Nobody can really predict the future, and anyone who says so might be quite biased.
I’ve been interested in the evolution of rural and remote areas and how modern lifestyles are impacted by technology ever since I was a researcher in rural Scotland between 2008–2010. Though themes of work from those days have come, gone and sometimes returned, given the chance, I always give them a shot as a person who enjoys and respects these areas with all they encompass: material and immaterial.
This July, I had the opportunity to run a short design fiction workshop over four days in the village of Vovousa, Greece, as part of its annual festival. Eleven participants, non-native to the village and mostly with creative backgrounds, arrived curious to discuss futures, get to know the area, be exposed to local festivities — the panigiri — that took place during the days of the workshop and enjoy a few interesting and thought-provoking days in the heart of the Pindus range, in Epirus. We only spent a total of 6+ working hours together as a group (they probably worked more, outside these hours), but being familiar with the festival’s previous year’s thought broadening program, experiences and communal feeling, when planning our sessions, I was quite confident that the hours outside our workshop would be important to participant’s thinking. So, I was really looking forward to how the overall experience would influence participants and what results they would generate when providing a snapshot of the village in the year 2048!
A bit of context
Vovousa is a village in the heart of Pindus range, in Eastern Zagori, that lies on both sides of the River Aoos/Vjosa, the last wild river running through Greek and Albanian territory into the Adriatic Sea. It is home to 132 inhabitants, as per the census of 2021 — though reality claims the number to be down to 20–30 individuals year around. Mostly elderly, the younger residents hold professions of lumberjacks and livestock breeders, while the local school has less than a handful of pupils, all who are siblings.
A few years back, government talks of creating multiple dams along the river ignited the Vovousa Festival as a way for the local community to understand and raise awareness of the impacts of such a decision to the settlement, its environment and the locals’ livelihood. Today, though in Albania the river has received a status of a national park, in Greece it is still undecided as to what might happen in regards to licensing and building 49 small hydropower plants of various size and energy output.
Another interesting piece of information for the village is that in the past, before roads and vehicles where a thing, Vovousa and its central stone bridge had been a passing point for trader’s caravans who moved goods and people along vast areas, and connected the Epirus region with Western Macedonia prefecture and the rest of the Balkans. And while this meant a passing by and temporal population, oral history has it that the village, owing to its remoteness and inaccessibility, would be home to individuals who for their own reasons wished to lay beneath the radar of officials and the once Ottoman state.
Though the river and demographics are not the only important issues regarding the village, they offered fertile grounds to consider alternative futures for Vovousa. Whether the river in its Greek side remains wild and free running is still uncertain. Additionally, though past census’ show a relatively stable demographic, given the driver of urbanisation, nobody can be certain of how numbers might progress going ahead and what the population’s composition might be. Therefore, these two uncertainties made for interesting starting points for the participants to think of the future of the settlement.
How we worked
Having pre-booked their spot in the workshop with the festival organizers, it was relatively easy to setup an online community to warmup participants on facts about the area, signals and trends that surround the interest of the workshop, beforehand. From parts of the context, above, to demographics and discussions on AI, technology and social and business models that could find their way into the mainstream, 5 posts on topics of interest were shared and their respective printed trends cards were available when the group met in person in Vovousa’s primary school.
Since most participants were unfamiliar with futures thinking and design fiction, part of the first meeting was spent discussing how to think about and act on the future, before the real interesting group work started.
The original call for the workshop invited participants to imagine the circumstance of the village festivities around the 26th of July 2048. What would we be celebrating? With whom and for what reason? In 25 years from today, would the river remain wild and free running, as the case of Albania shows, or would its water be extractivated and dams would have altered the local ecosystem? Would the population in the village be mostly temporal, as were we at that point and time, or would it mainly be permanent?
As the group went deep into discussions of different scenarios stemming from the above uncertainties, weighing assumptions and examining implications, we jointly concluded to work on the scenario where Aoos would be wild and free, and the most part of the population, temporal. So, off we went to experience local festive activities, be inspired and talk to strangers, before generating diegetic prototypes, as design fiction does.
After long conversations, note sharing, candy eating, traditional dances, experiencing festivities and local hospitality, participants begun toying around with ideas, sketching and using loose material to somehow formulate their thinking. In the end, eight proposals were generated, depicted through artefacts one might meet in the village of Vovousa in the year 2048.
As the scenario we worked on expected the population to be mostly temporal, most proposals kept in mind individuals coming and going, and what their needs might be. How might their stay be organized? How might it be funded? How might residencies be managed? How might time in the village be spent? How might they ease into the rural experience and keep it alive after they’ve left? What is the relationship between the people and the river?
Maybe a new habitation model is prevalent and accepted in 2048, where housing is not owned, though community managed, but run as an eco-driven community, where visitors actively contribute to day-to-day village chores in return for having access to it, its nature and built environment. Such was the proposal by Tita, envisioning the eco-community of Bajeasa, described and illustrated as the community’s manifesto (Bajeasa is the name of Vovousa in the local Vlach spoken language).
Taking a more mainstream approach, Kostas and Manos envisioned the village organized more like an all-inclusive destination, where one could pick and choose the level and Pass that suits them, in order to enjoy what the area has to offer, from visiting basic sites and experience outdoors activities by the river, eg. hiking, canoeing etc, to visiting the natural waterslides, which are available only to those holding a VIP pass bracelet. Though this is not a preferable proposal by its creators, Kostas and Manos felt compelled to share this concept in that it could well be an option for a future, and should therefore be up for discussion.
But alternative and more top-down thought-provoking proposals came to be. For instance, Thanasis and Efi envisioned Vovousa being the first village in the “Village Revival Network”, a Europe-wide network of villages with declining population, where overworked employees can spend their “wellbeing sabbatical”. Their prototype involved the letter from the EU commissioner to the Greek ministry, detailing how this EU wide scheme will work, asking for arrangements to be made, so by 1st of January 2048 the scheme can commence.
On a similar frame of mind, Yorgos, admitting that Vovousa will bear a status of a protected area, regulating visitor access in order to maintain a reasonable quality for available infrastructure, natural and build environment, proposed a scheme by the Greek Ministry of Happiness where anyone wanting to visit would need to apply beforehand and be granted permission to enter and stay for a limited number of days. This would be recorded in their passport, ultimately ensuring a quality-driven experience for all, when in the village.
Going on a different tangent, that of heightening the senses, Maro was preoccupied with how to immerse oneself in the environment of Vovousa once they arrive here: to a location of digital-detox, escaping the rat race that has dystopically reached new frontiers in big cities. She proposed a drinkable syrup with ingredients such as water from the river and local herbs, offered in a familiar reused bottle, to help broaden one’s sensory experience, easing and adapting better in their new rural environment.
In the same theme, but offering a different direction of where to heighten the senses, Yorgos created a fragrance for the home that one can use while recreating their holographic memories of the village once they left Vovousa. The fragrance carries notes of scents familiar of the festive days, be it food, drink and preservatives.
In the last emerging theme were participants explored how the community would interact and coexist with the river Aoos without extractivating and over-exploiting it, Katerina and Vivian considered how a festival might develop around the banks of a wild and free river. They produced the program for an animal and fish friendly Trout Festival for September 2048, which delivered an experience in DIY fishing, zero-waste fishing methods, maximizing respect to fish and their sacrifice for us humans, combined with a communal meal on the village’s centre to pay respects, salute and enjoy the offerings of the river.
Last but not least, Christina and Stathis turned the government concept of using the river to generate electricity on its head, narrating how a floating community, the nomads of the river Aoos who are an energy producing community, generate electricity in their floating habitats as they go, and share their Watts with settlements along the river in return for other goods, produce and the right to dock.
As one can witness, the diversity of generated proposals depicts a broad mix of possibilities for the village, regarding systemic and business opportunities in living, accessing and experiencing Vovousa, combined with creators’ anticipations and personal viewpoints. Even though all proposals had a “happy” starting point, that where the river will have been successfully protected and local efforts been fruitful, not all proposals were seen as preferable by the local community, as was mentioned in personal conversations after their public presentation. Some seem more feasible now, and others would require many conscious steps to break the social barriers that might today render them unfeasible. Some touch on hard subjects, while others manage to bring a smile to the spectator, qualities both valid and necessary when envisioning relatable futures.
Evidently, even if the current Vovousa Festival helps raise awareness of the environmental issues and the ecosystem is marked as ‘saved’, humans being humans, minds will consider unpreferable ways to move ahead. So, what kind of hard discussions must a community constantly be having in order to build a common vision and understanding of the future they would want to pursue? Because, as one local mentioned, “why wouldn’t Vovousa soon turn into Myconos, with all its shortcomings?”
It was a great circumstance that diverse approaches came out of such a short workshop. Of course, it was not for participants to judge whether these futures were preferable for Vovousa, but, as is one of the traits of design fiction, their work was to imagine and display options. And once formulated and made available, these options are up for discussion by those whose future it regards.
If you’re from Vovousa, or even from a location anywhere in the world with similar tensions, I’d be happy to receive any thoughts and responses. And I also wonder what people of Vovousa might feel like discussing and doing, regarding these proposals. Hoping to visit the festival next year, I’d be really curious to see how conversations have carried on!
I would like to thank Vovousa Festival for hosting the workshop, the participants Yorgos Bournousouzis, Christina Ntalli, Maro Galani, Stathis Gavriilidis, Efi Kafali, Kostas Marakis, Manos Marakis, Tita Nikolopoulou, Katerina Papastergiopoulou, Thanasis Stathopoulos and Vivian Tasopoulou for putting their creative efforts and thinking to practice and delivering great proposals, the public who contributed to conversations and the people of Vovousa who proved how hospitable they are!
Till next time!
All work, images and names included in participant’s artworks are fictional, and only serve the purpose of communicating and making scenarios more understandable and relatable in order to raise points for discussion. No infringement was intended.