Tuesday, October 18, 2022

Welcome to The Futures Bazaar

The Futures Bazaar: A Public Imagination Toolkit is published by Situation Lab & the British Broadcasting Corporation

(Update 20dec22: The Futures Bazaar has been named a Most Significant Futures Work of the year by the Association of Professional Futurists! Winners of the 02022 #IFAwards were announced here. Many thanks to APF for this recognition in the Inclusive Foresight category, and gratitude again to our BBC collaborators and all who contributed to the project, listed in this post and also in the kit itself.)

Picture a wild and wonderful place where all alternative future possibilities co-exist at once, and can be physically encountered in real life; a kind of multi-dimensional exchange, where tangible objects are put on offer from countless possible worlds.

This crazy setting is not just an idea, but somewhere I’ve visited — twice, actually. And you can, too.

The Futures Bazaar: A Public Imagination Toolkit, created and written together with my fantastic design futurist colleague Filippo Cuttica, has just been released by the British Broadcasting Corporation and Situation Lab. It’s available to download for free from the BBC here.

Thinking concretely about times to come is harder and rarer than it should be. That’s why this is an open access public imagination toolkit. It’s designed to help make such thinking a bit easier and more common.

The Futures Bazaar toolkit is basically a turnkey framework for setting up a co-creative gathering or design jam where participants transform everyday objects brought from home into unique things “from” alternative futures, to provoke, amuse, and inspire each other. Every participant helps imagine and produce these future artifacts, and every artifact tells a story.

You know, the toolkit is itself a sort of artifact, with a story of its own.

A few years ago, before the pandemic, we staged the first Futures Bazaar for the away day of the whole design side of the BBC.

It was great. There was zaniness. There was creativity in spades. At the end, there was even beer on tap. More about this wild experiment we did with BBC designers can be found here.

Other things equal, perhaps that would have been the end of it. But soon afterwards, I ran a second iteration in my required design futures course at Carnegie Mellon. (This time, no beer.) It seemed like an appropriate way to introduce a roomful of undergrad designers to the idea that any item can mobilise an array of associations and tell a range of stories. Playing with the signs and sensemaking of material artifacts in this way proved a neat on-ramp to broader vistas of experiential futures practice.

Both bazaars went so well that the process seemed to be crying out to be shared with a wider audience. Then Covid-19 struck, and everything went on hold.

However, as time passed, and the pandemic wore on, the widespread need that prompted this project in the first place — the need to support shared spaces of imaginative engagement — has become only more obvious, and more urgent.

In order to adapt and distill the Bazaar design into a toolkit, Filippo and I spent months working on how to make organising one of these events as intuitive as possible, without us being in the room. Our aim was to enable any motivated gathering, equipped with a basic projector setup, some printouts, and ordinary household objects, to imagine countless possible worlds and bring them to life on the spot. 

The Futures Bazaar can now be run by anyone, anywhere. It is for players of all ages, in all fields. It is intended for use in public and private organisations, government bodies, schools, and nonprofits alike.

It offers a chance to expand horizons, explore new ideas, and develop capacities for foresight, creativity, and storytelling, all in just a few hours. It can be set up as a stand-alone event such as a company away day, or within a larger workshop, course, or event series.

Conceived in the traditions of experiential futures and participatory design, it might be part of a journey — as at the BBC itself — towards building foresight capability, engaging alternative futures in more open and creative ways, or it can be used more for fun — teambuilding through worldbuilding.

The toolkit is made up of three elements: Manual, Slides, and Printouts. The Manual (a complete guide for use in hard copy or on a tablet) helps you plan your own event, the Slides (to display on any large screen or projector) help you run it, and the Printouts (ready to go in either colour or B&W) are for distributing to participants on the day. All this has been packaged into a single zipped folder containing the full set of PDF documents for download here.

This project has been able to take advantage of some of the experiments and learning at Situation Lab, the creative research unit that I’ve run for the last nine years. The toolkit incorporates elements from our award-winning game The Thing From The Future, and it also builds on the participatory design events that we at Sitlab carried out with Extrapolation Factory; the Futurematic design jam series, held in the mid-2010s in Toronto, New York and Los Angeles.

The kit’s acknowledgements section tips the hat to the many folks who made this publication possible, but above all, The Futures Bazaar toolkit is dedicated to the memory of my dearly missed friend and longtime collaborator Jeff Watson of the University of California’s School of Cinematic Arts, co-creator of The Thing From The Future and co-founder of Situation Lab. The invention of openly available, playfully framed, creatively enabling frameworks and designs was among his great gifts, and an inspiration throughout the project.

Filippo and I, with our talented collaborators at the BBC, are delighted to be sending this toolkit forth into the world, hoping it will travel, and be taken up far and wide. We can’t wait to find out what people get up to with it.

If The Futures Bazaar sounds like something you might like to run, you can go ahead and download version 1.0 of the kit right now. If there happen to be folks in your world who might enjoy it, please share this article or the project link with them. We plan to make additional guidance available for those interested, so following Sitlab, Filippo or me on Twitter would be a good way to keep up with the latest news and announcements.

The world can be a frightening and unpredictable place. This project is not going to solve all its problems. But we are in earnest when we say that we think the capacity to imagine is key to shaping the futures, and this kind of collective play is key to imagination.

So get playing… we look forward to seeing you at the #FuturesBazaar! ✨ 

The Futures Bazaar invites you to expand horizons, explore new ideas, and transform everyday objects into things from the future


This article previously posted on Medium. A variant appeared at Situation Lab.

Gaming Futures Literacy (article on The Thing From The Future)