Searching for Neverland: A theatre of impossible futures

How can play be used as a political instrument in facilitating the reimagining of and transition to future habitats? And, what is the role of the designer in facilitating the collective action and authorship of future habitats?

I’m seeking to answer these questions.

A voyage through design.

I’m a design futuring and experimentation protagonist creating at the intersection of complex problem spaces, driving transdisciplinary practices in futuring, experimentation and participatory design. In a nutshell, I’m looking for people to collaborate with, who are looking to help push — or redefine — the boundaries of design for reimagined futures.

While I’ve practised design in varying capacities over the last decade, I’ve spent most of my career as a strategic designer. The previous three years I’ve worked in management consulting with Deloitte Digital as an Experience Design Manager, where I developed an experimental research practice centred on futuring, play and participation. I played the role of an agitator — extending transdisciplinary design and futuring methods while working with economists, anthropologists, government advisory and with communities, to develop strategies for things like experiences, services, products and systems, with anticipated, transformational outcomes.

Recently I moved to Today to take on the role of their Lead Service Designer in Sydney, where I continued my endeavours to embed futuring and play in into Service Design (whatever that means to you).

At present, I’m exploring the future on my own, nomadic, actively seeking out like-minded collaborators, particularly those who identify — or have been identified — as provocateurs or even misfits.

A curious Neverland.

As a design consultant, my capacity for impact exists mostly within a liminal frame — this is where I choose to play. This is my version of Neverland, a place that exists outside ordinary time and space, ungoverned and curious. My self-assigned mission has been to redefine the role of design in facilitating structural progress by challenging governing belief systems and creating space for imagination as a temporary outsider.

Play is powerful. I use it to create a safe space, to engage the imagination of actors and spectators through individual or social participation, transcending agency to action and facilitating transitions. Stuart Brown said it beautifully when he was quoted in New Philosopher, Issue 20:

“Play is the vital essence of life” and “the basis of what we think of as civilisation”

Play can express both intrinsic and instrumental value, combat self-sealing logic, break down assumptions and challenge governing beliefs. Play is central to social imagineering and collective futuring, it is a performative intervention in everyday life and is instrumental to my practice.

A vision for play.

I’m curious about play as a political instrument. One that can facilitate the reimagining of and transition to future habitats. My mission is to launch a critical investigation into the remodelling of strategic design that centres on play and experimentation, blends participatory, speculative and transdisciplinary design and borrows from the humanities as well as behavioural psychology and science.

Imagine a future where humans are no longer the dominant intelligence in the world, and your choices are dictated by a set of external algorithms. My game, The Humanity Trade-Off Challenge challenges participants to relinquish aspects of their humanity to AI order renew their own human intention. What fundamental characteristics of humanity will still hold value in the age of AI?

Games like this allow us to interrogate a new human logic based on our difference and intrinsic value as human beings. In a world where we exist side by side AI, we need to redefine what it means to be human. We still need to play.

A road less travelled.

“The human as a being-in-the-world situates (her)himself in the architectonic place where (s)he inhabits” — Martin Heidegger

But I can’t help resisting a predetermined future.

Think of it this way. Humanity is the only species that is capable of imagining the future that we know of. But, when it comes to the mainstream imagined futures, most visions have been dictated by multinational corporations and patriarchal oligarchies whose interests lack the aspirations of the citizenry. It would seem, and I’m generalising here, a human’s ability to imagine alternative futures has been and continues to be kept at bay.

That’s why I seek to investigate the alternative method of authorship and action in the creation of reimagined communities and future habitats with the help of equally passionate collaborators. It’s my hope that the knowledge created through this research will contribute to the ongoing practice development and discourse in the field of strategic and speculative design.

A remodelling of strategic and speculative design.

The widespread adoption and commodification of design thinking and human-centred design is diluting the value of design.

Design within society is maturing, but for the most part, designers are merely perpetuating the anthropocentric now, creating dire consequences for the future of our living habitats. The opportunity here lies in interrogating the role of the strategic and speculative designer in the facilitation of societal transitions towards reimagined communities and future habitats.

This exploration, research and collaboration will afford me the time and space to develop ways of reflecting on any community’s aspirations for future habitats and make a contribution to knowledge on the role of a renewed strategic design practice in creating such conditions.

It’s about redistributing power and agency back to the many, including the marginalised, the displaced, and with indigenous peoples, whose defence over the systems that govern them exist as communal and collective.

A woman’s perspective.

If we are to address humanity’s immediate challenges and transition societies towards alternative, fair, just and sustainable futures, design needs to be radicalised. It’s not a new idea, but one that needs further interrogation.

We’ve seen past provocations on ‘smart cities’ expressed through Disney’s vision for the Progress City, the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow (EPCOT), and Dr Athelstan Spilhaus’ Minnesota Experimental city ‘a laboratory for urban technology’. These are examples of singular patriarchal visions of the future, driven by capitalism and Western ideologies.

I’m interested by and respect the provocations of women before me. I take inspiration from people like Lizzie Magie. Joan Littlewood. Jane Jacobs. Terry Irwin. All offer something totally unique. All offer a unique take in their own right, of course, not just as women, but as brilliant minds.

My endeavour to radicalise strategic design as practiced today is articulated best through Alain Badiou’s Theatre and Philosophy,

“(s)he must propose a theatre that is not the negation of theatre, but a new theatre, a theatre of the possibility of the impossible; not a theatre of identification but a theatre of transformation.”

And like theatre, through multi-actor play and playful and participatory narratives, we might be able to respond to the structural inequities that cause future disparities and create visions of the future that are considerate of the sociotechnical, cultural and political fabric of specific communities. After all, as William Gibson famously said,

“the future is already here, it’s just not that evenly distributed.”

A new story with multiple authors.

If we are to recognise and deliver on the potential for design to take on and contribute to the reimagination of and transition to future habitats, we need a design narrative that can redirect how visions for the future are authored and enacted. Prioritising design efforts to satisfy corporate interests in response to capitalist markets will only accelerate the demise of our living habitats.

The current narrative is dominated by corporate interests, profiteering, short-term gains and sometimes corruption. I intend to contribute to an emerging discourse on the role of strategic and speculative design by conducting a series of place-based experiments that create a new narrative in reimagining communities and model future habitats.

In my current practice, visions for alternative futures can only be partially realised. In a government transport project I worked on within Deloitte, I used VR and AR prototypes and tabletop games as tools to test and immerse citizens in a speculative transport future, I was led to question — Who authors and enacts urban futures? Is it mostly dictated to us?

And does strategic and speculative design as practiced today provoke alternatives, validate pre-defined solutions, or at most pivot those solutions to meet the same end?

I see a need to explore counter capitalist movements like Buen Vivir (good living), Ecosocialism and Cosmopolitan-localism in future narratives. How these movements play out across different communities, formally and informally might present useful provocations for how design methods transfer and adapt to specific contexts.

A final thought.

What I envision happens through collaboration. But my endgame remains to examine how to achieve the integration of empowered and disempowered approaches to reimagining communities and model future habitats that are transdisciplinary and participatory in nature.

I will collaborate with government, industry, institutions, peers and communities within different contexts, primarily within Colombia, Spain, the Netherlands and Australia on multilevel, multi-actor short and long-term project initiatives to explore new design methods with intended transitional and transformative design outcomes.

I will bring my experience as a creator, agitator, instigator and questioner.

I invite you to bring yours.

After all. If what Richard Barbrook suggests in Imaginary Futures is true, that “the present is continually changing, but the imaginary future is always the same,” then the designers' tools must make the future tangible enough to play with. In order to imagine something radically different — we need to make the future familiar enough to interrogate it before it arrives.