Monday, December 07, 2009

A climate of regret

An older, sadder Barack Obama looks back on the Copenhagen climate conference

Today marks the beginning of the United Nations climate conference in Copenhagen, COP 15. As delegates and media converge on the Danish capital, they are being greeted at the airport by a strange sight: environmental advocacy groups Greenpeace and TckTckTck have created a series of billboards depicting various world leaders ruefully looking back from the year 02020, having not seized their opportunity in 02009 to commit to decisive cuts in greenhouse gas emissions.

Old, sad French President Nicolas Sarkozy

Sad and old German Chancellor Angela Merkel

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown. Only older. And sadder.

Each is emblazoned with the same message. "I'm sorry. We could have stopped catastrophic climate change. We didn't."

In case you haven't been following the news (say, you're writing a doctoral dissertation or something), Planet Green has posted a helpful, brief overview of what's at stake in Copenhagen. Meanwhile, Greenpeace Climate Rescue Weblog explains this last-minute campaign to engage the emotions of decision-makers:

We're hoping these ads predict the wrong future -- the one where world leaders look back with a "coulda, shoulda, woulda" attitude at a Copenhagen climate summit which failed. There's still time to change the future. Our recipe for world leader regret-avoidance is simple: agree a fair, ambitious, and legally binding deal to save the climate.

(Er, save the climate?)

Anyway. While it is not clear to me whether the busy itineraries of all or any of the high-profile individuals concerned will afford them a glimpse of their future selves -- which would make this really interesting -- over 15,000 people are expected to attend (source: CNN), and no doubt many of those will be passing through Copenhagen Airport.

So it's an ingenious and valiant attempt to make the climate message personal; here's hoping it makes some difference.

[[All images from Greenpeace, via Osocio; see also COP 15 set at Greenpeace's Flickr photostream. Sad, old versions of the leaders of Russia, Poland, Brazil, Spain, and Canada are also part of the set.]]

Related posts:
> Ignore global warming (an acerbic climate-themed campaign by the World Wildlife Fund)
> Future shock hits San Francisco (an outdoor site-specific billboard that gave Market Street an earthquake makeover)
> Climate change for fun and profit (Diesel's commerce-friendly take on rising seas)
> Facing future (evidence that artificial aging is hit and miss)
> Future news-flash: your vote counts (pre-'08 election videos activating anticipatory remorse for U.S. non-voters)

(Thanks, Dad.)

Friday, November 13, 2009

The Unthinkable and the Unimaginable

Update (25MAR10): Video of the lecture (minus the interesting post-talk Q&A, unfortunately), made available on YouTube courtesy of CCA, is now posted here too.

Update (6APR10): This presentation is also now downloadable on iTunesU, together with others in the same lecture series by presenters including designer Tim Brown, artist Guillermo Gómez-Peña, and critical theorist Donna Haraway. (Thanks to Garry Golden for unearthing this.)

Last night I had the pleasure of guest lecturing at the California College of the Arts (CCA) in San Francisco. The title was "The Unthinkable and the Unimaginable: Why Futures and Design are Getting Married". Our starting point came from a speech, ever on-target, by scifi-and-design prophet Bruce Sterling at South By Southwest back in 02006:

We’re on a kind of slider bar, between the Unthinkable, and the Unimaginable, now. Between the grim meathook future, and the bright green future. And there are ways out of this situation: there are actual ways to move the slider from one side to the other. Except we haven’t invented the words for them yet.

(This talk by Sterling, by the way, is a tour de force, even by his exceptional standards: check out the mp3 via BoingBoing, and full transcript via blogger Sean Harton. Sterling also did an excellent and, it seems to me, overlooked talk about the intersection of futures and design in this same CCA lecture series, back in 02006, highly recommended: video at

An outline of last night's presentation...

It is our critical collective need to be able to think the supposedly "unthinkable", and imagine the "unimaginable", that is driving the merger of futures and design practices. Futures provides a big-picture context and sense of the stakes for design work, and design brings concreteness and communicative effectiveness to futures. Together they can do far more than simply convey propositional content about possible futures; they enable otherwise schematic, affect-free, "flat" images of the future to be fleshed out, thought and felt -- in a word, experienced -- in a more profound way.

But the notions of unthinkable and unimaginable are just the extremes of a normative spectrum: dystopian (unthinkably bad) at one end, and utopian (unimaginably good) at the other. As important for our collective well-being as it is to engage these edge-cases, part of the offer of this union of design and futures thought/practice is to move beyond the long-standing and limited utopia/dystopia binary. We need to be able to think, and feel, the "possibility space" of alternative futures in more dimensions -- ones not pre-designated (often thought-stoppingly) as desirable or undesirable. To do this, we can use Jim Dator's four generic images of the future (GIFs): continue, collapse, discipline, transform. Dator's framework, which groups scenarios into sets of narratives based on the trajectory of change that they express, can be -- and for many years at HRCFS, actually has been -- deployed generatively to map and explore the "four corners of possibility space", providing a way to range imaginatively and yet systematically towards the outer limits of possible futures, before proceeding to home in on probable and preferable ones.

The meat of the lecture lay in examining a whole series of projects which exemplify the marriage of design and futures work. My focus was on those efforts I knew best, that is, in which I was personally involved -- mostly undertaken in Hawaii over the past four years in collaboration with Jake Dunagan and a variety of artists and designers (above all Matthew Jensen and Yumi Vong). Some of the projects discussed may already be familiar to readers of this blog -- the experiential futures produced for the "Hawaii 2050" kickoff; FoundFutures artifacts including Postcards from the Future and the Chinatown project; our intervention at SXSW '08; the show curated by Sally Szwed at CCA's own Wattis Institute, and more. These stand as part of an emerging breed of exploratory design/futures work that attempts, we could say, the coinage of some of those needful words Sterling references in the quote above. Except that an important part of this new vocabulary comprises not literally words, but rather objects and experiences, and the methodological approaches that help call them into being.

It was great to have an opportunity to discuss these ideas with such an attentive, curious audience, and I am told that this instalment of the CCA's Graduate Studies Lecture Series will shortly be available online. I'll post when that happens. Many thanks to Nathan Shedroff, Nathalie Kakone, Brenda Laurel and others at CCA who helped organise the event.

Also, while we're in update mode, I should add a word or two about what's been going on here at the sceptical futuryst. In the busy time since my last post, I've joined the Executive Board of the World Futures Studies Federation, passed my comprehensive exams and begun writing my doctoral dissertation, and unofficially relocated my base of operations to the San Francisco Bay Area. I have a load of material to blog, but dissertation-writing remains top priority for the time being. Still, I do expect to be able to post here more frequently than I have in recent times, so please do get in touch [stuart at futuryst dot com] if you spot anything that belongs in the mix!

Saturday, August 01, 2009

Coral Cross concludes

The Coral Cross landing page (logged-in state) while the game was on foot

Folks, much water under the bridge in the past month. One week ago was the conclusion of Coral Cross, on which project, more soon. For now, though, here's the final email we sent out to players, which should give those weren't able to participate some sort of sense of what went on...

date: 28 July 2009 23:41
subject: Thank you for playing Coral Cross

Dear Coral Cross supporters,

Late Saturday night Hawaiian-time, Coral Cross drew to a conclusion, after a month of gameplay. Mahalos are due to who took part in this modest experiment in real-time pandemic awareness, the world's first 'Emergent Reality Game'. The project duration was extended well beyond its originally planned week-long window, in order to allow more widespread access to the experience.

From a final tally of 520+ Pandemic Aware Citizens, 400 were from the USA (of which, one in four was from Hawaii), as well as 30 from the UK, 20 each from Canada and Australia, and smaller contingents from across the globe: Argentina, Belgium, Brunei, Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, India, Japan, Luxembourg, Malta, Malaysia, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Pakistan, the Philippines, Romania, Serbia, Spain and Sweden. By the end, with a particularly virulent strain of the virus spreading rapidly through our player population, 350 had become 'infected', of which 101 passed away, and 21 recovered. (Take note -- this represents an extraordinarily high case fatality rate. We the living should count ourselves lucky!)

During the course of Coral Cross, some 700 comments were contributed across the full range of forum topics on Pandemic Awareness and the Vaccine Queue. This figure excludes the many conversations carried on via profile 'wall posts'.

We'd like to take this opportunity to congratulate again players who excelled in Coral Cross. Along with those who completed the extra activities -- the Twitter challenge and the N95 mission (and who were duly recognized for doing so, with bonus Vigilance) -- we'd like again to acknowledge those rewarded with discretionary bonuses for outstanding substantive contributions. These top players were DISZASTER, DUSTYGK, INTO THE WOODS, JASOND56, MAYA and TUMBLEWEED. In addition, CONNIE must be noted for exceptionally high Vigilance, taking part tirelessly in discussions, and providing influenza news and links to other players.

The trio of Super-Vigilant individuals who ascended to the rank of 'Leader' (earning at least 600 points, while activating at least three new players) were MAYA from Belgium, MAX from Virginia and KALANI from New Zealand. Well done! The top fifty Coral Cross players are listed in full at the bottom of this email.

We should also reiterate our thanks to the many people who made the project possible. They are named at the Credits page, which can still be accessed via

Finally, friends; on behalf of the Hawaii Department of Health, we hope you found participating in Coral Cross an interesting and worthwhile experience. Now that this phase is finally complete, we would welcome your feedback. Especially if you completed the pre-game survey -- but even if you didn't -- there is a brief evaluation questionnaire here: (Please note, this was produced for the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention independently from the game's design.) To contact the game's designers with direct or more detailed feedback, do feel free to email us:

The game may be over, but as time goes by, there is little doubt that the need for Vigilance will remain. Wherever you may be, our hope is that you're now just a little bit more prepared to help your community to face the pandemic flu risk.

Mahalo once again for your participation, be well, and take care.

The Coral Cross Design Team

26 July 2009

#) Vigilance PLAYER Location: Rank
1) 990 CONNIE Toronto, Ontario, Canada: Organizer
2) 921 MAYA Antwerp, Belgium, Leader
3) 837 INTO THE WOODS Minneapolis, Minnesota: Volunteer
4) 769 MAX Fairfax Station, Virginia: Leader
5) 709 ANTON Ottawa, Ontario, Canada: Volunteer
6) 698 JASOND56 Lisle, Illinois: Organizer
7) 696 JASPER Austin, Texas: Organizer
8) 689 DUSTYGK Stafford, Virginia: Volunteer
9) 673 LORE Honolulu, Hawaii: Organizer
10) 671 JSHULTERS Pollock Pines, California: Organizer
11) 646 TUMBLEWEED Antwerp, Belgium: Volunteer
12) 634 TIMOTHY, Luxembourg: Volunteer
13) 629 CORMACMAMC Baltimore, Maryland: Volunteer
14) 625 KALANI Auckland, New Zealand: Leader
15) 615 ORVILLE Greenville, South Carolina: Volunteer
16) 612 NOTGORDIAN San Francisco, California: Volunteer
17) 587= KWOOL Bettendorf, Iowa: Volunteer
17) 587= HMV2914 Saginaw, Michigan: Organizer
19) 578 XI MAO Honolulu, Hawaii: Organizer
20) 576 ARCAS Birmingham, Alabama: Volunteer
21) 575= NJEM Clinton, New York: Volunteer
21) 575= ONA Brooklyn Park, Minnesota: Organizer
23) 574 ZACH San Francisco, California: Volunteer
24) 569 ANARCHY69 Mililani, Hawaii: Volunteer
25) 562= PATITA Austin, Texas: Volunteer
25) 562= ATURO Cincinnati, Ohio: Organizer
27) 561 KAY_D Antwerp, Belgium: Organizer
28) 548 MAPMAKER Honolulu, Hawaii: Volunteer
29) 535 DOMINOKO St. Clairsville, Ohio: Volunteer
30) 534 WYTANAKA Kaneohe, Hawaii: Organizer
31) 532 MARIA New Haven, Connecticut: Volunteer
32) 528 MSI Honolulu, Hawaii: Organizer
33) 527 BELLATRIX KALE Mohnton, Pennsylvania: Organizer
34) 523 MISROI Overland Park, Kansas: Volunteer
35) 522= SYZYGY6 Mountain View, California: Volunteer
35) 522= KATRON BAXTER Kirkwood, Missouri: Volunteer
35) 522= STORMCASTER2001 Bomaderry, New South Wales, Australia: Volunteer
38) 518 SNAP Aiea, Hawaii: Volunteer
39) 516 NADINENH Canonsburg, Pennsylvania: Volunteer
40) 513 JONTTU Tervakoski, Janakkala, Finland: Volunteer
41) 506= CHEFROZ Eleva, Wisconsin: Volunteer
41) 506= DAINTRY Ewa Beach, Hawaii: Volunteer
41) 506= SUSAN Austin, Texas: Volunteer
44) 505 VERITHROS Tucker, Georgia: Volunteer
45) 503 SBAK723 Ohio: Organizer
46) 501 LESAN, Sezimovo Usti, Czech Republic: Volunteer
47) 497 NANCY Honolulu, Hawaii: Volunteer
48) 489= GHADHEAN Olympia, Washington: Volunteer
48) 489= ETHER790 Macon, Georgia: Organizer
50) 488 A. CORVUS Bloomfield, New Jersey: Organizer

The game contents are currently being archived

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

The inverted sublime

Watching the DVD of the 02006 documentary Manufactured Landscapes about the work of Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky, I was struck by an observation he makes in relation to one particular image...

Edward Burtynsky (01983) Kennecott Copper Mine #22, Bingham Valley, Utah
Image via iCollector

So I decided to do mining as a theme. This particular photograph is Bingham Valley Canyon, just outside of Salt Lake City. My research took me to the largest, I was always looking for the largest mine. What I was hoping to find was something that spoke to scale, that spoke to the fact that we as a species are now dwarfed by our own creation, that the sublime has inverted itself. So, at one point we were kind of fearful of nature -- it's like the Turner with the ship going off to sea in a storm* -- and that nature was the omnipresent fearful force, and the sublime force. What I was trying to do with these images was to say that force has shifted, now we are a force within the planet, or on the planet, and it is our own creations that dwarf us.

~Edward Burtynsky, Manufactured Landscapes, Stills Gallery with Commentary (DVD extra), 'Manufactured Landscapes' series, commentary to slide #3

Here, the photographer pinpoints, and distils into a symbolically-laden encounter with the unseen fruits of our collective industry, a historic, even mythic, transition point with which we are still, ever so slowly, coming to terms. Did we do that?

Recently we seem to be discovering inconvenient truths everywhere we look, Frankenstein's monsters around every corner.

This evening, when I dug up the link for the Seminar About Long-term Thinking that he did for the Long Now Foundation in July 02008, I noticed that chapter 15 of the video of that seminar was dubbed "Future Responses to Images of Today". The first remark made by Long Now impresario Stewart Brand introducing the post-presentation Q&A session: "It's going to be interesting to see what these images look like in a hundred years' time, a thousand years' time, ten thousand years' time... I have a feeling this kind of imagery -- you're dead right -- is exactly the kind of thing to launch through time."

Coincidentally, I'd been entertaining an almost perfectly symmetrical line of thinking. One of the things I sometimes consider in relation to future artifacts -- Strategic Anachronisms -- is the following thought experiment: If I had to send a time capsule of the present back to the past, say 100 years ago; which objects, images, elements of today might I pick out as most surprising, instructive, evocative, or characteristic of our times? Burtynsky's stuff could well find its way into my capsule selection: I find these images bear a kind of historic weight; they document something profound about What's Going On Here.

That is: we have inverted the sublime, and awaken with awe to the scale and import of what we have wrought. Yet, as terrible as many of the consequences of our industrial transformation have been, this moment of recognition seems to portend the taking of a new level of responsibility commensurate with that power. Or, as Stewart Brand put it in another context: "We are as gods and might as well get good at it."

* This may be the Turner painting that Burtynsky had in mind.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

This is not a game

The Coral Coral website yesterday (27 April 02009)

I haven't been posting lately due to intensive work on Coral Cross (described in the previous post). Also, the last week has been one of the strangest of my life. A little background...

Back in October 02007, Jake Dunagan and I ran a project called FoundFutures: Chinatown, wherein we created a series of alternative futures for this historic Honolulu neighbourhood, and with a little help from our friends, manifested these possible future Chinatowns in tangible form during a multi-part 'exstallation' in the area. One of the stories concerned a flu epidemic that took place in (a version of) the year 02016, and this caught the attention of some folks in the Communications department of the State Department of Health (DOH).

Wearing our Hawaii Research Center for Futures Studies hats, we started talking about doing some kind of project for DOH using this distinctive "experiential futures" approach, and they applied for a federal U.S. grant to pursue the idea. That was early in 02008.

By September that year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced that Hawaii's grant application for a demonstration public engagement project about influenza preparedness had been successful. We at HRCFS then pitched an alternate reality game (ARG) that would build both on our experiential scenarios for FoundFutures and Hawaii 2050, as well as on the success of 'serious ARGs' such as World Without Oil (02007) and Superstruct (then soon to launch) in addressing near-future challenges.

A particular aim was to help people provide input for the state about who ought to be vaccinated first, once a vaccine were to become available, a life-and-death question laden with ethical, political, and cultural implications. To answer it, however, required enabling folks to grasp some important, and frequently misunderstood, background facts: pandemic flu is different from seasonal flu; vaccine is different from antivirals; and vaccine specific to a pandemic flu strain -- since by definition such strains are immunologically unfamiliar -- would take months to formulate, produce and distribute.

We considered that an accessible, immersive storytelling effort should help people to take the premise seriously -- a challenging proposition since the last pandemic was in 01968, and out of sight generally means out of mind. For months, then, the HRCFS team has been working intensively on creating the architecture and content for an experience that would enable people to project themselves undergoing the experience of a flu pandemic. The scenario was set in 02012, partly to avoid a War of the Worlds-esque confusion on the part of our audience. In order to tell the story authoritatively from within the 'alternate reality' scenario, but without pretending to the mantle of a real organisation like DOH or CDC, we created an entity called the Coral Cross. This was a grassroots network, a product of Obama-era public service and web savvy, which in our story emerged in September 02011 after a category 5 Hurricane Cyrus devastated the island of Oahu.

However, after months of design and research, and just a few weeks prior to the scheduled launch, an extraordinary coincidence has occurred. Just before the world's first pandemic flu-themed alternate reality game was to begin -- and following pregame media coverage by ARG websites and local news -- an actual outbreak of swine flu in Mexico, quickly spreading to other locations, has made the fictional premise redundant.

The flu crisis is now real.

And now, so is Coral Cross; transforming, seemingly with its own alternate-reality momentum, as our design team works at full speed to adapt an 'alternate reality game' to a 'reality game' supporting real-time futures exploration as this story unfolds.

As I said, the last week has been one of the strangest of my life.

For me, the swine flu news, which at first I found curious but in no way alarming, came via the CDCemergency twitter feed -- which, bizarrely, I happened to start following last Wednesday (22 April) before any of this was in the headlines, and the most recent message was the first hint of a story soon to erupt:

It has been truly eerie to see this once-in-a-blue-moon scenario occurring just on the verge of hypothetically staging just such a scenario. Last Thursday afternoon, as I was setting up to shoot a Coral Cross press conference set in 02012 -- announcing the onset of a pandemic -- as part of our pre-launch storytelling effort, our lead designer Matt Jensen sent this email:

Subject: Oink

Do we have a contingency plan if a pandemic strikes before our game launches?

We did complete the shoot, incidentally, but in view of events since then, won't be using the footage anytime soon.

Part of me of course finds it hard to say goodbye to the carefully crafted alternate reality premise and extensive in-world storytelling we had undertaken. It is weird -- a mixture of vindication, disappointment, and deep concern -- to see scenaric details, carefully imagined and crafted by our team, being supplanted by reports in the same newspapers and press conferences whose style and conventions we'd been drawing on to tell our story. But the strangest thing is seeing our advocacy for preparation and forethought so swiftly outrun by the flux of events themselves. I can't help but relish the irony that we have spent months strategising the incursion of a hypothetical future into the present, when in a matter of days, we’ve seen instead the incursion of reality into our hypothetical future.

"Any useful statement about the futures should appear to be ridiculous."
~Jim Dator

Embracing that change as best we can is, ultimately, the only option that makes sense. Will the 'swine flu' develop into a full-blown pandemic, or prove to be a false alarm; or rather, something between those extremes? No one can say. But the only sensible way to complete the project we have begun, while accommodating the genuine and pervasive uncertainty that attends these unfolding events, is to make that very uncertainty the subject of our exploration. This is the option that we recommended over the weekend to the Department of Health, and that, as of last night, they confirmed.

The core design team on Coral Cross consists of visual designer Matthew Jensen, interaction designer Nathan Verrill, creative consultant Jake Dunagan, and me as the project lead. I consider myself highly fortunate to be working with such adaptive and ingenious people that we can even consider spontaneously turning a simulation into a real-time futures exploration. But that's what's needed. And we applaud the Hawaii's DOH for recognising and acting so swiftly on the need to (as we've half-jokingly been saying internally) 'turn the Titanic'.

All this raises some big questions which are still only dimly defined in my mind (and which I don't have time to articulate and address properly right now) about the usefulness of emergency preparation, and the relationship between such preparations and the realities to which they ostensibly refer. (Emergency: an interesting word.) But I trust there will be time enough for all that in due course. For now, we're trying to rapidly reinvent the game to support real-life contingencies, exploration and decision-making; an interesting and difficult but necessary -- and perhaps unprecedented -- task.

Our sincere hope is that this event will prove not to be the pandemic that, at this moment in time, it could yet become. Still, whatever happens, Coral Cross will be there to help. All interested are encouraged to register at

"History is merely a list of surprises. It can only prepare us to be surprised yet again."
~Kurt Vonnegut, Slapstick

The Coral Cross website today (28 April 02009)

Monday, April 13, 2009

Coral Cross is coming

By the end of May, the world will be six months into a deadly influenza pandemic that will take the lives of millions, wreak havoc with economies, and strain the social fabric, irrevocably transforming life as we know it.

Perhaps I should clarify that.

In May, web users everywhere will have an opportunity to take part in a bold experiment, an immersive and participatory "playable scenario" that tells the story of a hypothetical near future in which a flu pandemic takes place.

The project Coral Cross is named for a network of volunteers established in 02011 on the Hawaiian island of Oahu; a grass-roots organisation which in this scenario steps forward to aid islanders as they prepare to weather the crisis.

Coral Cross is being produced by the Hawaii Research Center for Futures Studies, for the state Department of Health, and I'm leading the game development team, an incredibly talented lineup of designers and futures thinkers.

A Honolulu Advertiser article last weekend announced the state's federally-funded pandemic preparedness project, of which Coral Cross is just one part, but we're now able to share a bit more about this piece of the effort. Michael Andersen of ARGNet (Alternate Reality Gaming Network) recently contacted me about the project to ask a few questions. The resulting report, which drew on the responses provided, appeared yesterday, but for the interest of other futurists, game designers, and pandemic flu watchers who may wish to know more, our email Q&A is reproduced in full below:

Michael Andersen: What made you and your team consider using ARGs to facilitate discussion?

SC: "Coral Cross" is a playable scenario about the first six months of a global flu pandemic, but with the focus on Hawaii.

The ARG-inspired format for this project grew out of two things.

First, for several years, the Hawaii Research Center for Futures Studies has been innovating in the design of objects and experiences that help people consider alternative future scenarios in a deeper way. We call this area of practice "experiential futures". In 02006, my colleague Jake Dunagan (until recently at HRCFS, now at Institute for the Future) and I staged a set of immersive scenarios to kick off a statewide project called "Hawaii 2050". Hundreds of people experienced four different versions of the year 02050 that we had created for them, to provide a wider context for discussing long-term sustainability in the islands. This approach worked so well that we independently founded a collaborative, public art collective, called "FoundFutures", dedicated to making futures experientially available to people in the midst of their everyday lives. Through FoundFutures we have produced several projects, most notably a series of guerrilla futures "exstallations" for Honolulu's Chinatown -- artifacts and images embodying alternative futures, strategically placed in public spaces. This unique futures-infused form of public art and provocation is an ongoing strand of work.

The second factor is that back when "World Without Oil" launched, we were becoming increasingly aware of the potential benefits of situating these future experiences in a gamelike structure. Subsequent discussions with WWO designers Ken Eklund and Jane McGonigal confirmed that our efforts to date had independently led us to many of the same conclusions as ARG designers about what makes for effective engagement with a scenario. Then, last year, as a Game Master on IFTF's "massively multiplayer forecasting game", Superstruct, I had an opportunity to consider more closely the similarities and differences between what we had been attempting to do as futurists, on the one hand, and what certain publicly-oriented ARGs aimed to do, on the other. Due in part to the example of FoundFutures Chinatown, an opportunity arose for us to create an experiential scenario about pandemic flu for the Hawaii Department of Health. At that point, the two strands clicked, and we knew we'd be doing something more explicitly ARGlike than we had tried before.

MA: What kinds of audiences are you hoping to attract with this game?

SC: Although we have approached the design in such a way that people can participate from anywhere, we will judge our own success mainly by the degree of engagement we can achieve in Hawaii, and especially on Oahu, the most populated island. In other words, anyone can play, but our core audience is here. A key limitation comes from the fact that fewer than one million people live here, because unlike national or international games, we're not drawing our core player base from a distributed pool of many millions of possible players. However, it also has two upsides. First, we can make use of the limited geography -- a captive audience, if you like -- by using more real-life elements to augment the storytelling. Second, as a member of our design team observed, the fact that we're tackling a global topic, pandemic flu, with a local tilt, not only gives it an interesting flavour, but it also helps focus the scenario. Instead of trying to evoke every last thing about how the world could transform as a result of a deadly disease sweeping across it, the island acts is a sort of microcosm in which, no matter where they're from, people will be able to see what's at stake more clearly and concretely, in how particular lives and communities are affected.

To render an abstract possible future concrete, and to have people participate in and be affected by this future, is perhaps the key principle behind "experiential futures". The last several years of work have been a very rich period of work in this area, and we're excited to see what Coral Cross can add.

MA: Can you give any hints as to what media you will be utilizing and how you will elicit interaction out of the participants?

SC: It is a cross-media effort, and I can't say too much more at this point, but the golden thread of the experience will be online, so anyone interested should go to and sign up.

MA: What is the timeline for the game? Approximately when can we expect to see a launch, and how long do you anticipate it to run?

SC: Coral Cross will run in the second half of May, an "event" which happens on a specific, shared timeline -- like pandemic flu itself. The story we're telling is on a scale of months, but the experience in real time will be short, on a scale of a week or two: one month per day. Once we're underway, it's really important for players to check back every day. Changes will happen very quickly!

MA: How do you see this project fitting in with your work at HRCFS?

This project is part of our effort to make foresight relevant and actionable to the public. Our mission is to inform and prepare the leaders and citizens of the State, the region, and the world, for possible changes on the horizon, such that better decisions will guide us away from negative outcomes, and toward preferred futures. ARGs are becoming a key tool in public futures practice and communication, and we need to experiment with this tool and learn how best to use it.

Let me know if I can clarify or elaborate on anything for you.

MA: Thank you for your time, and good luck on the project. Please let me know when it goes live, as I'm very interested in following the game's progress.

SC: Anyone can now submit their email at and they will be notified in May when things start to happen.

Folks, our next big experiential futures project is underway -- and you're invited to participate.

Many thanks to Michael Andersen and ARGNet for taking an interest in this effort.

Related posts:
> "Hawaii 2050" kicks off
> Experiential scenarios on video
> FoundFutures (series of posts)
> Humans have 23 years to go
> Gaming the end of oil

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Made in Sweden

sinewave pollinator

After bees became extinct in 2012 (the end of the Mayan Calendar), the future of flora has become uncertain. Many species have since become extinct, but other persist in labs through carefully monitored conditions and specialized nutrient diets.

Sinewaves of a very specific wavelength have been found to be an incredible pollinating alternative, but their effect on humans continues to be tested before the method receives approval.

Somehow some of these devices fell in our lap before approval. Be careful!

The Umeå Institute of Design, a top Swedish design school, recently held its Spring Summit 02009 on the theme Sensing And Sensuality. Students in the Interaction Design (IxD) graduate program there created some charming artifacts from the future as souvenirs for Summit speakers, which included such luminaries as Matt Jones and Adam Greenfield.

Kluged together from what look like pieces of decommissioned VCRs and other electronics, the wittily improbable stories accompanying these objects may tend to push them past design fiction, and towards what at first I mistook for design fantasy...

delayed molecular paralyzer (unboxed)

OLRs (Organic Living Robots) need maintenance too, but you well know they don’t like it.

Use a DMP to tranquilize them and stunt all cellular respiration momentarily so you can perform maintenance on them without being inflicted harm upon.

The Paralysis starts 3 minutes after exposure and lasts exactly 57 minutes. A more potent dosage unit is in the works.

blue interval skipper

The proliferation of Blue-Ray DVDs led to the Blue Ray Catastrophe of 2015. How amazing that we humans hadn’t figured out that blue light causes retinal cancer!

The blue light leaks that led to that event were a wakeup call. You think you are safe now with blue light filters in all public and private environments.

Surely if you are reading this, you are an explorer of outlying territories. For that you will need this device if you treasure your vision.

This batch comes from a commando of new-era Brazilian territory surveyors.

neutral gender propagator

Laboratory reproduction has rendered gender an unnecessary disturbance.

It’s well-known that gender-positive humans still roam the earth. Gender Neutralizers are to be used on their nature-induced newborns after capture and during incubation.

Not to be used on infants over 7 months of age.

But rather than design fantasy, or even critical design, for me these artifacts instead present as design parody.  Calling to mind the late science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke's maxim that "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic", these pieces joke about the mysterious, near-dysfunctional lack of legibility in advanced industrial design.

Being pieced together from found components, they also seem to deploy a 3d version of future-framing, because it's not their design per se that's at the heart of these objects, but the new mini-stories which accompany them. It's the refurbished backstory, the newly futurised context, the soul transplant via narrative, that brings them to life.

Related posts:
> Future-framing images
> The MacGuffin Library

(Thanks Jake!)

Friday, March 27, 2009

Killer imps

The Royal College of Art on one of the days I visited (beautiful weather unforeseen)

Last week and the week before, I had the privilege of joining the Design Interactions department at the Royal College of Art (RCADI -- previously mentioned here) for several sessions as a Guest Lecturer. It was an exhilarating and exhausting experience with a brilliant group of people, and I loved every minute of it. One of the many benefits of this valuable chance to weave our idiosyncratic version of futures into their idiosyncratic version of design was that it forced me, or enabled me (or some combination of those) to become considerably clearer on how the two play together.

The lecture I delivered on 12 March at RCA was titled "Design Interactions with Futures". Our point of departure was my observation that, when it comes to the intersection of design practice and futures practice, we can for analytical purposes discern two principal tendencies, facing in different directions. One is futures in support of design, and the other is design in support of futures. (I'm continually surprised by how hard-won, how long in coming, such basic insights can be -- and how blindingly obvious in retrospect.)

Those categories denote pretty much what you would expect. Futures in support of design describes work in which the exploration of one or more future scenarios is finally subservient to the creation of products, services, or whatever. Examples might include the design probes conducted by companies such as Philips, Nokia and Whirlpool; or the concept designs produced by Adaptive Path, such as the Charmr diabetes treatment device, and the Aurora web browser. All of these use an extended time horizon, therefore unhooked from certain present-day constraints, to facilitate more creative exploration of the artifacts that might become possible in the short- to medium-term. They are all, however, ultimately about making things.

Intuitively enough, design in support of futures, by contrast, describes that type of practice where design output is not an end in itself, but rather is used as a means to discover, suggest, and provoke. This territory, where design aspires to contribute to The Great Conversation reaching well beyond the community of design practitioners itself, is host to such concepts as "critical design", "design for debate" (both terms long used by RCADI masterminds Tony Dunne and Fiona Raby), and "discursive design" (a phrase I first encountered in this recent Core77 article). It's also a much better fit for the work that Jake Dunagan and I, with our various collaborators, have been doing for the past several years via FoundFutures and elsewhere. Whether they take the form of "theory objects" (which is not a bad descriptor for the types of things RCADI students often make), or of less fragmented, more immersive "experiential scenarios", design in support of futures and its ilk are all about the conversations and insights made possible by manifesting futures tangibly in various media.

I don't want to overdo the distinction between these two, because clearly concept designs informed by futures may enable exploratory conversation or debate, just as critical design artifacts intended to spur conversation may lead to products. (The first example of an ambiguous melding of the two that comes to my mind is the output of the so-called "design led futures" program at Victoria University of Wellington, recently blogged here.) Indeed, the mutually informing, overlapping, properties of these two modes of work for me simply highlight how fruitfully chaotic the design + futures intersection can be.

Since sharing the above ideas in London, I've had occasion to take this strand of thought a little further, particularly in relation to the similarities between the experiential futures work we've done and the practice of "Design for Debate" developed by Dunne and Raby.

Paola Antonelli is senior curator of design and architecture at New York's Museum of Modern Art, which hosted the remarkable exhibition Design and the Elastic Mind last year, featuring the work of these critical design pioneers as well as several of their students. Earlier this week, in an article for SEED magazine, Antonelli wrote: "Design for Debate does not seek to produce immediately 'useful' objects, but rather meditative, harrowing, always beautiful object-based scenarios." Here's Dunne and Raby themselves on Design for Debate...*

Design today is concerned primarily with commercial and marketing activities but it could operate on a more intellectual level. It could place new technological developments within imaginary but believable everyday situations that would allow us to debate the implications of different technological futures before they happen.

This shift from thinking about applications to implications creates a need for new design roles, contexts and methods. It?s not only about designing for commercial, market-led contexts but also for broader societal ones. It?s not only about designing products that can be consumed and used today, but also imaginary ones that might exist in years to come. And, it?s not only about imagining things we desire, but also undesirable things -- cautionary tales that highlight what might happen if we carelessly introduce new technologies into society.

In conversation with the design duo over lunch last week, when they mentioned the distinction between applications and implications, it leapt out at me. Traditionally, design practice has been preoccupied with the former, whereas theirs, and that of their Design Interactions students, is more concerned with the latter. And it seems to me that this maps rather well onto what we examined a moment ago: "futures in support of design" amounts to an orientation to applications, while "design in support of futures" can be seen as pointing towards implications.

Applications are necessarily convergent -- concerning that part of the design process where ideas, intentions and constraints culminate and are distilled into solutions, embodiments of the exploration process. Implications, on the other hand, are intrinsically divergent, multiplicative, compound; not only are there alternative futures, but there are first, second, and third-order effects (and so on, as far as you care to go) for any given innovation or development you might name.

What futures uniquely contributes to the exploration of implications is a framework for the systematic exploration of these contingencies; ways of managing the mess of possibilities.

In exploring design applications, the futures component is by definition more instrumental. It is oriented to opening up new markets and product lines, and so is less apt to surprise or challenge in profound ways. It is preoccupied with the superficial "litany" layer of discourse, perhaps sometimes scratching the "social" layer too, as identified by academic futurist Sohail Inayatullah. Where the focus is on exploring implications, though, design is a vehicle by which futures are freed to unfold, and to take us where they will. Well-designed interactions "with" and experiences "of" future scenarios may help unearth, whether by challenge or gift, deeper dimensions such as desires, norms, and values. Put in terms of Inayatullah's framework, this entails addressing the worldview layer, and sometimes, maybe even touching our bedrock layer of metaphor and myth. That ideas about the future can be designed to be encountered and engaged affectively, as a part of the continuum of lived experience, rather than just linguistically and cognitively, as in a classic philosophical thought experiment, is essential. The key challenge, then, for those of us interested in this dimension of the design + futures conversation, is to figure out for any given scenario(s) which of the endless potential implications -- the folds and eddies we can detect in possibility space -- are the most potent, game-changing or significant, and to use these as triggers to take the contemplation of possible, probable and preferred futures to the deeper layers.

To put it another way, our lot (whether as "critical futurists" or "critical designers") is not to sniff out killer apps, but to acquire an instinct for identifying killer imps.

* These question marks appear in the original, in place of apostrophes. I was about to "correct" this formatting accident in the quote when I realised that it was entirely appropriate.

Related posts:
> Object-oriented futuring
> Tribal futures
> Morphing art and design into advertising
> Open Source futures and design
> Design led futures

Monday, March 23, 2009

Future interfaces

World Builder, a lovely short by visual effects specialist Bruce Branit, takes on a substantial and heady topic: it basically imagines the future of imagining itself. (Branit is a highly accomplished digital artist -- you might recognise his handiwork on recent episodes of TV's Lost, for example, as featured in his current showreel.)

This ten-minute video, which apparently took a day to shoot, followed by two years in post, set me to thinking back to Michael Schrage's 02000 book Serious Play, which is about the importance and development of prototyping practices:

As prototypes become ever more powerful and persuasive, they will compel new intensities of introspection. To paraphrase philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, they will become conceptual machine tools for postindustrial innovation -- not because we are now gifted with finer imaginations but because we have better instruments for imagining and rehearsing the future. [p. 36]

I would go further than Schrage does here, by suggesting that "prototypes" do serve as prosthetic extensions of imagination: if the net effect is improvement in our imaginative capabilities, what does it matter whether this is traced to external rather than internal changes? Either way, though, the point is the intense consideration, whether introspective or collective, enabled by thinking aloud through various media. Schrage also says:

[T]he value of prototypes resides less in the models themselves than in the interactions -- the conversations, arguments, consultations, collaborations -- they invite. [p. 20]

Seen from that angle, the interesting thing about this kind of video lies in the conversations it seeds, or helps grow. What sorts of new design approach (World Building applications, gestural interfaces, and so on) will this vision, however indirectly, enable? While Schrage's interest lies in prototyping and innovation as practised within commercial organisations, we can see how the principles of its value extends beyond that limited setting when the "prototypes" are, so to speak, Open Source, or accessible to the public.

In this case, we have a sort of stand-alone concept video for a holographic interface; but sometimes similar prototypes are embedded in popular films or television shows. Kevin Kelly, who blogged about the video earlier this month, noted:

Like the famous Apple Navigator film from decades ago, or ATT's You Will series of ads, or the Minority Report's scene of transparent gesture interface, this fictional depiction is convincing and inspiring. I want one now.

Indeed, some interaction designers have recently been paying attention to the connections between interfaces portrayed in science-fiction on the one hand, and real-life technological innovation on the other. And, while I can't say I know a great deal about that topic, these seem to be important transreality sites, places where (what are originally created as) explicitly fictional images of the future bleed into the present. Future interfaces, in more ways than one.

The only thing is -- and it's not a complaint, just a curious aspect of watching this film -- I couldn't shake the feeling that someone was advertising at me. Was this an extended commercial for flowers? A plug for a service of some sort, say, UPS? Or perhaps something broader and slightly more self-referential, like a graphics card or microchip? After a while it hit me: of course, it is an ad; a ten-minute ad, for the considerable talents of the fellow who made it.

As we've seen before here, self-promotion and public service can find a synergy when it comes to elaborating and disseminating well-wrought images of preferred futures for general consumption.

Related posts:
> Object-oriented futuring
> Public service and self-promotion meet on the adaptive path
> Reality prototyping
> Design fiction is a fact
> Neill Blomkamp, visual futurist

(via The Long Now Blog and Kevin Kelly)

Alternative afterlives

The cover of Sum (U.S. edition)

While in London last week, I was given a new book which came with a glowing recommendation: Sum by David Eagleman. I got through it in a few short train journeys, and it's an astonishing read.

Written mostly in the second person ("You find yourself in a great padded compound...") like a choose-your-own adventure or role playing gamebook, it consists of forty short stories or thought experiments -- the genre is neither one nor the other, but both -- each embodying a different cosmic dénouement. That is, in the same way that storytellers sometimes propose a series of alternative endings for a narrative, this collection does that for life itself, by offering alternative afterlives. If this concept strikes you as self-important, dull, or contrived, as an experience, it was none of those things for me, and indeed such a misapprehension provides all the more reason to get hold of a copy. Also, if (like me) you are fascinated by Matters of Ultimate Concern but left cold by most traditional, religious and institutional responses to such mysteries, it is an outstanding read, by turns funny and moving, playful and profound, and important without being self-important.

I'll leave it to you to find examples, if you want them, so I can focus here on the approach and tone of the book. It's highly original, and yet reminiscent of such diverse sources as the magical-realist thought experiments of Jorge Luis Borges, the now-light, now-dark cosmic wit of Neil Gaiman or Douglas Adams, and the philosophical vision, schematic-yet-personal, of Jim Carse's Finite and Infinite Games. In the stories there are shades of The Twilight Zone, The Truman Show, The Matrix, and more -- but I fear that merely to list such references does a disservice to the author, perhaps through too many comparisons conveying an impression of work that is excessively referential and diffuse, when in fact it has a beautiful, focused sense of its own agenda and voice. What Sum has in common with the above may be certain of its themes, and especially its willingness to engage in imaginative, big-picture speculation with a sensibility that encompasses or synthesises both the ironic and the romantic, both good humour and deep seriousness.

In intent, perhaps most of all the book reminded me of the late, great psychonaut Terence McKenna, many of whose theories (Timewave Zero, psychedelic mushrooms as alien intelligences, etc) appear to have been designed not necessarily to convince his audience of their truth as such, but rather to prove how outlandish the various ideas are that it is not only possible, but also (given how little we truly know about the universe) plausible to believe. As John Lennon put it, "Reality leaves a lot to the imagination."

And I learned today (via a blog entry at Amazon) that this is a theme which Eagleman -- a neuroscientist -- intends to take up in his next book, Why I Am A Possibilian. The notion of Possibilism (Possibilitarianism?) seems to me to provide an amusing and much-needed counter-meme to the narrow faux certainty of Singularitarianism, and I shall look forward to the follow up with great interest.

Meanwhile, I urge regular readers of this blog -- in all likelihood, veteran Possibilians themselves -- to seek out Sum wherever you can find it. Like any well-wrought set of future scenarios, each story (hypothetical outcome) can be read as entirely consistent with what is known, or believed, about the past and present so far, while simply positing different next steps. And, like the artful exploration of alternative futures, the juxtaposition of these many alternative afterlives evokes a sense of possibility space in multiple dimensions which makes it far more than merely the sum of its parts.

Related posts:
> Kurzweil's dangerous idea
> On the scalability of small opportunities

(Thanks, Brian!)

Friday, March 06, 2009

Future-framing images

"Grey goo — a hypothetical end-of-the-world scenario in which out-of-control self-replicating robots consume all matter on Earth while building more of themselves"

The sculptures pictured above are by U.S. artist Roxy Paine, and these images come to us via a beautiful online gallery of sorts: but does it float. I went there looking for something else and found this.

However, what I love here doesn't reside exactly in the art itself, but in the dimension added to it through the associative caption about nanotech, copied in at the top of this post. This seems to be a contribution of site co-curator Folkert Gorter (whose name I've just recognised; he's the designer of the Space Collective website, previously blogged here). At a stroke, his imaginative label recasts the misshapen products of Paine's SCUMAK (Auto Sculpture Maker) as artifacts from a nanotech future. Instead of (or in addition to) seeing what may originally have been a comment on the automation of art, we're invited to see fragments of some kind of lab experiment in self-replicating machines gone horribly wrong.

This seems a sort of inversion of the perceptual shift from ostensible reality to sculpture which we saw here a few days ago.

Now, since attempting a full-scale experiential realisation of a future world is not only impossible, but also unnecessary (recalling the Borgesian map that's the same size as the territory), from the point of view of a futures experience designer aspiring to manifest more with less is a good rule of thumb. I have said a word or two before about the iceberg principle that my collaborators and I use in crafting future artifacts: if there's another way, why make the whole iceberg? "The more effective-yet-cheap a prototype can be, the more efficient and pared-down a model it is for the scenario in question." In other words, the trick is to discover, then create, the most revealing possible evidence of the future world you are trying to convey.

Among future-artifact design desiderata, cheap and easy is, if not best in any absolute sense, probably better than expensive and difficult. (As usual, Cascio nails the point, in a post about artifact production on the cheap over at Open the Future: "do not underestimate the memetic power of good photo editing skills and a quality color printer". Some examples.) What more elegant solution in this vein than simply to relabel, recontextualise and thus reorient perceptions around some extant element of the mediascape? The still images captures something of the world, and a new caption may recapture it to a different end.

A term I want to suggest as apt here, borrowing a little from Lakoff's linguistics, is reframing the image. With a well-wrought future-frame around it, an old image may be put to work anew, in our minds and discourse, serving as a makeshift theory object for our collective contemplation. We've seen this strategy at work before in the World without oil photo essay.

But a different angle on it comes from an observation David Byrne made several years ago [my emphasis]:

In thinking about graphic design, industrial design, and what might really be the cutting-edge of design, I realized it would have to be genetic engineering. Dolly (God rest her soul) represents the latest in design, but it is, in her case, design we cannot see. Dolly looks like any other sheep, which is precisely the point. The dogma of some graphic designers is that their work be invisible. This perfection has been achieved with Dolly.

Notwithstanding the fact that Dolly has already passed into history, the cloned sheep image helps illustrate the type of creative operation I have in mind: Consider a picture of a regular sheep (yes, any sheep will do). Now imagine that it's a clone; add that label to it in your mind. The label -- or maybe what I really mean is the narrative for which it stands in -- recontextualises the image, futurising it, transforming it, semiotically, and thus experientially, into something else. Byrne's idea of "design we cannot see" invites a different way of looking. However, rather than scanning for invisible "facts" that we might suppose are "really there", we could instead scan for invisible potentials, future-frames, hidden stories, with a view to excavating them. What possible narratives might be read and infused into the images we find around us?

The juxtaposition of a future-framing narrative with a present-day image seamlessly retrofits the image as a glimpse of a scenario yet to come. The limitation is that it confines us to extant imagery, and there's surely much more to be imagined and created that doesn't have a ready precursor or analogue among ingredients presently available. Still, as a genre of futures exercise -- practice in a certain way of seeing -- it strikes me as interesting; and with this, I'm forced to wonder whether the cheapest and most elegant future artifacts aren't perhaps these ones that, so to speak, already exist. Since the reperception consists in a minimalist linguistic-imaginal feat, rather than in the creation of novel sensory percepts, this is perhaps the apogee of the iceberg principle (less is more).

I'd love to hear from anyone who happens to find, or create, other examples of this principle in action.

Related posts:
> World without oil photo essay
> Signs o' the times
> Introducing Space Collective
> Cheap prototypes, valuable insights
> Evidence
> Object-oriented futuring
> More found futures

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Amazing = mundane

Last October, standup comic Louis C.K. appeared on Late Night with Conan O'Brien and did an inspired four-minute rant about the paradoxical state of the world. Titled after his central observation in the bit, "Everything is amazing, nobody is happy", the clip has recently gone viral (e.g. via Vanity Fair), and its several appearances at YouTube (1, 2, 3) have together attracted over one million views so far. This ballooning popularity is due, we may surmise, to two things. 1. It's hilarious. 2. His view resonates.

The human alchemy which so rapidly transforms technological wonder into ennui has several consequences.

First, it is part of the way our technology layers over the generations: each is born to a new normal (a process described beautifully by Douglas Adams).

Second, it helps explain how things can seem to have been "going to hell for as long as anyone can remember" while in many ways improving overall in the long run (Paul Saffo).

Third, it suggests that futures work that attempts to leverage the principle of dazzling people ("Flying cars! Underwater houses! Flying houses!") may be questing in the wrong emotional register.

Here we come to the core issue, from a futurist standpoint. As Jamais Open the Future Cascio wrote not long ago:

Changes rarely shock; more often, they startle or titillate, and very quickly get folded into the existing cultural momentum.
The folks in [a future] scenario don't just wake up one day to find their lives transformed; they live their lives to that point. They hear about new developments long before they encounter them, and know somebody who bought an Apple iLens or package of NuBacon before doing so themselves. The future creeps up on them, and infiltrates their lives; it becomes, for the people living there, the banal present.

So, rather than plundering the landscape of possible futures for their potential to startle, this line of thinking suggests that it may be truer to our subject matter if we try to convey the ordinary, quotidian quality of varied ways of being in the future (for which purpose, the already staggering variety of the past and present set a fine precedent: there are a million different ways to be bored). But there's a real art to this. Making the extraordinary seem ordinary is an uncommon feat.

The most successful science fiction films, in a narrative or artistic sense, tend to suffuse whatever novelties they introduce with a lived-in quality that lends the texture of truth. The first work to spring to my mind in this category is Alfonso Cuarón's masterful Children of Men, about which this writer has said:

The reality of the hypothesis, or put another way, the plausibility of the scenario (the mechanism of which is never properly explained in the film) was asserted with such fluidity, confidence, and integrity of detail -- just the way we encounter the real world, which is crammed full of people accepting complete absurdities as wallpaper -- that I found myself drawn in, having to meet the story on its own terms.

The study of futures provides valuable arguments and heuristics for both "making the strange familiar, and the familiar strange". (I don't know who first suggested his provocative formula, but it has relevance for many endeavours, not least art and anthropology.) Devising and communicating what we might call "everyday futures", is an example of the former operation, and I agree with Jamais about our collective room for improvement there.

The latter, however, is no less important. Louis C.K. is looking for laughs, not social analysis, but the insight works either way. He's right: Everything is amazing. To stand back from this every day -- to discern in it not only the banal, but at one and the same time the beautiful and the bizarre -- is to stand in awe.

We are told of a Chinese curse that says "May you live in interesting times". I wonder if it makes things better or worse not even to realise when this has come true.

Related posts:
> Don't panic
> In praise of Children of Men

(via The Long Now Blog)

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Tribal Futures

...meets Open Source Design

Image via Tribal Futures website

Over at her blog The Future of Self-Knowledge, designer Jessica Charlesworth writes about her recent involvement as an "embedded reporter" for a class project in the Royal College of Art's fascinating Design Interactions MA program. Tribal Futures was a four-week collaborative effort between the RCA students and the user-experience group at Vodafone, with support provided by the mobile network company. According to the brief [pdf]:

The development of mobile telecoms so far has been about personal technologies -- there is little successful development or marketing to groups, although as social animals much of human activity and culture plays out in them.

Social theorists predict that traditional units of society such as the family are becoming less dominant, and instead -- elective, tribal groupings are on the rise.
The project's enquiry will focus in on the mundane and the extremes of our behaviour in groups and propose design interventions to support, subvert and celebrate our tribal connections.

We encourage you to extrapolate the current trends in mobile, social and other technologies in terms of their failures as well as successes, and examine what technologies [sic] intended and unintended consequences might be.

Magical nihilist Matt Jones of Dopplr (and formerly, Nokia), who was also involved with the project, clarifies that these terms were "deliberately wide and intended to steer us all from thinking about mobile phones". Accordingly, the variety of outputs was impressive -- as was degree of development that students were able to achieve in four weeks. Overviews of each piece of work can be found here.

Among my favourites are The Singing Flock by Louise O'Connor, who was inspired by the "fluid self-choreography" of starlings -- see the image at the top of this post -- to imagine an online improvisation space, which would display the voices of physically dispersed musical collaborators as flocking birds...

Ben Faga's web 2.1: humility through humanity imagines that vital bodily activities might be relayed, via Web 2.1 Underwear and other sensory apparatus, to our anxiously waiting networks...

And Dearbhaile Heaney's Constructive Hold Spaces would create transient communities and audiences out of the disparate individuals who happen to be stuck on hold in a telephone system at the same time...

Now, if you take a look at the Tribal Futures site, you'll find that each student's output (description, concept designs, drawings, etc) contains a link, in the bottom left-hand corner, back to his or her contributions to the group's research blog, the learning space for the project that Jess was brought in to help populate.

I really like this, and I want to use it as a springboard to draw out an element in the mix here which, at first blush, has less to do with the themes of mobile networks and tribal groupings, and more to do with the fact, as well as the manner, of this graduate design program unleashing its project work on the world. (Not everything that follows pertains specifically to this program, but it's a line of thought spurred by it.)

Of course, shows of students' work have long been a crucial initiation rite for intrinsically outward-facing professions like design and architecture, for the sake of exposure to potential employers and clients, as well as broader audiences (recall the recent example here about design-led futures). But at the risk of stating the obvious, as of quite recently it has become extremely simple to integrate the pedagogical process with the broader conversations and purposes to which a program may be committed. That is to say, not only end-of-semester assignments, but also things done en route (including content sharing, brainstorming, note-taking, and discussion -- all project-development activities which are often undertaken electronically) can be made public as part of The Bigger Conversation, too. Indeed, that's more or less what we did for my experimental future-jamming class last year, via a publicly-accessible class blog that documented students' learning as we went along, and especially as tangible elements of alternative Hawaiis (circa 02038) were conceived, produced and installed out in the world.

But the argument is not confined to an academic setting. Nor need the sharing necessarily occur right alongside the creative process (rather than being made available ex post). One example can illustrate both points: certain Hollywood feature films are developed under conditions of the strictest cloak-and-dagger secrecy, but the clear trend since well before the advent of DVD has been for increasingly exhaustive behind-the-scenes materials to be gathered or generated as part of the production process. These are incorporated either into extras with the home video release (on-set interviews, making-of featurettes, commentaries by cast and crew), or into movie tie-in products sold separately (coffee-table books featuring production artwork, costume and set designs, and on-location tales from the trenches).

To be clear; our claim here is not that public inscriptions along the designer's road are always and everywhere possible, or even desirable. Indeed, constraints routinely affecting commercial design contexts, such as confidentiality due to competition, or security concerns, or a simple desire to work away from prying eyes, may make it preferable for some designers not to talk about how the sausages are made.

Rather, the point is simply to note the increasing viability, and potential utility, of the by-products of the creative process being made more widely available (particularly, but by no means exclusively, around complex collaborations). It seems to me that the more comprehensively the journey can be recorded, so long as the material remains reasonably navigable, the better it stands to serve the cause of collective learning in the long run.

I am reminded of a post from a few years ago by the Near Future Laboratory's Julian Bleecker, who noted the importance of designers sharing their creative exploration:

The process and practice of moving from idea to final version is all too often a process of making the richest part of creativity illegible.

Why? Because oftentimes we don’t treat the practice of constructing objects and things as a kind of theorizing in itself.
I think capturing and even sharing widely ... these articulations at even embarassing [sic] stages would go a long way toward enrolling semantic objects into the larger ecology of social beings.
[I]n the knowledge ecology that is made possible by the world of connected thought -- the Internet -- creativity, innovation, making stuff that makes for more habitable, sustainable worlds is a massively multiplayer game.

It seems to me entirely sensible that the bigger processes and social challenges in which the design community is implicated are aided by lifting the curtain to reveal more behind the scenes activity.

Let's return to the context which prompted these thoughts: the Design Interactions program is well known for its dedication to a distinctive set of emerging strands, or approaches to research, in design practice; among these are design futures, design for debate, design fiction, and critical design. (Here I should note the current controversies and debates over terminology within the field. In a interesting recent piece by Bruce M. Tharp and Stephanie M. Tharp at the widely read industrial design website Core77, a four-part typology for industrial design is suggested, each type being determined by the designer's main intention. Using the language proposed there, the approaches named above could reasonably be characterised as a combination of experimental and discursive design, as opposed to responsible or commercial design.) Still, regardless of precisely what we call them, there is a clear idea in all this that the outputs (designs, artifacts) themselves are not to be regarded as finished objects, but instead, or more importantly, as catalysts for further thought, discussion, and exploration. In that sense, then, they are deliberately, strategically tentative.

A relatively open attitude towards sharing the creative process by which they are generated is in fact an extension of the spirit of the whole undertaking: since even the finished product isn't, traditionally speaking, a "finished product", earlier stages of the discussion form an equally legitimate part of the conversation. This ethos is entirely in keeping with a commitment to educative, publicly-oriented and catalytic uses of design practice. In other words, we could say that in addition to the above characteristics, it's also Open Source.

It is a curious and felicitous side-effect of this intellectually generous modus operandi that the program and its students could be said themselves to be modelling a key behaviour for the development of future "tribes" -- i.e., voluntary affinity groups based around shared (in this case, design) sensibilities, commitments, ideas, and passions. In other words, their relative transparency and online openness towards the wider world may make this group a particularly fine example of a 21st century tribe in action.

And, to bring us full circle, Jess's role as an embedded reporter -- or if you prefer, tribe scribe -- embodies this Open Source commitment, as well as the 21st century affinities idea, rather well. Her designated contribution is, one could say, to serve as a conscious agent, cyber-archivist, and advocate for the collective identity and memory of the group, via the documentation and preservation of its discovery process, for both internal and external audiences' contemporary and future reference.

A quick word about Jess, whom I met at the New Sciences of Protection: Designing Safe Living conference held at Lancaster University last year (where she was also the designated -- and very European-sounding -- programme rapporteur). Jess is an alumna of the fascinating Design Interactions MA, and protégée of critical design pioneers Fiona Raby and Anthony Dunne. She has also, among other interesting things, founded a hypothetical organisation called The Futures Association for Therapy and Entertainment, or The FATE Institute, "a fictitious future forecasting institute that acts as a vehicle to generate personalised future forecasting services". It explores "the cross fertilisation between three methodologies of future forecasting; ancient divination, corporate futurology and predictive gene testing" (a frighteningly plausible ménage à trois involving science, pseudoscience, and good old fashioned quackery).

It is with great thanks to her and to Fiona that I announce the happy news that I'll be joining the current Design Interactions group in London for several sessions later this month, to help introduce them to futures and its usefulness in supporting design exploration -- and vice versa.

I can't wait to meet the rest of the tribe.

Related posts:
> Future-jamming 101
> Object-oriented futuring
> Design-led futures
> The MacGuffin Library
> Open Source futures and design
> Public service and self-promotion meet on the adaptive path