This is an approximate transcript of a talk I gave at Sonar+D in the session “So, What About the Future?” on September 19, 2020. I discussed teaspoons, cultural voyeurs, urban canyons, creative contrarians, and our practice of Design Fiction at Near Future Laboratory. You can watch the video if you’d rather.
This session is about discussing current incredible times and how they are changing our perception of the future.
Most of us have experienced shifts in our daily lives. In some domains, like work, education or logistics and obviously culture, it feels like some weird future had suddenly merged with the present.
The Tech industry is one of the major winners of the current situation. And the global pandemia only exacerbated their narrative around acceleration and disruption with mantras as: “Move fast and break things”, “Disrupt yourself first before someone disrupts the industry” or “Disruption is creation.”
But other pressing issues as global warming, rising inequalities or the collapse of functional democracies have taught us that treating the future only as a new business model, an engineering problem or a marketing exercise inevitably creates blindspots and unintended consequences.
In times of major uncertainties, there are alternative mindsets for decision making that consider both solutions AND their implications.
At Near Future Laboratory, we have been developing over the last decade an approach for organizations to pre-visualize opportunities, risks and consequences before taking actions.
It is not a methodology, nor a linear process with steps to follow.
It is rather an attitude to train or a mindset to constantly discover the possible, probable, and cautionary outcomes of decisions.
We call it Design Fiction, and we are about to publish a book about it.
Julian Bleecker is at the origin of Design Fiction.
Back then, we belonged to the same research community working on Ubiquitous Computing along with Nicolas Nova, another co-founder of Near Future Laboratory.
Major companies such as Intel, Microsoft, Nokia were leading the research in that domain. You would also find PhD students from Stanford Persuasive Technology Lab investigating sensor technologies to help people quit unhealthy habits.
Many years later, these researchers had moved within Silicon Valley to apply their knowledge to create habit-forming algorithms for Google, Facebook, etc.
In 2008, we had proposed to run a workshop entitled “Ubiquitous computing: visions, failures and new interaction rituals” at Ubicomp, the main conference in the domain.
The objective we described was “to open up a debate around the future of those systems as well as the adoption by a large user base.” We wanted to anticipate and question the consequences of ongoing research.
Out of the few workshop proposals, ours had been the only one rejected.
As a fresh PhD student, it struck me that a majority of researchers creating tomorrow’s technologies were mainly focused on problem solving, leaving it to other domains to sort out any consequences of their solutions.
That rejection encouraged us to create a laboratory of the near future outside of the norms of academic institutions. A laboratory driven by both curiosity and doubt. A laboratory that would observe/make/envision things AND discover/question their future outcomes.
Let me give you a practical example of what this means.
Practitioners working on the future of domestic life would typically explore new aesthetics and model of furnitures and accessories. The Design Museum in London would exhibit the most brilliant works on these futures (on the left of the image).
Our approach is slightly different. We use popular objects accessible to anyone as support to describe multiple futures. For instance, we created a fictional IKEA catalog from the Near Future that contains the specs, details of products and services that, one day, might become part of everyday life (on the right of the image).
In 2018, that catalog was also exhibited at the Design Museum, as a sign that Design Fiction is now part of the Design practice.
That catalog revealed many “implications” for the futures of connected things and the Internet of Things.
I say “implications” and not “predictions” because the future is a moving target. That’s why organizations frequently require reorganizations and redirections.
Design Fiction forces teams to “live” with the changing dynamics in the world.
It encourages teams to be cultural voyeurs who believe that somebody’s future is somebody else’s present.
This means we nurture our curiosity about ANYTHING, or as French writer George Perec recommended: “We question our teaspoons.”
In Design Fiction, seeing the future is a routine. We collect all manner of things: artifacts, social practices, cultural trends, behaviors, new idioms, rituals.
And we curate them into a kind of “grab-bag” of reference examples.
For instance, we do live in incredible times, but failure is all around us. Instead of ignoring it, we document it.
Just as the present, the future is a partly broken space. The future is a place in which the brand new cohabits and interferes with the old.
Learning how to see and organize these signals is part of the practice of Design Fiction.
But we do not just report on these trends. These signals become starting points for extrapolations.
Today, most decision makers look into the future gathering thousands of pages of diagrams, charts, analysis and projections into a “mega doc” with cross references.
That brings some more clarity, but it often fails to bring all the pieces of the puzzle into a whole that is understandable by many.
Design Fiction forces to actually MAKE things to pre-visualize what is really possible with all the drawbacks and nuances. And by “making things,” I mean creating an actual artifact that forces a team to think about the details of a future in a way that writing a story does not.
It does NOT mean to produce written scenarios or stories about a future state.
For instance, if you work in the domain of mobility, you want to be able to share all the pieces of a foresight exercise into an object people can relate to. You want the result to be a more relatable, compelling, tangible form than a “mega doc.” Something that provokes the imagination on what that future might feel like.
These tangible experiences are more expressive than a spreadsheet, a shared PDF or a PowerPoint presentation. Tangible experiences stick in people’s minds. They spark imagination and provoke creativity.
Take that foldable map of Geneva. It reveals a slightly different city from today’s, like an architect creating a virtual fly-through of a building.
At first sight, it might look real, but it is a fiction. It is an object that we brought back from the future to discuss the present.
This map translates for a wide audience a complicated set of data, insights, trends, and variables into a single representation.
Some are threats, some are opportunities, some are blinspots, others are about changing lifestyles.
All are about the everyday mundane life that most of us experience.
It gathers a collection of micro futures that show the on-the-ground implications of trends.
For instance, how safety on roads gets reshuffled when sensors, artificial intelligence, and personal data are becoming more widely used. What if narrow streets create “urban canyons” with spotty connectivity that prevents some autonomous vehicles from operating safely.
What is the evolution of public transports?
What kind of traffic and types of mobility can we expect?
What if something goes wrong? What are the steps for troubleshooting?
What are the implications on traffic laws?
What kind of new jobs might emerge from these evolutions?
And, on a wider scale, how that might influence the politics of energy production in Switzerland? A country in which direct democracy still fonctions through referendums, what would be the arguments of the energy lobbies?
This map of Geneva is not fully optimistic. The lack of friction or critique can easily wind up looking like those ridiculous, slick envisioning videos corporations are used to put out, thinking it will show off how future-fluent they are. It is not fully pessimistic either.
Design Fiction balances optimism, pragmatism, and critics from multiple perspectives.
We typically adopt a work ratio of 70/20/10 to encourage this balance. The majority of content focuses on the most desirable outcome. A small amount focuses on open questions; and a tiny amount is about ‘critical’ viewpoints.
All together they aim at triggering reasonable disagreements.
That map played the role of a “creative contrarian” — so stakeholders can understand and integrate risks and consequences along with the enthusiasm that comes with thinking of new things.
Creative contrarians are necessary because people tend to view the future through their own particular lenses. Or as designer and urbanist Dan Hill once commented: “Put traffic engineers in charge of the street and you get traffic. If we put gardeners in charge of the street, we’d get gardens.”
This type of Design Fiction encourages the different stakeholders in the mobility of a city to constructively challenge each other’s assumptions and biases.
The annotations and that big “NEIN” handwritten in the middle of the map show that this Design Fiction played its role.
Finally, these objects from the future are meant to travel in the present outside of meeting rooms and museum walls.
They aim at generating attention, inspiration, and actions. You know their provocations work when people react with a
— “Wait.. what?”
— “Okay, so what?”
And finally a
— “I see, now what?”
In an organization, a successful Design Fiction:
- reduces the cost of testing ideas and assumptions.
- increases knowledge about what works and what doesn’t, what is desirable and what isn’t.
- fosters collaboration and helps move ideas towards more desirable and pragmatic solutions.
I started discussing how Silicon Valley strongly influences the narrative about the future with its mantras around acceleration and disruption.
Design Fiction offers a safe space for pre-visualizing risks and consequences of these mantras. It is an alternative to the interpretation of future projections based on “mega docs,” data and their biases.
However, there is one thing that Silicon Valley, and California in general, does very well: how to make things both fun and rigorous.
This is what Design Fiction is all about. The combination of fun, creativity and imagination with rigor, science and structure.
From my experience over the last decade, this is the best way to engage most of us into discovering and debating a possible future before taking decisions about it.
And thanks to the wonderful attendees in the room, on Zoom and on TV for playing along.
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