Experiencing the Future to Build Empathy and Create Change

Leah Zaidi
Nov 20, 2018 · 7 min read
Tellart’s immersive potential future of climate change at the Museum of the Future

In 2015, a single image changed the global political conversation about the Syrian refugee crisis. We’ve all seen it — the harrowing photograph of a lifeless three-year-old Alan Kurdi lying face-down on a Turkish beach. Alan’s family was fleeing war-torn Syria, a nation and people engulfed in civil war.

Alan

The photograph of Alan Kurdi cut through the political discourse. It was no longer just a conversation about foreign policy; the problem and its devastating impact were immediate and clear. We saw, with our own eyes, the toll the crisis was taking on the innocent. The plight of Syrian refugees could no longer be ignored and we reacted to the trauma. Countries opened their borders and people opened their homes.

The Syrian refugee crisis is an ongoing wicked problem. It is systemic and complex, fueled by deeper, underlying issues, and is difficult to resolve, partly because potential solutions can lead to unintended consequences. Climate change, inequality, and global literacy rates are some other examples of wicked problems. Though wicked problems are systemic and can seem abstract, it is important to think about the people they affect on a daily basis.

I still think about Alan. I’m sure many of you think of him as well. I question if the world is safer for children today. There are far too many examples it isn’t.

As a futurist, I grapple with how to communicate the disturbing consequences and implications of our ignorance and unwillingness to act before a crisis escalates. In other words, how might we communicate the consequences of emerging problems to proactively prevent crisis rather than react post-trauma?

Experiential Futures: A Possibility

It is unlikely that we will find a single solution that will help solve the critical issues our future holds, from rising tides of environmental deterioration to the rising tides of populism. One possible approach to engaging in much-needed debate now is creating more experiential futures.

Experiential futures are situations and stuff from the future that:

  • Come in many forms such as tangible artefacts or live action role-playing games;
  • Are created for research, educational, artistic, innovation, strategic, and changemaking purposes;
  • Evoke a broad range of emotions;
  • Depict a wide range of possibilities, including desirable, sustainable futures, as well as undesirable ones;
  • Fall under the broader umbrella of futures studies.
Superflux’s The Future Energy Lab project included ‘air from the future’. It was created to demonstrate the consequences of continuing to burn fossil fuels.

Companies like Google use variations of experiential futures to design their present-day strategies and explore the futures they want to bring about. Dubai’s Museum of the Future has used experiential futures to explore environmental sustainability. A number of notable futurists such as Anab Jain and Stuart Candy are creating experiential futures and disseminating the practice. As AR and VR become more prevalent, we’ll see more examples emerge.

Why are Experiential Futures Effective?

The power of experiential futures is that they remove the cognitive, emotional, and temporal distance between us and the future. Rather than talk about critical issues like climate change and AI as far-out possibilities, we enact and interact with potential problems as if that future is happening to us here and now. They have an immediacy, demand attention, and invite critical thinking.

More importantly, they build empathy through experience. It’s one to thing to imagine the difficulties and challenges others face; it’s another to face them ourselves. Because they channel aspects of storytelling, they allow us to deeply engage with ideas that challenge our protected values. Experiential futures are well-suited to shifting values without antagonizing our personal identity.

An effective experiential future can provoke you to ask questions like:

  • Is this a future I want? Why or why not?
  • What role do I play in this future?
  • What action can I take now to prevent or bring about certain possibilities?
Stuart Candy’s NurturePod

Changemaking

Experiential futures are a powerful policy design tool because they demonstrate the future consequences of our present-day decisions. Consider disaster preparedness. Emergency response teams plan and enact crises such as earthquakes or outbreaks so that they can respond efficiently and effectively if a disaster strikes. Experiential futures allow us to adopt this approach for socio-economic and political problems. Widespread adoption of this method might allow us to engage in transformative innovation rather than post-traumatic innovation.

Once we create an experiential future, the next step is to situate ourselves in that future and explore it. We extract strategies by asking what we need to do now to bring about or prevent that future (or aspects of it). It is a trigger for a complex and/or difficult conversation.

Deconstructing An Example

Let’s deconstruct this 4-minute experiential future on the dark futures of storytelling that I created earlier this year:

Collective Conscience: An Experiential Future

In 2035, a spa offers behavioural modifications for convicted criminals on behalf of the government. Its proprietary ‘narrative therapies’ use AI implants, ingestible tech, and the smart city grid. As an order and control scenario, it challenges:

  • How we use storytelling to direct morals and behaviours;
  • What constitutes a crime in the future (and the role of government and for-profit organizations within this context);
  • The measures we may take to combat complex problems such as climate change and wealth disparity.

There are aspects of the above experiential future that can be replicated in others:

  1. It’s research-based; the technology explored was derived from ‘weak signals’ of the future. For example, the Imaginative Ingestibles were inspired by Nicholas Negroponte’s 2014 TED prediction that we would ingest knowledge in the future.
  2. The facts and strategic prompts are embedded in a concise story that invites engagement. If you need help constructing a narrative around your experiential future, try the Hero’s User Journey tool.
  3. It moves from sensemaking to strange-making by combining familiar things in unfamiliar ways. The crimes also get increasingly weird. We might want to criminalize environmental destruction as climate change worsens, but are we willing to criminalize disconnection?
  4. It was constructed using a foresight method derived from the superstructure of worldbuilding known as Seven Foundations, to hint at the broader, complex, coherent world that lies beyond the single possibility.
  5. In a live setting, the impact and tone would differ based on the environment. Watching this in a cramped, crowded room full of stale air and the sound blaring from a speaker evokes a different response than watching it in a comfortable, private spa room. These choice points are important decisions that lead to different emotional outcomes.

The Implications for Policy Design

From a policy standpoint, using storytelling and technology to alter behaviour has profound implications for society. For example, what does it mean for our criminal justice system when we can change your behaviour through tech and storytelling? How bad does climate change have to get before we criminalize environmental destruction? What are the unintended consequences to allowing private organizations to wield such power?

Collective Conscience also has implications beyond the justice system. What if we used this tech to educate and condition children or soldiers?The AI implants mentioned in the video were inspired by the U.S. military’s current research initiatives. Think about the economic and innovation consequences of altering humanity from the inside out and the outside in. Facebook has taught us that unchecked entrepreneurship can undermine the very fabric of democracy. Are we willing to let startups engage in this level of behavioural control?

I can imagine giants like Disney wanting to use storytelling-based technology to extend their brand experience far and wide. We know that infrastructure and architecture have significant psychological and behavioural impact on us; what are the implications when the smart city can be rigged or hijacked for widespread control and manipulation? Google is already exploring how can they can leverage data to shape behaviour over generations. What’s stopping them from building those mechanisms in a way that we can’t detect?

Are we prepared for this reality? How many existing policies protect society against these possibilities?

Conclusion

The photograph of Alan Kurdi weighs on us because it is a visceral, emotionally resonant moment that demonstrates the true consequences of inaction and indifference. We spent too long debating the abstract issues rather than imagining the small child at the center of it all. While facts are necessary and important, we are ultimately emotional beings that often make decisions based on sentiment, not logic. Our primitive fight or flight responses run deeper than our rational selves.

Experiential futures offer a way to communicate the future consequences of our present-day decisions. Designing and engaging with many possible futures will allow us to explore which futures we want and which we would rather not bring out. If done well, experiential futures can help us imagine and build more just, equitable, and sustainable futures for all. They can help us empathize with those who might experience a crisis before a crisis occurs.

Though we cannot give Alan Kurdi the life he deserved, we can help others going forward. The future is ours to create. The crisis ours to prevent.

Follow me on Twitter: @leah_zaidi

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Leah Zaidi

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Leah is an award-winning futurist from Toronto. In addition to working as a foresight strategist, she designs experiences from the future.

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