Insights: Scott Smith

Last October, during our time at the Lift Basel 2015, we had the opportunity to talk with Scott Smith who explained us his perspective on design fiction on how harnessing creative processes to critical thinking to address issues and make discussion happen.

Please can you introduce yourself and tell us about your background?

My name is Scott Smith, founder of Changeist, and I am a futurist, even if it doesn’t sound like the right title anymore. I first worked as a technology forecaster and research director in London, Washington and New York. Then, for four years, I worked in a think-tank consulting group in the U.S.. For the past eight years I have been working with Changeist in foresight, innovation and design.

How did you come to future studies and what is your interest in it?

I came about it just because I went looking for it and I found a place where I could do that. I always had an interest in how technology, economics, politics and society can interact with each other. At the beginning, I was working more as a short-term forecaster developing models for how much a company was going to sell in the next ten years for a particular product or service. It meant that I had to think about the implications of emerging technologies in society. Most of my area of focus was on things we didn’t have history for: early internet, early mobile, new platforms…

I found myself being happier thinking less about numerical forecasting and more about the context in which these new technologies would emerge which entails imagining how technologies would change people and how, in turn, people would change technologies. With this new approach, I gained some additional and very critically useful skills. Over time, I got more interested in how you could apply things like design, art, media as well as anthropology, sociology and a lot of other practices to future studies and change the way we do it.

In your opinion, what design or design fiction can bring to foresight studies?

One of the interesting roles for design fiction, speculative design and all of the related areas, is helping to bridge a really critical communication gap. Historically, instead of scenarios, you would do some future research, walk into the conference room, show your slides, produce a report and give it to people. It doesn’t really require you to bring others to the same world or mindset that you have in seeing those futures. Thus, you are not creating connection or empathy with them. As Bruce Sterling or Julian Bleecker said seven years ago, “design fiction can help you jump over conceptual walls and make direct connections”. I think design fiction as a communication and social object creates interactions and dialogues around futures that were missing before. It helps make it real enough for people that you can have a meaningful conversation with.

Workshop about possible futures

How can we tell stories about futures in a society obsessed with the present and the short-term?

You could twist that question a bit and say that it is also a consumerist and object-obsessed society. Then, why not go with the society and make objects? Why not make things that use the vernacular forms of the consumer society? By creating objects that embody stories you are able to create this space to invite people into. If I am just asking you not to be focused on the present right now that is not really an effective question. If I invite you into a space to engage about a possible future, then we are moving from that static position only focusing on the present into some other place. For me that is something quite interesting about an object: it opens up a space around it and begins to embody a new context. It is similar to when we play as children. Sometimes you just need a wooden sword, a crown and few other things and suddenly you are in the Middle Ages. It takes very few objects to construct a narrative.

How do you engage the public in your work to create discussion about possible futures?

Public engagement is a very interesting idea here. Historically if you are coming from a corporate foresight trajectory, like mine in a way, you don’t worry about engaging the public but about engaging a few decision makers. If you are clever, you also worry about opening up space for other stakeholders to buy into an idea. They always say “make the client look really good and make the decision easy for them”.

Things change when you shift that into the public sphere or put the corporate or governmental clients in a public context. Today’s problem is that people believe that someone else is working on the future and determining it. For any number of reasons, like they don’t feel in power or smart enough, they don’t really want to engage with those futures. Obviously, politicians or corporations are never going to look after that interest. We needed some mechanisms for public engagement that feel comfortable and familiar enough for the public to connect directly to it.

The newspaper project, Winning Formula, that I did with Near Future Laboratory, was a really interesting experiment in engaging the public into a discussion on a topic that would normally not happen. If I was into the street and proposed people to come to an IBM seminar on big data, maybe one person would follow me. If instead I showed them a familiar object, such as a newspaper, about a familiar topic, in this case sports, people will pick up this newspaper and know what it is, how to hold it and how to consume it. They can use it as a gateway into discussion about the future of data and culture. It opens doors into that discussion that people are happy to come through.

An excerpt of the Winning Formula content

There are many interesting forms to experiment with. Discussions and reactions can be created by pushing different buttons in people. For example, Miriam Simun in New York has created cheese from human milk. There, the public has sensory responses. Extrapolation Factory, in their pawn shop of tomorrow, makes people think about the value of something that doesn’t exist yet, the value of a future antique. As practitioners, we have to always discover new and different ways to engage the public. There is no book that says exactly how to do speculative design and futures. In some way, we experiment with experiences, bringing people into immersion, theatre, food, chemistry, advertising… There are a lot of different avenues to explore. For me the end goal is to engaging people in critical discussions about possible futures, full stop… and having some fun on the way!

Do you try to document and analyse the discussions created from the design fictions?

We should try to become more structured at some point about whom we assess those conversations and learn from them instead of being kind of amused and surprised by public response.

Somehow, I feel that for the Winning Formula project, we should have done more to facilitate assessment of engagement after the fact rather than just having situations. Thankfully, I had the opportunity to observe different audience engagement according to the museum it was put in. It was part of various exhibitions and was exhibited at the Big Bang Data exhibition in CCCB, at the National Football Museum in Manchester, and now it is in the Somerset House in London. But we didn’t want it to be just a piece in a museum: we put some copies of the Winning Formula in a newspaper rack with other magazines. That is its natural environment and we wanted to see how people responded to it. In fact, housekeeping staff threw most of them away, which is what you kind of expect from newspapers. It lived its life as a speculative object and ended up in a recycling bin.

We also had the opportunity to talk with people about it. I got up in some trains in Manchester where I gave the newspaper to other passengers. When going through it, most of them felt something was weird about it by noticing a player wasn’t in the right team, for example. One night, at a dinner in Barcelona, a waiter, walking past the table, pointed at the newspaper and told me “that guy is wearing the wrong shirt, what kind of newspaper is that?”. He knew intrinsically that this wasn’t real, indeed the picture used on the cover of the newspaper is from two seasons ago.

Prototyping workshop at the FutureEverything conference Singapore

What could be the methods you can imagine for a more systematic documentation of the design fictions?

There is Vera-Karina Gebhardt, a PhD student, who documents the process of having the public engaged in speculative scenarios or in workshops that require scenario creation and prototyping.

She was with us at the FutureEverything prototyping workshop we did in Singapore last week which outputs were exhibited in the Art Science Museum in Singapore. She went through a careful analysis and assessment of the whole process with a rigorous observation of the process, of the interactions, of the participants feeling about the process, and of the public acceptance or interaction with the prototypes. She noticed that usually in museum people stepped back and didn’t want to touch the prototypes and they just looked at the explanatory boards that are built on the pedestals.

Although, for this exhibition, the curators did a really nice thing by holding on to the raw material of the workshop that otherwise people would sweep into the trash. They put those alongside the prototypes so people could see the ingredients before the dish. Thanks to that, they could begin to think about the connections between the insights, the ideas, the discussions and sketching were the final scenarios came from. They didn’t see just the final speculative prototype, they saw the whole process of creation and ingredients that came into it.

That is, for me, very interesting. From my perspective, working more at the front-end of the process, I would really like to understand this process in a more detailed fashion. Maybe we could use ethnography to trace those threads of ideas: which ideas are successful, which are not, which make through the prototype, which doesn’t…. For that, whether you do it or you observe it, it’s hard to do both. In the end, it boils down to a resource issue. I am very interested in understanding, refining and iterating on this process to know how people react on it. This is for me more interesting than just having a final artefact to donate to a museum.

Speculative artefacts exhibited at the Art Science Museum in Singapore.

How stakeholders or decision makers react when confronted to future studies or design fiction?

Before people were quite reluctant when it came to future studies, and more specifically to design fiction. Now, I am definitely able to have workshops with groups who prototype things quickly and who are comfortable with that process. I think this is due to an interesting evolution in businesses where you no longer have isolated silos where one group is designing a product and somebody else is making the decision of funding it. There are more and more open processes inside of companies. Now, people in companies are far more comfortable being involved with product design and development which makes them also more comfortable to be in a room where a prototype is discussed. And they have a real interest for it as tangible objects or tangible experiences get them to discuss decisions faster. One object can contain thousands of ideas and insights and arguments and debates. You can put it into the room and suddenly things glow out of it.

Additionally, by moving it out of a spreadsheet and putting it into a physical form, you are actually moving from the economic concerns to the social and cultural ones. We all have kind of a natural reaction as human beings to a thing. If I put this glass in front of you and say the liquid left in here contains pure Ebola you would immediately react about it, more so than with an abstract conversation about treating Ebola. Like this, you confront a theoretical reality that brings out your social concerns. You can create uncomfortable situations and situations where there are experimental frictions that make real issues that might be faced in the real world. People immediately have reactions on it. Some might be positive and others negative. Design fictions and prototypes help make things visceral and real enough to jump to those discussions and get to those decisions.

Speculative artefacts exhibited at the Art Science Museum in Singapore.

In which way do you see your work criticising the myth of innovation?

It is a good question. In a way it is turning it around the table and putting kind of a strange mirror in front of it. One thing that design fiction can do is to expose messiness, strangeness and discomfort. It is very easy to talk about innovation and magical things made by magical people that happen behind close doors. Most people know that making or designing a product, a service or an experience is quite messy and nasty sometimes. In a way it’s being honest about how changes happen. That the world is full of ugly, sticky, strange and unusual things. We decide to live with some of them and we get rid of others. I think it casts more of a real light on innovation if you want to use that frame.

In perspective of the Thingclash project, what are, for you, the stakes of the Internet of Things (IoT)?

A first obvious issue is data. It is the blood of the IoT. It is thanks to data that it functions. We need to ask questions about how it functions, how data are collected, moved and transmitted. We are effectively creating a sensory network that can collect information about us that we want or may not want moved to other parts of the network. It is important to have a critical lens on it so we can ask questions about how we want technology to play a role in our lives.

Also, if you want to launch a new product, you have to collapse often complex and rich models and ideas and ways of being, down to very simplistic formulas. That can sometimes work but most of the time it is quite troublesome. For example, you assume that everyone needs the same things, that all consumers are alike, all humans are alike, women are the same. It flattens everything out to function. We have to try harder to sort of accommodate this complexity and still have the benefits of the technology. It would be wonderful if it worked in ways that are suitable for all of us. In the meantime, if we don’t ask those questions now, we stumble into these situations where the damage can grow exponentially. Not only things like data leakage, but it could also concentrate the benefits to only a small number of people. It is really a big change that could have enormous benefits in many fields such as ageing or leisure, but we should probably try to make it work in ways that function for human beings and not just for business models, engineering and schematics alone.

Thingclash is an effort to explore how we ask those questions, what questions need to be asked, how to best communicate them, how to make these issues legible and accessible to the people who can make the difference. It is less of an answer box than a box of questions. We will see where it goes in the incoming years, but it already has a lot of interesting insights.

Next week, I have been invited to Istanbul in a conference with many politicians and business people where I am the only person coming from future studies discussing on the future of energy and society. Thingclash is kind of what opens this discussion. Now you are suddenly in a room with the presidents of companies and countries, people with a lot of power and leverage. I’m happy that we’ve been able to open this space of conversation to talk about the future with everyone, not just a few companies. It might raise questions in people’s mind and they might reconsider how they want to regulate or shape new technologies into peoples’ lives.

What are your next steps or your next projects?

We’ve got a lot of work to do on Thingclash, we really hope to get a lot for it in the summer. I’ve moved continents so that takes a lot of energy and I have to build my practice and make closer connections with designers, technologists, creatives, businesses, researchers. I will potentially work on a short book on how to apply futures thinking into the broader scope of business design or life in general. I’m not sure where it will go yet, but it is something I have to do by a number of people. I will try to make it happen. Then there is also finding other interesting projects and collaborations, but they always seem to show up, which is nice.

Discover more of Scott Smith’s work on Changeist