Wednesday, September 26, 2012

How to make Stone Soup

A traveller comes to a small village. Producing a large pot, and a stone, he asks the village folk for some water with which to make stone soup. The reception is sceptical. Stone soup? But someone brings the water, and the stranger sets about making a fire for the pot. Word spreads. A crowd gathers. Soon the stone is bubbling away in water. The unlikely cook asks, might someone be willing to spare a dash of salt or pepper for flavour? The villagers, now intensely curious -- the soup is nearly ready -- scrounge for a sprig of this, a scrap of that, and slice of something else. All go into the pot; simple garnish for this absurd meal being coaxed from a stone. Yet before long, everyone has eaten their fill, and they can but wonder at the stone that has somehow managed to feed them all.


Storytelling, in all its forms, has been a central interest of mine for a long time. More recently it has become clear to me that it's the fundamental and age-old artform at the heart of futures practice. But this post is about something else.

On moving back to Australia from the US late last year, I'd been thinking about running a regular event, built around the sharing of stories from personal experience. I asked around, and didn't hear of anything already going on in Melbourne quite like that.

The seed had been planted by the example of some friends in San Francisco. They have been running something called Fireside Storytelling every month for about eight years. I'd also attended its younger, lewder cousin, Bawdy Storytelling, as well as Porchlight, a series similar to Fireside. All are enjoyable and popular events; an evening's theatre founded on a participatory ethos and community atmosphere.

The month after settling into my current apartment, I was finally established enough to make things happen. Intending first to try it out at my place after work on a Thursday, I figured people would be hungry, and that the gathering could feel awkwardly stagey if stories were the only component. So I folded a potluck dinner into the invitation too, thinking that ingredient could drop away after one or two rounds, and we might then look at scaling up to a more professional performance-type affair at a real venue.

The first night was themed 'Far From Home'. Almost everyone has a travel story they enjoy sharing -- the makings of a nice, novice-storyteller-friendly start to the experiment. A dozen people came, and five or six of us shared stories. It was a wonderful evening, more than enough encouragement to do it again. The home setting and potluck dinner (mostly vegetarian for maximum shareability) worked beautifully, and so they stayed. We've now held this event six months in a row, and it has been terrific every time.

This is Stone Soup. It is a community potluck and storytelling evening: bring a dish, and, if you like, a story to share inspired by a given theme.

Between a dozen and 20 people attend. Twenty seems sort of a practical upper limit due to the size of my kitchen table. It might go well with smaller or much larger numbers; we'll find out at some stage.

Stone Soup deliberately does not work or feel like the usual informal sharing of stories at a dinner party, or down at the pub. Nor is it as formal as an evening's theatre. It is a mixture; light-touch ritual. The storyteller stands at the head of the table, so is 'on stage' a little bit. The dynamic's on a borderline between that of a gathering of friends and one of strangers. As the host and primary guest-wrangler, I'll already know most -- but not all -- of those around the table. Because of an invitation only and word-of-mouth approach to filling seats, some of the participants always know each other too. So there's a baseline of familiarity, and also a getting-to-know-you element, bridging towards each other.

It's interesting to me how Stone Soup seems at once both new and old. The breaking of bread together and sharing of stories speaks to instincts at least as ancient as humanity itself. We've found also that it touches on something quite contemporary, a lack or even a longing many of us feel; for connection to those around us by startlingly simple and direct means. Although this event is by no means unique in doing that, it does seem to do it in a unique way. A variety of people have taken part so far, and all remark on how different it feels from the rest of their social calendar. Even my most socially active friends and dinner hosts find Stone Soup intriguing and, somewhat to my continuing surprise, novel.

It is a pleasure to listen to other people's stories, and a different kind of pleasure to tell one's own. Sharing like this, it seems we ennoble and elevate one another. In particular, there's a species of focused attention that is striking to experience as an audience member -- and especially as a storyteller. Having done a little bit of stage acting, and quite a lot of public speaking, I find Stone Soup significantly different from both scripted performance and intellectual improvisation. It's intimate, empathic, communal, and personal. Aspects of the storyteller's personality are telegraphed with startling clarity to the room; ways of thinking and feeling, their presence, amplified. On the other side, there's also a sense of rediscovering your own story in the telling, with reactions revealing things as comical or strange in a way you may not have recognised before.

A couple of participants (Kaila Colbin, Julian Waters-Lynch) have written about what taking part has taught them. As the name suggests, Stone Soup is not hard to make, yet the results are highly gratifying.


What follows are principles that have emerged from the experiment so far:

Anyone can tell a story, but no one has to. We've thought about making it "everyone brings a story". That'd be a fine event too. But sometimes you just want to listen. This way accommodates differential levels of comfort, energy, and extroversion, and makes sharing a story an option rather than an obligation. It also tends to awaken on the part of passive listeners a desire to 'pay it forward' by sharing a story at future events.

> There's a theme. This is provided in advance, with the invitation, say 2 or 3 weeks ahead, so people can be thinking a bit about stories they might share. The theme lends a cohesion to the evening, pointing it in a different direction each time, so it's worthwhile to keep coming back. Even if someone decides not to share a story, their thinking about the theme in advance lends a certain alignment, and to the actual procession of stories the delight of now complementary, now mutually resonant interpretations - "I never would have thought about that angle". Our themes so far have been 'Far from home', 'That was when I realised', 'Three', 'Mystery', 'Magic', and 'Unfinished Business'.

Half-prepare, half-improvise. In almost every case, I have had no idea what stories people were planning to tell, just whether they have something ready to go or not. Lining up the first batch of storytellers in advance, generally as they arrive, helps it run smoothly, so as the host I know we have at least the beginnings of a program. The first storyteller is especially important to set a tone. The break after the first half is a good time for people to serve themselves seconds or switch to dessert. Once people are relaxed, have had some wine, have heard a few stories and begun to get a sense of the theme, then the other half takes care of itself.

> Stories come from personal experience. This is a very accommodating principle. One person brought a poem. Another read out some love letters she'd received via Facebook. One distributed props he'd created especially for the occasion. For the evening 'Three', a trio of attendees jammed together during the break on musical instruments they'd brought along. Stories can be any length, but around ten minutes seems a good time to aim for.

> One storyteller at a time. At Stone Soup in Melbourne, I invite storytellers to a 'stage', standing at the end of the table. By design, this sounds a mildly formal note against a congenially informal backdrop. I introduce storytellers by their full name, and we applaud to welcome them to the stage as well as to thank them for their story. I'm told it's slightly intimidating -- but only slightly; and usefully so, as it makes the telling of a story just enough of an accomplishment. Stories delivered while seated at the table are great too, and we've done some of that as well. It has a nice informal air, but the inevitable backchat and ensuing conversation tends to spin focus away from the storyteller's moment, which is paramount. The other day we had a double act - one storyteller, accompanied by a first-timer who turned out to be an absolutely mesmerising violin player. But the focus of the room was not in doubt for a single moment.

> New blood is important. We aim for a third to one half new people each time. This is part of what gives the creation of group intimacy its significance. Each month we send invitations out to the growing list of previous attendees who have expressed interest in coming back. The fastest RSVPs get the seats, and all have the option to bring along any guest who hasn't come before. This growth of our little circle means demand is quickly coming to outstrip supply of seats at the table. This is good. Supply exceeding demand makes the event more special - and sooner or later may motivate people to run Stone Soup events themselves. Friends in Christchurch, Sydney, San Francisco and Chicago already have plans in the works.

> Participation rules. Stone Soup is people (cf. Soylent Green). It is more than the sum of its parts -- but it does need parts. As I've said once or twice during an expectant silence around the table in the improvisational phase: for the soup to work, you have to put something in the pot. As a host this means being willing, not to dominate, but certainly to share yourself: open up the space, and then if necessary, set an example. I'm far from being the best storyteller to have taken the stage at Stone Soup, but I am learning a lot by running it, and the willingness to share my own delights, embarrassments, and reflections has proven altogether broadening.

> The best stories are the most generous. It's not necessarily the event-driven fireworks of a death-defying experience that make for a compelling story. A moment in the midst of everyday life, experienced in a certain way, sets itself apart as extraordinary and powerful revelation. Related evocatively, it can become that for the audience too. The best story is in the telling, and the best telling is in the revealing. So the most important ingredient for any storyteller to bring, I've come to suspect, is generosity. As a storyteller, if facing a choice between two possible stories, the one that shows more of myself -- though possibly more uncomfortable to tell -- is the more meaningful.

So there's one way to make Stone Soup, subject to change, of course, as we experiment and learn.


'Stone Soup', an old European folktale, has always appealed to me. It's about a situation where the whole amounts to more than the sum of its parts. It's a parable of community. It is also, I now think, a trickster story* -- a trick of the most wonderful variety, the scam for the greater good. It is in that sense a tribute to the commons. The stone is of course a pretext for bringing other elements together -- a MacGuffin -- and the substance of the story, the magical synergy that transcends additive arithmetic, as of our eponymous event, is in the way it elicits a willingness to contribute and to commune.

And Stone Soup has led me to think more deeply about storytelling. Thankfully, and contrary to my earlier concern and impression, I no longer think of it as a dying art. But it has in short order, historically, become a latent one: we're more passive than ever before in the face of narrative artforms professionalised and commoditised in the space of just a couple of generations. Don't get me wrong -- I am myself an avid lifelong consumer of such products. But at the same time we owe it to ourselves, I think, to tell our own stories, to develop this most basic of human capacities, and thereby to connect more closely with the people in our lives.

Let me invite you to try making Stone Soup for yourself. And then, please; come back and share your story.

Related posts:
> The act of imagination
> Future food for thought
> The MacGuffin Library

* This is Lewis Hyde's influence: having read Trickster Makes This World and The Gift back to back last year, these two wonderful books continue to rework how I see things.

Thanks to Julian Waters-Lynch and Rolf von Behrens in particular for their encouragement and involvement in getting this event up and running. Cheers to Fireside Storytelling and especially Tim Pratt for the inspiration. Stone Soup snapshot at header courtesy of Erick Mitsak.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Design is a team sport

I was interviewed recently for Architecture Australia by editor Timothy Moore about the importance of collaboration in foresight and design for the built environment. The conversation grew out of an AA Roundtable we did on related themes in Canberra back in May.

Photo by Lisa McKelvie courtesy of Architecture Australia
From left: Hal Guida, Catherine Townsend, me wearing a slightly pugnacious expression for some reason, Ben Hewitt, Timothy Moore

Both exchanges highlighted for me the great extent to which my work as a futurist within Arup, a global design and engineering firm, consists in providing opportunities for people to share and negotiate disparate perspectives of futures possible, probable and preferable -- as opposed to simply cranking out supposedly futurogenic collateral. I keep thinking of my friend and fellow futurist Jamais Cascio's line, "With enough minds, all tomorrows are visible", a riff on the Open Source dictum known as Linus's Law. The kind of practice that these times call for, especially in the massively multiplayer game of the 21st century city, is built upon a fundamentally Open Source sensibility, a collaborative structure and intent: the meshing of many minds. That means not only that foresight itself should be treated as a team sport (the apt phrase of my former CCA teaching collaborator Jay Ogilvy), but also that for all sorts of design activity, be they explicitly foresight-themed or not, we need to enable significantly more participatory and bottom-up approaches than have traditionally been the norm.

An edited version of the interview appears in the current edition of AA (vol. 101, no. 5, Sept/Oct 2012, pp. 70-76), alongside related discussions with two other "strategic designers". I haven't ever used that label on myself, but it's a handy lasso bundling us together here. The others are Ben Hewitt, South Australia's Government Architect, and Rachel Smith, a transport planner at AECOM in Brisbane, who has also been a curator at the BMW Guggenheim Lab in Berlin. (The piece also runs opposite a great article on "multi-scalar thinking" in architecture by my colleague Michelle Tabet.)

Thanks to Timothy Moore for making both the original panel and follow-up interview happen. Below is the text as published, with some links I've taken the liberty of adding.


The future is coming - but there are several of them. As a leader in foresight at Arup Australasia, Stuart Candy's task is to enable people to make considered choices about these potential futures, in the face of the complexity of the environment around them and its rapidly changing context. While he cannot predict what will happen, Candy works out various scenarios for the future by bringing people - and all their anxieties and aspirations - together.

Timothy Moore As a part of Arup's Foresight and Innovation team, you identify and monitor the trends and issues likely to have a significant impact upon the built environment and society at large. You literally look into the future. How do you do this?

Stuart Candy The heart of this work is about serving as a catalyst to enable, encourage and exemplify different ways of looking at things. It is about inviting and at times seducing people into a certain way of thinking, rather than mandating it. As the pioneering corporate futurist Pierre Wack put it, foresight is "the gentle art of reperceiving" - looking at the present in terms of the alternative potentials that it contains, to inform wiser action today.

We set a process in motion whereby people can discover for themselves the choices they face, and the future implications of various paths that might be taken. It's a different philosophy from that of the guru who distributes pearls of wisdom. It's intrinsically collaborative.

An example of this approach in action is the Drivers of Change cards, which the Foresight and Innovation team created. Each set of twenty-five cards looks at a theme - ranging from climate change, to poverty, to oceans - and each card encapsulates a trend or issue that will have an impact on the built environment as change unfolds. The cards cover a huge range of social, technological, environmental, economic and political issues, and we use the cards both internally for our own research and externally to help our clients and partners. (The cards are also publicly available.)

TM How do you go about getting people to see possible futures in terms of making people realize that everyone plays a part in making architecture; that everyone is, in fact, building?

SC There's a 1958 essay, "I, Pencil," written from the pencil's point of view. The pencil says, "not a single person on the face of this earth knows how to make me." Now, a pencil seems a basic enough artefact, but this pencil has a point: there's far more to it than meets the eye, so no individual knows every detail. It's a complex synthesis of different skill sets and knowledge bases. If that's true of a pencil, its obviously the case for the scale and complexity of things produced by architects and engineers. Nobody can know everything about any project, so what matters is the process of bringing the elements and expertise together to make it possible anyway. We're co-creating these highly complex design outcomes.

And this is also true of the future overall. What we get is the product of everyone's actions, which is just one of many imaginable pathways.

TM By going into the future, there is more uncertainty because of the increasing number of unknown variables. The Long Now Foundation, of which you are a research fellow, looks ten thousand years into the future in order to encourage tong-term thinking.

SC The "long now" is an invitation to see the whole of human history, past and future, through a wide-angle lens. That time horizon comes from the approximate birthdate of agriculture, about ten thousand years ago. It's a seriously big-picture challenge, a time span three or four orders of magnitude longer than most of us are used to thinking, and a terrific provocation to the culture at large. But in most organizations, the relevant version of this challenge is to stretch our collective time horizon out even a decade or two. Certainly, multi-decadal time spans are directly relevant for the buildings, infrastructure and urban environments that we at Arup help to shape, but they are well beyond the typical attention span of most businesses, politics, media and even education.

One thing that a "long now" view makes clear is that different layers of change occur at different rates. For instance, you can't really see or say anything meaningful about climate change on the timescale of a few months or years, so you have to tune your attention in to different timespans, like different radio frequencies, in order to pick up the signals.

TM Do people mistake you as a prophet, because you are far-forward thinking?

SC I think there's a pretty deep atavistic impulse towards prophecy in our culture, which we're very slowly coming to outgrow. The fact that nobody can predict the future should be a clue to the fact that the future is not predictable. Still, some people want bold predictions to act on (or argue with), and hope against hope that you'll provide them. And some so-called futurists are happy to oblige. For now, it seems being a guru is easier to sell than being a thought partner or catalyst. The former is philosophically and politically dubious. The latter is a harder sell, but it has the advantage of being true.

The greater service is to help people towards their own deeper and more thoughtful understanding of change. We provide opportunities for them to become comfortable explicitly acknowledging the degree of ambiguity and uncertainty that's really in the system. And this is surprisingly empowering. Seen this way, the future is a landscape of potentials, and the result of thinking about futures in plural terms is that you can prepare for multiple outcomes and (within your domain of influence) act towards those possibilities you'd like to see happen. This is common sense, but we need to be reminded of it regularly.

TM How is this philosophy demonstrated in your work at Arup?

SC The first external project that I did with Arup in Australia (after moving from the US in late 2011) was for the CEO and executive team of the Sydney Opera House (the original design and build of which was the project that put Arup on the international map). This engagement was about considering some upcoming renovations in a broader context of change. They have three years worth of performances booked already. So when a facility like this wants to change any physical aspect; for example, if they want to do a renovation or a new build, they must factor in significant lead times, and it can take up to five years from planning to project completion. That's half a decade of rapid change, and for a cultural organization in the midst of a technological revolution in how people access and consume cultural artefacts - consider that the iPad didn't exist three years ago - this has big implications for how any renovation process might proceed.

Generally, we shouldn't simply plan for today's problems (and opportunities), because by the time we've solved those, there will be different ones. You can be sure that the people, businesses and places you're designing for will keep changing. Especially when you talk about a design with a life expectancy of decades or longer, down the track that design may be part of a world that's radically different from today. In this light, it suddenly becomes obvious that thinking systematically and creatively on these longer timeframes is not just a nice thing to do, it's crucial to doing good work.

Monday, April 09, 2012

Future food for thought

Our friends over at Institute for the Future in Palo Alto recently released a report to help people think about possible futures of food for the next decade.

Four Futures of Food serves up a quartet of scenarios plotting out alternative descriptions of how America, as well as the wider world, could be eating in the year 02021. Each is based on a different trajectory that change could describe — Growth, Constraint, Collapse, or Transformation.

In the Growth scenario, 'Consumers can get practically anything they want, whenever they want, and without much concern for cost.'

In Constraint, a food poisoning outbreak triggers massive loss of confidence in internationally traded food and meat, as the global rallying cry becomes "Know your farmer. Eat local. Eat plants."

Collapse is a future in which previously ignored stresses on pollinator bee populations cross a critical threshold to cause widespread crop failure and scarcity.

In Transformation, people embrace lab-grown meats and domestic 3D-food printers which are networked to share recipes. Much as social media and blogging have upended the mediasphere, in this future, food supply chains and restaurants are suddenly reinvented.

The narratives are recounted in just enough detail to help readers see how they could really happen, and further thought is invited by accompanying vignettes of a typical dinner in each world. The plausibility of the Four Futures is further underlined by examples, from the history of food, of each of the four classes of change.

This set of alternative stories about the future describes a wide range of outcomes, yet each clearly grows out of specific seeds of change that can readily be found in the present, if we know how to look.

Overall it is a really interesting, accessible, and usefully provocative piece of work from IFTF, shedding light on a critical subject; the viability and vulnerability of food systems. This appears to be a topic of great public interest and concern, as attested by the works of Eric Schlosser and Michael Pollan, as well as by recent popular documentaries including Food Inc, King Corn, and The Future of Food.

The Long Now has also made a contribution to long-term public thought and discussion around these issues, notably through Jim Richardson’s recent SALT talk 'Heirlooms: Saving Humanity’s 10,000-year Legacy of Food' and Pollan himself on 'Deep Agriculture'.

But I want to take a moment to comment on the story behind the stories that IFTF puts forward in its food futures briefing.

As the report indicates, the framework used for generating these four ‘generic’ or ‘archetypal’ scenarios originated with Jim Dator, a Professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. It was brought to IFTF in 02008 by their Technology Horizons director Jake Dunagan, an alumnus of the graduate program in Futures Studies which Dator has run in Hawaii for the past four decades. (I know this from having studied alongside Dunagan and Dator in that same program.)

Through working extensively with student and community groups in the then-embryonic field of futures since the ’60s, Dator’s key insight, which he published in the late 1970s, was that the countless disparate notions about the future could be grouped into these four categories. This made possible a different kind of conversation. From the chaos of incommensurate notions about possibilities emerges a way of characterising both the landscape of future narratives and individual elements in it.

Similarly, devotees of the analysis of storytelling have long realised that although the specific narratives presented in various media are innumerable (plays, books, movies, TV, comics, etc), underpinning that huge set is a very small number of basic plots.

The four futures can be used not only descriptively, but also generatively, Dator realised. Starting from the generic descriptor, such as Transformation, you can creatively 'deduce' specifics of a hypothetical future that tells a Transformation story. That’s not all you need, of course; to craft a premise for the story and details that are suitably thought-provoking, and then to express these compellingly, all are elements of a scenario-producing artform. But what the four futures offer is a valuable starting point for testing our thinking across the widest conceivable array of potential outcomes.

Dator was among the first to develop curriculum around futures studies. Until the early ’70s, there was no such thing as a university program that taught thinking systematically about the ways the world could change. Since that time, a small yet lively and internationally distributed community of futures scholars and practitioners has emerged — although in many ways it has been disconnected from mainstream public discussion of 'the future'.

There’s a profound irony here: a critical starting point for futures thinking is rejection of the artificially siloed way in which university disciplines produce and share knowledge, and yet until recently, the silo of academia itself prevented insights from the field from making their way into the wider culture.

The net result is that even after almost half a century of futures studies, mainstream thinking about the future remains tragically shallow. Perhaps its principal shortcoming is an obsession with prediction (THE singular future), which the field of futures studies has recognised from the outset as a fatal limitation.

Which brings us back to the excellent contribution of the Four Futures report. As the introduction notes, "When imagining the future, we often assume things will keep moving in the direction they have been in the recent past." It goes on to use Dator’s four generic futures to create four radically divergent stories about the future of food, as a basis for encouraging the reader’s further exploration.

Many ways other than this are of course available for generating scenarios (such as the well-known 2×2 matrix developed by Jay Ogilvy and his colleagues at GBN), and many methods other than scenarios for thinking both rigorously and imaginatively about possible futures. The point is that wherever such methods are used engagingly, competently and transparently for a public audience, there is some possibility of collective learning.

The usefulness of mainstreaming methods such as Dator’s archetypal futures is that it moves towards a futurist equivalent of teaching people to fish, rather than feeding them fish already caught -- scenarios mysteriously cooked up somehow behind the scenes.

Thus, both this IFTF report, and its coverage in mainstream journalism (by the always excellent Ariel Schwartz over at Fast Company, for example) can be seen as small but significant signals, not only for the future of food, but for the future of futures. They are small steps in a gradual cultural process of open-sourcing deeper, longer, and wiser thought processes -- or so we may hope.

Originally posted at The Long Now Foundation blog, 27 March 02012.

Related posts:
> Humans have 23 years to go
> The Futurist banquet

Monday, March 12, 2012


"Possibilities are a whole area of mental activity which lies between truth and total fantasy. It is a very rich area because for any one truth there are many possibilities."

~ Edward de Bono

Source image via.

TEDxFutures is an independently-organised event that takes place entirely in various alternative futures.

One talk could be about the geoengineering consortium that succeeded in turning the tide on climate change.

Another could be by the woman who won the landmark courtroom battle to have her artilect-human marriage legally recognised.

There might be a demo of the pioneering "full-body broadcast" from Australian Olympic swimmers via neural interface.

Or we could hear from the Chinese-African co-op that crowdfunded an independent settlement on the moon.

These are examples I've just made up. Whether or not these specific ideas resonate, plenty of other futures are possible; that's really the point.

There are at least three reasons to explore this approach to a live event.

First, it's wide open. Any presenter could play out their greatest concern or fondest dream with compelling immediacy. Unlike a talk about the future, of which there are a great many already, these would speak from, and recruit the audience into a particular future. It would be framed and offered as reality, just like today -- good, bad, or outlandish -- and richly illustrated with whatever collateral, such as video or photographs, may be required to corroborate that world. Regular readers will recognise this as an extension of themes covered at this blog for years (see Related Posts below), but as far as I know, nothing quite like this has been attempted before. (Feedback about relevant precedents would be most welcome.)

Second, it'd be incredibly fun and exciting. The presentations wouldn't tell us what we may want people to accomplish, but show us how we did it, and help us understand how it felt. They'd manifest a possible future and take us there. Bringing these ideas to life would be a worthy challenge for speakers both established and new, and plausibly doing so would actually require a synthesis of best practice from across all the elements (t, e & d) that the event is intended to showcase; tied together, as always, by the timeless art of spinning a damn good story.

Third, it'd be useful. We're not talking about the follies of prediction here. We're talking about concrete narratives with which people can think and feel future pathways. This is in fact the implicit intention of every scenario ever produced. But scenario documents rarely work really to engage people, while well-told stories rarely fail to do so. In our culture, medium to long term futures, decades or more away, are still largely unimaginable to most people. An event like this could make them feel real.

A variant of TEDxFutures could be TEDxTimeMachine (or TEDxAtemporality, if you prefer). Here's a talk about the Second World War by Churchill. Da Vinci on the Renaissance. Darwin on the research that led him to the theory of evolution by natural selection. Forays into dissident, counterfactual and parodic histories and futures could be fair game, too. Reflections on low-tech innovation from the prehistoric R&D team that discovered fire? Or more seriously, a first-hand view of President Jefferson's household at Monticello from Sally Hemings.

Again, these are just illustrations of a generative conceptual platform with ample scope for invention, as intellectually stimulating as it would be theatrically curious.

Why do I blog this now? Two reasons.

I've just returned to Australia from Phoenix, where last weekend a wonderful, landmark event took place: Emerge, at Arizona State University. (Here's the post I wrote on the night before Emerge began; watch this space for more.) It was, more or less, the world's first festival of design fiction.* Works of design fiction are similar to experiential scenarios, but the latter are about evoking possible worlds through experience in any form, rather than focusing primarily on technological artifacts. What unites them is that both are a step or two along the spectrum of immersion from traditional storytelling. We could call them storyshowing. And in the wake of Emerge, the enormous potential of this form of exploration is fresh in my mind.

The other reason is that a short video was released the other day, "from" TED2023; a viral promo for director Ridley Scott's (Alien; Blade Runner) upcoming movie Prometheus. It is super cool: if you haven't already, watch and enjoy. I was delighted to note everywhere in it the clever little fingerprints of LOST's Damon Lindelof, a man who appears to understand as well as anyone alive the value of diegetic -- in-world -- narrative.

The idea for TEDxFutures came to me a year ago during a lunchtime conversation in San Francisco with Danica Remy (a longtime TEDster who, among other notable achievements, used to direct the Worldview program for scenario planning pioneers GBN). The month previous, through my work with Arup I'd helped design and run a workshop at TED2011, together with folks from Autodesk and Singularity University. No doubt this laid some groundwork for the notion of TEDxFutures, which surprised me as much as it did Danica when I suddenly found myself describing it. I didn't pursue it at the time, because discussions had already begun about moving back to Australia with my company. But the concept kept returning to mind, and after noodling on it here and there over the last year, I clearly see how it could work.

By now the TED Talk as a genre has a well established structure and conventions (including lessons as to what makes a good one). These would serve as a basis for venturing into uncharted territory around content -- viz. the rest of spacetime. How so? Over years of developing and staging experiential scenarios, we've learned  that strong conventions of genre and medium provide a marvellous backbone for crafting experiences of other worlds. Whether the real-life reference point is a ritual, such as a eulogy; a media object, like a video advertisement; or a physical artifact like a bronze plaque; a familiar format provides indispensable scaffolding. On both the production side (as a model to work with) and the reception side (as a basis for audiences to comprehend what's going on) these reference points enable productive encounters with some pretty wild ideas.

The TED talk format would provide just such an anchor -- and there's plenty more potential for embodying futurity in other elements alongside the talks themselves. The mammoth variety of available worlds-to-be would, I think, militate against trying to make the whole event speak from a single, canonical future. Rather, the curation process would be about bringing to life a thrilling cross-section of human possibilities.

So TEDxFutures, and even TED itself as a platform for experiential futures and design fiction -- practices on the frontier of speculative culture today -- seems to me a meta-idea worth spreading. In the same way that the more than one thousand talks recorded and shared online to date have come to serve as conversation fodder for millions of viewers, ultimately our collective vocabulary of possibility could be enriched in the same way.

I'm happy to speak with anyone who wants to talk about making something like this happen. As I argued in The Futures of Everyday Life, this is where forward-looking public discourse needs to go (and is going, just not fast enough). It also ties directly to the urgent practical and ethical imperative of learning how to dream new worlds aloud, together. Hence the one-line manifesto of experiential futures:

Be the change you can, and simulate the rest.

Related posts:
> The act of imagination
> The Futures of Everyday Life
> In memoriam
> Hawaii 2050 kicks off
> Design fiction, emerging
> Found Futures

* In case you haven't previously met design fiction, here's some introductory reading: 12, 3 [pdf].

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Design fiction, emerging

It's almost a year ago to the day since design fiction impresario and sometime science fiction author Bruce Sterling emailed me this tantalising provocation:

The imminent question is, what does a "design fiction event" look like? I'm figuring it has some public aspects, like a design-fiction Vimeo showreel and maybe some conceptual objects or experiential futures. Plus a seminar, workshop aspect where we get some of the operators in a smoke-filled room and talk about what Design Fiction would look like if it was something akin to a department of a university.

Long story short, from this early conjecture something quite special is about to emerge. That something is called... Emerge: Artists and Scientists Redesign the Future.

It gets underway at Arizona State University in Phoenix tomorrow, culminating in an extravaganza on Saturday 3 March which shows every sign of being bigger than Ben Hur. The dazzlingly cool program is described over at PhysOrg (via Sterling's blog Beyond the Beyond). In addition to Mr Design Fiction himself, keynote speakers include Stewart Brand, Bruce Mau, Neal Stephenson, and Sherry Turkle, among many other exciting contributors and attendees.

On the program as well is a set of parallel futures-type workshops, being run by such design-fiction allstars as our friend Julian Bleecker of the Near-Future Laboratory, and Intel's Brian David Johnson. The ASU-resident organisers of this improbable venture, particularly Cynthia Selin (whom I've met before) and Joel Garreau (whom I haven't) are an extraordinarily dedicated and clued up lot, and it has been an adventure and a gas just getting to Emerge's eve. Perhaps the sole drawback here, an unavoidable side-effect of so rich a schedule, is that invitees can join only one of the many tempting workshops -- a limitation which also understandably applies to us as facilitators.

So, what am I doing? By early November last year, the concept was beginning to take shape...

This experiential scenario workshop and intervention will consist of creating a monumental artifact zapped back from the future, and possibly a ritual wrapped around it. Much as the obelisk in Clarke and Kubrick's 2001 casts a kind of noetic forcefield, exerting an evolutionary magnetism on the apeish protohumans at the Dawn of Man, so will this monument drag all conversations in its ambit into a forthcoming era.

Then, Institute for the Future's Jake Dunagan, my long-time collaborator from back in Hawaii, came on board -- and all bets were off. This was going to be frigging cool.

The thinking continued to evolve. And last week, our part of the event was described to the then still-congealing cluster of ASU and external participants as follows:

The People Who Vanished
A design fiction playshop
with Stuart Candy and Jake Dunagan

From time to time in the course of human experience, a discovery is unearthed which overturns the accepted view of the world. In the history of culture such a moment may be so significant that it’s as if the very ground on which we stand had suddenly shifted beneath our feet.

The People Who Vanished will be a participatory, transdisciplinary and creative playshop aiming to stage just such a transformative discovery.

‘Design fiction’, is has been said, is the ‘deliberate use of diegetic prototypes to suspend disbelief about change’. The People Who Vanished will create a monumental design fiction artifact to catalyse a sort of ‘archaeological moment’ around reperceiving life in Phoenix as we find it today. Participants in this unique playshop will ‘discover’, during Emerge, a crucial and disruptive artifact from a very different time period – all captured on video for posterity.

In the process, we will co-develop a unique design fiction and experiential scenarios methodology with two leading futures/design practitioners, Stuart Candy (ARUP, The Long Now Foundation) and Jake Dunagan (Institute for the Future, California College of the Arts). Come ready to work and play hard; to be surprised and above all to generate surprise.

It remains our firm intention to maximise group discovery and input over the course of the next couple of days, as well as to adapt as nimbly as possible to inevitable resource and time constraints; so the above necessarily remains just a point of departure for a profoundly unpredictable creative process.

We'll let you know what emerges.

(Update 03aug16: A peer reviewed article about The People Who Vanished was published in the journal Futures; a brief excerpt and links to further reading can be found here at The Sceptical Futuryst.) 

Saturday, February 18, 2012

The compleat Wired future artifacts gallery, 02010

Please find attached herewith, sirs and ladypersons, for your perusal and delectation, another year's harvest of 'Found: Artifacts from the future', Wired magazine's perennial back-pager and, if I may make so bold, its star feature; edited lo these many moons by the one and only ChrisBaker1337.

[wildlife] | Wired 18.01

[pet toys] | Wired 18.02

[medicine] | Wired 18.03

[athletic gear] | Wired 18.04

[children's books] | Wired 18.05

[camping equipment] | Wired 18.06

[medical bills] | Wired 18.07

[in-flight entertainment] | Wired 18.08

[playground] | Wired 18.09 | Prior photoshop contest in 18.06

[dive bar] | Wired 18.10

[taco truck] | Wired 18.11

[retirement home] | Wired 18.12

For a while there, these features were gathered under a single page at Wired, but at the time of writing, said page had not been updated since April 02010. (This post is arguably more over a year in arrears itself, so no accusatory fingerpointin; just sayin.)

Meanwhile, interested parties can delve into the compleat annals of Found dating back to 02002, right here.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Windows on to urban futures

All photos by Anthony Crescini
  Via arupaustralasia's Flickr stream

PARK(ing) Day is "an annual, worldwide event that invites citizens everywhere to transform metered parking spots into temporary parks for the public good."

This open source project originated with San Francisco based group Rebar in 02005, and has since spread rapidly around the world. The following year saw 47 PARKs appearing in 13 cities including New York, London, and Rio de Janeiro.  Last year, in 02011, the official tally was a remarkable 955 PARKs in 161 cities, across 35 countries on six continents.

Arup's Sydney office participated in the 02011 event, and although I couldn't be there on the day, during an earlier visit I helped project coordinator Safiah Moore and her local team craft the concept for a "Cut N Paste Future Booth". This refers to an ongoing strand of investigation by Arup's Foresight + Innovation team, Cut N Paste Cities, in which people are invited to look at the city as subject to their own process of editing or reinvention.  Our idea here was to turn an on-street parking spot into an opportunity for people to imagine desired changes to the cityscape from that vantage point, superimposing their visions over the present-day view.

With this in mind, the Arup PARK(ing) Day team planned a concertinaed array of doors, framing views of the street to be progressively overlaid with drawn and written annotations.

Sketch by Alex Symes

In this way, the installation would provide passers-by with a series of windows (literally) onto alternative futures for this part of downtown Sydney; a kind of neoanalog augmented reality app.

A short video was produced (by Sydney-based creative collective Thirteen Itches) about the finished installation, with various participants chiming in on the conversation.

Arup Sydney has participated in PARK(ing) Day several times before; in 02010, 02009, and 02008. But to put this annual project into a wider context -- alongside popup cafes, guerrilla gardening, street fairs, and more -- early last year a useful overview document called Tactical Urbanism was produced by the Street Plans Collaborative and the Next Generation for New Urbanism (a.k.a. Nextgen). It provides an illustrated typology of urban interventions, which opportunistically create "a laboratory for experimentation" with urban possibilities, using the streets themselves.

The increasing popularity of these sorts of events reflects not only a technological facilitation process thanks to layers of hardware (ever-cheaper smartphones and cameras) and software (social media and content-sharing services), but also, perhaps more importantly, a human or cultural layer coming into resonance with those. There is a virtuous cycle of awareness, motivation, action and capacity on the part of city dwellers, who are fast adopting a more active role in shaping their surroundings, whether officially sanctioned or not.

As to the underlying intentions of this specific project, Safiah says, quite poetically:

We want to get to a point where;

Everyday we are injecting activity into the urban landscape,

Everyday we are imagining the possibilities for our city,

Everyday we are engaging with the city and having conversations about what we want to see in our city,

Everyday we are providing a taste for what is possible.

This hands-on conversational catalyst, aimed at getting citizens to think about and discuss the futures of their immediate surroundings, offered a modest yet meaningful step towards that vision, by using the street itself as a platform for visualising its reinvention.

This year's PARK(ing) Day is on Friday, 21 September. You can join in the fun through the project website.

Related posts:
> The Futures of Everyday Life
> McChinatown
> Future-jamming 101
> Four future news clips from MIT

Saturday, January 21, 2012

On the money

Image via [pdf].

Today, while browsing one of Melbourne's excellent bookstores -- which are still surprisingly abundant, despite global publishing industry turmoil -- I came across this striking image on the cover of an Australian literary quarterly, Meanjin.

It's from a 02008 photograph series called Oz Omnium Rex et Regina (King and Queen of All Oz) by Darren Siwes, an artist of indigenous Australian and Dutch descent.

A bit of context for international readers:
[The photograph] depicts a recognizably Australian gold coin, close-up. The words "Mary I, Australia 2041" are emblazoned onto its shiny surface. The future reigning monarch bears a distinct resemblance to a local, high-profile Aboriginal woman, leading viewers not only to question Australia’s current (and to many, anachronistic) constitutional monarchy, but also its legal legitimacy. In terms of natural justice, the obvious question arising is, "Why not an Indigenous monarch, or at least, an Indigenous head of state?"

~Christine Nicholls, "A Festival Of The Spirit" [pdf; essay reviewing the 02009 South Australian Living Artists Festival, in which this work also appeared]

Below is the obverse of the one dollar coin now in use, which, like all Australian coins, bears the image of Queen Elizabeth II. Who lives in, um, England.

Image via. [Note that the version of the Queen's head struck in Australian coins
does change periodically, loosely tracking the ageing process.]

Now, as some readers may guess from this blog's usual focus on experiential and performative scenarios, regarding the choice of medium, I personally resonate less with series of gold and silver painted-busker-statue type photos, appearing mainly in art galleries or literary reviews, than I would with an alternative execution of the same idea, in which the coins were physically produced, a tangible and diegetic (in-story) artifact, manifested, integrated and discoverable in everyday contexts, today.

Image via.

In any case, the proposition offered here remains challenging and culturally relevant, and currency proves an especially potent symbolic vector in which to embed it. Like other future artifacts from the same "family" -- e.g. the Amero, or the Aung San Suu Kyi kyat -- this embodies the hypothesis of an epoch-making change of governance in the near future, and it invites us to spend time with the idea for real.

Image via.

"Culture is something that is done to us. Art is something we do to culture."
~Carl Andre *

Related posts:
The currency of Burmese dissent
> The value of hypothetical currency
The act of imagination

* Quoted in Lewis Hyde, Trickster Makes This World.