Thursday, February 9, 2006

Designing (for) the future?

Matt Ward has some interesting comments about designing the future:

"[D]esigners engaging in ‘future products’ or ‘future scenarios’ need to paint a picture of the future, they need to use any means possible in order to make the audience ‘believe’ ... Design always engages in prediction, whether it’s how things are used or read, what social effects resonate from the design, or even down to the commercial success of the design. One of things I think design does very well within a research context is the construction of carefully crafted visions of the future – these visions open up potentials for the here and now."

Let's start with a contentious point: If design necessarily engages in prediction, then this primarily serves to underscore the capitalist contexts in which it functions and the narratives Matt mentions are little more than sales-pitches or ways of pushing new techno-social objects.

In reading John Thackara's In the Bubble, I was again reminded how woefully inadequate - even harmful - the currently reigning "predict and provide" business and policy model really is. I've always had a problem with technological futurism and futurology, and especially with the idea of predictability or foretelling. In my mind, they all stand quite opposed to the ideas of potentiality and hope that I hold in such high regard.

Of course, I'd prefer to think that Matt is right -- that these future visions are actually working to open up new spaces right here, right now. But one of the problems with utopian thinking is that it is so future-oriented: it discourages living-in-the-moment in favour of dreaming a different tomorrow. As a dreamer, I hardly want to discourage imagining alternative realities, but how are these "carefully crafted visions of the future" actually used in the present?

Of course, Matt wrote this post specifically because he had been impressed by Fiona and Tony's "scenarios exploring the ‘ethical, cultural and social impact of different energy futures’" for the Science Museum Energy Gallery. What I want to know is how designing a museum exhibition like this differs from, say, creating a BP "Beyond Petroleum" campaign or engaging in a General Electric ecomagination exercise?

Update 9 Feb 06:

Via Nicolas -- The business of future gazing

"Technology journalist Tim Phillips says: 'It's important to be able to say to people that you've got some idea coming down the road, and futurologists are a way of doing this. The problem is that if you're a futurologist there's no point in playing it safe. You have to be revolutionary and radical, you have to sell a big idea, or else what's the point of you? The problem is revolutionary, radical, big ideas very rarely come true'...

Trends analyst Dr Patrick Dixon says: 'You can get really focused on technology and the latest innovation, but the fact is the future is about emotion. It's about how people feel about technology, it's about how people actually want to live, and that's what really makes the difference.'"

I still don't understand how future scenarios open up spaces of possibility today. Can someone please explain this to me?

6 Comments:

Anonymous nicolas said...

hi there,

" I've always had a problem with technological futurism and futurology, and especially with the idea of predictability or foretelling. In my mind, they all stand quite opposed to the ideas of potentiality and hope that I hold in such high regard. "

>>> agreed but then what would be a relevant way to work out "forecasts" or "foretellings"? trying to sketch what might be the potentialities? a kind of qualitative appraisal of potential usage/disruptions.

05:11  
Blogger adamgreenfield said...

I'm pitching my services as a "critical futurist," exploiting some of the potential you're diagnosing in the current, scenario-based futures planning model.

I'll let you know if anyone bites. : . )

10:03  
Blogger Tom said...

It seems to me that the difference between a museum exhibition and BP or GE's campaigns is the motivations of the museum itself. Since the age of enlightment in Europe, western museums have by definition had a pedagogical component to their missions. Though some museums have begun to cross the line into advertising by accepting corporate sponsorship, all museums at their root are primarily designed to engage and inform the public. Neither BP nor GE can claim to have such motivations.

Interesting blog, Thanks

11:39  
Anonymous Julian Bleecker said...

Nice post. Let me try to work through a point or two out loud.

"If design necessarily engages in prediction, then this primarily serves to underscore the capitalist contexts in which it functions.."

I'm not sure I see the direct linkage between design, future prediction and capitalist contexts. I'm sure the case could be argued for that sort of linkage in specific instances. And in as many instances I would see linkages between design, future prediction and the creation of more habitable, sustainable futures. This is another way of saying that future prediction can't possibly always lead to problematic futures. Some may, some may not.

As you know, design and futurism can be thought of as closely linked to science fiction as a way to differently imagine how we might live in the world, which is necessary to begin a conversation about how to make those worlds, which is necessary to begin the work to build those worlds. Living-in-the-moment will satisfy momentarily and may be not the best approach to creating better futures.

Carpe diem may best be thought of as no time like the present to re-make the future. I think "carefully crafted visions of the future" are used in the present in the way they encourage the necessary conversations about what, in this moment, is broken and how to fix it. When a designer of sufficient talent and with a sufficient audience is able to craft some narrative-rich artifact, she has created a vision that enrolls others into the process of thinking through and, perhaps, constructing more sustainable worlds. Without an imaginary shared through, for instance, design exercises, workshops, scenario writing, technology fiction, etc., it's hard to have a productive ground upon which to build new lived worlds.

So, my guess is that this opening up of "potential for the here and now" is about opening up and creating these conversations, which need an imaginary from which to work. What do we want? What does it look like? How does it feel to live there? These questions and (always) answers and (hopefully) plans and actions are what happen in the "here and now" using the future vision as a carrot on a stick. No?

11:14  
Anonymous Sanjay Khanna said...

"I still don't understand how future scenarios open up spaces of possibility today. Can someone please explain this to me?"
--Anne

Thinking out loud here. Part of it is about planning. Looking at future scenarios, one can imagine the emotional/ethical/social impacts within the scenario and either move forward to ameliorate potential negative repercussions--or work to create the positive, hopeful possibilities pointed out by the scenario. Perhaps a related part of this is about answering the questions: (1) If the proposed futures seem less than positive, in what spaces does hope lie? (2) Where are the possibilities (however small or large) for human beings to explore their vast potential if proposed futures point towards a constriction of imagination, of hopefulness, of equality and justice? While it appears the future will bring profound difficulties for humanity, our groundedness in relation to how we see ourselves in the here-and-now may determine the extent to which we romantize the future social context, are excited by it, are hopeful about it and participate in the process of its becoming.

10:58  
Anonymous niharika said...

hi
interesting blog.
I have been reading and talking to a few designers who are looking at future scenarios and I find that we are always looking at specifics, like technology or education and I understand the reason behind that. But because each person and each perspective is so varied from the other, there is no real platform to bring these diverse points of view together. or is there? let me know.

00:21  

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