From Design Fiction to Experiential Futures

This is the second chapter I wrote for the book, “The Future of Futures“. It explores the role design fiction, experiential futures and visual media in foresight work.  It also includes several examples of good design fiction, which are formatted nicely in the original publication.  Download this chapter as a formatted PDF, here.

I have another chapter in the book, which is about the effect of crowdsourcing, big data and the web on scenario planning and foresight.   You can read it here.

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From Design Fiction to Experiential Futures

by Noah Raford, PhD

Experiential futures, design fiction, artifacts from the future or speculative fiction.  Regardless of its name, there has been a surge in this kind of futures work in the last 24 months. Advocates such as Stuart Candy, Bruce Sterling, Anab Jain, Justin Pickard, Nicolas Nova and Julian Bleeker argue that design-based futures are not just a shiny form of communication, but are a distinct way of practicing futures research itself. Highly visual, often emotional, and ethnographically infused, their approach brings the future alive through videos, objects, and print media. The result, they argue, is a profoundly engaging experience that goes beyond technical reports and PowerPoint presentations towards a new level of engagement.

Of course, “experiential” and immersive activities have always played an important role in certain kinds of futures work, particularly in the early days of scenario practice at GBN. The very notion of a “learning journey”, for example, is perhaps the most immersive, experiential activity possible. But a new generation of practitioners are tackling some core issues of foresight with a fresh eye, bringing a liberal dose of creativity that is both powerful and engaging. Straddling the worlds of visual media, theater, film making, industrial design, and management consulting, design futures may be coming into its own as a distinct sub-discipline.

There are important differences between experiential futures, design futures, and speculative fiction, but for the purposes of this essay, I would like instead to emphasize their similarities. Most design futures strive to create a rich, textured, often-first person immersion in a credible alternate world through the use of multiple media and storytelling techniques. The best examples also seek to evoke the everyday richness of life in a “thick” way, going beyond the obvious layers to explore more subtle “scents and sounds” of an alternative future in more emotional, evocative ways. In doing so, design futures uses the familiar and everyday to help achieve the futurist’s goal of “making the familiar strange and the strange, familiar” (in the words of Stewart Brand). The attention to detail in many such projects, whether physical, visual or textual, helps to immerse the viewer in a direct narrative relationship with the material. This can produce profound insight into the kinds of products, services and stakeholders who may inhabit this scenario.

These approaches come with certain risks, however. Because they can so powerfully create a compelling, self-contained experience for the viewer, design futures are often at risk of producing visually rich, but analytically impoverished, outputs. Corning, the industrial glass manufacturer responsible for the wildly successful “A Day Made of Glass” videos, is a case in point. Although it is a beautifully made video and a masterpiece of public relations, critics point out that it lacks the most basic considerations of causal relationships and interactive effects. As a piece of film-making, it is engaging. As a piece of scenarios work, however, it falls below the mark.

While many argue that it is not Corning’s job to produce rigorous scenarios of the future (and they are right), this example illustrates how easy it can be to produce a visually rich design that is “all sizzle and no sausage”. It is therefore of particular importance for practicing futurists to use these approaches in combination with other forms of research and analysis. Even better, practicing futurists should work closely with new entrants to the field to help improve everyone’s practice. Such a synthesis would reinvigorate futures practice while bringing new rigor and insight to the design process.

Experiential futures is a powerful addition to the foresight toolbox.  It is doubly important because many of its leading practitioners are from outside the self-defined futures community. This include artists, designers, science fiction authors, video game creators and film-makers. The varied interests and agendas of these groups suggests that design futures will be an important source of continued inspiration, negotiation and creative tension for the foresight community in the coming years. While it may not be a generational shift of Kuhnian proportion, it does represent a turn in futures work that is both vital and important to the future of the field. It is for this reason that we present the following examples of interesting design futures in this volume.

Examples

Superflux, Song of the Machine

‘Song of The Machine takes real-world science and imaginatively pushes it to its limits. [It’s] a great example of how science and engineering illuminate what’s possible while design helps zero in on what’s preferable.’ — John Pavlus, Co.Design, June 2011”

“What if we could change our view of the world with the flick of a switch?” This is the question posed by the design futures consultancy, Superflux Studios based in London.  In the short video, “Song of the Machine”,  they track the everyday life of a single person as he goes about his business; totally blind, were it not for the help of a retinal prostheses which can see infrared, ultraviolet and visible spectrums.

Funded by Science Dublin and with support of real-world optogenetic scientists, the video is so powerful because it is so quotidian.  One young man’s day is tracked in intimate detail – riding on the train, meeting a friend – except augmented with a fantastic technology rendered normal through every day use.

 

Fly Me to the Moon

“Fly Me to the Moon” is a short video developed by APF member Heather Schlegel for the financial transaction company, SWIFT.  On the surface, it explores the future for electronic payments. Beyond that, it explores how concepts of trust, identity, ease, convenience and technology will interact with money in the future.  It is told with realistic characters, emotion and social meaning, embedded in an everyday world of remarkable richness and depth.

Four friends sit around a restaurant table, chatting about old stories.  One, a pilot, discusses how fun it is flying into space for her job.  The friends discuss space tourism with the kind of casual amazement that one would an experience backstage at a concert.  It is amazing, but not earth shattering.  Why?  Because like all things, it has already become part of the fabric of everyday life.

This project is subtle and compelling.  Like the best kinds of design future hybrids, it is also well researched and rich with strategic insight.  It thus works as an excellent piece of futures research and as an engaging piece of media and entertainment. Even more interesting, it does so with practically no special effects or high technology.

 

Auction of the Future

Ethnographic design futurist Scott Smith suggests that one of the most compelling aspects of design fiction is the use of physical objects as entry points into a conversation about the future (as opposed to just the end-product).  The “Auction from the Future”, from artist Hollington & Kyprianou, does just this.  A fictitious auction house, dubbed Adams & Smith (founded in 2034) hosts an auction in the year 2059 of early 21st century collectable products.  It includes a gallery exhibit of the objects, a printed and online catalogue, and a live auction event with theatrics, staging and full production.

Some of the items on auction include the Double Buggy Perambulator, a “used, but well conserved double buggy perambulator [that] is a wonderful reminder of the folly of unrestricted growth of the human population before the Last Depression.” A pack of cigarettes was included with the curatorial observation that, “one of the most interesting aspects of late capitalist culture – and one that should be remembered whenever comrades may feel our current struggles and problems overwhelming – was the self-destructive nature of so many of the desperate people who had the misfortune of populating it.”

Lot Number 8, a “genuine example of late capitalist water contained in an original, scientifically-verified as sealed plastic container,” is included as an example of the commodification of public goods, and a box of Paracetemol prompts the reflection that, “one of the many curiosities of the late capitalist period was the way in which populations were controlled via medication and health policies. This was carried out by governments on behalf of major pharmaceutical companies

The project’s fictional world represents one where global consumer capitalism has eaten itself, consumed by the pace of hyperconsumption, giving way to an anarch-communalist kind of local resilient economy.  “Each lot reveals a curious aspect of that bygone age, shedding light on the odd and dangerously contradictory practices of the time,” they write.

Although not a ‘futures’ project, it is an excellent demonstration of how everyday objects can be used to spark a conversation about what may seem absurd or unthinkable in the past, or indeed, in the future.


Ark, Inc.

“Despite repeated warnings that we are fast approaching a point of no return, the world’s governments (and ourselves) pay these issues little more than lip service.”

ARK-INC is a fictional company and set of products created by designer Jon Ardern (also of Superflux fame).  The company, “offers products and services as investments in the creation of a ‘post-crash’ portfolio that will hold or gain value as the world of traditional economics crumbles.”

In addition to a compelling, post-disaster shop front which customers can visit, ARK-INC developed a series of “Second Life” products, such as the ARK RADIO; a high design radio that would look at home on any stylish, cotemporary table. After the collapse, however, the product can be converted to run on solar power and operate as an encrypted two-way audio and data transmission device, thereby granting the user a communications network after social or economic collapse.

The products, publication, installation, website and accompanying videos demonstrate the power of cross-platform “transmedia” approaches.  It was so convincing, in fact, that despite clear notices on the website, Ardern continues to receive inquiries by concerned collapsitarians seeking to purchase his devices.

Calling such an approach “superfiction”, ARK-INC demonstrates yet other way that design can be used to create not only compelling visions of tomorrow, but also powerful lenses to re-interpret today.

 

Our Plastic Century

“Shallow are the souls that have forgotten how to shudder.” – Leon Kass

Futurists Stuart Candy and Jake Dunagan sought to create an installation that would trigger “the wisdom of repugnance” in their project, Our Plastic Century; an attempt to visualize and extrapolate trends in ocean pollution debuted at the California Academy of Sciences in 2010.

The projectPlastic Century consists of four large water coolers filled with plastic debris representing the total amount of plastic produced and existing on Earth at four different points in time: the birth of Jacques Cousteau (1910), at 1960, at the present, and forecast out to 2030.

“Our goals for the project were three-fold.  First, we wanted to show, in a compelling way, the exponential growth of plastic production over the last 100 years, and project the levels into the future if no interventions are taken. Second, we wanted to demonstrate that water, pollution, and humans are intimately connected; plastic doesn’t go “away.” And third, we sought to trigger the “wisdom of repugnance” and install a level of disgust that will stick with people beyond the initial experience.”

The project uses an intensely visual and intuitive approach, provoking a powerful reaction from its viewers. Although not a scenario project, the projection of plastic accumulation evoked the futurist’s goal of “making the familiar strange and the strange, familiar”. “We are trying to recalibrate people’s reality,” write Candy and Dunagan.  In its simplicity and museum exhibition formatting, the installation successful transports the viewer into a future world, grabs them emotionally, and then suggests new ways of seeing their behavior today with renewed clarity.

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UPDATE: There is an excellent summary of the entire book by Andrew Curry, the main editor of the book, on his website.  You can also buy the complete book here.

2 Trackbacks

  1. […] Design Fiction to Experiential Futures is one of the book’s chapter, written by Noah Raford, and freely available on her website. It […]

  2. […] created are not the solution to a design problem but rather objects with which to think creatively (Raford, 2012). These projects offer unexpected results, from dystopian fantasies to utopian paradises, which are […]

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