It was sometime in the early 21st century that it happened. Culture had become so saturated with different versions of the future, something inside our collective imaginations just shut off. We forgot how to imagine the future. The ramifications were broader than we first thought. By 2015 the whole planet had lost the ability to imagine change. It didn’t happen all at once, like Gibson’s future, the loss wasn’t evenly distributed.
Over the last couple of years, the term Design Fiction (DF) has gained ground and popularity. It has entered design parlance and has become ‘hip with the kids’. As a practice it’s moved out of classrooms and galleries into boardrooms and research labs. I’ve watched the term grow in popularity, been frustrated with the lack of historic contextualisation, and amazed by how little the term has been interrogated.
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 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).
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.
Adam, B. (2006) Has the Future Already Happened
Adam, B. (2006) Futures Told
Baccolini, R. & Moylan T. (ed.) (2003) Dark Horizons; Science Fiction and the Dystopian Imagination.
Bijker, W. & Law, J. Shaping Technology / Building Society
Brand, S. (2000) The Clock of the Long Now: Time and Responsibility
Eno, B & Thackera, J. (2005) Eternally Yours: Time in Design. 010 Publishers
Fry, T. (2008) Design Futuring: sustainability, ethics and new practice. New York: Berg
Fukuyama, F. Our Posthuman Future : consequences of the biotechnology revolution
Guallart, V. (2006) Sociopolis: project for a city of the future. Actar/Architectektur Zentrum Wien
Greenfield, A. (2006) Everyware: The dawning age of ubiquitous computing
Hakken D. Cyborgs@Cyberspace?: an ethnographer looks to the future
Jameson, F. (2005) Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions. London Verso.
de Jouvenel, B. (1967) The Art of Conjecture
Kirkby, D. A. (2003) Science Advisors, Representation and Hollywood Films. Molecular Interventions 3:54-60
Loveridge, D. (2009) Foresight: The Art and Science of Anticipating the Future. New York: Routledge
Moylan, T. (2000) Scraps of the Untainted Sky: Science Fiction, Utopia, Dystopia. Oxford: Westview publishing.
Nowotny, H. (2008) Insatiable Curiosity: innovation in a fragile future. Cambridge Mass.: MIT Press
Parrinder, P. (ed.)(2000) Learning from Other Worlds, Liverpool: Liverpool University Press
As an educator and a designer, I’ve spent most of the last decade thinking about and doing design education – but I’ve been in the thick of it, on the front line; giving lectures, writing briefs, managing curriculums, directing courses and giving tutorials. So I talk and think about design A LOT – the content and quality of ideas, how to progress ideas into realities, how to construct convincing narratives and engaging stories about speculations, how to best detail the material results of a designers imagination. But I rarely get the chance to try and put my thoughts together about ‘design education’ as a holistic overview. My personal research – with DWFE and before – has been as a practitioner and theorist(ish), without a focus on design education, however, over the last couple of years I’ve realised I’ve accumulated a lot of knowledge and experience that maybe worth sharing. Last week I was invited to Virginia Commonwealth University in Qatar to discuss the future of design education. I used the opportunity to reflect on my practice as an educator, but also to set out a trajectory or strategy for the future of design education.
During my teaching career, my aim has been to enable students to develop a thoughtful, critical, creative and sustainable design practice. But beyond these well-meaning educational aims, the role of educators and academics is also to push the boundaries of their discipline. My drive is based not only on the transformation of my students, but also the transformation of design itself. This is by no means a small task, but for me, the role of higher education is to find new directions for the industries it feeds. Our graduates will, one day, be leaders – shaping our material culture in new ways. I hope their education will set them (and design) up on a new trajectory.
Design as a discipline is as varied and as large as any I know. In fact, one of the biggest challenges is to define actually what design is. Throughout the history of design, we’ve seen many different modes, names and conditions for designing. Here lies possibly the biggest challenge to design education, during design’s short and chequered history, designers, academics and to some extent markets have tried to delineate and define ‘this design from that’. Boundaries and borders are drawn to distinguish where one type of design starts and another one finishes. Walls are built to defend territories, markets and practices. Design is increasingly chopped into decreasing small bits. It is in these silos where the discipline gets stuck, frozen in a battle of nomenclature and method, arguing the fine differences between UX and IA, ultimately no one moves forward. But this becomes truly destructive is when it moves into education.
This is no big surprise; academics in their desire, by very definition, to be experts in a particular field, fragment the bigger picture. This limits growth and the possibility for change, but also jeopardises the education of their students. Why does this sit so uncomfortably with Design as against say History or English, Economics or Engineering? I would argue that this is due to the very nature of design as a practice, it is one for the generalist, design demands the negotiation of a multitude of different disciplines, skills and knowledge sets. In its practice it draws inspiration from subjects as diverse as philosophy and material science, in its implementation it uses both practical, material and conceptual skills. In our drive to give a closer definition of our discipline, we have limited the view of the world which we need to design for.
Seeing design beyond its disciplinary boundaries and beyond its definition as a ‘problem solving activity’ opens up new opportunities for it as a practice and profession. ‘Big business’ has begun to understand the value of design in the generation of new ideas and the role of designers as the instigators of invention. Business has also started to recognise that design has a strategic value in the predication and creation of new markets. Beyond its close relationship with free market capitalism, designers have begun to play a small role in public sector activity – from social care and health care, designers offer a new perspective on service innovation.
But these opportunities offer new challenges in the education of our students. The craft and manufacturing skills of the last century have little to do with the knowledge economy of this century. The social, environmental and political problems of today will not be solved by the tools and approaches educators have been teaching designers over the last 100 years. It was with this in mind that Goldsmiths – in particular John Wood – started the BA Design 20 years ago. He recognised the need to provide a interdisciplinary education to equip students with the tools to participate in social and environmental change.
In the last 20 years, the context and profession of design has changed dramatically. However, the ethos and ambition of the BA Design programme has become even more ‘contemporary’, in my opinion it has moved from being radical to sensible. Our curriculum has evolved and refined, our staff and students continue to challenge and experiment, but the original ambition has remained the same – a testament to John’s insight.
During my visit to Doha, I was excited to witness a city and country at a point of massive change. Qatar is like a petree dish for social and environmental transformation, everyday comes a new ambition and opportunity for growth and development. The material environment is being built at such a rapid pace, the social and cultural infrastructure has little time to catch up. It felt like I was observing a giant country-wide experiment, a top down push to move the country in a new direction. The ambition of the Emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, and his second wife to move the country from a carbon-based economy to a knowledge-based economy is both smart and necessary. The investment and building of an infrastructure to support an future economy reminds me of Rem Koolhaus’ analysis of the development of Manhattan’s grid in 1807:
The Grid is, above all, a conceptual speculation. In spite of its apparent neutrality, it implies an intellectual program for the island: in its indifference to topography, to what exists, it claims the superiority of mental construction over reality…the land it divides, unoccupied; the population it describes, conjectural; the buildings it locates, phantoms; the activities it frames, nonexistent.
R. Koolhaas, Delirious New York, 1994
Doha feels empty, a place in waiting, preparing to be filled with a ‘phantom’ population, culture, economy and future. Maybe this is how Manhattan felt 200 hundred years ago. The heritage and identity of the Qatari way of life is being radically changed overnight, like a construction site that is demolished and rebuilt, forgetting key materials may cause long lasting damage. However, there is enormous potential there. The emerging design culture has far less baggage, the culture can reshape itself for the 21st century without decades of preconceptions and prejudices. It will hopefully aid Qatar in the leapfrogging necessary to allow for its economic transformation.
Over the last few years at Goldsmiths, I’ve seen and encouraged a fascinating trend towards an engagement with performance. Within other disciplines (and in design theory) this has been called the ‘performative turn‘, but I’ll leave it to others, far more rigorous than I, to explain the theoretical genesis.
What I’d like to do is show a few projects and talk about their implications on design practice. I’ll also try to make initial steps in trying to connect design to contemporary art practice.
Performance has always played an important role in design (I’m not talking about performance in terms of functional efficiency). The communication of a project – be it in front of a client, a peer group, conference audience or general public, requires a level of performance. How the story behind a project is constructed and told makes an enormous difference to its reception. I’ve always encouraged my students to embrace the performative nature of project crits and presentations. If you design, direct, practice and perform your presentations you’ll go far. It’s a skill, that if mastered, will make you invaluable to a design consultancy.
Last year, with our second year students, I developed a brief with Nelly Ben Hayoun (you can read Nelly’s write up of it here) to push the performative/experiential part of our student’s design practice. It was a called The Forbidden Tourist:
In William Burroughs’ text The Invisible Generation he describes hidden operators, agents of change and design that sit behind the scenes forumulating and curating new events, experiences and interactions. Acting as the “Invisible Generation”, this week you are tasked to create ‘domesticated events’ in which tourists will be invited to experience new forms of landscape / sports activity / warmth / environment / diet / language / beach / sound / inhabitants etc…
The final presentations had to be ‘live and real’, performed, experienced and directed. The project was a great success with some fantastic ideas. One of the most important things I learnt throughout the process was that through ‘performing’ ideas – including getting members of the audience involved – it was evident whether or not the experience/idea/design would be valuable, exciting or intriguing. During the presentations, you could instantly tell if the project was a success. In some ways this combines presentation with a form of fictional user testing, they were performing to know. Here, prototyping is taken to another level, where ideas are exposed to an audience, events are ‘acted out’ and success is evaluated. Performance as a prototyping medium.
In the act of designing we set up certain behavioural trajectories, these have been described as ‘scripts’ by Madeline Akrich. Implicit in every ‘technical object’ is a set of assumptions (or predictions) of how a ‘user’ will behave and what ‘specific tastes, competencies, motives, aspirations, political prejudices’ an actor has through their agency in the world. What we need to be aware of is how this ‘inscribing’ takes place and the extent of influence a designer has over the inscription process. So by performing and prototyping the behavioural and social relations intended in a design, the designer can start to gain insight on the process.
If we abstract the ‘script’ from the object and focus purely on the social interaction, we have something close to the work of Tino Sehgal. His dematerialised approach to his art practice means that he makes ‘constructed situations’ – live events where ‘interpretors’ are given oral instructions by Sehgal and the event unfolds beyond his direct control. The work lives only in the memory of those that witnessed the event and in the media reaction to it. His current piece, in the Tate’s turbine hall, These associations, is well worth a visit. The work consists of a group of 70 volunteers walking, running, singing and playing. They move around the space as if they follow an untold set of rules and instructions, every now and again one of the participants breaks off to tell a member of the public a story. During my two visits I had a man tell me about the time he lived in a house boat on the Thames, a really close community, where once he fell into the river and nearly drowned. The other story was from an American woman who told me about her recent experience at the Olympics, and how hearing the national anthem uncovered a lost sense of national pride.
I love the work, it feels awkward and strange, familiar and uplifting. When listening to the stories, I was genuinely interested, when watching the movements of the crowd I was confused and amused. I like the fact that I’m currently participating in the work right now: my text is part of a network of appraisal that constructs the media memory of a fleeting work of art. In terms of its relationship to design, I feel it fits perfectly. As designers we set up frameworks of action, then the messy reality of people shift and change our intensions – this is akin to Sehgal giving instructions, the allowing the work to evolve throughout its life.
It reminds me of a piece of work by Matt House and Martin Turner, for their final presentation, in response to a live brief set by Imagination, they designed a ‘rain dance’. In this project, the performance is both outcome and communication, it’s a way to express the essence of their idea, but it is also a proposal for a possible solution – a physical jingle to promote the appreciation of the British weather. Like a meme it’s released into the world to change and effect peoples attitude. It is through performance that we see the world change.
I’m also interested in how designers use performance as both a critical and generative tool. This year we had two great third year projects exploring ‘performance as method’. Larissa Seilern investigated how the ‘performative act’ could be used to ‘interrogate specific social phenomena and potentially instigate social change.’. In the video she tried to normalise the media view of beauty in the context of the streets of south east London. The activity calls into question the representations of women within advertising, but beyond that it allowed for Larissa to evolve her ideas and understanding of a space and topic.
The other project, Micro-rituals by Tom Marriot, elevates everyday action through video recording into a performance to be used as a resource for design. Here, performance is integral to the design process. By isolating, editing and remixing banal activities into the beautiful and ridiculous, Tom unearths a rich seam of material to work with. His method looks to deconstruct the everyday in order to reveal the extraordinary. The performance is less in the ‘acting up’, but more in the editing of action.
This reminds me of George Perec’s idea of the Infra-ordinary:
The daily papers talk about everything except the daily. The papers annoy me, they teach me nothing. What they recount doesn’t concern me, doesn’t ask me questions and doesn’t answer the questions I ask or would like to ask.
What’s really going on, what we’re experiencing, the rest, all the rest, where is it? How should we take account of, question, describe what happens every day and recurs every day: the banal, the quotidian, the obvious, the common, the ordinary, the infra-ordinary, the background noise, the habitual?
Georges Perec, Approaches to What? 1973
This is where performance comes into it’s own, it acts like a mirror to the actions, relationships and events that make up our daily lives. It gives us the necessary distance to examine, reflect and understand what we do and why… surely a useful activity for design and designers.
I’ve been writing some words for our book about to be published by Shopwork. In my chapter, I’m trying to unpack the ideas around photography, image production and consumption, politics and social media found within the Green=Boom project.
One of the main ideas in the piece is how the act of image production operates as a means to construct a form of social reality. By composing, capturing and sharing our lives photographically we ‘art direct’ how others view us, and therefore how we view the world.
With all this talk of a New Aesthetic, it’s made me reflect on the mechanics of seeing and being seen, the politics and power relationships of visuality and the boundaries of identity in the capture and representation of the world around us. This takes me back to some old and much loved art history – in particular Vision and Visuality edited by Hal Foster. A fantastic book, well worth a read (I think there’s a longer post/paper on how the NA is part of what Martin Jay describes as a (post)modern ‘scopic regime’). In Vision and Visuality there is a conceptual split between vision – the mechanics (or biology) of seeing and visuality – the socially constructed gaze. This split, although problematic at times, gives us an interesting way to look at the objects that allow us to see differently. From drones to webcams, satellites to hasselblads, we can start to look at the philosophical and political potential of our visual prostheses.
On a slight tangent, my all time favorite use of a visual prothetic within cinema is in Hitchcock’s Rear Window – here is a wonderful project by Jeff Desom where he expands the view to recreate a cinematic landscape:
To ground this somewhat theoretical discussion, I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about lenses recently. I’ve been working out the correct FOV for our latest installation: MIlan = Boom (part of Hacked Milan), the decisions are both practical (minium focal distance and speed) and aesthetic – in terms of cinematic FOV / screen ratio reference:
or specific cinematic moment:
We have to think about the FOV as a reality distortion field, we can manipulate the images we construct to make the audience work harder. Or as David English describes 35mm; ‘It’s more powerful because the perspective skirts along the outer edges of reality’. It is this formation and manipulation of reality through cinematic and photographic devices that I find so fascinating. More from English:
“Because a 35mm lens slightly enhances what we normally see, it invites a more subtle interpretation of everyday events. A 50mm lens suggests that this is what you could have seen for yourself, had you been there. It’s reality as we know it. A 24mm or 28mm suggests a somewhat curved reality — a reality that appears to be in flux with a frame of reference that seems reluctant to settle in place. A 35mm perspective holds a special position in between. It seems to hold time still, as though the scene is carefully balanced between life as it is and life as it could be. Think of it as the subtlest of focal lengths, because it enhances the perspective so gently that you don’t realize it without careful study.” David English, Stillness in Time
What is important here, is that all viewing devices (all optics) help us construct the way we see our world. All devices are wrapped up in messy political complexities that need to be unravelled in order to gain a level of mastery. What we’re witnessing at the moment is not the shift in vision, but also a continual shift in visuality. One where our social reality is made up my both man and machine, but who holds the power in our robot readable world and how is life distorted by our optical manipulations?
Timo Arnall, Robot Readable World
For nearly two years I’ve been taking photographs and tagging them with the phrase ‘boring urban landscapes‘. The ‘project’ began with a general interest in the over-looked, the parts of our cities that aren’t seen as beautiful or interesting – the underrepresented, the marginal. By no means am I the first person to look at this, there are some wonderful photographers and a great tradition of looking for a non sentimental representation of our human-altered landscape.
New Topographics, as a term was coined around 37 years ago by William Jenkins for the curation of a show of the same name. It was a reaction against the overly romanticised view of the landscape typified by photographers such as Ansel Adams. However, this approach to photography has a varied and complex past, with masters such as William Eggleston and his representation of the ordinary. Anyway, It’s been going for 30-40 years and has a keen following on flickr, and I’m by no means a master.
What I’m going to do is use my photos as a starting point; a conceptual spring board for a range of unconnected ideas and thoughts. These have been rattling around my mind for a while.
I was first attracted to these kinds of spaces because of the way they seemed to collect objects. They acts as some sort of net for the flotsam of our material culture. In South East London, they operate in two main ways; part fly tip, part recycling centre. Here both operations are outside of the law, a black market space for material transfer. Things get left there, people pick things up there. These are spaces that get given a programmatic identity through the community that surround them, I therefore suspect that they are good as a form of social barometer.
I’m fascinated with how these ‘non-spaces’ acquire an unofficial function. Through the very fact that they a free from programme, they assume and grow a function organically.
I also like that these spaces are often found near transport infrastructures. It’s not a big surprise that land use isn’t as dense or populated by high-density lines of transportation. But I hold onto the mental image that the speed and flow of people has knocked the culture and life out of these spaces – blowing it away – like the dirty bits of motorway verges.
When we plan our cities, these bits are rife with failure; they always turn into deserted and intimidating spaces. These are the space of deviance and disorder, the city in peril. The true margins of society… maybe ‘boring urban lanscapes’ is the wrong title.
The final idea that has arisen from these is how we can start to think about the underrepresented when thinking about the future of our cities. These are the types of space that never get visualised and thought about, however, they are the spaces of a sort of Ballardian future… banality spatialised. I think we need to think about the future that has these sorts of spaces in, they ground us, they allow us to image the cultures that will adopt, occupy and transform the boring urban landscapes of tomorrow.