From Visions to the Mindset of Visioning

A Reflective Essay for Transition Design on Visions [updated]

Lisa Otto

The idea of ‘visions’ is core to transition design. Though not explicitly stated in the framework, these visions are intended to articulate new possible destinations for our future. Without new visions of the future, we are apt to assume that we are trapped on our current path with no alternatives. By developing visions, we can trial alternative futures in a safe environment (like scenario building workshops in classrooms) and we can also create a goal to strive towards.

However, achieving preferred futures once they have been determined through visions is a stepwise and continuous process. The phrasing of the vision node of the framework does not integrate this understanding. ‘Visions’ implies static images of the future. While certainly needed, this framing undervalues the change in mindset required in constructing and working toward these visions. Instead, could adopting a mindset or posture of visioning be encouraged? As Tony Fry suggests, futures are not static end-goals but “interactive and on-going,” and so visions cannot be static pictures either. [1] Fry demands visioning, not visions, to meet the “relentless search for redirective practices at multiple scales.” [2] Visioning implies a new mindset that we might adopt which allows us to think in different timescales into the future.

Critical design explorations clearly demonstrate how visions without the mindset of visioning are not sufficient to work towards preferable futures, let alone open up discussion. For example, take Stuart Candy’s NaturePod™, a critical design project intended to prompt its audience to consider the future of work. As Candy conveyed, spectators were interested in buying the product if it were for sale. Because it was a vision of the future without opening up space for visioning, people interpreted it as a consumable product intended to be purchased. It did not leave people questioning the trajectory of our behavior.

However, it’s possible to see how futuring methods can be used not simply to develop these visions, but to shift the mindset. For example, Damian White writes, “…If we think of the utopian imaginary as disposition, as opposed to the blueprint, we might well get a little further in our speculations.” [3] While White is describing architect Michael Sorkin’s view of utopian architecture, he does reframe the ways in which we might consider this method of creating visions. Many of the future studies frameworks that are typically only utilized by forward-thinking corporations could also possibly be applied to shift thinking in our everyday practice. For example, you could perform a quick thought exercise using the 2x2 matrix or the four ‘generic images’ of the future to consider how selecting a certain desk at the beginning of the year might affect your future. Yet, I am still left with many questions about how to expose and open people to this new way of thinking.

Mary Clarke’s depiction of our worldview resting unstably above the water.

Switching to a mindset of visioning requires us to acknowledge the constructedness of our own particular worldviews. For example, in Mary Clarke’s depiction, our worldview rests tenuously on top of our subconscious beliefs. [4] Most of the time we are blithely unaware that our actions and perspectives derive from a particular worldview. In order to have any chance of accepting a radically new future (as opposed to one that only has aesthetic modifications), it seems necessary to realize that we are working from a particular perspective. However, constantly questioning our assumptions would be a completely unsustainable way to go about our daily lives. You could not introspect about the forces that are driving you to make every decision and action as you try to go about your day. Imagine questioning why you were drinking this cup of coffee — is it your value of efficiency? Your belief in productivism?

And so, I am left wondering what the appropriate balance would be. It seems inevitable that this type of thought would lead to chaos. Yet in some ways, as Terry Irwin points out, chaos is necessary for radical change. According to Irwin, chaos “is actually a highly creative state out of which emerge new and incredibly rich forms of life.” [5] Acknowledging the constructed-ness of our worldview might allow us to push ourselves into disequilibrium out of which creativity could arise. However, what is still unclear to me, especially given the continuous nature of our needed transition, is the need to inhabit a permanent state of chaos. Perhaps chaos is necessary, but it also seems highly unpleasant. And so if that is true, how could we ever convince people to move into such a state?

And despite our love of science fiction, we may indeed have backward-looking tendencies as a society. Conflicts are framed as ‘what went wrong here?’ rather than ‘what do we want to happen next time?’ We study history rather than futures. We are rarely challenged to examine our future as an open-ended question where we can design the vision of what lies out at the other end. Rarer still is this done on a scale greater than the personal — the home, community, city or the globe. What would you like your neighborhood to look like? Your interactions with your neighbors to be like? To move toward these more desirable futures, people cannot simply be shown images of projected futures but must be in a continual state of creating them for themselves.

Sources

  1. White, Damian. 2015. Critical Design and the Critical Social Sciences — or why we need to engage multiple, speculative critical design futures in a post-political and post-utopian era. Unpublished article, available online: https://www.academia.edu/11730958/Critical_Design_and_the_Critical_Social_Sciences_-_or_why_we_need_to_engage_multiple_speculative_critical_design_futures_in_a_post-political_and_post-utopian_era
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Clarke, Mary E. 2002. Framing the Problem. In Search of Human Nature. London: Routledge. pp 16
  5. Irwin, Terry. 2004. Living Systems Principles and Their Relevance to Design. Masters Thesis submitted as completion for an MSc degree in Holistic Science, Schumacher College/Plymouth University, UK. https://www.academia.edu/19870190/Living_Systems_Principles_and_Their_Relevance_to_Design pp. 174
Lisa Otto

Written by

Lisa Otto

MDes in Interaction Design Candidate at CMU. portfolio: lisaot.to

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