Preface: Living in a cliffhanger
A few months ago, just weeks before the pandemic began to rip apart the fabric of our everyday lives, I went on record with an admittedly silly, perhaps childish idea. If human history was a TV series —say, a thrilling cinematic documentary—the period we are living through would be a perfect cliffhanger: that point of maximum narrative tension before the resolution in the last episode. In this case, it wouldn’t necessarily be the end of the whole series but maybe at least of the current season which may tell the story of the great acceleration associated with our modern, industrial, capitalist and globalized civilization.
The dramatic threads of this cliffhanger are well known: the world is characterized by unprecedented levels of inequality, the democratic order is everywhere in crisis, emerging technologies of artificial intelligence are posing new economic and societal challenges, we are only partially dealing with the COVID-19 crisis (and the prospect of more, perhaps more dangerous pandemics), and all of this is playing against the background of climate change as the ultimate, long-term threat to human civilization. Arguably, what happens in the next couple of decades will decide what happens in the next few centuries and even beyond.
The convergence of these big challenges coincides with — and, some may argue, is inextricable from—the rise of design both narrowly construed as a formally recognized set of professional disciplines and, more broadly, as a socially diffused mode of engaging with the world. Today, more and more individuals, communities, and organizations recognize design practices as essential to the way they live and thus, at least implicitly, as an important vector for social change.
I have been involved in this field at least indirectly and intermittently, both professionally and academically, for a couple of decades now. Also, for the last five years, I have tried to write one or two articles every year looking at design from my sort of quasi-outsider, parallax view. For example, in ‘El Diseño y yo’ (in English here), I tried to make sense of the becoming-strategic of design and its subsequent three-dimensional expansion to become, in the same movement, increasingly systemic, future-oriented, and critical. The autobiographical title responds to the fact that it was only due to those expansions—which I’ve come to see, metaphorically, as a set of welcoming open arms—that I felt both drawn to and entitled to work in the field. In ‘How Design is Politics’, I tried to grapple with some concepts and frameworks that could be useful for designers as we venture, following the aforementioned expansion, into politically charged territories.
During the same period, I also moved more intentionally to the field of futures and strategic foresight — more recently as a lecturer at the Design of Tomorrow postgraduate program at CENTRO, as a co-founder of Diagonal (a research, design, and futures studio based on Mexico City), and as a research affiliate at Institute for the Future. These same last five years have witnessed the explosion of “design futures”: a set of practices (mainly speculative design, design fiction, and experiential futures) that for decades have been converging at the intersections of design, art, and futures studies. These all share the conviction that design methods and outputs can be used to foster imagination and conversations about futures. I have had the opportunity to experiment with those practices as well.
However, the project I’m starting to develop here is more directly related to an article from last year where, so to speak, I “flipped” my interest: from the design of futures to the futures of design. In ‘Design: The “Next” 30 Years’, I used the theory of technological revolutions developed by Carlota Pérez to situate the evolution of design against a wider techno-economic and political background in order to lay out some potential lines of evolution for the next decades. As I argued following Pérez, if it currently feels like we’re living through a repeat version of the 1930s it’s because we may be going through a turning point similar to the one the world experienced in the middle of the 20th century. In this conjuncture, a set of political interventions aimed at strengthening the power of governments for tilting the playing field towards new forms of inclusive, innovative, and sustainable growth — as exemplified by recent calls for a Green New Deal — may deliver us into a new “golden age” similar to the postwar period. If things were to unfold in this way, design could play a key role—as it did during the 1950s and 1960s—to redefine our notions of what it means to live a “good life” this time in accordance with an emerging paradigm that Pérez calls “smart green growth.”
The argument I developed there could be slightly controversial for at least a couple of reasons. First, the idea of historical cycles can easily be construed more deterministically than it should—as if I was trying to predict what comes next. Second, the association of a positive future or “golden age” with the concept of growth may sound off-key in a context where more people, including young climate activists, are disparaging the idea of economic growth. At the end of the article, I followed the principles put forward by futurist Jim Dator to explain that looking at cyclical forces is simply a conceptual tool deployed to better forecast, imagine, and, most importantly, create futures. Moreover, as he argues, the activity of forecasting should always entail looking at multiple or alternative possibilities so as to inform discussions about preferred directions. This is why I closed the article pointing briefly to other current theories that, while mapping to the other three images of the future proposed by Dator as alternatives to growth, may serve as similar but competing backgrounds to explore futures of design.
Dator’s theory of alternative futures or the four generic images of the future—namely: Growth, Collapse, Discipline, and Transformation—remains a useful framework for futures imagination. First of all, it is one of maybe two or three well-established methods for exploring scenarios or alternative futures. In my experience, it is a method that works quite well to investigate and imagine broad, large-scale, or “civilizational” futures. Most importantly, as I will try to show in the articles that will appear in this publication, it’s a framework that quite presciently maps current theoretical discussions about “what is to be done” in the context of the big challenges that constitute the cliffhanger in which we’re living. The fact that contemporary theoretical discussions map well to Dator’s four futures is not merely of philosophical interest. As Milton Friedman famously argued:
Only a crisis — actual or perceived — produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around.
Thus, one of the main objectives of this publication is to review, through the lens of Dator’s futures, some of “the ideas that are lying around.” By reviewing a small subset of the recent theoretical literature dealing mainly with climate change and its multiple interactions with technology, economics, and politics, we may be able to update the map that Dator so presciently laid out.
In the year or so since the publication of that article, I’ve been researching quite deeply into recent ideas that, as I explained above, could serve as alternatives to the growth vision that I explored there. This has involved a deep dive into fields such as degrowth theory, collapsology, and ecomodernism, among other closely related and competing perspectives. This period has been a good experiment—although not always very comfortable—in developing what Jay Ogilvy called “a scenaric stance”: the capacity to hold multiple futures simultaneously in perspective while transcending both optimism and pessimism. Moreover, rather than just developing the capacity to consider these alternative futures as perhaps equally plausible or probable, the most interesting challenge has been trying to develop the capacity to find in them certain features that may be desirable and worth pursuing, that is, to consider all of them as potentially preferable. The title of the publication, Preferable Worlds, refers precisely to the qualities in those images of the future that makes them at least susceptible of being preferred by different people, in different circumstances, and perhaps for different reasons. In this way, even if I personally lean towards growth and transformational futures, the second objective of this publication is to equip myself with concepts and frameworks that could allow me to establish better conversations with people that hold different values and hopes. In fact, the ultimate goal may be to synthesize preferable images of the future that transcend the ideological frictions that currently exist between proponents of those alternative visions.
Finally, a third objective is carried over from that article: to explore both how design practices may evolve in any of those alternative futures and, at the same time, how design might be a driver of change towards any of them. I see design as a nexus between the micro and the macro, between the individual and the systemic, between technology and culture, between economics and politics. As such, arguably, design will play a key role in the resolution of this cliffhanger—whatever that may turn out to be.
The plan is to publish here what, in other circumstances, would be something close to a book. The core will be composed of a series of theoretical articles like ‘Design: The “Next” 30 years’ but looking at current theories associated with the four alternative futures and their implications for design practices. I will also try to publish other pieces that look more like typical futures work, i.e. reports with signals, trends and emerging issues, forecasts, etc. I’ve also drafted a couple of book reviews that may end up being published here.
Perhaps the most exciting thing is that I’m aiming to build here a sort of collaborative platform. Back in June, when Giovanni Caruso, Silvio Cioni, and the rest of the team at Speculative Futures Milan invited me to give a talk, I took the opportunity to facilitate a short workshop where I presented the bases of this project and collaborated with the participants in the creation of a few initial images of design practices in alternative futures. I will publish the results here soon. In a similar vein, when the opportunity emerged to teach a new course on “Select Strategic Design Topics” at the MA Strategic Design and Innovation (Ibero), I couldn’t resist the temptation to set up an exploratory design studio on the basis of this project. In collaboration with the students, I will publish some of the results here as well.
As it may be obvious, this is a self-initiated and self-funded project that will be developed on the margins of other work and teaching commitments. Even so, I will try to develop a certain discipline for publishing regularly.
If you’re interested in collaborating or exploring some of the topics presented above, please do not hesitate to leave a comment or reach out to jorge[at]diagonal.studio.