The Time Capsule Retrieval Service
Creating pluralistic speculative design platforms
We’ve recently been working with the Emerging Technologies team at The Royal Society, for a conference they put on for their Fellowship.
The purpose of the conference was twofold; to introduce the fellowship to a set of different tools from the ‘futures’ toolkit, and then use those tools to explore which areas of technological focus the Fellowship believed should be of highest priority for The Royal Society in the coming years.
Our specific role was to take four broad scenarios for the UK in 2030, as developed by the Emerging Technologies team, and solidify that in some speculative design work which would give the Fellowship prompts to examine each of the four scenarios, work out what was happening in that specific future, and begin to describe the implications these futures would have on science in the UK.
Here’s how we went about defining an approach, putting together an awesome team comprising Scott Smith of Changeist, Thomas Forsyth, Stanley James Press, School 21 and Helen and myself from Smithery, and then delivered it through a new clandestine national facility; The Time Capsule Retrieval Service.
So, why time capsules?
When thinking about the context, we first of all thought about the participants at the conference. The Fellowship of The Royal Society are by definition the leading scientific minds of the age, pioneering breakthroughs in specific fields through both academic and commercial environments.
In short, if there are to be significant scientific and technological breakthroughs that impact our lives in 2030, in all likelihood the Fellowship are working on them now.
Which means you enter a tricky dilemma when it comes to speculative design; how do you avoid trying to out-science the scientists? Anything you put in front of a group such as this will be immediately subject to a natural level of scrutiny that keenly-honed expert minds will bring to bear.
Our proposal was to switch the emphasis in the speculative design away from representing the ‘ground-breaking’ technologies of 2030, and examine the social impacts that particular technologies may have. What would life be like for people in these particular scenarios? If only they could show us…
Which is where the time capsules come in.
For over a hundred years, communities have been marking important events by gathering together a series of artefacts in a robust container, and burying them in the ground, securing them in foundations and walls, or even designing special crypts to hold them. If you’re of a certain generation, the versions that come to mind most might be from the BBC children’s show Blue Peter, who buried a succession of capsules on their show.
All time capsules have a common message at their heart — “hello there, people from another time… this is who we are”. Imagine if a series of time capsules put in the ground in 2030 didn’t go forwards in time for future generations, but came backwards, so we could see what’s in store.
And so, The Time Capsule Retrieval Service was born:
Using the British Library’s guide to making a time capsule, we set boundaries for how the capsules themselves would be created by the groups in 2030. We simplified a little, to give ourselves some cleaner design constraints:
- Get a strong, non-corrodible airtight container made from stainless steel/tough plastic
- Use things like paper, non-PVC plastics, wood, devices without power, wrapped separately
- Avoid plants, animals, insects, rubber, and batteries — all can give off corrosive substances
- Place the time capsule in a cool, dry location (e.g. building foundations)
In order to think about what groups of children would be likely to put in a time capsule, we worked with the pupils and staff at School 21 in Stratford. I recently met Debbie Penglis from the school at a conference, and had subsequently had a tour from her around the school to learn more about their unique approach to education. In particular, I was very excited about the Project Based Learning approach, which feels to me like the sort of education that will really help bring out the best in a lot of people. They were a natural partner to work with on a project like this.
Alongside the Emerging Technologies team from The Royal Society, and the staff at School 21, we ran a workshop with a group of 13 year olds in two halves.
Firstly, what would the pupils put into a time capsule today to represent what life was like for them? Then, once we’d introduced the four scenarios, what could they imagine that a class of 13 year olds in 2030 would put in their time capsules?
The exercise gave us a whole raft of inspiration for the sorts of things that groups of children (and more broadly the communities they live in) would include when it came to communicating who they were through a series of objects.
With all this material to work from, it was then time to create the time capsules for each of the four scenarios.
To do this, we needed to define a clear situation for each of the time capsules, writing a story about the exact “who, where, what and why” that we could keep coming back to.
This additional layer of story was injected to help us get from broad, world-sized scenario to a more human scale environment in which we could imagine — then manifest — everyday objects that might exist in each future.
We set each time capsule in a different town, and wrote a short story of the events in that place that led to the creation of their time capsule. I’m not going to reproduce them here (for reasons I’ll explain shortly) but the summary banners from the event are pictured below.
Each narrative then acted as a bond between the different objects we would go about creating.
We developed a long list of roughly twenty-five objects for each capsule, pulling on the lists created with School21 plus our other time capsule research, and set the goal of selecting the six most viable objects for each capsule to get across all the core emergent technologies in each scenario.
You can see detailed photos of each object over here, but here’s a grouping of each capsule’s objects below:
Of course, doing this much design so quickly was always going to be a challenge; not only do you need a team that can flit between styles and approaches in creating the objects, they also need to continually test the believability of each item. Scott, Emily, Thomas, Helen and myself found ourselves constantly testing each other on the credibility of each item as they developed.
The hardest part, perhaps, was how to do ‘plausible’ design; an underfunded school in the future is not going to have beautifully designed templates, so how do you design something that looks like it’s been put together by an in-house team, but is well designed enough to get the points across in the conference.
Finally, the last part of the task was to introduce these capsules at the conference, the third of three exercises on the first day, and after the Fellows had been introduced to the broader scenarios to set the scene for where these time capsules had travelled back from.
The broad delight when people started digging in was wonderful to hear — I was playing a floating role in the background, though in the end didn’t need to really help at all, the objects seemed to speak for themselves.
Perhaps what made it work so well was that we didn’t give the participants the full narrative structure (the stories I mentioned before). In each time capsule, just as you’d find in a real one, there’s a letter from the people who’ve put it together (this one, for example, by one of our in-house junior designers):
After reading the letters, the participants had to find and make connections of their own. By freeing the objects from the whole story, the time capsules themselves a platform for lots of different potential futures.
I’ve been thinking about it graphically like this; to start with, the narrative was about keeping the objects cohesive as a set, bound into one structure:
Whereas by taking that narrative away, it meant the Fellowship from The Royal Society who opened the capsules were asked to fill the gaps between the objects with their own ideas and experience.
Each capsule contained objects that were open to interpretation, and it was the interpretations we were seeking in the first place. If these were potential futures for people in the UK, then what might be the factors that take us there, and which emerging technologies must the UK focus on as a result.
But the themes that emerged from different teams opening the same capsule were different, and I have no doubt you’d continue to get more interpretations with different groups of people if you reran the exercise.
It’s an idea that Scott’s explored in more depth with this essay on ‘lossy futures’:
“Lossy futures — be they artifacts, simple scenarios, wireframes of speculation, rich prompts, brief vignettes or some other material object — give us the scaffolding and ask or allow us to determine the details ourselves. In doing so, they transmit the critical data, the minimum viable future, and give us the opportunity to fill in the gaps we think are important to understanding, or have a dialogue around what these gaps may mean.”
Once people discovered that this was ‘the game’ they were being invited to play, it meant that they got even more creative with their interpretations, pulling out angles and information we hadn’t yet thought about.
Throughout the process, I kept thinking back to the work we shared in 2014 around “Flow Engines”, and how the time capsules are a very useful example of how to take that idea and put it into practice.
The ‘high consequences’ at the start comes from the unveiling of the capsule itself, and the simple instruction; we want you to tell us what’s going in in this future, and how we will come to get there.
The ‘rich environment’ is then created by the mix of different objects, the need for complex puzzle solving, and the various layers of information that reveal themselves as people investigate items for a second or third time.
Then, finally, there’s ‘embodiment’. The last task for each group was to take the items, and create a map around them of the emerging technologies and the implications they would have on our future.
All in all, we’re delighted to have worked on the project with a great team at The Royal Society, who were very up for pushing the boundaries of what we could and couldn’t do.
Thanks also to Provenance, for allowing us to sneak in little Easter egg on the packaging for The Maidstone Saveloy (100% NuPro cricket protein sausage folks… well, it’s better for you than the typical mystery meat).
Thank you also to Curtis James, who took a beautiful set of inventory photos for us.
It’s also the very first Smithery project that (to the point of a ‘family business’ I talked about last year) all four of us in the Willshire household have made something for. So thanks to the junior design team for their contributions.
And thanks again to Scott at Changeist, Thomas Forsyth, Stanley James Press and School 21, for making it one of our favourite Smithery projects yet. Who knows, maybe we’ll repeat the experience with some other organisations who’ll call upon the service of the Time Capsule Retrieval Service.
Contact us here if you know of anyone, and we’ll be sure to pass the message on…
Originally published on smithery.com