Fabricating Alternatives is a research project developing narrative devices for creative groups to prototype alternatives to our reality. Imagination of Things, together with Baltan Laboratories, are exploring more hybrid possibilities for our current challenges, starting with this question: How can we better exercise ownership of our imagination when inventing, designing, developing long-term visions and near-future scenarios?
The way we imagine our future is heavily influenced by current narratives (from Silicon Valley products to Hollywood’s interpretation of science fiction) and their hidden or embedded point-of-view. These narratives affect our hope (or lack of), our desires, and our abilities to make decisions with lasting effects.
After some years developing a methodology around design fiction and organizing co-creation sessions, workshops, temporary innovation labs, and interventions, we wanted to reflect on what we have discovered with this method so far, test new ideas, and assemble a tool set around our experience using fiction as a catalyst for change.
“What is needed is not new technology, but new metaphors: a metalanguage for describing the world that complex systems have wrought.” James Bridle
In these times of complexity, creative strategies that use fiction can be seen as naive, impossible, or a useless attempt to simplify complex issues. We aim to move away from cynicism with an approach to suspend our disbelief about change and strengthen our narrative abilities to visualize alternatives. To crack the loops of reactionary reinforcement of status-quo packaged in novelty that we often call ‘innovation’.
We are inspired by critical design, but it’s not our goal to engage in a conversation around design as a craft or the role of the designer, but rather embrace antidisciplinarity on a quest to create experiences where diverse and mixed groups — from activists to policymakers, from sci-fi writers to technologists — can fabricate more democratized futures. ‘The future’, for us, is a fictional device in order to exercise ownership of our imagination.
Navigating Complexity with Fiction
While working with a group inside of the insurance industry, we started off the day with an exercise to trigger fictional awareness. This exercise shakes us from the daily grind of work and life, where we end up only believing in the fictions that surround us, and forget that we can also rewrite them, play with them, and challenge them. As the historian and intellectual pop-star, Yuval Noah Harari states: the most unique ability of humans is to create and believe fictions.
As ‘corporate temporary labs’ using fiction as a tool set can foster valuable strategies to crack rigid structures and hierarchies. For example, during a session with the younger generation of employees from a business accounting firm they were able to articulate the innovative changes they want to see inside of the company, from designated work days for only asking each other questions, to a day of office role-switching to foster hybrid skills and a flat hierarchy.
Fiction as a process can show where change is possible – how seemingly pre-determined structures, like corporate hierarchies or business models, can actually be flexible. However, playing with fiction leads to a classic temptation to let the narrative fall into a utopia or dystopia. To go beyond them, we want to explore other imaginable futures, where there are interactions, tensions, and frictions between the real and imagined — that’s where alternative realities can emerge. We can then investigate worlds within a world, places where rules are at least slightly different (like Focault’s concept of heterotopia), or embark into more constructible and possible scenarios (like a protopia), subverting even if for a moment our sense of impotence and disbelief about change.
These imaginable futures don’t lead to wishful thinking or fear-tactics, but rather to critical exploration of valuable scenarios and transformation.
By instigating this process we aim to generate two key outputs: inventions, or tangible prototypes that exist in this alternative/fictional reality; interventions where these inventions are placed in a specific part of our reality (ie. a public space or an institution), setting opportunities for a negotiation between these realities, to intervene in the current modus operandi. It often has a performative quality, it can take various forms like parafiction, simulation, temporary structures, and so on.
Extended Intelligence & Nonhuman Entities
Among our work with professionals in the creative industry and design students, we found recurring story tropes, from a sentient earth that has civil rights, to a post-work world of more active citizenship. There is a clear interest around a future including ‘non-human’ perspectives, from nature to algorithms, and what that means for human society.
Parallel to that, it often reveals “A.I. fantasies” that are either fueled by a lack of understanding of complex systems, technology that is more and more opaque, or echoes of the comfortably simple descriptions of A.I. in mainstream science fiction.
That prompted us to start exploring the possibilities around machine intelligence as a device in design fiction. In one exercise, we asked participants of the workshop to collect online articles and texts that served as inspiration for the topics discussed that day. All of these texts were placed into a document to serve as a dataset: a library of inspiration for the fictional reality we were collectively creating. Using machine learning, we set up an algorithm that drew connections and learned patterns, spitting up unique statements, remixing the ‘library’ and offering us provocations for the workshop. We want to further explore these possibilities of how machines can participate in the co-creation process and what can emerge from the interaction between these entities.
Fabricating Alternatives is a research-based project created by Imagination of Things and co-produced by Baltan Laboratories.
A Field Guide to Ethnographic Experiential Futures (Stuart Candy & Kelly Kornet)
Extrapolation Factory: Operator’s Manual (Extrapolation Factory)
Design Fiction (Bruce Sterling)
Critical Everything (Francisco Laranjo)
Cheat Sheet For a Non- (or Less-) Colonialist Speculative Design (Luiza Prado & Pedro Oliveira)
Imagination of Things is a design fiction studio based in Amsterdam. They use narrative design and creative technology to unfold more imagination in our lives.
Baltan Laboratories is based in Eindhoven and initiates experimentation on the crossroads of art, design, science and technology, evoking inquisitive ideas and insights by bridging the gaps between disciplines.
This collaboration between Imagination of Things and Baltan Laboratories is kindly supported by Stimuleringsfonds Creatieve Industrie, Stichting Cultuur Eindhoven and Provincie Noord-Brabant.