Special topic: Design futures

XXV.2 March-April 2018
Page: 46
Digital Citation

Futures as design: Explorations, images, and participations

Sandjar Kozubaev

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We invent the future in the present. We are what we think the future will be.

—Gene Youngblood


It is an exciting time for a designer to be thinking about futures. Temporality has always been a key part of design because designers devise ways to transform a current situation into some future one. However, in recent years, the intersection of two trajectories has made the use of design to investigate the future even more productive, opening possibilities for new design practices. The first of these trajectories originates in a movement that came to be known as critical and speculative design, which uses design to speculate about futures and critique contemporary society by giving arguments a material form. The second originates in a field known as futures studies (also referred to as futures, strategic foresight, or the more archaic futurology). There are extensive accounts of the first trajectory within pile scholarly and professional design communities; the second trajectory is less known in design but is no less relevant.

back to top  Insights


back to top  Where Futures Came From

For a practicing futurist, it is common to encounter surprise that thinking about the future is a formal discipline with academic degrees, journals, professional associations, and a set of codified methods. This is partly because the discipline is still relatively young, even though systematically thinking about the future dates back to ancient times. For example, identifying patterns of long-term social change to explore the future can be found in writings as early as the 2nd to 1st century B.C., in the works of Ssu-Ma Chi'en, who proposed that the history of civilizations can be understood through the rise and fall of virtue [1]. But its current, albeit somewhat Western-centric, incarnation can be traced to the period after World War II, a time dominated by the tensions of the Cold War. The military buildup and high-stakes nature of a possible nuclear confrontation necessitated, among other things, sophisticated approaches to understanding how the future decisions of an adversary could affect an outcome. This is also the period when game theory, an area of mathematics that studies decisions under uncertainty, was founded. Institutions such as the Stanford Research Institute and RAND Corporation developed complex techniques and methods for evaluating the future [2]. Over time, these methods spread to other domains, most notably corporate strategy and planning. In the 1960s, Royal Dutch Shell started using them to project a variety of scenarios to prepare for unexpected outcomes.

back to top  Locating the Work of Professional Futurists

Fast-forward half a century, and after a period of dynamic and sometimes turbulent evolution, futures studies has become a vibrant discipline both in academia and industry. Although the nature and scope of a professional futurist's work is still open to interpretation, it is more common to see the title of futurist in commercial, nonprofit, and governmental organizations. Despite the widespread inclusion of futures studies in a variety of domains, the impact of futures work and its accountability remains contested territory. On the one hand, a futurist's goal is to question dominant narratives about the future within and outside an organization, both by making these narratives more transparent and by helping create alternative ones. On the other hand, futurists are tasked with producing insights that are actionable today, which often means their work is pushed to reinforce the status quo. It is this tension between the immediacy of today and the ambiguity of tomorrow that makes knowledge produced by futures susceptible to mystification, and therefore subject to scrutiny.

It is this tension between the immediacy of today and the ambiguity of tomorrow that makes knowledge produced by futures susceptible to mystification, and therefore subject to scrutiny.

Most organizations cannot commit to employing a full-time futurist, so they recruit the help of consulting futurists or specialized think tanks such as the Institute for the Future. In companies that do have staff futurists, futures work is commonly embedded as part of research and development, market research, strategic planning, or innovation. Futures is also practiced in the public sector for policymaking. After all, this is where the discipline first took root professionally. More recently, some governments have begun establishing new foresight capabilities to balance the needs and rights of current and future citizens. This has become an imperative for policymakers who are tasked with making decisions under increasing uncertainty, global financial volatility, and planetary-scale challenges such as climate change. For example, the government of Sweden has established a new position that focuses exclusively on long-term issues. It is colloquially referred to as the Ministry of the Future, although the official name is Secretariat for Strategic Development. The idea is to create a space within the political process with the capacity to think in time horizons substantially longer than election cycles.

back to top  Futures as Design

In the 1960s, Brazilian writer and theater director Augusto Boal developed a new form of interaction between spectators and actors on stage. This form of theater consisted of techniques that helped people think about the relationship between the challenges of the present and the promises of the future. One of them was called Image Theater. In it, spectators were invited to discuss a common issue of concern, such as access to drinking water or neighborhood crime. The task for spectators—and this is crucial—was to describe the issue using only the actors' bodies. No verbal communication was allowed. They had to literally sculpt the image of the issue. After some negotiation, the spectators would settle on a consensus about how the image should come together.

Next, they were tasked with creating a new image—the ideal image—representing a desired future. Finally, the group was asked to create an image that could show a transition between the actual and the ideal. Boal's audience consisted of the most disadvantaged populations in Brazil, which is why he called this form the Theatre of the Oppressed. It tackled contentious and sensitive social and economic issues. Audiences enacted stories of the government torturing the local population, women suffering domestic abuse due to economic dependence, and workers struggling to earn a living wage in factories. Boal's work can help us understand how design and futures interact with and inform each other along three dimensions: explorations and connections, images and representations, and speculative participation.

Explorations and connections. Regardless of what domain futures engages with, or what profession or business department it is driven by, futurists are tasked with taking a contrarian and critical stance toward existing frameworks of meaning. Case in point is the work of Sheryll Connelly, a prominent futurist at Ford Motor Company. In one interview, Connelly described how her work seeks out insights from anywhere but the auto industry itself:

It's never looking at automotive; in fact we try to stay away from that for the work that I do, so we come up with the insights, and then I pass it off to the designers, engineers, and the marketing teams, that take their subject matter expertise and turn it into something meaningful in terms of product offerings [3].

If you work in market research, this approach would generally go against the logic of the profession. Market research usually focuses on what is taking place immediately in your market or at least in closely adjacent spaces. It is about identifying a current market need that could be satisfied by the firm's resources. Futures, on the other hand, is about making connections that are either invisible or are perceived to be irrelevant (too far-fetched, implausible, unprofitable). However, we could consider this practice as a kind of design. Specifically, a kind of design that is concerned with asking the question of "what if?" in order to explore alternatives and provide critique without necessarily providing an answer. Daniel Fallman, a design scholar, defined this as design exploration [4]. What makes design exploration different from normal design practice is that it is focused on framing a problem in new and interesting ways. Design exploration is less concerned with market or user needs and more concerned with probing for what is possible through engagement with material, people, and contexts. One example of such speculative design is Biojewellery by Ian Thompson, Nikki Scott, and Tobie Kerridge (Figures 1 and 2). Here is how the designers describe the work:

ins03.gif Figure 1. Design exploration of Biojewellery with cow marrow-bone and etched silver, along with bioactive ceramic scaffold.
ins04.gif Figure 2. Bioactive scaffolding used to grow the bone into ring shapes.

In the near future, bone tissue cultivated outside a patient's body may be used in reconstructive surgery to repair damage caused by injury or disease. As the science behind this process develops, it begins to spark curiosity, desire, and speculation about alternative uses of this innovation. Biojewellery, a collaborative project involving scientists and designers, explored one of these alternatives. Employing the techniques of bone tissue culturing, we provided two couples with a unique symbol of their mutual love and sought to provoke debate about the relationship between scientific progress and the public imagination; about what is happening now and what might happen in the future [5].

This project illustrates how designers can explore and contest futures through speculative objects and user experiences. The "symbol of mutual love" refers to an actual ring that the designers made with cultured bone tissue extracted from the participants themselves.

Images and representations. One of the key commitments of futures studies is a critical investigation of images of the future. What we mean by that is not only literal images, but also metaphorical ones such as mental constructs, narratives, and myths. Fred Polak, one of the founding scholars of futures studies, is often credited with articulating the role of images of the future in historical and contemporary cultures. In his view, images of the future and our ability to act on them is a fundamental force in religious and philosophical thought. As such, he believed that:

The primary question then is not how to explain the rise and fall of cultures, but how to explain the succession of shifting images of the future. How do virile and forceful images of the future arise, and what causes them to decline and gradually fade away? Furthermore, how do the successive waves of optimism and pessimism regarding the images fit into the total cultural framework and its accompanying dynamics? [6].

Polak may have overestimated the power of images and perhaps oversimplified how culture works, but critical investigation of images of the future and of their impact on our actions continues to be an influential idea in futures studies. As part of this investigation, futurists are interested in developing new images in the form of narratives, scenarios, and, as we have seen, "what if" speculations. In recent years, there has been a growing interest among futurists in enriching the experience of these manufactured images. Rather than (or in addition to) presenting elaborate analyses with dense scenarios and consequences, some futurists have begun creating immersive events, happenings, and objects to convey their ideas.

Stuart Candy, one of the pioneers of this phenomenon, called this gradual shift the experiential turn [7]. An early example of this work was done at the Hawaii Research Center for Futures at the University of Hawaii-Manoa. Four different scenarios of the future of Hawaii in 2050 were brought to life in a series of staged events in which residents of the state could engage with stories, artifacts, and people (i.e., actors) evocative of a particular future. In one event, participants witnessed a gubernatorial debate in a future when corporations are allowed to run for office (Figure 3). In another, participants attended a swearing-in ceremony for new citizens in a future when constitutional monarchy is restored by the military as a reaction to social unrest [8] (Figure 4). We can trace the methods of experiential futures to the Theatre of the Oppressed in how enactments are used to open conversations about images of the future. Furthermore, we can see that these methods blur the boundaries between futures studies and design; futurists are not just researchers and provocateurs but also designers of objects and experiences.

ins05.gif Figure 3. Hawaii 2050 - Orange Future. Enacting gubernatorial debates.
ins06.gif Figure 4. Hawaii 2050 - Silver Future. Citizen's Ceremony in the Democratic Kingdom of Hawaii.

Speculative participations. It is important to note that while these objects and experiences are extremely compelling, and some might say enchanting, their impact is easy to overstate. Furthermore, critics of both futures studies and critical and speculative design point to a lack of cultural and gender diversity among those who create and have access to them. But the question is still relevant. If images of the future are so influential in how we act in the present, how do we imagine alternative images and what are the ways in which we could experience them?

One way to address this is to turn to more participatory methods. There is a broad agreement that participatory design in which direct and indirect stakeholders are deeply involved in the design process can generate unique insights and improve the long-term outcomes of a given project. Futures work, in contrast, has traditionally been driven by expert opinions, be it the domain experts who influence how the images of the futures are shaped, or the professional futurists themselves. But this is beginning to change. Novel participatory methods, as well as network media, are now being used to foster more inclusive futures research practices. One example of this approach is an online platform called the Foresight Engine by the Institute of the Future. It is an online multiplayer game-like environment in which players provide "Twitter-length micro-forecasts that players can build on by agreeing or disagreeing, or expanding on by taking them in new directions." More recently, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, in collaboration with the University of Newcastle's Open Lab, developed a project called WhatFutures, which is "a Massive Multiplayer Online Game played entirely through WhatsApp, where participants compete against each other in small teams to complete a series of challenges" [9].

These are just some of the many examples of emerging futures and design practices that use social computing, gaming, and other media to radically expand the inclusivity of futures work. Instead of dozens or even hundreds of people, tens of thousands of people from across the world can imagine futures. The influence of design in futures is growing, whether by materializing images of the future in objects and experiences, or through designing interactions in computational media that enable participation in creating these images. However, while widening participation or deepening immersion are both effective strategies, there are doubts about the extent to which they help participants think critically about futures in new and interesting ways. The potential for imagining truly novel alternative futures lies not in merely amplifying voices or clarifying them, but rather in creating novel social and technological conditions under which such imaginings can happen. And therein lies the challenge and opportunity for design to make an impact in futures.

One of Boal's aims was to help the audience both imagine different futures to open possibilities and at the same time inform them about constraints. The key for Boal was how the medium of theater helped illuminate certain issues in ways that other media could not. "This form of image theater is without doubt one of the most stimulating, because it is so easy to practice and because of its extraordinary capacity for making thought visible" [10]. Boal's practice exemplifies how design and futures can challenge themselves beyond the strategies of deeper immersion and wider participation toward new and different practices. Their goal would be to reconfigure and redistribute what is sensible in a way that facilitates the emergence of voices that are unheard or silent, or previously non-existent [11]. The examples discussed here demonstrate how various forms of design and futures practices can make images of the future more visible and enable audiences to be more expressive in their speculations.

The challenges we face today—business, environmental, social, or political—call for new ways to imagine futures and contest them. These imaginings should help us see beyond naive utopias or hopeless dystopias and invent new archetypes, metaphors, and mental models to aid our thinking about futures. Designers are uniquely positioned to achieve this, both through creating new material engagements with the world and by orchestrating novel configurations of people, objects, and environments to facilitate conversations that redistribute the sensible. This can take place both in traditional, well-defined practices like graphic design, and in more recent, fluid ones like service design.

What I am calling for is not necessarily the invention of a new kind of design, but rather for an expansion of ambition for existing design practices in how they challenge the status quo. After all, as one futurist modestly suggested, the future is too important to leave solely to futurists.

back to top  References

1. Inayatullah, S. and Galtung, J. Macrohistory and Macrohistorians: Perspectives on Individual, Social, and Civilizational Change. Praeger, 1997.

2. Rejeski, D. and Olson, R.L. Has futurism failed? The Wilson Quarterly (1976-) 30, 1 (2006), 14–21.

3. Samilton, T. Ford "futurist" pays attention to everything but cars. Michigan Radio. Jan. 2, 2013; http://michiganradio.org/post/ford-futurist-pays-attention-everything-cars.

4. Fallman, D. The interaction design research triangle of design practice, design studies, and design exploration. Design Issues 24, 3 (2008), 4–18.

5. Thompson, I., Scott, N., and Kerridge, T. Biojewellery. Designing rings with bioengineered one tissue. (exhibition booklet) 2006.

6. Polak, F. The Image of The Future. Elsevier Scientific Publishing Company, 1973.

7. Candy, S. and Dunagan, J. Designing an experiential scenario: The people who vanished. Futures 86 (2017), 136–153.

8. Candy, S., Dator, J., and Dunagan, J. Four futures for Hawaii 2050. Manoa, Hawaii, Hawaii Research Center for Futures Studies, 2006.

9. IFRC. WhatFutures. 2017; http://media.ifrc.org/innovation/future-and-foresight/whatfutures-main/

10. Boal, A. Theater of the Oppressed. Pluto Press, 2008.

11. McCarthy, J. and Wright, P. Taking [a]part : The Politics and Aesthetics of Participation in Experience-Centered Design. The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2015.

back to top  Author

Sandjar Kozubaev is a Ph.D. student in digital media at the Georgia Institute of Technology. He studies speculative design and representations of futures. His research and practice span design research, long-range planning, and innovation. He has also worked as a resident futurist at Sparks Grove, an experience design agency, serving clients in the industry, the public sector, and nonprofits. skozubaev3@gatech.edu

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