Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Adding Dimensions to Development Futures with UNDP

(Update 28jun22: It was announced today that this project has won at the 02022 Core77 Design Awards in the Speculative Design category! Ceda and I are grateful to Core77 and want to give thanks again to our indispensable collaborators, listed below.)


Last week I helped to launch the United Nations Development Programme's annual innovation event, Istanbul Innovation Days (IID), using an experiential futures process and format created for the occasion.

Back in January, they had come to me with a challenge: how might experiential futures practice be brought to bear for the event's Opening Session? Due to Covid everything was to be run online this year; this kickoff was planned as a panel conversation about global development's futures, live in video chat, with the head of UNDP and invited speakers around the world.

Mission accepted: I proposed to interview all the panelists in advance, one on one, then design and send an artifact from the future to each, to arrive at their homes by the week before the event. After more than a year on Zoom, thanks to the pandemic, my hope was to breathe some dimensionality into our talking-head squares.

Each artifact would draw inspiration from ideas about the future shared with me by the speaker in our pre-conversation, and would try to picture a far-reaching shift in relationships and power, manifested institutionally, affecting whatever we mean when we say ‘development’.

So, what happened? 

Sophie Howe, Welsh Commissioner for Future Generations, the first person in the world to hold that remarkable cross-cutting role, emphasised the critical need for a “holistic view” in governance. I wondered: how might next-level holistic, inclusive decision-making look?

Sophie received a bilingual Welsh/English mailer from Wales’ Parliament of All Beings in 02056, notifying her that animal wellbeing data indicated consent to move to the next phase of Rewilding in her neighbourhood in Cardiff.

Nanjira Sambuli, a powerhouse tech justice advocate from Kenya, when we spoke registered the absurdity of a few Silicon Valley tech bros ruling platforms that mediate our relationships all around the world, noting “the dream to democratise, decentralise” and “take on the giants”.

At home in Nairobi, she received a letter written to her as a Board Member for RECODE Africa (REclaim community, COoperativise platforms, DEvolve governance), with a T-shirt for its 3rd Annual Festival in 02030, after Twitter ownership has been taken over by users & workers.

Roman Krznaric, author of The Good Ancestor, told me about the importance of “political innovation” dealing with the “decision making structures” underpinning development at all levels. So what might such transformational change look like on the ground?

Based in Oxford, Roman received a thank you for serving in the 02032 Oxfordshire Ancestors’ Assembly (modelled on Japan’s current “Future Design” process), and a robe as ritually worn by participants when deliberating the potential impacts of their decisions on future generations.

Marcela Sabino, Head of Innovation at Brazil’s Museu do Amanha (Museum of Tomorrow), evoked a scenario in which we relate to corporate entities as legal persons very differently: “Companies have to be held accountable for what they're doing.” The question becomes –– how?

In Rio de Janeiro, Marcela received a screenprinted poster, one in Portuguese and one in English, advertising the public execution/dissolution of a corporation that in 02036 has been convicted of ecocide by the International Criminal Court.

Achim Steiner, head of UNDP, observed that by the later 21st century what we currently know as the United Nations “will have to be significantly different. . . . But the fact that we will need a governance platform on which to come together is absolutely essential.”

At home in New York, he received a hand-calligraphed copy of “The Words Spoken Before All Others”, aka the Haudenosaunee Thanksgiving Address, adopted in a ceremony at Onondaga Lake as the Opening Invocation for the General Assembly of the United Peoples, on 22 April 02070.

When the day of the panel itself arrived, I had the pleasure of moderating the conversation, with Luciana Mermet, UNDP Resident Representative in Bolivia. The speakers didn't know yet what the others had received, so we had everyone use their future artifact as a portal through which to introduce themselves and their ideas to the conversation.

The Deputy Foreign Minister of the Republic of Turkey, Faruk Kaymakci, also joined the session, as a distinguished “Future Steward”, sharing remarks on and helping draw connections among the perspectives offered.

It’s a minor miracle how it all came together. The future artifacts arrived in multiple locations around the world, our Internet connections held up, and almost 700 people joined in to listen, chat and ask questions. If you're interested, the Opening Session is available to watch in its entirety here:

This was an exciting piece of a much bigger conversation, about decolonising and reimagining development for the 02021 edition of IID. It was also an encouraging way for a new experiential futures* format to add both a third dimension (physicality) and a fourth (direct engagement with time) to a 2D medium. I half-jokingly dubbed the format a "4D Panel", and it would certainly work as a replicable structure –– if anyone decides to give it a go, please get in touch.

The other thing to mention about the format is that it is scaffolded using Ethnographic Experiential Futures (EXF) –– a framework that my colleague Kelly Kornet and I derived from a set of precedents for exactly this sort of purpose –– to make it easier to generate customised projects that pair culturally-specific futures research with design-led experiential outcomes. There's more research in the pipeline, so stay tuned.

This post is a quick one based on a thread shared on Twitter earlier today, and I plan to include more details of the project in a proper write-up in due course. For now, though, much gratitude to the many amazing folks who made this possible.

* * *

UNDP Objects of the Future (4D Panel) –– #IID2021 Opening Session –– Project Credits and Acknowledgments

Co-designer and lead artist:
Ceda Verbakel

Robe co-design and construction:
Lindsay Goranson

Catherine Marsceau

Welsh translation:
Angharad Withers
Sarah Elizabeth Siân Withers

Portuguese translation:
Jacques Barcia

Max Emiliano Gonzales

Documentation photography:
Matt Geiger

Special thanks to the following research informants, advisors and sounding boards:
Jacques Barcia
Ginny Battson
Cennydd Bowles
Jonathan Chapman
Jake Dunagan
Jasper Grosskurth
Jonathon Keats
Michelle King
Peter MacLeod
Sheila Ochugboju
Ollie Palmer
Hannah Muthoni Ryder
Ella Saitta
Wendy Schultz
Sian Sheu
Danny Spitzberg (@BuyThisPlatform)
Maya van Leemput

None of these fine people are responsible for my misunderstandings, errors or other sins

Thanks for generous logistical assistance:
Leonard Kinyanjui (Nairobi)
Sheila Ochugboju (Nairobi)
Siri Krznaric (Oxford)
Kate Raworth (Oxford)
Nina Barbuto (Pittsburgh)
Rich Pell (Pittsburgh)

Thanks also to Jill Chisnell, Trebor Scholz, Brad Towell, and Cameron Tonkinwise

Thanks for additional design explorations to Myrna Rosen and Amrita Khoshoo

Framing by Carol Whitehead
T-shirt production (PIT) by
T-shirt production (NBO) by Mattel Printing
Shipping by FedEx East Liberty & Monroeville PA

4D Panel members and artifact inspirers:
Sophie Howe
Roman Krznaric
Marcela Sabino
Nanjira Sambuli
Achim Steiner

4D Panel Future steward:
Faruk Kaymakcı

UNDP Innovation liaison:
Milica Begovic

Thank you to Kelly Kornet for co-authoring the Ethnographic Experiential Futures (EXF) framework which scaffolded this project

Thank you to Robin Wall Kimmerer for inspiring the artifact for Achim through her brilliant book Braiding Sweetgrass (see “The Sacred and the Superfund”)

Thank you to John Stokes for kind permission to use the text of the Haudenosaunee Thanksgiving Address. © 1993 Six Nations Indian Museum and The Tracking Project. ISBN 0-9643214-0-8

Extra special thanks to Ceda Verbakel, wonderful partner, fellow traveller, and problem-solver-in-chief

* * *

* Or design fiction, speculative design, etc –– call it whatever you like really –– but know that experiential futures, more recently dubbed design futures in some quarters, has its own genealogy and contours grounded in decades of futures work; lots to dig into for the curious!

Foresight is a Right
> Dreaming together
The Spirit and the Letter
> Design is storytelling
Introducing experiential futures at the BBC
> Ethnographic Experiential Futures article / KBFS / original post
> Syrian refugee girls imagine their futures
> Using the future at NASA
> Bringing futures to Stanford
> Wanted: 25,000 Miles of crime scene tape
Design and Futures open access book / intro to Vol. I