write-up of this foray into experiential futures:

If there’s one lesson to take away from the pandemic, it's the importance of looking ahead. And not just "looking ahead", but "feeling ahead". By imagining together in structured ways, and creating the experience of change before it happens, rather than while it's happening, we have a hope of planning, and even affecting our future. ...

The idea [of this event was] to introduce the team to a seemingly obvious, and yet hard to grapple with idea: that the future hasn’t happened yet, that we can play an active role in shaping, but that before we can collectively choose what should happen, we ought to explore what could happen.

As noted at the top; it's great that more and more institutions are realising how embedding an augmented futures capability might be valuable. At the BBC, with this effort an internationally significant organisation spanning cultural and governance sectors has taken some deceptively playful first steps down an important path, and I'm excited to see where it might go.

If this sounds like something that your community or institution should be exploring, but you aren't sure what to do next, try the links below for a start.


Thanks and congrats again to Filo, to his team and their network of wonderful colleagues, and not least, to their awesome bosses at the BBC for supporting these efforts. I also want to mention prior work that in some ways made this delightful experiment possible, especially the series of participatory futures events that Jeff Watson and I (Situation Lab) organised years ago with our good friends Elliott Montgomery and Chris Woebken (Extrapolation Factory); Futurematic Vending Machine at OCAD, Futurematic: Canal St at NYU, and 1-888-FUTURES at USC; as well as the Discoverability Media Jam for the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) with Rich Lachman at Ryerson University, and the Posteridade design jam staged with Marcela Sabino and her team at the Museum of Tomorrow in Rio de Janeiro.

Dreaming Together | pdf from the book Made Up: Design's Fictions
UNTITLED: A Bold New Experiment in Public Imagination | Medium
> On Getting Started in Experiential Futures
Bringing Futures to Stanford d.School
Using the Future at NASA | pdf
Augmenting Cities with Niantic and Knight Foundation
> The Thing From the Future | pdf about the game design
Time Machines 
> NaturePod
> Theatre in Pandemic | full syllabus on Medium
1-888-FUTURES with Extrapolation Factory

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