The Fate of Things to Come: Making and Unmaking the Future

In 2007 I started to sketch out a book with the very brilliant Mike Michael, it was a lot of fun, but it got lost in busy times. Some of the ideas I’ve presented in different places (at Nokia Advanced Design in mid-2008 and at Design Transfer in Berlin later in 2008), but I’ve never really written about it. Last week I stumbled upon the proposal and think it still has some merit. I’ve added and edited it to make it more readable for a blog post, I thought I’d put it here to see what you think:

We are supposedly living in an epoch in which time has speeded up, where we are forever looking to the future, indeed, where the future encroaches on the presented to form what Nowotny (2008:2) has called an ‘extended present’. Increasingly scholars have begun to interrogate our relations to the future and there is now an articulation of what it means to ‘study’ the future.

Design’s relationship to ‘the future’ is strange, it is always, to some extent future orientated. No mater what sort of design you do, it always exists in a future yet to be lived. Recent writing and ideas around ‘Design Fiction’ has highlighted the narrative qualities needed in producing engaging and provocative work. But I’d like to sketch out and explore the ways in which the future is –  or rather how complex and contradictory futures are – made and unmade in the context of design processes. In particular, the following is a sketch of a ‘typology of futures’ as they at once have shaped, and been mediated by, design.

As such, the underlying rationale of the proposal was to raise a series of issues for scholars and practitioners concerned with design (and these include not only designers, but also artists, policy makers, social scientists specialising in technology broadly defined). On the one hand, by looking in detail at ‘past’ and ‘present’ futures of design, the book aimed to engage with what can serve as a ‘viable’ future in design thought and practice. By interrogating this viability, we aimed to disentangle the variegated forms of design. On the other hand, by deploying a less linear, more topological model of temporality, we aimed to un-ravel (or re-ravel) its own historiography, and in the process explore methods and techniques by which design-and-future can be rendered radically ‘open’. The upshot is a contribution to design and design-associated disciplines that charts the changing futures of design, but also offers a range of practical and conceptual resources for the ‘doing’ of a Design Futures, that is the simultaneous making and unmaking of the fate of things to come.

In summary, the proposed volume aimed to do the following:

  • Provide an historical account of the ways in which the future has informed design practice and thinking;
  • Examine the range of futures that pervade contemporary design;
  • Reflect upon the linear temporal accounting of  these futures, and develop a topological analytic for ‘design futures’;
  • Elaborate the implications of this topological futuring for the ways in which designers (and design-associated scholars and practitioners);
  • Develop and set out a series of practical and conceptual sensibilities and ‘techniques’ for doing ‘topological futuring’ in design.

Towards a typology of ‘designs-and-futures’

The following is an attempt to characterise the various configurations of ‘designs-and-futures’. The aim is to start to formulate an understanding of the different forms the future in relation to design theory and practice. As such, we tried to develop a heuristic typology of designs-and-futures:

Tight curl futures

Tight curl futures are those that are created around little leaps of delimited imagination. Projects linked to proximal futures that confirm and concretise predominant visions of markets, users and technological progression (similar to Dunne + Raby‘s Affirmative Design). These futures have tight briefs and base their predictions on pre-existing and otherwise un-interrogated versions of ‘needs’ or ‘desires’ or ‘identities’. Tight curl futures are an intrinsic part of widespread social and material discourse and practice.

Design for the long now

In contrast to tight curl futures, and with reference to the writings of Stuart Brand, the definition of ‘design for the long now’ aims to  negate obsolescence and drive the desire to create a more ‘sustainable’ future. As such we consider how some designers strive to demarcate and project futures that contrast from, but are nevertheless indebted to, the present and its tight curl futures. As such these futures can be described in terms of a ‘long now’ which is fundamentally shaped by the present. This analysis will be particularly informed by recent work on the complex role of expectations in generating not only futures, but the ‘users’ of, and investors in, those futures.

Explicit utopianism

Explicit utopianism is contentful, directed and political design that addresses matters of ends and not just means.  Here design formulates and projects idealised needs, wants and uses, but also opens itself up to the potentiality of humans. As such design reconfigures around the realization of untapped positive capacities of those users. Here, those capacities are peculiarly accessible to the designer who now takes on the role of designer as architect of the future. Such utopianism is, of course, ‘of its time’, as the specificities of different utopian visions amply demonstrate. Understanding the presence of the present in these utopias allows us to not simply to debunk them, but to begin to rethink the relation of past, present and future in more iterative terms.

Design and the Doing of Crisis

Focusing on dystopian visions that necessitate design interventions of one sort or another – where Design becomes a long haul  ‘problem solving activity’ in which the prediction of a pessimistic future serves in reinvigorating the role  the designer and underpinning current actions. However, there is another dimension to this negativity – one that pervades all the preceding chapters: namely that tight curl, long now and utopian design all presuppose a negative future that is inevitable in the absence of the ‘right’ design. We explore these mirror images in terms of their performativity – that is, their enactment of particular futures in the present in order to constitute desired futures – in order to further nuance the iterative relationalities of past, present and future.

Predictions, Predications and Propositions

Through a glass, clearly – Inference, Prospects, Extrapolations and Guesswork

This part of the book aimed to develop a series of conceptual tools through which we aimed to reframe the relationship between design and the future. We began to think through the conditions of emergence for a suitable (or ‘fit for purpose’) design practice. We did this through a contrast with both the predicates and processes of a number of the key techniques through which designers have attempted to construct a speculative space for formulating representations of the future that are seen to have some credibility or validity. In taking a close look at ‘foresight’, ‘trend analysis’ and ‘prediction methods’, we aimed to crystallise our own conceptualizations of designs-and-futures and set out a range of propositions. In particular, we contrast the ‘closedness’ of the futures enacted through these techniques (which vary in valency from ‘hope’ to ‘hype’), with the provision of more ‘open futures’ (with their orientation towards ‘horizon’ – inherently vague and unreachable).

Open Futures

Here we tried to conceptualise a design whose relation to the future is altogether more open. As such we look to examples of design practice characterised by a concern with process, emergence, openness, fluidity, complexity, ambiguity, potential and multiplicity of use, function, relations and so on and so forth. Again, we stress that these qualities are not outside of ‘their time’. However, we also started to explore them in terms of the ways in which the re-stitch past-present-futures, and serve to contort to the linearity of temporality into more ‘topological’ configurations in which past, present and future become more difficult to disentangle, or rather, are collapsed together in the ‘event’ of the design.

Conclusion: Re-Conceptualising and Operationalising Futures-and-Designs

In the final chapter we aimed summarise the key themes of our discussions of futures-and designs: the iterative relation between past, present and future, the role of Design in the evocation of such iteration, the performativity associated with the future, the closed-ness and clarity of futures versus their openness and emergence. Out of these themes we formalised an array of concepts, including: topology, iterativity, perfomativity, openness, emergence. Our end goal was to operationalise these through a series of practical recommendations ranging from the development of particular sensibilities toward design as a discipline through to specific techniques of doing design.


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