Exploring a Post-Citizenship Future

What does citizenship look like in ten or 20 years time? Will it be determined by borders and nationality, or a social group or activity? What are the forces that currently, and may exist that influence, transform and manipulate or current understanding of borders and what it means to belong? This February, Changeist were invited by Time’s Up to deliver a three day workshop as part of their Futuring Exercise for the 2017 Maltese presidency of the Council of the EU, with the support of Arts Council Malta and the Valletta 2018 Foundation. We chose to take a keener look at citizenship, migration and borders as it may develop over the next few decades, using Europe as the territory for our speculative “map”.

An international group themselves, our participants were made up of doctors, artists-in-residents, RCA students, activists and charity advocates, among others; a diverse breadth of experience and knowledge that lent well to our discussions. Each person had their own aspirations, passions and investments, each had skin in the game.

Held in the newly opened Studio Solipsis, in ancient hilltop town of Rabat in central Malta, we kicked off our first day with the basics, explaining how to look at the future within our chosen frame, with examples of new kinds of citizenship that evolve from an increased need to reassess boundaries, such as Estonia’s e-Citizenship, Mayor of London Sadiq Khan’s proposition of a ‘London-specific visa’, to the rise of the sharing economy; what does Airbnb for refugees look like?

As a way to start thinking about what groups we might define ourselves as, we got all of our participants to create a speculative, near future, ‘identity card’ and citizenship to accompany, to use to introduce themselves to others in the group. There were cards detailing anything from personal interests to new geographic boundaries and regions, to identities that reflected new social values, to representations of machine-readable selves.

One of the most interesting things for me, or perhaps for Changeist in general, is seeing where people’s minds are when we start to map our futures out. Giving our participants a horizon of 10 years, a remarkably long time considering the huge changes that have happened concerning citizenship and migration in the past three years alone, we used our trusty favourite, Artefact Cards, to categorise trends and drivers into three categories: green for those that seem probable, blue for plausible (but of uncertain probability), and orange for possible (ranging from mildly speculative to existence-ending). It’s a much clearer way to identify and show a shift as we get further and further down our timeline, demonstrating to our participations how uncertainty increases as we increase the distance between then and now.

It was important to get our participants to thinking about the surrounding issues that might affect the way people move, choose to belong, or are categorised, from speculations and certainties on climate disaster, to total antibiotic resistance and genetic engineering, to new forms of agreement such as blockchain marriages and the close ties between our digital and physical selves.

Next up, time to decide. We shuffled our participants into groups, making sure we had a good mix of skills, then asked them to choose two snapshots from the timeline to work into scenarios. Topics ranged from new forms of zoning based on city permaculture and belonging based on your choices to engineer your body, to the total collapse of borders and children gaining a vote on their future that far outweighed that of their caregivers.

We closed our first day in the citrus-filled cloisters of neighbouring monastery Saint Augustine’s, asking our groups to present back their scenarios to the other groups for critique and discussion.

On the opening of our second day, we asked our participants to think harder, and deeper, into the possible consequences and chain reactions their scenarios might set off, asking them to identify one key change and using the Futures Wheel method to help extrapolate first, second- and third-order impact. One group exploring citizenship through the lens of genetic and biological engineering, started with ‘Editable People and Open Source Genetic Databases’ to conversations about what equalities and disadvantages might result, whether new certification systems would need to be introduced to show how ‘manipulated’ you had become, what hacking might look like if it takes places on the body. It’s a good method to get people talking, especially when they are a little stuck or overwhelmed by their chosen scenario (I mean, aren’t we all?), there’s a lot of good done in pulling at the loose threads to see what unravels.

Following this exercise, which, frankly, could have gone on for days considering the discussions we dropped into, we got our participants to return to their scenarios, and start thinking about the people, places and things that would be needed to bring their future to life, with a brief but comprehensive introduction to artefact and narrative design. Knowing our incredibly tight production schedule, it was key to get the scale right. We had a television studio and cameras at our disposal, alongside various fabrication facilities, however time (as we all know) runs away from us when we’re deep in a project, so we worked with our groups to guide them to artefacts that would be achievable and effective.

The rest of the day was given over to crucial planning and research between groups, with various members of Changeist dropping in as a sounding board in between cups of coffee.

On our final day, amid builders hurriedly creating a new studio space around us, we found ourselves at MCAST, Malta’s Institute for the Creative Arts. After a quick hello, our groups were off. As facilitators, we checked in with all of our groups to see where we could help shape their ideas into something tangible and knowable; how do you show an entire system with just one object, how do you make sure you don’t over-explain? At various points, Changeist team members were invited into scenarios as background extras and characters in our group’s developing narratives.

After some Countdown-esque wrangling, we moved into another, quieter room to hear what futures our groups had come up with.

Our first group speculated on a future where, as you grew up, you would join a specific ‘state’ including those based on beauty, intelligence and other less geographically bound categorisation, based on data collected from your activity as a child. So, how to collect that data? Introducing F1D0, a machine learning enabled companion that stays with you as you grow up, collecting detailed information such as school scores to emotional needs, resulting in a constantly updating profile that determined your ‘appropriate’ future (from career to social group) when you were required to select a ‘state’ citizenship at 16. With a healthy pinch of dystopia, this group also explored the capacity for hacking by rebellious teenagers, and printed a perfectly bureaucratic consent form for all new users.

Our next group went a little further into our near future, settling on 2080, in which global warming has continued to decrease food production, leading to green ‘labs’ in urban developments, zoned off into specific areas that grow specific things. Migrant workers entering a city can only work in the zones they have the qualifications for, and are ranked by a league table, moved around only when the seasonal ‘transfer window’ is open. This group illustrated this scenario through a series of adverts calling for specific workers with specific skill levels, and an inflight magazine-style interview with food developer Bunty Saab, currently developing enteroglobules in the prestigious zone D-23 Research Labs, detailing her journey from on-the-vine food programmer on Migration Route 31 to her current position.

Inspired by the Japanese Kaizen-philosophy, our third group interrogated the nature of democracy and hyperlocalisation by introducing policy decisions through experimentation. In a future where the nation states have failed and broken down into a multitude of small-cell community-based units, not larger than 50,000- 100,000 people, the need for quick decision making becomes paramount. Introducing the ExperimentalState, a community that decides what decisions to make through a series of propositions by each citizen, which are then ‘tried out’ for a limited amount of time. Would those who chose Brexit still choose to do so if we’d tried living in it for a week? This group created a prototype website to explain the process, from suggesting an idea to the pass of a bill, with accompanying citywide posters announcing the next ‘experiment’.

In a future in which automation and the widespread roll-out of Universal Basic Income has created an increased capacity for people to follow creative pursuits, and a total collapse of borders as we know it, ‘creativity’ becomes the basic characteristic that defines people rather than race, gender or religious affiliation. A new fear of an ‘other’ still exists, this time in the form of anti-creativity terrorists, that attack ideas, minds and imagination itself.

A police tape was released that detailed an interview with a high school student whose biometric, hand-embedded chip had exploded as it came into contact with a reader, stopping her access to the art school for classes. As detailed by the interrogating officer, this was potentially an act of terrorism by those that were against creativity and intellectualism, finding it a waste of time and resources. Following this interview, a university lecturer was pulled into questioning about a captured recording of a previous lecture, framing him as an anti-creativity propagandist, all of which he insisted was hoax media. Accompanying the tape were a series of evidence bags containing the university professor’s confiscated laptop, the burnt chip (complete with traces of blood), terrorism alert button and corrupt chip reader.

An intense three days, we were hugely impressed by the narrative strands and considerations that had gone into our group’s artefacts. It’s often challenging to choose specific elements of a future you can shape into something tangible, which communicates the essence of a future envisioned through a scenario. This is particularly tough when it’s incredibly easy to tip into detached science-fiction territory, but the ways in which all the artefacts felt strangely, mundanely familiar allowed us to make out a very clear line between what their scenario interrogated and where it relates to our anxieties, hopes and concerns today.

We’ll keep you updated with what happens to our artefacts in the future, as Times Up plan to use them as provocations for artists in the next stage of their work with, and an eventual exhibition.