In our winding journey to celebrate the UN’s 75th anniversary in 2020 — an immovable feast amidst the year of the plague — we recently made an unexpected sojourn: Science fiction.
Yes, Science fiction (SF).
When you think about it, so much of the UN’s work has been aspirational, future-leaning, and perhaps even utopian: the project of an international community, the hope for global peace, and the protection and assertion of universal human rights.
Our principal aim during this sojourn was to generate new ideas of diplomacy and the role of the UN.
To do this, we teamed up with the internationally-renowned concept artist Ronan Le Fur, a.k.a. Dofresh, who has worked as an illustrator for Netflix, among other prominent media outlets.
Our mission was to imagine what conflict prevention, peacemaking and peace building will look like 50 years from now. In other words, how might we re-think the signing of a peace agreement, or the act of shuttle diplomacy, or negotiations that lead to the end of a conflict in the future?
We will soon reveal the results of our journey as part of an online exhibit of the UN Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs (UN DPPA) on the International Day of Peace on 21 September 2020. Meanwhile, here is a glimpse from behind the scenes of this experiment.
The following interview with Dofresh sheds some light on what our brief sojourn taught us about how to draw the future and re-imagine peace.
Right from the get-go, we had to contend with the fact that the future is often portrayed in a dystopian way. Science fiction traditionally highlights novel techniques for future warfare and the attendant potential for mass destruction. As the respective works of George Orwell, Aldous Huxley or Franz Kafka attest, humanity seems to respond more intensely to fear than to joy. Reading dystopian SF, some might even find comfort in the present, and say, “hey, our lives are not so bad.”
But the truth is that the realities of our increasingly screen-mediated present include a global pandemic, climate change shocks and computer-generated mass confusion.
And so, it falls on us to try to find a way to balance hope and realism, if only as an exercise to cultivate alternative imaginaries and sincerely ask, along the way, what futures we might actually desire.
Dofresh puts it like this:
“SF tends to be dystopian and peacemaking cannot portray a purely utopian atmosphere either. We have to be realistic: there will be wars and conflicts in the future, but we can still imagine better ways of responding to them through smarter diplomacy.
The beauty of SF is that it is a world of possibilities. I like the idea that we can move away from the clichés of dark scenarios. This project with UN DPPA’s Innovation Cell was a chance to be a bit more original and different, both when it came to the SF genre and the context of peacemaking.”
“I think that for a long time SF was a way to warn people about the risks to our society in the future. Challenges of biotechnology, climate change, overpopulation, lethal autonomous weapons have been covered in SF in the past, but not too many listened to those calls for a better world. In the ’80s, the Cyberpunk movement raised issues such as the loss of power of governments and big industries, transhumanism, global viruses, but it all got little attention.
That said, new SF trends, such as Solarpunk, which is garnering attention lately and gives a more optimistic vision of the future — are more low-tech, community oriented, and ecologically balanced. It’s really an interesting movement that will grow in the next years.”
The Power of Illustration
Official documents on UN reforms and other written products about what the international community ought to be abound. Libraries are full of academic volumes on international peacemaking and how to re-think it . All neatly printed in black and white and frequently in text block. All strive to be accurate, but few are engaging.
Napoleon Bonaparte said 200 years ago that “a good sketch is better than a long speech.” Visual design can help translate complex concepts and spark new ideas. We turned to illustrative SF to trigger dialogue about the UN at large and our work in sustaining peace specifically. Re-imagining the future without visual support would be difficult, if not impossible.
We asked Dofresh about this:
“The beauty of using illustrations is that it is almost a universal language. It is a way of communicating across language barriers. With the help of illustrations you can talk to people of all nationalities, all social classes, all ages and genders. Colors, frames and perspectives might shift depending on the cultural background but the effect remains the same: Good illustrations bring across a message in seconds.”
The Boundaries of Constructing Fiction
Re-imagining peace means a conversation between the past, present and future. The boundaries of constructing fiction seem to depend on the usefulness of the imaginary. It was important that we came up with proposals and suggestions that could potentially be implemented to support conflict prevention, peacemaking and peacebuilding efforts. The current movements in the public and private sector around design thinking, speculative design or foresight are leading this path.
In this vein, Dofresh shared with us:
“From an illustrator’s point of view, I agree that SF can go very far in pushing our mind beyond anything seen before. But I can’t imagine a totally alien technology, not based on something that doesn’t exist already. A primary rule of good SF illustration is that the viewer needs to understand the situation right away. It can’t be too speculative and far-fetched.
For instance, if I draw a vehicle or any other object, I have to keep its function in mind, and it should be anchored in the past or the present. When I draw a plane or a drone, for example, I won’t come up with something totally crazy. The laws of physics won’t change in the future, it will still need some wings or an engine.
In SF we can’t just go for something totally aberrant that would turn science into something magical. Otherwise we would lose the connection between our imagination and what is real. We have to keep the future anchored in reality.”
“For me, SF is about extrapolation. First, I analyze elements of a setting, and only then it is possible to construct new futures. I think that basic human needs and motivations will always remain the same. Things like the struggle for survival, community, power, sex, money, won’t change. What might be different are technologies and the means we have to address those basic needs. So before I illustrate, I do a lot of research to better understand what is currently trending. Afterwards, I extrapolate from the existing data and incorporate it in the storytelling. Of course, it’s a bet on the future…”
Getting inspired by Science fiction to solve today’s problems is not new for the United Nations. In 2009, the UN’s Creative Community Outreach Initiative hosted a panel discussion on the final episode of the Battlestar Galactica with the SF Channel to explore some of the themes that are of importance to both the United Nations and the critically acclaimed television show: human rights, terrorism, children and armed conflict, reconciliation and dialogue among civilizations and faiths.
In 2011, the blockbuster film Transformers “Dark of the Moon” featured a scene shot in the UN General Assembly Hall in which diplomats voted to protect the refugee status of the Autobots. The aspiration was to kick-start a conversation about related UN issues such as the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), namely on equality (SDG Goal 10) as well as peace and justice (SDG Goal 16).
Some UN Member States are pursuing a similar course. France’s Defense Ministry has been collaborating with SF experts since 2019 in an effort called “Imagine Ahead” to explore “scenarios of disruption”. The French Foreign Minister Florence Parly recently revealed that the Defense Innovation Agency recruited SF writers, researchers and designers to imagine the war of tomorrow to produce “interstellar” assumptions beyond the usual out-of-the-box thinking. The Mad Scientist Initiative by the US Army Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) calls this scouting of “new operational environments”.
There seems to be plenty of enthusiasm to re-imagine the future of war, but practice in the peacemaking world to radically redefine possibilities is scarce. We learnt from our efforts that SF can help ignite a broader reflection about the parameters of diplomacy, with a view to spark new and unexpected conversations. Some elements of “the future” will reach different parts of the world at different paces. Most of the presently imaginable futures might materialize in other forms and shapes — many might just remain bold dreams. If nothing else, a major lesson of the COVID-19 pandemic is that it is never too early to think about the unknown. Let’s make space for some positive thoughts about how to achieve a more peaceful world. The future is now.
“Futuring Peace” is an online magazine published by the Innovation Cell of the United Nations Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs (UN DPPA). We explore cross-cutting approaches to conflict prevention, peacemaking and peacebuilding for a more peaceful future worldwide.