As citizens of the world, we currently face many challenges, including an impending environmental disaster, racial injustice and many forms of inequality ranging from gender to economic. And although we try our best, it is difficult to imagine them being ended. But futurist and futures designer Monika Bielskyte has a radical project that is endeavouring to do just that. In it, she maps out a futures framework freed from the shackles of the binary oppositions, stereotypes and power struggles that currently make these challenges even harder to overcome. Her project, Protopia Futures, is anchored in the aim to inspire us to ‘imagine otherwise’, and echoes post- and decolonial scholars such as Ruha Benjamin and Edward Said. It aims for a plural, collective, celebratory, environmentally aware, and creative future.
Protopia disputes the dystopian and utopian visions of the future which currently form unproductive and finite binaries that distract us from acting now. Instead, Protopia Futures is a continuous proactive prototyping of possible futures, as Monika Bielskyte puts it, and one that pushes back on restrictive narratives of futures imagined by a privileged group of people. I interviewed Monika Bielskyte on Whatsapp on and off for a week, in what I can best describe as a tentative process mimicking the provisional nature of her protopian framework. In our conversation, we delved into futures studies, her Protopia Futures and a set of visuals depicting her protopian vision, which she created in collaboration with Mario Mimoso, the Spanish designer and founder of Sharp & Sour.
Monika Bielskyte’s work is fuelled by activism. It has taken her around the world, as she has travelled to and worked in more than ninety countries. She tells me that being born into a culturally mixed identity behind the Iron Curtain of the USSR, in what is now Lithuania, makes travelling an overt privilege to her — one she will never take for granted, but also one that she is completely immersed in as a digital nomad for the past eight years, building worldly and plural knowledge. Shaped by the collapse of the physical walls and the opening up of the digital world, her home is nowhere in particular, and therefore her worldview privileges no place or individual people.
Research, both on-the-ground and digital, takes up the majority of her time, reading datascapes as well as human landscapes, she tells me. In the rest of her time she puts her knowledge to use, giving talks, holding workshops and consulting both commercially and at grassroots level. Working with major companies, including Microsoft, Google, and Universal, challenges her activist vision for the future — but often productively, as she tells me:
“I try to help them have a longer-term vision that does not just tear apart the human social fabric but supports it, especially by incorporating the previously silenced voices of the future.” The activist nodes in her work build on this notion of bringing silenced voices to the fore, and are perhaps most evident in her engagement with her science fiction design practice, consulting and developing creative expressions of possible futures.
She dropped out of school at a young age, and so she bases most of her work on intuition: the ability to let go and let stories unfold. She lives her research, one might say, because most of the time she is unable to control situations or dialogues. She therefore needs to remain humble about insights that might challenge her core assumptions of the world. And those challenges are essential to her — and to others in her field, as she notes critically:
“I am continuously dismayed when I read futures reports that keep centring white, Western, upper-middle-class, heteronormative and abled perspectives, and thereby erase the reality of the majority of the world’s population,” she says. What we need, then, is a change of perspective so that we are able to imagine our future differently.
Prominent economists like Robert Schiller and Thomas Piketty, both featured in recent issues of Scenario, talk about how narratives drive our economic perception of the world. Similarly, Monika Bielskyte invokes the notion of imagination to explain how things are not predetermined, but that “those who control the fantasy control the future”. She explains that many people believe that primarily American men such as Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk or Larry Page can invent the future. But they did not imagine the future, she tells me. They picked it up in sci-fi books or movies, and the future imagination they offer focuses on technological innovation rather than social, cultural or political evolution. “This means our fictional future projections determine the scope, limiting or opening, of our actual futures,” Monika Bielskyte says, and continues: “The possibilities and impossibilities that we imagine inevitably end up bleeding into our reality. What frustrates me is how mainstream science fiction imagines all these fantastical technologies, like intergalactic space travel, self-conscious AI and cryonics (the freezing of deceased humans in the hope of later resurrection, ed.), yet the society depicted there remains deeply xenophobic, misogynist, queerphobic and ableist. So it feeds into the stereotype that these problems are unsolvable. They are not.”
As I research Monika Bielskyte’s output, two familiar concepts in futures imagination keep reappearing: dystopia and utopia. To her, they are equally unfit to help us realise a prosperous future. I ask her to clarify. “Dystopia is a vision of the future in which humanity has destroyed so much so that any effort at repair seems pointless. It leads to inaction and despair and, lately, many of those dystopian visions have become product roadmaps for nihilistic founders of tech companies, like Peter Thiel and Palantir’s predictive crime algorithm testing in New Orleans, akin to Alex McDowell’s Minority Report. However, I think it is problematic that the only answer we have to dystopias are utopias. That we still believe that utopias can somehow be redeemable when some of the most genocidal movements of the 20th century were conceived as utopias by their perpetrators, such as Nazi Germany or Soviet Union under Stalin. These ‘utopias’ were deeply totalitarian, top-down, exclusionary and required dispossession and exploitation. Utopias don’t like uncomfortable questionmarks, and are presented as ‘definitive’ visions.”
Instead of catering to a dystopian or utopian framework, she is developing a protopian futures landscape. Kevin Kelly, the founder of Wired magazine, coined the word protopia in 2011, but “he mainly saw it as an ‘improved future’ through incremental technological innovation,” Monika Bielskyte explains. “I loved the word because of how it evoked something that I saw as vital in future-making: proactive prototyping. So I kept the word, but tried to expand it and radically modify the framework around it. Protopia Futures is about proactive prototyping of hope for tomorrow. Not magical thinking and leapfrogging the present and near-future problems, but engaging with them and trying, together, to find the urgently needed solutions.”
I ponder over the formulation “urgently needed solutions”, and I ask her what she means by that. “What is important about protopia is that it tries to focus on very concrete near and mediumterm future realities here on this earth. It is not about aliens or intergalactic space travel or any of those fantastic things. It is interested in things much closer to ‘home’. It is about the health of our oceans, the survival of our forests, replenishing our soil, healing the torn social fabric, evolving our values, and expanding human potential.”
One of the things that stays with me about Monika Bielskyte’s Protopia Futures is the apparent shift of perspective it proposes: a decentring of the dominance of a privileged worldview. It wants the stories and experiences of the historically marginalized to play a vital role, because it will benefit us all. I ask her to elaborate. “Protopia Futures does not centre on the perspectives of privilege and entitlement. It investigates the intersectional experience of marginalization, especially for queer, indigenous, and disabled people. I see privilege like the great Igbo writer Chinua Achebe (author of Things Fall Apart, 1958, the most widely read African book, ed.): it lays adipose tissue over our sensitivity. And that makes it even more urgent to centre those who could be most directly harmed by any future developments, instead of those who would be the key beneficiaries. For instance, people perceive the adaptation of any technology towards disability inclusion as charity work,” she says, but quickly adds: “Nothing could be further from the truth!” She tells me that technology adapted for and with disabled people has historically led the innovation that has benefited society at large, while harmful technology has mostly been envisioned by people who have rarely experienced exclusion and marginalisation.
But it is one thing to imagine or even long for a protopian future; it is another to find out how we can gravitate towards it. Creativity, for one thing, is key, she tells me. We need to inspire people to act because the problems appear tangible. She explains: “If the vision is compelling enough it activates something within us — it gives us hope and the desire to work towards it. Because the idea of protopia is to tackle specific issues rather than just dream abstractly, so it also allows us to depict, describe, and prototype the pathways to get there. Ultimately, it’s about creating the kind of content that is not escapist entertainment but rather edutainment — futures education rendered captivating and accessible to much broader audiences than ever before. To imagine and fight for a tomorrow that is more equitable is future-making. We can all be future makers if we choose to. Together. As the writers Walidah Imarisha and Adrienne Marée Brown say: ‘all organizing is science fiction’.”
Monika Bielskyte is currently working on several creative Protopia Futures collaborations, because, as she says, “I firmly believe that if we cannot see it, we cannot do it”. The first of these to be published is a collaboration with Spanish designer and futurist Mario Mimoso on two science fiction scenes, featuring BIPOC people (black, indigenous, and people of colour) with diverse cultural backgrounds and gender expressions. They figure in one scene of intimacy and another of celebration, in which humanity, nature and technology intertwine. It is a proposal that tries to eschew our current cultural imagination of the future and scrutinize and challenge the role of technology. Instead of being used for warfare and surveillance, technology becomes an extension of biology, enhancing human and ‘more than human’ relations and supporting creative expression.
“I honestly think that glorification of mechanical technology is a hang-up of the 20th century. Life as technology is where the cutting edge is: new organic materials rather than fossil fuel-based ones, biomimicry, genetic engineering, quantum biology. Nature is so much more potent than we are yet giving it credit for. We must move towards circular ways of living, move towards biological technologies. There is no saving ourselves if we cannot save the world with which we are symbiotically interconnected,” Monika Bielskyte clarifies.
The most striking thing about the visuals to me is the uncanny in-betweenness of stark familiarity and strange unfamiliarity. We can identify everything and everyone in the scenes, yet not completely. Monika Bielskyte’s collaborator Mario Mimoso explains to me that it was a delicate balance trying to navigate respectfully in familiar, worldly tropes. “We did not want to fall into misrepresentation or cultural appropriation, so I tried to mix and twist our references to come up with something different: a natural evolution of present-day trends and cultures, even though there are clear roots. We wanted these visuals to be an inspiration for more inclusive futures, and therefore pluralism is essential,” he says.
Monika Bielskyte adds that the initial inspiration behind the parade scene was the North City sequence from Japanese filmmaker Mamoru Oshii’s film Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence (2004), imbued with a more embodied experience such as the Rio Carnival and indigenous celebratory rites. The characters in the two visual depictions are also worth noticing since they explicitly negate a specific societal fabric, namely settler-colonial patriarchy. I ask Monika Bielskyte why the scenes are led by seemingly female or non-binary people. “In many indigenous cultures before colonial invasions, women were spiritual leaders of the community, and we wanted to speak to that. In mainstream sci-fi concept design, most female characters are overtly sexualized or stereotyped in rather grotesque ways. So, this collaboration tries to explore what’s been missing in such limited representation,” she says and underlines that in her protopian vision, the future is neither specifically male nor female. It is fluid and in-between. In gender and cultural experience. And that is essentially what these visuals, but frankly also the entire Protopia Futures project, try to express in a ‘queering’ move that shatters stereotypes and social constructs of the past. “I want to open up a space in which we start seeing each other as complex, ever-changing beings, connected with each other, not by how we are similar, but because we have things to learn from each other,” she concludes.