IAM x UAL Futures: How to Invent What Happens Next
How does one start such an ambitious task as building utopias? This year we had the opportunity to start working together in this epic challenge with our learning partners at the University of Arts London (UAL). Here, we tell the story of how this partnership began, what has come out of this journey and why we are now joining forces to inspire, connect and empower young students to invent better futures for 2030. And it all began with an email...
At the upcoming IAM Weekend 18 (April 27–29, 2018) we’ll be discussing ‘The Subversion of Paradoxes’ looking at the contradictions, collisions and coexistence of realities, in the next 7 years. Join us!
Part I: The dreamers
The story of how this partnership came to be begins in February 2015, as many other internet stories, with an email and a Skype call
Thanks for your email. You beat me to it. I was planning to get in touch to find out more about IAM — it would certainly be relevant for so many of our students. I’d be very interested to hear more about it. Happy to arrange a Skype call
On the other side of the screen we met Luke Whitehead, Creative Learning Director of UAL Futures. A project created inside Europe’s largest specialist university for art and design, made up of 6 colleges including Central Saint Martins, London College of Communication, and London College of Fashion to “define, demystify and shape the digital capabilities students need to thrive in a connected future”. The email continued…
it’s refreshing to see you’re giving creative educators the same standing in the ecosystem as industry. I am certainly going to try and make time to come over. And It would be great to discuss ways to offer students the possibility and any other ways we might work together.
And so it happened. Luke decided to attend the first edition of IAM Weekend and after meeting in Barcelona, it was quite clear that our boats were sailing in the same direction. He not only promised himself to come back next year with a group of students and a dream to share, but also hosted a screening of our ‘We Are Internet’ video series and a panel discussion for students at London College of Communication (LCC) in December 2015.
A few months later Luke jumped on the stage of IAM Weekend 16, in ‘The Futures of Education aka. Learning’ session to share the vision of UAL Futures: to create cross-disciplinary collaborative spaces and a sort of coup d’état of the digital led by the youth.
It was then that we decided to connect our dreams, and inspired by our 2017 theme “The Renaissance of Utopias”, created together the first UAL Futures Studio.
Part II: Dreaming together
The IAM x UAL Futures Studio consisted of a one-week journey for a team of 10 students and recent graduates, designed to help them learn how to work together and experiment with new ideas for purpose-driven, multidisciplinary learning that was technologically and socially conscious. Their challenge: to prototype utopias, helping us understand better our research theme and present it during IAM Weekend 17 in Barcelona.
After announcing the open call, we received more than 100 applications and then narrowed down the list to 10 participants, coming from all UAL colleges and working with very different backgrounds and perspectives:
👏 Tina Gorjanc, speculative designer MA in Material Futures
👏 Shafqat Mehmood, MA Interaction Design Communication graduate
👏 Natasha Hicken, BA Illustration and Visual Media student
👏 Céline Villaneau, MA Digital Fine Arts student
👏 Christie Berry, BA Fashion Design & Development student
👏 Ewa Winiarczyk, Interaction Design Arts student
👏 Julie Canon, Design for visual communication graduate
👏 Perwana Nazif, Journalism student
👏 Mo Lyu, MA Fashion Media Production student
👏 Rosie Back, BA Fine Arts student.
Luke also recruited a talented team to help him manage, document and evaluate the project starring Dr. Charlotte Webb, an artist and researcher with a PhD on the impact of the internet on artistic agency and authorship, Conor Rigby, designer and filmmaker, and Georgina Capdevila, creative producer, who Luke met back in IAM Weekend 15, when she presented FIU, a project she co-founded in Barcelona.
Together with IAM co-founder, Andres Colmenares, who introduced the research theme and shared with the participants our futures thinking approach and tools, and guest learning partners coming from Kickstarter, Superflux, Hanno, The Future Laboratory, It’s Nice That and The Pop Up Agency, the participants learned about new methods of collaboration and ideation through studio visits, lectures, and workshops.
The tools and feedback provided created an encouraging and professional studio atmosphere, according to participant Tina Gorjanc:
“The learning experience was designed so that an individual would be engaged with all of the topics in different stages of the development, which I believe, based the projects much more in a ‘real life’ studio experience than an academic one. As the group that was currently working on a specific theme in a certain stage of its development was given the research of the previous one, the challenge become how to interpret it and compromise in a way that would not diminish their findings and at the same time speak about your viewpoint on the topic — similarly to how a professional studio would operate.”
Part III: The Utopias
In between these visits and fully-equipped with post-its, GIFs and Slack, the participants collectively came up with their utopia in 2024: a post-capitalistic and fully automated world. Soon after, they experimented around utopian ideals, research, and questions coming from the theme and the 5 surrounding post- subtopics: reality, contemporary, labels, work, and advertising.
The first iteration of the studio ultimately culminated in 5 videos on each subtopic, presented last April in Barcelona during IAM Weekend 17. Below, we delved into each video the students created in the process of prototyping utopias, which also work as a major recap of our 2017 research theme. Welcome to The Renaissance of Utopias!
This sub-topic tackled on the subject of the “real” in reality.
Post-Reality centered around fake news and virtual reality with a trend report largely focused on asking what reality is, its perception, and its experience in 2017 as well as how reality should be in 7 years time. The final video attempts to portray the simultaneous existence of multiple realities, but manipulated so as to make an uncomfortable situation into a pleasant mirrored one, where a medical procedure is turned into a fun night out.
‘How will art be experienced in future space and time?’, asked the participants of this session. Think of Pokémon Go, but with art and purpose, they answered.
As utopias are often deemed impossible and, ironically, dystopian, the studio team literally inverted this idea around with the answer to the above question: “Paradise Now”, subverting Apocalypse Now to an artist paradise. An augmented reality where artists, chosen at global random and through contests, superimpose artwork into mundane and everyday objects. With this, post-contemporary allows for new interactions and relationships with art on both collective and individual levels. Far from sterile, white-walled art institutions, the studio participants came up with a welcoming and enriching way to experience art.
How would you describe yourself without using labels? How do we reject labels, but still celebrate differences?
The internet’s role in shaping our identity is ever-present and substantial. The fluidity and rejections of categories and binaries are both reproduced, challenged, and questioned, as findings and research from the participants indicated. “It did lead me to question how I and others would identify themselves in the future, and would this complete stripping of labels be brilliant and liberating, or leave us with a feeling of displacement or not belonging?” participant Rosie Back stated.
With these sorts of questions and contemporary geo-political situations such as the refugee crisis in mind, the final video portrayed a global-wide passport system that labelled individuals on actions tailored to specific regions.
“The final video showcases the product of the theme and how this system would work within our future society as well as also exposes the current situations regarding immigration and the implementation of biotechnology within our culture.” iterated participant Tina Gorjanc.
What defines success in a post-work world?
With a trend report on “lifestyle as work”, the studio participants were particularly interested in time as a major aspect of Post-Work. How would time, schedules, calendars, weeks be formatted without labour and labour-free or leisure time? Thus, the video resulted in creating a new calendar tailored to this utopia that was literally purpose-driven on new learning motives and goals outside of monetary means. The calendar is created in discussion with it and the user and is highly individualized, yet growing and changing with its user.
It’s hard to imagine a world devoid of advertisements, but it definitely qualifies as a utopian vision. Instead of totally obliterating advertising, however, it is imperative to explore alternatives that maximise on its potential for spreading information that is beneficial, rather than consumer-oriented.
The studio’s research findings consisted of camouflage advertising as the new norm, meaning that advertisements are expertly hidden through influencer promotions and people as “walking brands”. The studio’s response to this sub-topic was “Adversion” where highly recognizable advertisements, such as the McDonald’s logo were inverted to bring awareness to historical facts and narratives that are rarely, if at all, shown in mainstream media. Therefore, the capitalist consumer motives are replaced with education and awareness that can spark discussion and action.
Over the course of the week, the participants were able to tackle these borderline-esoteric and highly abstract subtopics in relation to “The Renaissance of Utopias” theme.
“I was intrigued by the fact that the Futures Studio was promoting a new form of design practice which is slowly emerging and expanding into the mainstream — speculative and critical design.”
said Tina Gorjanc when asked why she applied for the studio. Curiosity, speculation, criticality, and forward-thinking drove many to apply for the program.
As it was the first iteration of the IAM x Futures Studio, it was not without its own complications, challenges, and opportunities given the limited time and group dynamics as the team was a total group of strangers to one another. These challenges, however, became an advantageous learning process for many as for participant Ewa Winiarczyk:
“As I usually spend too much time on the research phase, it was important to experience generating ideas so quickly. I also learnt a lot from the collaboration itself, as the group was well balanced with almost everyone representing a different discipline.”
Again and again, participants stressed the importance and constructiveness of cross-collaboration. This, in hand with free imagination (re: utopias), fostered an environment where such actionable ideas to take place.“[It] is so interesting…to move away from any restrictions we have currently and [to] think ‘in an ideal world’. [It is] a good place to start when eager to implement some change.” said Rosie Back.
As we enter an age of impending digital feudalism where we fall prey to our technology and algorithms, how can we combat the absence of neutrality in access to information and media, even in the so-called democratic online world? How do we adapt, challenge and grow with technology and the internet? How do we trust in randomness? Where does one find the balance between being doomed to repeat history without knowledge of it and having a “fuck nostalgia” attitude? How can we move forward while making sure to be conscious of the past or, in other words a la the now-familiar IAM Manifesto, “connect the dots looking backwards”? How can we look at the future without Brave New World and 1984 fears and without fetishized and Orientalist fantasies?
The UAL Futures Studio plus the IAM Weekend experience ended with more questions on top of questions, as many of the participants can attest to, but these inquiries have a direction. They are questions that aren’t asked in an existential context, but in classrooms and educational, constructive, and youth-oriented settings where we can begin the conversation and, perhaps, create alternative narratives that can allow us to imagine and actualize the futures we want.
Part IV: What happened next
After the success of the first iteration of the UAL Futures Studio, we were all ready for more. And so the journey continued with the second studio labeled as the Feminist Internet, a series of seminars followed by a 10-day journey where 20 participants explored how the internet can strengthen feminist movements and advance women’s rights at a local and global level, led by Dr. Charlotte Webb.
Together we set the challenge: to create a Feminist Internet manifesto. And after days of fascinating discussions around feminism and internet cultures, collaborative and speculative research, which included exploring “Tomorrow’s Nipple Narratives” and exchanges with new learning partners as IDEO, Fearless Futures, Domestic Data Streamers, agile ideation led by The Pop Up Agency and social experiments to break filter bubbles, the team reached consensus on the manifesto. Here you can watch a recap in this fantastic video created by Conor Rigby:
This studio is now evolving on its own as a collective, with a series of activities to engage more people and unfold the ideas explored and discussed last summer during the studio days, including a Digital Clinic about online harassment, reading groups and collaborations with organisations around the world. Hopefully, this fascinating example of what happens when young people are empowered to think, do and say critically about futures is the start of a global movement.
Part V: Inventing what happens in the next 12 years
The journey of this IAM and UAL partnership continues. After dealing with utopias and feminism, we were ready to scale the ambitions of the studio, taking the critical, planetary and long-term thinking/doing/saying one step further. And so in late October we launched the third edition of UAL Futures Studio with an event about ‘The Futures of Everything’, where we presented a research framework around post-technological themes, key drivers of the student experience coming from internal research at UAL and a big challenge: to create an alternative agenda to the one the UN has defined for 2030 as the sustainable development goals, and present it in the shape of a summit, the first UAL Futures Summit in March 2018.
But why interrogate the UN goals? Well… why not? Their 2030 agenda, which is influencing governments, corporations and institutions everywhere, and which initially looks unobjectionable, has an obsolete binary mindset baked in the goals that needs to be questioned and reframed by those who will lead 12 years from now: young people.
Just as an example, goal #5 on Gender Equality, is still based on a binary definition of gender. If this UN agenda truly aims to “fight inequalities” shouldn’t it already understand gender as a spectrum? How different would these goals looks if the ones setting the agenda were young, diverse, open-minded humans, instead of well the usual suspects?
To work on this legendary challenge, this time we have a group of more than 50 students, 21 weeks, new learning partners as BBC, the largest broadcaster in the world and Lecture in Progress, a platform recently created by the founders of It’s Nice That, and more TBA soon.
We already went through the first 7 weeks of the studio and celebrated the first ever Critical Xmas Bizarre Bazaar to share the first wave of speculative research with Christmas stories framed in a blend of utopian and dystopian versions of 2030 in 5 cities: Tallinn, Bangalore, Glasgow, Tokyo and Reykjavik, using fictional gifts as artefacts to reflect on technologies and social issues that young people care about. This event was a teaser of what will happen next March in the UAL Futures Summit in London, and next April during IAM Weekend 18 in Barcelona.
These are tough days for internet (culture) lovers around the world as the world wide web utopian vision has been distorted by economical powers and manipulated by those traditionally concentrating power. But if there is one thing we can’t afford to lose and need to fight for is hope. We can’t give up on the idea that the futures can be better. We already know what happens when we give power to the toxicity of nostalgia and try to make things “great again”.
When IAM started back in 2015 and released our manifesto, where we shared our commitment and love letter to better futures by understanding internet as cultures, as networks of people, we referred to the stories like the one we just shared. One that starts by someone randomly finding a like-minded group of persons on Twitter, sending an email, exchanging thoughts on Skype, dreaming together over Google Docs and sharing their ideas on Vimeo, and then getting thousands excited about their vision, inviting them to dream together and then using the internet to make those dreams happen.
Manifestos, values and principles matter. More than ever. And as a takeaway we would like to share with you the UAL Futures Studio principles, a set of concepts that emerged from the journey and were collectively agreed and developed by the core team, IAM and participants into a WIP manifesto
UAL Futures Studio principles
✨ Internet is Our Studio
✨ Radical Collaboration
✨ Optimistic Criticality
✨ Cooperation not competition
✨ Nobody is Left Behind
With these principles in mind and as shown through the studio participants’ findings and ideas, across utopias and feminism, most conclusions on how to invent better futures rely on breaking down, manipulating, and subverting dominant systems, hierarchies, and modes of thought. That is why the time is now for The Subversion of Paradoxes.
See you in 2018 and thanks for taking the time to read this story. We hope you now want join us to write the next chapters, because in randomness we trust!