Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Big shifts, small change

What kinds of artifacts might be found in the 99 cent store of the future?

All images from The Extrapolation Factory website.

So asks a nifty, crowdsourced experiential futures / design fiction project by The Extrapolation Factory, an award-winning initiative of Elliott Montgomery and Chris Woebken (both alumni of the RCA's Design Interactions program). "99 cent futures", executed in New York earlier this year, is now being exhibited in China, giving the project a new lease of attentional life.

Some months back, when this effort was in the pipeline, I spoke with them to help hammer out a participatory design framework which they created so that attendees at a workshop in NYC could playfully generate and make their own answers to the question. Then the pair installed the resulting artifacts in an actual 99¢ store in Brooklyn (calling to mind some of our early FoundFutures adventures in droplifting; e.g., speculative pharmaceuticalssouvenir magnets and postcards from the future).

I particularly like that they managed to include both a participatory design phase and a guerrilla futures phase -- two critical frontiers of design/futures work -- in the same process.

Today a report on 99¢ futures appeared on the CNN website; last weekend I did an interview by email for it.

Now, it's more or less axiomatic that something -- usually a pretty fundamental something -- gets messed up in reports on futures. In that regard this piece is better than most, although it seems to imply that "futuring" (the reporter's preferred term, I think borrowed from Chris and Elliott) is a new "movement" emanating from design, as opposed to a practice established over many decades and recently adopted and/or reinvented by some designers.

Apparently I did not make that relationship clear enough. Live and learn.

Still, it's a good article, and encouraging to see this work thoughtfully covered in mainstream press -- in the Style section, impressively enough; not a common place to find foresight news!

We'll dig into the Extrapolation Factory's projects and methods a bit more in another post.

Meanwhile, for those interested the whole of my email interview appears below. The questions were asked by CNN writer Sheena McKenzie.


Why was the 99c store such an interesting/significant project?

Two things make the 99 cent store interesting. First, it's a rare invitation to imagine the future's mundane side. Popular notions of the future often get stuck in a kind of glossy rut - gleaming buildings and whiz-bang inventions, and it's not often enough that we see the futures of everyday life brought into focus. Second, it's the result of a participatory process. Chris and Elliott didn't pre-imagine everything for a passive audience, they designed a way for people to develop and share their own ideas.

The project exemplifies a hybrid of design and futuring that we're sure to see more of as time goes on. My colleagues and I call this frontier of practice "experiential futures" or "design fiction". Design fiction focuses on objects, and experiential futures focus on immersive situations. Both aim to bring possible worlds to life in a way that enables a deeper kind of conversation about the future. They're more generative, participatory and tangible than much of what has come before. We need to cultivate ways of imagining the future together.

What is futuring and why is it important?

Futures or foresight practice (also sometimes called futuring) is about systematically and creatively exploring how change could unfold over the medium to long term. This is important because humans have an inbuilt psychological tendency to filter everything through the lens of a rather narrow experience of the present, which leads to decisions that are short-term, short-sighted and risky. With massive global challenges looming, like climate change, peak oil, and economic volatility, we need to develop a cultural capacity for thinking ahead and creating options, so we aren't just reacting to crisis after crisis. Good strategic foresight gives decision-making a longer runway, and experiential futures is one of the most promising ways of getting this kind of thinking wider exposure.

Many people think of the future simply in terms of technology. Yet this project was a slight tweeking [sic] of the world we already know -- does that make it more emotive?

The tendency for technology to dominate thinking about the future is a serious problem. A lot of change begins with technology, but it doesn't end there. The future conversation needs to include social and political dimensions. For example, it seems appropriate that the creators of the 99 cent store project have brought it from New York to Shanghai. This prompts us to think about the supply chains - in which China is a critical link - which currently make the phenomenon of 99 cent stores, and their cheap mass-produced contents, possible in the developed world.

This project's tweaking of the world we know through unsolicited urban installation of objects is a great example of what I call "guerrilla futures" - unexpectedly manifesting fragments of possible futures in the midst of people's everyday lives. This turns out to be an effective way of firing people's imaginations even if they haven't asked for it!

Why should we think about the future when designing products? And where do you see this trend heading?

The incorporation of futures thinking into the design world, which has picked up pace hugely since the mid-00s, shows no signs of slowing down: everything we make is part of the future we will get. So we need to think about the future when designing not just products, but anything. As a futurist, I now teach foresight at a design school, OCAD University in Toronto, because designers are at the forefront of shaping the world, whether they realise it or not -- and we'll all be on track to a better future the sooner and more deeply they realise it.

FoundFutures: Chinatown: Green Dragon (02007)
FoundFutures: Postcards from the future (02007)
More FoundFutures
> Future-jamming 101
> Wired's Found: Artifacts from the future

Friday, April 05, 2013

Designing Futures

I did the following interview for Desktop ("Australia’s most read monthly design culture magazine") late last year. The text appears below as it did in print, with a few hyperlinks added. Editor Heath Killen asked the questions.


What sparked your interest in the future?

I guess I've always had wide ranging interests, but the future is a curious generalist's playground - because it's everything that hasn't happened yet. It defies disciplinarity, inviting you to think in an especially integrative way. Analysis after the fact lets you isolate something and look at all the forces that acted on it. In contrast, looking at things prospectively requires appreciating the dynamic relationships between things (across disciplinary boundaries) and the various alternative ways that they could play out, because the future's contingent in a way that the past is not.

I discovered the actual field of futures studies - also known as foresight - indirectly, through my mother, who taught high school for many years. Her usual subjects were geography and economics, but at one point she was given an opportunity to teach portions of a pilot course in futures studies in Queensland. I was in year 11, at a different school, but came across the course reader at home one day and got really interested. A year later, the biennial conference of the World Futures Studies Federation happened to be taking place at the University of Queensland, so I got in touch to ask if I could attend, and they said yes. All of this meant I was exposed to a the work and community of scholarly futurists unusually early; well before I'd decided what to study at uni. So it had time to percolate, which I think was a great benefit. It's easier to integrate futures into your thinking before you get too socialised into the confines of disciplines. For that reason it’s really great to teach futures to younger students.

How would you define the role of a futurist to someone who has never heard of it before?

There's not an especially high degree of consistency across the futures field, so I can't presume to speak for all futurists. I usually describe the work simply as being to help people to think (and feel) about things that haven't happened yet . Edgar Degas said that "Art is not what you see, but what you make others see." Similarly, I regard professional foresight work as being about enabling the circumstances in which people can have their own insights. You're providing scaffolding for the exploration of possible worlds. On that basis, in whatever organisational or governmental or community setting, you can then start crafting and implementing appropriate anticipatory strategies, both to shape and to prepare for those scenarios.

CoMConnect (02012) | Image courtesy of Melissa Butters Photography

Your personal blog is titled “The Sceptical Futuryst”. What does that mean exactly?

That title comes from two things. My first degree was in the history and philosophy of science. Among the founding texts of the scientific era was Robert Boyle's The Sceptical Chymist, published in 1661. When I started my blog in 2006 I adopted the anachronistic spelling "futuryst" as a sort of reference to Boyle's book, which had a nice ring to it.

The more important reason is an attitude towards the work: I'm suspicious of people who claim to know what the future holds, and I like to encourage thoughtful engagement with futures in the plural. There's far too much sloppy thinking - including tolerance of baseless assertions and predictive nonsense primarily designed to position the speaker as a formidable-sounding authority - and I think we're well overdue as a culture to up our game around the quality of foresight.

Futures is about the rigorous application of history and imagination to inform wiser decisions today. Real futurists, I think, own up to the work being about having a considered impact, yet with enough humility to recognise the ever-present unknowns in the mix. I guess I'm sceptical about futures trying to legitimate itself according to scientific (enlightenment era) values, but then I'm also wary about science doing the same thing! The best scientists and the best futurists I suspect actually have very similar attitudes.

What drew you to working at Arup, and what’s involved in the average day of a futurist in a design studio?

I felt Arup would be one of the few places in the world where one can really work at the intersection of foresight and design on issues and projects at quite a large scale. While writing my doctorate about that foresight/design intersection, I came to believe that it was a direction seriously in need of further exploration in order to address the wider cultural need of more effective, embedded forethought. This is grounded in my view that foresight and design are actually the same process - one of creative and iterative optimisation within constraints - just at different scales of time/space. Foresight can help design by providing valuable context while design can serve foresight by making it more concrete.

My average day is not necessarily all that different from many of my engineering and design colleagues. There's always a mix of external consultation projects at various stages of completion, there are meetings and emails; always quite a lot of communications to maintain relationships, both internal and external. The substance of the projects can be bit different when dealing with longer-range possibilities, but we're a design organisation and as I've suggested, foresight can be seen as a context for (or big-picture instance of) design. Projects we've done in the past year range from working with the leadership of Arup in Australasia, or of our clients such as the Sydney Opera House; to helping the City of Melbourne crowdsource a digital strategy [video]; to testing the thinking behind the Singaporean government's national sustainability vision for 2030.

The actual relationship between the two fields of design and foresight has become especially interesting since about the mid-00s. Organisations like the Association of Professional Futurists and the World Future Society have emphasised design in the themes of recent gatherings. Meanwhile, the design community is getting quite interested in futures. Two examples of the latter from personal experience: in 2010, I was brought in to develop a Strategic Foresight course for the MBA in Design Strategy at California College of the Arts; and last year AIGA (American Institute of Graphic Arts) gave me the unexpected privilege of delivering the closing keynote at their annual conference [video]. Programs such as the Design Interactions department at the Royal College of Art, or the Masters in Strategic Foresight at Ontario College of Art and Design are hybridising the fields in very promising ways. There is much still to do in both directions, but in a nutshell, designers and futurists are tuning into and beginning to learn from each other. It’s quite an exciting process to be part of.

Has the way in which we think about the future changed in the 21st century? What forces do you think have changed our view of the future, and what implications do you think that has for progress, innovation and culture?

It depends who you mean by 'we'. The future looks different everywhere, which is an important reason why Arup has a Foresight presence in each region around the globe. And the variations around futures aren't geographic only. I've always been struck by the strange fact that you can be having the best day of your life while the person next to you might be having one of the worst. To grasp that properly is to reveal the nonsense of 'utopia' and 'dystopia', because it clarifies so starkly that those two terms are really ideal types or literary/narrative tropes, as opposed to really useful categories for understanding actual times and places, whether past or future. Real histories and real lives are always a complex mixture of positive and negative things. So we interpret 'utopia' and 'dystopia' literally, at our peril.

In Western public culture, or at any rate the Anglosphere, I agree with the starting premise of Stewart Brand and the Long Now Foundation, namely that it seems harder and harder to think well about the long-range future. The changing signal-to-noise ratio which many have observed in our 21st century all-you-can-eat information diets makes it, paradoxically, both more difficult and more important to think well about what could happen.

Progress is a hugely vexed term so I won't get into that here. To boil it down: Innovation without foresight is dangerous. Foresight without innovation is pointless. We get by unthinking increments to places we would never have chosen to go. Yet zooming out to take in bigger patterns on the longer view - the forest rather than the trees - affords insights that you can't get up close. Of course, what you really want is to be able to toggle at will between those zoom levels.

The word “future” itself comes loaded with connotations and expectations. At this point in time, what issues are the most pressing and important that we should be addressing when we think about the future - particularly when it comes to design?

At the risk of going seriously meta, I'd say designers need most of all to improve their futures literacy. Eliel Saarinen said many decades ago that it was important to design things for their next larger context ("a chair in a room, a room in a house, a house in an environment, an environment in a city plan"). That's a spatial argument, but the temporal counterpart to Saarinen's point is harder to get and to apply, because it involves engaging in nested layers of abstraction, which are more and more difficult to concretise or visualise the further out you go.

But if anyone can synthesise and prepare those layers of change-context for human consumption, the design community can. It's been my observation that, given the opportunity, designers immediately "get" and can put futures tools to practical use. However, in the absence of some systematic exposure to and experience with those tools, their intuitive or autodidactic approaches only take them so far. At this point there's half a century of sustained work in foresight as a field, both scholarly and applied, so reinventing the wheel - or worse, ignoring that it exists altogether - increasingly looks just plain silly. 

Some very promising ways to apply design in the service of shaping better worlds are emerging, as we prototype fragments of future scenarios to make them more immersive, imaginable and immediate. That's what my work on "experiential futures" has been about, and it's also what the emerging practice of "design fiction" aims to do. These are perhaps the most direct answers to the temporal version of Saarinen's challenge.

Plastic Century (02010) | Photo: Mike Estee

Where do you think designers are leading us into undesirable futures, and how can they themselves do better futures work?

Unreflectively serving those with the deepest pockets is an abrogation of an ethical duty to exercise our own best judgment about what worlds we really want to be part of and also to leave behind. Any assumption to the effect that mysterious forces will somehow make the product of thoughtless decisions into delightful collective outcomes is a delusion we can no longer afford.

Jim Dator wrote a wonderful piece quite a few years ago which included a list of qualities that would be desirable for doing good futures work; summed up in the term 'aiglatson', which is 'nostalgia' backwards, so it connotes a sort of yearning for the future. To my mind such yearning is not about disregarding or devaluing the present. It's about a certain way of being in the present which is always subtly oriented to the possibility of making something better.

In my view the 'product' of foresight done properly is what could be called (echoing Antonio Gramsci), optimism of the will. This can be contrasted with optimism of expectation. Doing futures work cultivates in oneself, and ideally in one's companions, an awareness of how things could be different, and with that, a sense of one's increment of responsibility. Candide travelled the world with his mentor Pangloss urging him to expect "everything for the best in this best of all possible worlds", and then he returned home, a little wiser, concluding "we must grow our own garden". You don't need Panglossian optimism to be engaged, and growing your own garden is - I like to think - about rendering a service to the wider world, not making a place in isolation from it.

What futures teaches you is, then, "gardening" change in the domains available to you. I think the best futurists help to activate the gardener in people.


‘Designing futures’, Interview by Heath Killen, Desktop, No. 289, Dec '12/Jan '13, pp. 22-24.

Thanks to Heath and his colleagues!

Related posts:
> Design is a team sport
> Dreampolitik
> The Unthinkable and the Unimaginable
> Travelling without moving

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

Travelling without moving

Time travel is basically about the way you look at things...

This talk was given in November 02012 as part of the City of Melbourne's arts initiative Going Nowhere.

It was a pleasure to be part of a great program [pdf] with the likes of climate scientist David Karoly, Greens Councillor Cathy Oke, arts prof Mick Douglas, and the brilliant musician Matt Wicking. This was my first attempt at the Pecha Kucha format (20 slides, 20 seconds each) and I really enjoyed the experience. Thanks to all the organisers, particularly Pecha Kucha Melbourne hosts Michelle James and Ammon Beyerle (with whom I collaborated on the CAPITheticAL project recently described here).

If you like the talk above, you might also enjoy this roughly PK-length excerpt from a longer presentation -- "Guerrilla Futures 101: Strategic Foresight meets Tactical Media"-- given at the Extreme Futurist Fest in Los Angeles in December 02011. It sets out an argument for engaging futures experientially. And a fuller exploration of that line of thought can be found in a lecture given at UC Berkeley earlier that year, "How to Build a World".

Related posts:
> The Futures of Everyday Life
> Grand designs
> The Unthinkable and the Unimaginable

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Grand designs

From Canberra to Currumbin, and beyond, Australia's spatial strategy for governance could be very different in the future from what it is today...

The year 02013 marks the 100th anniversary of Canberra, Australia's famously planned capital city. Its location, decided in 01908 (seven years after federation), was a compromise between perennial rivals Melbourne and Sydney. An international design competition for the layout of this seat of the newly minted nation was launched in 01911, and in 01913, the submission of Chicago-based husband and wife architect team Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahony Griffin was selected. The name Canberra, which comes from the word for "gathering place" in the local Aboriginal language, was given in a ceremony on 12 March that year.

A century later, an historically resonant element of the celebrations now underway consists in "a design ideas competition for a hypothetical Australian capital city", called CAPITheticAL (= hypothetical + capital). The comp was launched in 02011 and an exhibition of the top entries has just opened at Canberra's Gallery of Australian Design. I'm writing this because I was on a team which produced one of the exhibited designs.

Our team, "The Engagement Studio", was a diversely trained group of urbanists based in Melbourne, and practising internationally in fields including architecture, town planning, urban design, research, sustainability, and environmental consultancy.*

So, if an Australian capital were to be designed today, what should it be?

Since its purpose was to enable new perspectives rather than rehearse existing conventions, the competition put some big questions up for grabs: "Of what should our national capital consist? Would it be a city in the conventional sense or not? If not, what form might it take?"

In the spirit of designerly curiosity, our group wanted to venture upstream of the usual architectural and masterplanning preoccupations with built form and visual representation of space, focusing instead on a more provocative and, perhaps, futurohistorically potent proposition at the intersection of politics and design. Our idea was a nomadic seat of government, changing from one location in Australia to another every generation: a Roving Capital.

The essential notion is simple. Capitalhood can be decoupled from geography. It's not only that permanence need not be assumed, but impermanence can actually be embraced. Consider the Olympics, which is effectively a temporary sporting capital of the world for a fortnight every four years. Or look at the Burning Man festival, which emerges in the emptiness of the Nevada desert, for a week each year suddenly becoming one of the state's largest cities, before vanishing without a trace. The essential temporariness of these important community events manifesting tangibly in the built environment begins to point to a model for a capital that moves. The Olympics belong to the world, so they move around the world (the World Expo, ditto). Burning Man is notable not so much as an analog to capital function per se, but as a temporary city -- population circa 60,000 last year. It's a living rejoinder to the presumption of urban fixity.

The key to this idea is not mere novelty; it's evolvability. There's no such thing as a perfect, once-and-for-all political solution in a changing world. A polity not wedded forever to a single location within its geographic footprint gives itself more space, both to reflect diversity in the population and to adapt to rapid change. At the national level, such a proposition may be near unthinkable, at least for an old-world pillar like London or Paris. But Australia's geographic vastness and relative political youthfulness together make capital transience a surprisingly apt avenue to explore.

And so, from thousands of kilometres away in Melbourne, we had chosen, for argument's sake -- and somewhat whimsically -- the beachside town of Currumbin on the Gold Coast as the first port of call for our new nomadic capital. Inside the scenario we were weaving, this was the result of a democratic three-stage process for capital selection which we'd dreamed up.

Below you can find The Engagement Studio's first round submission. Wrapped around the usual visualisations (site plans, artist's impressions, etc), the Roving Capital idea was mediated primarily through a set of four newspaper articles from 02016, 02023, 02030, and 02040 -- a slim but evocative cross-section of primary documentary "evidence" from a hypothetical swath of future history.

The team's work was honoured by being shortlisted, which came with an invitation to provide a second round submission late in 02012. But simply to revisit and polish the same material didn't feel like quite enough. On reflection we had become intrigued by the real possibilities behind what had started out as simply a thought experiment. So the most interesting next step we could take with this design idea, we decided, was to "groundtruth" a notion that hitherto had been totally speculative.

We carved out a weekend and traipsed up from Melbourne together, to investigate the actual prospects for the seemingly outlandish premise of making Currumbin on the Gold Coast -- temporarily -- the next capital of Australia. And we made a video to tell the story of what happened:

Through meeting with representatives from the local authority (the Gold Coast City Council), with citizens, and with other designers, we discovered that despite reflex responses of bewilderment or trepidation, people soon began to suggest modifications which could help the idea work in reality.

Putting the hypothetical to the test in situ was a chance to tie the grand, schematic, conceptual layer of thinking down to the human scale and prosaic concerns of everyday reality. (How often does that happen in a design ideas comp? Probably not often enough.) For instance, we'd started out positing that, not unlike the experience of an Olympic city, a stint as capital would provide the basis for a generation-long infrastructural upgrade to the built environment -- the legacy of new public buildings and improved transportation, for example.

But in visiting Currumbin, we were attending to it as a real place, and particularly to the sorts of cultural dimensions which would otherwise have been all too easy to overlook from the remove of Melbourne; not to mention the conceptual distance of an abstract political design conversation. This meant learning some things that may not have come to our notice any other way.

First, we came to recognise more deeply that revolving the political apparatus and meshing the lives of representatives with those of their hosts and neighbours would entail a constant renewal of the democracy; a bottom-up counter to the top-down tendencies inherent in a representative system. Although our own visit was necessarily brief, each encounter with locals, occasioned by going there to groundtruth or reality-check the cencept, was in a sense a microcosm of that same process; a partial corrective to the risks of design and governance from afar.

Second, the charms of Currumbin itself, and the reluctance of residents to entertain its transformation into a bustling urban centre, drew out a version of our proposal which had been latent in the initial idea: rather than a capital city, the notion of the capital place came to the fore. It would not be necessary, and neither would the residents want, to compromise the natural beauty of their home by developing the crap out of it. Many of the functions of government could be well served by facilities elsewhere (and increasingly virtually of course); the essential symbolic and functional requirements of capitalness turn out to be more cultural than physical and technical. (I think my favourite moment was in the meeting with the Gold Coast City Council when we concluded an afternoon discussion by going around the room and brainstorming possible rituals on the beach befitting the inauguration of Currumbin's time as capital.)

Third, while our earlier thinking had emphasised the effects upon a given location of its turn as capital, we came to recognise that influence would, and should, flow the other way too. Legacy was reciprocal, not one-way, so the temporary capital's culture could be rubbing off on the country at large during its generation-long tenure as national gathering place.

Our second round submission also included a mocked up magazine article reflecting on the Roving Capital design and the learning process by which it had come together:

Not only was the concept less crazy on reflection than it may have appeared at first (even to us), but in fact even the seemingly far-fetched launchpad of Currumbin looked like it had legs. Certainly other places could equally have served as the Roving Capital's point of departure, but it was the specific contours of this place which came to offer the necessary grounding to both show and tell a new story about Australian governance.

It was also a pleasure to spend time with and learn from such a diverse and switched on group of collaborators, around a really thought provoking idea. (Ammon Beyerle and Michelle James especially deserve credit for an enormous amount of the work involved.) The content and especially the form of our contribution to this design conversation were fun and interesting to work on, and both the means of representation in round one (artifacts from the future) and research strategy for round two (ethnographic investigation) were, as far as I could see, unique among the entries.

The direct impact of our intervention was no doubt modest -- but for those who met the idea at our design meetings or in other conversations, there's also little doubt that it started them thinking about their home, and their place in Australia, in a different light.

And I suppose the key connection in all this to the ongoing themes here at The Sceptical Futuryst is that our efforts sought to map the plane of abstract novel ideas onto the plane of lived reality, and to expand people's sense of possibility through a participatory design process.

Although hypothetical, it was nonetheless real in all the ways that mattered.

* The Engagement Studio consisted of Ammon Beyerle and Michelle James from Here Studio; Kathryn Cuddihy, Tadgh Daly, Rupert Dance, David Klingberg and Amruta Pandhe from David Lock Associates; and Svenja Keele, Andrew Wisdom and myself from Arup. The wonderful video was shot and edited by filmmaker Natalie James.

CAPITheticAL is a Centenary of Canberra project supported by the Australian Government and the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) Government, together with the Australian Institute of Architects. The exhibition is on until 11 May -- winners and finalists are all on show, and there's some really nice work there -- worth checking out!

Related posts:
> Architectural time travel
> Why the language of design must enter law and politics
> White House Redux
> Evidence
> The Unthinkable and the Unimaginable

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Apocalypse for one

Image via.

"If the world ended tomorrow, would you be happy with how you've lived your life?" 

A recent program by British hypnotist and television personality Derren Brown recently made this question the basis for an immersive experience created to convince one individual that the end of the world as we know it had arrived.

Twenty-one year-old self-confessed layabout Steven Brosnan was, unbeknownst to him, selected from among thousands of candidates, primed over several weeks for the outlandish scenario about to unfold, and then thrust into a calculatedly harrowing experience designed to teach him to really value his life. The whole thing was then broadcast on national television in the UK as a two-part special.

A consummate showman, Brown has created a number of ingenious made-for-TV experiments before. Three in particular were previously recommended to me with great enthusiasm - The Heist, The System, and Derren Brown Plays Russian Roulette Live - by my friend Jane McGonigal, a designer of what (a few years ago were called) alternate reality games. ARGs are (were?) a class of interactive role-play to which the nifty transmedia narrative stunt at hand bears more than a passing resemblance.

Derren Brown: Apocalypse designs a complex experiential arc around just one person. So evidently a key challenge was identifying the right candidate; someone who, as Brown says: "...currently leads a self-centered existence, and who takes his life, his friends, his family and material comforts all for granted. I'm hoping he'll be able to learn from the meticulously crafted experience I'm going to put him through. And by taking everything away from him, I hope to make him recognise the value of what he has."

The elaborate setup involved getting his entire family to play along, hacking their smartphones and doctoring media feeds to make the signs of impending disaster increasingly frequent, and then finally transitioning the subject into a fully immersive situation which he didn't know was hypothetical. Therefore throughout, amid all the actors and family members involved, he's the only one who doesn't realise he's on camera. Think Orson Welles's 1938 War of the Worlds radio play meets The Truman Show.

I won't describe the whole program blow by blow. If the description appeals, you'll be well entertained and should check it out yourself (video embedded below). Also, my thoughts shared after the break will contain spoilers and may not make complete sense if you haven't seen Apocalypse.

Now, futures as a field, I'd say, shares with education as a whole a common presumption at their heart that virtual experience can be as valuable as real. (Unfortunately, only a small proportion of education encounters are designed for maximum experiential impact. The same could be said of foresight.) Yet, even when carried out according to the most uninspired and dull-as-dishwater of conventions -- chalk-and-talk in the classroom; ploddingly written scenarios in the futures world -- both implicitly have an underlying faith in simulation (or for futures, simulacrum). Put another way, that article of faith is that you can learn from a situation that is constructed, that's not entirely real.

Such is Brown's basic supposition here, too, the plan being to simulate global catastrophe as "teachable moment" for Steven. The idea is that someone's life can be transformed by an encounter that, even though faked or engineered, presents as real to them, and so produces genuine revelation. And that's just what happens, or what seems to happen, in Apocalypse. We might say Brown's goal is to create an experiential learning journey (here, it's explicitly modeled on The Wizard of Oz, a classic "hero's journey" as in Joseph Campbell's mythic/archetypal Jungian framework). It's a thoroughly ingenious concept for a television narrative, and entertaining as all get out to watch. Yet I've also had a creeping sense that it's not entirely successful in the execution, and I've been trying to figure out why that is.

The reason I'm writing about this is because, as a designer of experiential scenarios, I'm keen to learn from these rare examples how to construct better immersions into hypothetical narrative situations, in order to make the practice more effective. What makes experiential scenarios tick, and how might they be improved? (To be clear, then; anything that seems critical about what I say here is part of an attempt to work with these thoughts as a practitioner, rather than gratuitous sniping from the safety of my armchair.)

I found parts of the show, especially the first half, very moving. The setup with the gradual introduction of ersatz news feeds into Steven's bubble, and the staging of a segue into apocalyptic territory is brilliant. For me, one of the best moments comes when the program makers reproduce during a bus ride their (clearly Orson Welles-inspired) radio-based dislocation into catastrophe, and then it ups the experiential ante magnificently.

However, after the apocalyptic bit of the story kicks in, it becomes increasingly difficult to believe. You might find it all terrifyingly realistic; I wanted to, but simply didn't. You might object that it's not our (as audience) credulity that matters. Yet it does, I think. When a hypothetical strains belief, it simultaneously becomes harder to believe that anyone else could buy it, either. The specifics of the apocalyptic narrative and experience that Steven is expected and appears to buy into get exceptionally silly. Without going into detail, having already warned about spoilers, one word really makes the point: zombies. An inspired Truman Show-esque first half morphs into a less convincing knockoff of 28 Days Later or The Walking Dead.

Perhaps it's not surprising, then, that some controversy arose in the UK over the central character of Steve, who was accused of being an actor complicit in the whole deal. These are claims that Brown has denied and debunked, but doubts may remain; based neither on Steve's half-finished acting website profile, nor on his amusing physical resemblance to an actor from a noodle commercial -- but rather on the internal merits and coherence of the program itself.

I won't go into the performances of the questionable actors by whom Steven is surrounded, or some of his reactions which, at times, even if real, felt even less credible. (Perhaps I'm just not a very experienced viewer of reality TV -- and if I watched more of it I'd realise that real people in reality actually behave like the way I consider bad actors act.) As it happens, I'm less interested in establishing the truth here as such than I am in understanding what's at stake for the program in its believability. You see, for the viewer of Apocalypse, its emotional and intellectual impact rely on an authentic deception. We are invited to empathise with Steve, for whom life as he knew it is ostensibly over. If it turned out that Steve were just another actor, there would cease to be anything truly novel or worthwhile about watching him go through this exercise: we've already seen our share of (more highly produced and impressive) end-of-the-world diversions. So the interest here turns entirely on Steven's being unwittingly drawn into a simulated catastrophe, which means it is significant only to the extent that he experiences as real something which is not.

Brown knows this, and makes that very point in his own defence: pretending to all this with an actor at the centre of it would be pointless. Well, yes and no. There's room for a cogent sceptical view here that a sufficiently cynical TV producer could benefit greatly from persuading an audience of millions that they were really putting an unwitting man on the street through armageddon's onset, while in fact orchestrating the whole thing with an insider-actor. This, the sceptic might argue, would obviate the investment risk should a carefully selected actual dupe clue into the subterfuge and suddenly ruin a presumably expensive and logistically elaborate end-of-the-world simulation-for-one. So the question comes to rest on Brown's insistence on his own integrity as an artist.

But here we come to a problem for the audience's experience of the show, one which is built-in, and unavoidable: Derren Brown, the "man behind the curtain", is fundamentally questionable. By no means am I saying I don't like him, or that his work isn't vastly entertaining, thought-provoking and insightful. I do. It is. I'm simply pointing out that a large part of the show's very premise, and part of the basis for our interest in watching it, consists in his charismatic persona and cultivated talent for understanding people and creating situations that play on their foibles. He's a master persuader, hypnotist and manipulator. No pejorative connotation intended; that's his schtick, and it's why we watch. But if Brown is being straight with us, the audience, then he is indeed deceiving Steven monumentally. On the other hand, if Steven's colluding with him (as I - and apparently others - had occasion to suspect), then Brown is deceiving us, his audience. Either way, there's a tangled web, and our charming host is right in the middle of it. Such ambiguity is at the very heart of his profession as an illusionist and mentalist, and shows up in all the situations that he creates. Little wonder, then, that some people question his veracity.

To continue the line of thought above for a moment more: if he were discovered to have been pretending, Derren Brown could still have a workable artistic alibi -- that the joke was deliberately, all along, on all of us, the audience. Maybe there's a meta-point in the offing here around our own susceptibility, but there's a trust we place in him, despite his own "untrustworthiness" which is the premise of our interest -- and if it were betrayed it would be a real pity. Especially amid all the fakery, the grain of truth still matters. 

All of this reminded me of another exquisitely ambiguous viewing experience, Exit Through the Gift Shop, the outstanding film about street art genius Banksy. It presents as documentary but leaves you (or at any rate, left me) wondering whether the central character, Mister Brainwash, was fabricated. He's such an outrageous character, and his commercial success as depicted in the doco such damning evidence of the cynical commercialisation of art, that it all seems too perfectly perverse to be true. A couple of years after watching it, I still find myself on the fence about Exit Through the Gift Shop's documentary status. And that's actually something I absolutely love about it -- and in some ways perhaps I'd prefer not to know the truth -- because it so effectively acts out one of the key questions it raises, regarding the importance of authenticity or truth as a value in the art world.

Now, as irritatingly and gleefully postmodern as some might like to get here, rejoicing - or wallowing - in the unknowability of the truth of it all, let me prepare to draw a conclusion: Exit succeeds because of its ambiguity, where Apocalypse falters. Let's be fair: if the show succeeds, it's despite any doubts about Derren Brown's and his subject Steven's veracity, not because of them. Audience doubt about Brown's truthfulness puts a dent in Apocalypse as an experiential scenario. To the extent that people doubt the authenticity of the deception, so to speak, to that extent the exercise is not quite working.

So much for questions of plausibility, ambiguity and fakery. Now I want to come at this from another angle.

Here's what Brown says about the motivation for staging an apocalypse for his victim. "In an effort to help Steven realise the value of the things he has, like his family, home and friends, I took them all away from him by creating the end of the world, through a deadly meteor strike."

But of course, there's a simpler way to end the world.

By sheer coincidence, just hours after viewing Apocalypse and then having a big group of friends over for dinner, I was revisiting the 1999 classic Fight Club, a testosterone- and irony-fuelled film essentially about living to the full. I hadn't watched it for maybe ten years. (If you haven't seen it, please do; but there are no spoilers below.)

A sequence about halfway through exemplifies the perversely life-affirming spirit of the movie, when the two lead actors, Brad Pitt and Edward Norton, conduct what they call a "human sacrifice", whereby the life of a Korean convenience-store owner is threatened, as an existential goodwill intervention. At gunpoint, the hapless shopkeeper is told, "Raymond, you're going to die". He's asked what he wanted to be in life before settling for quik-e-mart drudgery. The answer: a vet. Holding a gun to the poor man's head, Pitt takes his drivers' licence away, telling him, "I know where you live. If you're not on your way to becoming a veterinarian in six weeks, you will be dead." They let him go.  What was the point of that, demands an exasperated Norton. Replies Pitt: "Tomorrow will be the most beautiful day of Raymond K. Hessel's life. His breakfast will taste better than any meal you and I have ever tasted."

Here again, almost word for word, is the question behind Apocalypse (quoted at the top). There's a climactic confrontation later on between the two leads, when Pitt's trickster says to Norton's sceptic: "If you were to die right now, how would you feel about your life?"

My point is simply this -- and thanks, Fight Club, for the reminder: the whole planet need not be jeopardised in order for a person to experience a revelation about their life. If a single moment of staring into the abyss can be used to reactivate a sense of purpose and direction, there's more than one way to get at it.

I'm not for a moment suggesting (however compelling a TV show it might have made) that Derren Brown could or should have made a program based on directly threatening the life of a subject. But from an experience design standpoint, there's a curious quality of using a sledgehammer to crack a walnut in Apocalypse. Of course the grandiosity of the simulated experience is all by itself a large part of the point, in terms of televisual entertainment.
But in fact, what I think Brown and his team are doing most effectively here, with this complex exercise in forcing suspension of disbelief, is to dramatise vividly the fact and extent of the constructedness of mediated reality, or  -- if this makes it any clearer -- the mediatedness of our experience of wider systemic realities. Few of us are in a position to register first-hand most big-picture world news stuff, be it economic crisis or volcanic eruption or political upheaval. Almost all comes to us second-hand, through a handful of vectors (devices, sources, individuals) cross-cutting our sensorium. No, this isn't a new thought. But the show is a kind of masterclass in the partiality and manipulability of the tiny straw through which we get to receive only a fraction of a far bigger reality. 

And recognition of the excessiveness inherent in making widespread crisis, rather than personal mortality, the focal point for a "revaluing life" experiment also led to something else I'd sensed was missing from the show. The serendipitous encounter with Fight Club's counterexample helped clarify for me what that something was. 

Brown apparently went to the trouble of spending a couple of months convincing a listless but suggestible young man that his world could end, then went ahead and made that subjective experience "happen". Apart from Brown's skill and showmanship, the other reason to watch this specific program is this: apocalyptic anxiety is a real phenomenon. Not only is there a mounting array of planetary threats - climate change, loss of biodiversity, the ascent of superbugs, the ever-present nuclear spectre, etc - at the time this show was broadcast, the Mayan calendar transition was looming just weeks away at the end of 02012. (It passed by without incident the week before I caught the show on YouTube.)

In the same way that the potency of Orson Welles's radio show, a year before World War II began, channeled and amplified a generalised anxiety in the zeitgeist, Derren Brown: Apocalypse attracted record numbers of viewers because, I think, there was (is) actual and, at some level, valid worry about apocalyptic scenarios. Such power as it had, then, both at the audience (TV-viewership-of-millions) level and at the subject (sucking-Steven-into-the-story) level, draws on real, existential issues and concerns animating our culture at the moment. However, this potent cultural energy is skilfully marshaled only to be squandered; it's used to augment the Oz-like mastermind/puppeteer persona of Brown, but as an engagement with actual and worthwhile issues, either for the audience or for the one-man eye of the storm, it's hard to think of how it could possibly have been more superficial. (In case you've forgotten: zombies.)

So there's a sadly missed opportunity to address a worthy value, a counterpart at the wider social scale to the value of an individual life fully lived. If it were just a matter of making someone appreciate their parents more, or go back to school to become a veterinarian, then a bit of clear and present danger -- say, a few seconds at gunpoint, or even just a good talking to -- may be all that's needed.

By the way, I suspect the two problems I've tried to puzzle out above are related; the implausibility of the scenario in watching it, and its failure to engage in the real issues that bring resonance to apocalypse. They seem to be two sides of the same coin. 

Maybe I'm overthinking a work of pure entertainment. But then I think about the fact that entertainers have a capacity - and to that extent at least a potential obligation - to inform and enlighten, just as those who primarily inform and enlighten ought also to find ways to entertain and engage while they're at it. The mutual exclusivity of those modes is stupid.

There's an unfortunately missed opportunity here, is all.

When I mulled over this stuff around the ethics of deception in experiential scenarios for my PhD a few years ago, I wrote (p. 270), "when it comes to human intentions and perceptions, paradoxically, there are some issues you may not be able to get a clear look at without an element of deliberate, carefully engineered misdirection." After looking into it I ended up saying (p. 286):
[T]he value of enabling someone genuinely to contemplate a compelling alternative future universe -- if perhaps only for a moment or two -- may be profound. Everyone can recount instances in their own life where sudden, contingent insights have led to momentous changes in direction. The value of these interventions and futures perspectives should not necessarily be sought in their enabling a particular or permanent future orientation (although those are conceivable outcomes). Even small glimpses of other worlds may make the effort worthwhile. It is not usually necessary to go to the lengths suggested here, but ontologically pointed strategies are available, and are sometimes needed. As Whitehead reminds us, it is the business of the future to be dangerous -- which makes it our business to be able, at certain times, to conjure with that danger in order to navigate it more wisely.

The point was (and I still believe this) that deception can be a useful tool in enabling certain types of  experiential learning that may be hard or even impossible to get at in other ways. But it's to be used judiciously; downsides and upsides weighed against one another. Serious learning can come from a comparatively minor deception, but a trivial lesson from a major shock (or risk) isn't defensible.

Consider that audience outrage would surely have been universal had the show been about simply threatening Steven's own life personally to cause him to value it more highly (although that's presumably a worthy cause), and yet by contrast the excess of appearing to end the world just for him probably seems okay, even though the selected narrative mechanisms (meteors and zombies) studiously avoid saying anything about the terrifyingly genuine and varied prospects of anthropogenic apocalypse.

Intriguing ethical calculus.

Don't get me wrong. Derren Brown: Apocalypse is a hell of a show, and it plays on ontologically and ethically unstable ground that's often a hallmark of truly interesting art. In his recent (fantastic, highly recommended) book on art forgery, Jonathon Keats writes:
The far side of legitimacy is not necessarily illicit. To act on our anxieties, art must break mores. In some cases, those mores may be enforced by law, yet the full range of human behavior is beyond the imagination of legislators and judges, whose work is essentially reactive. Artists can experiment with possibilities outside our current reality.
Keats is writing on forged artwork, but the parallel's instructive: Brown's experiment with a simulated truth is in principle precisely what makes possible the expansion of layabout Steve's reality. Perhaps, zombies aside, this is the kind of experiential wakeup call that could benefit a great many more of us.

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Friday, January 04, 2013

A future of design

Tesla's Javier Verdura reminds the audience why electric rather than gas-powered vehicles rule the world in 02025

Imagine that it is the year 2025 and the world of technology is anew: quantum computing is now common, 3D printing has become a cheap commodity, biological programming has redefined the concept of life, and sensors of every type are embedded in almost every manufactured product, fulfilling the promise of the Internet of things. But in 2025, the world continues to churn. Economies on every continent have gone bankrupt. Massive corporations have fallen, replaced by rapidly growing startups—and the average global temperature has risen 1.2°C... 

Such were the narrative elements informing an experiential scenario recently orchestrated by the 3D design software publisher Autodesk.

In November 02012 in Las Vegas, the company hosted Autodesk University, its highly-produced annual gathering for industry trendwatching, training and networking purposes. In addition to the regular programming of classes and TED-esque mainstage presentations, on this occasion they decided to experiment with staging an experiential scenario for the future of design. And so, genial compere and friend-of-this-show Autodesk Fellow Tom Wujec MC'd a thirteen-years-hence edition of the "International Design Innovation Awards" -- a hypothetical event well suited to provoking thought and conversation around "how the masters create in 2025".

The gala's winners -- which is to say, presenters from selected design-oriented organisations, ostensibly earning their respective gongs from among a trio of high-flying nominees -- were allowed 8 minutes of stage time (freakishly generous for an awards ceremony) enabling crafty in-world exposition, peppered with the genre's customary thankyous and shout-outs. The "awardees" included Intel's Brian David Johnson, Javier Verdura from Tesla Motors, Rex Grignon from Dreamworks, and my Arup colleague Alvise Simondetti (whose presentation incorporated ingenious imagery of post-climate-change London by Robert Graves and Didier Madoc-Jones).

Alvise Simondetti from Arup proudly accepts his award for the "Universal Popup Hotel", an outstanding built environment design  -- a decade from now

But in terms of experiential scenario craft, the clear standout was OCAD foresight student and budding experientialist Trevor Haldenby, reprising a role created for his transmedia theatre production ZED.TO last year. In-world, he was speaking as Chief Innovation Officer of ByoLogyc, a Toronto-based biotech company being honoured in the exciting category of Advances in Biological Design.

This was among the most accomplished solo-performance scenarios I've ever seen, smoothly checking off some of the key criteria for doing experiential futures (or design fiction) work effectively.*

1. The tip of the iceberg, a.k.a. ‘reverse archaeology’. Archaeologists often dig up fragments of the past and try to deduce elements of social, cultural, economic and other context from these. An experiential scenario does the opposite, producing that handful of elements which will be most evocative of the world into which you want to invite the audience. This presentation made full use of the hybrid format provided (part acceptance speech, part corporate prospectus) as a window on a world of ubiquitous consumer biotech; with some great design assets -- slides touting ByoLogyc's deliciously creepy products -- woven in to tell the story.

2. The art of the double-take, i.e., Make us think twice. As per Dator’s second law of the future ('Any useful statement about the future should at first appear to be ridiculous') the scenario into which the audience was placed by the ByoLogyc presentation was edgy in content yet eerily plausible in form. Playing these levels off against each other helps an audience find its way into a narrative logic that may be challenging.

3. Don’t break the universe. Put us in-world, and keep us there. A recent evening of alternate reality gaming/theatre that I attended was set in the year 01984, yet the physical invitations that the organisers -- to be fair, undergraduate students just learning the ropes -- had gone to the trouble of producing included an email address at the bottom, and urged participants to RSVP to "The Game Runners". These sorts of anachronistic and non-diegetic gaffes break the universe. Avoiding such traps is about carefully attending to all the little details that either enable or interfere with the suspension of disbelief. Trevor had it covered, literally down to the fine print, with © 2025 ByoLogyc appearing in the bottom right corner of each slide. His opening remarks also incorporated an in-world anecdote about the venue; another detail corroborating the putative reality of the encounter. Pro stuff.

4. Make it fun! Challenging content (point two above) need not and should not mean dull and deadly earnest. Plenty of black humour here; pitch-perfect, tongue-in-cheek riffs on corporate rhetoric -- "for 32 years we've been borrowing chapters from the book of life that exists all around us in the world, to develop amazing new products". With craft and wit, this approach helped tell and sell the story, while simultaneously exercising satirical licence to play both sides of the question of desirability of ByoLogyc's formula; biotech meets human-centred design to "contribute to the creation of a better world".

The embed link's declining to work, but video of the whole "Future of Design" awards session can be found at this link. It runs 1hr 15mins; Trevor Haldenby's speech is the final segment (starting at 1hr 1min 30sec).

There were some other lovely touches throughout this immersive-performance exploration of what could become of design over the next decade and a bit; perhaps there were a few things that might have worked better as well, but it was an ingeniously setting-appropriate conceit for the audience's encounter with an intersection of futures and design. Hats off to the experimenters -- there are many other design futures out there to explore, so I hope we'll see much more of this sort of thing as time goes on.

* For more on these design principles see The Futures of Everyday Life, pp. 189-207.

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