Images of the Future

Notes from the Design Futures Master Class at CEDIM Innovation programs. Part I.
Jake Dunagan and Stuart Candy setting up a game based on Fred Polak’s ideas.

Steering history.

What is an ‘error’? From the perspective of that somewhat arcane science called cybernetics, an error is simply defined as the difference between the desired objective of a series of actions and the result that is actually obtained. In many cases, that difference is readily perceivable by the subject such that she can continuously modify her actions in order to eliminate it, i.e. she can control the process. This is the reason, as D. A. Bell points out, that it’s easier pick up a needle than to hit the bullseye in a dartboard.

Arguably, it’s possible to understand the current practice of Futures/Foresight in a similar way. According to Stuart Candy and Jake Dunagan, the goal of that field can be defined simply as an attempt to merge ‘preferable’ and ‘probable’ futures: i.e. to reduce the difference between the images that we can formulate of a desirable future — at a personal, organisational or societal level — and the one that it actually obtains. From this perspective, an exciting idea emerges: the discipline of Foresight/Futures is an attempt to control or, more precisely, steer history. By the same token, #DesignFutures is the essential stage of making alternative futures ‘perceivable’ in order to make such a ‘steering’ effort possible.

Playing The Stuation Lab’s game “The Thing from the Future”.

Mexican Drama.

I’m writing these notes barely out of the rush of both hosting and attending the first weekend session of a Design Futures Master Class imparted by Candy and Dunagan at CEDIM Innovation Programs in Mexico City. I can safely say that a feeling of excitement — shared by the instructors and the participants at once — has remained throughout the week as we prepare for the second session this weekend.

The practice of Futures is all about imagination. And so, one of the most remarkable features of the weekend was probably coming to terms with how difficult it was for us — both as “beginner futurists” and as Mexicans, always prone to drama — to come up with plausible images of the future. In the opening Polak’s game (see cover photo), the bulk of the group declared to be both very optimistic about the future and confident about our collective capacity to influence it. On the second day, however, and after learning a few techniques to formulate scenarios in a more disciplined way, most of the images for Mexico City in 2030 emerging from the group were overtly dramatic and catastrophist. Finally, on Sunday, after teams were formed to start planning the development of experiential situations and artefacts during the second weekend session, almost all of them chose to focus on highly positive, almost utopian scenarios for our city.

It’s like we’re overwhelmed by conflicting signals and cognitive dissonances. This is no small issue. As Polak argued, our actual future as a culture hangs from these tensions.

The rise and fall of images of the future precedes or accompanies the rise and fall of cultures. As long as a society’s image is positive and flourishing, the flower of culture is in full bloom. Once the image begins to decay and lose its vitality, however, the culture does not long survive.” — Fred Polak

It’s simple: How could we take control of our future if we can’t collectively formulate images of the most desirable scenarios?

The room at the end of the weekend. Full of scenarios for Mexico City in 2030.

The Power of Affect.

As argued above, making those scenarios perceivable is increasingly an essential stage in the Foresight/Futures process — thus the growing importance of related practices such as design fiction, speculative design, artifacts from the future, etc.

And yet, the term ‘perceivable’ falls short of the aim of design futures as understood by Candy and Dunagan. For them, the role of design in the Foresight process is to move imagined scenarios “off the page and into the body”. For it is only through being affected by those scenarios — and a healthy variety of alternatives, both positive and negative—that we humans are driven to action.

“Affect […] is the name we give to those forces — visceral forces beneath, alongside, or generally other than conscious knowing, vital forces insisting beyond emotion — that can serve to drive us toward movement.” —Gregory J. Seigworth and Melissa Gregg

This is why Candy and Dunagan’s practice of “experiential futures” requires a variety of media beyond the digital and printed images as well as videos generally favoured by recent design fiction. If scenarios need to be experienced, then installations, performances and guerrilla interventions in the public space are the most effective channels. A collection of their “Guerrilla Futures” work can be found here.

This is the task for the second weekend: to produce diegetic videos, urban guerrilla interventions or ‘time-machine’ installations in order to communicate our Mexico City 2030 scenarios in the most affective way.

Stay tuned for Part II.

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