Future tense: Design futures for urban transitions to sustainability

Connecting research and practice towards place-based systems change

Corina Angheloiu
Future Tense

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For a long time I’ve been fascinated by the different ways in which we’ve dreamed ourselves into the future. The collage below gives a glimpse into a fairly large folder on my laptop entitled ‘future visions’ — notice anything common between all of them?

We somehow seem to have been far better at imagining what the next technological paradigm might be — whether underpinned by steam, steel, oil, plastics or fiberoptic, rather than asking the question “what might be the future society we want?” and therefore “which technology might get us there?”. It was easier for the Victorians to imagine flying vehicles rather than changes in fashion and attitudes to clothes, the same way the Jetsons live in a world serviced by elaborate robots, yet they’re a nuclear family where the Mrs. is still a homemaker.

But what if we put some of the imagination and creativity we’ve demonstrated over centuries to tackling our present challenges?

“Quite clearly, our task is predominantly metaphysical, for it is how to get all of humanity to educate itself swiftly enough to generate spontaneous social behaviours that will avoid extinction.” (Fuller & Applewhite, 1975:p.28)

We know that new approaches to framing and solving problems are needed if we’re to tackle interconnected “wicked-problems” such as climate change, biodiversity loss and growing inequality. Avoiding climate breakdown directly translates into the urgent need for modern lifestyles to reduce consumption by ten times and gives a tight time-frame of 12 years give or take to do so.

Yet, achieving these quantitative indicators is for many of us an abstract process; it’s very difficult to imagine what this might look like in practice and how we might go about doing it — what will the everyday, the mundane feel like and how will our societies be organised as a consequence? This process of change is wrapped up in broader behavioural and cultural change, for which we require new methods, tools and narratives.

The changing role of design: from problem-solving to problem-finding

Over the past decades, many voices have advocated that design can ‘change existing situations into preferred ones’. Beyond the application of this mantra to the current consumerist paradigm, more recently, design expertise has been advocated as a “social resource for enabling local innovation in which […] we generate and explore alternative futures”. Ezio Manzini distinguishes between diffuse design (performed by everybody) and expert design (performed by those who have been trained as designers) and this democratisation of design has been hailed to bring problem-solving directly into the hands of communities.

Where this line of though falls short, is in acknowledging and navigating more complex dynamics around issues of power, agency, privilege and exclusion, which are highly interlinked with the much banded-about word ‘participation’. Power and participation have been long debated in the context of art and architecture by social and political theorists such as Lefebvre and Foucault, and in more recent years by Doina Petrescu, Jeremy Till, Fran Tonkiss, David Harvey. However, this conversation is only starting to diffuse into the field of design, where the user- and human-centric design narratives have largely ignored the systemic root causes of the challenges designers so optimistically set out to solve.

Futures studies: between flatlands and breaking the fourth wall

More radical ideas and future visions are needed, as well as systemic approaches to the routes we might take to enact them. While the field of design presents methods and processes that can challenge the present and inform the future, a better understanding of these complex dynamics is critical to understanding our own agency as practitioners — as design is not values agnostic. The field of futures studies has developed methods and frameworks for systemic inquiries into alternative futures, as well as ways to explore and question the underlying foundational myths and worldviews they might be stemming from.

Scenario planning, scenario exploration, future-casting, world-building, are some exemplary approaches to envision future possibilities. These are now common within academic institutions, as well as strategy development processes in business and policy making; however, their use as part of wider decision making processes, or by collectives and initiatives aimed working on socio-environmental issues is more limited.

Futures methods, as used in business, have been critiqued as creating an uninspiring ‘flatland’ of futures. Design brings much needed richness to the speculative and visionary nature of futures, with growing interest in the potential of experiential practices (such as experiential futures, presencing, or immersive theatre methods) to break the fourth wall.

The current state of play opens the possibility for these complementary approaches and methods to be put to use in the context of exploring transformative change in line with the social and environmental challenges of our time. The use of design and futures methods to develop a prospective and systemic exploration of transformative change is a new area of exploration which enables conversation about the paradigm shift required in the context of the values, ethics and societal norms.

How does it relate back to place?

Neighbourhoods, towns and cities are the dynamic results of layering processes between hard systems (such as energy, food, mobility, health, education, finance) and soft systems (such as culture, governance, religion, ritual). Places structure our human environmental experience, helping us derive meaning from the world geography. Place-making as mental process is the act by which one street becomes one’s street and through which we develop a sense of belonging and ownership.

The oft-used quote “the future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed” rings true in the context of stark inequalities distributed unevenly across the globe. Tackling complex and interconnected challenges is intimately linked with notions of identity, power and agency; reconciling these different scales will be key to how we can enable and accelerate sustainability transitions.

‘South Africa’s annual burn, spanning 7 days from the end of April to the beginning of May.’ Source: Ephemeral Urbanism

At the same time, intentional communities have been experimenting with different ways of living; while some explicitly self-identify as in pursuit of sustainability transitions (such as Transition Network, Eco-Towns), others are experimenting with different variables such as governance or finance models, which could offer valuable lessons (examples here have been captured in documentaries such as Demain, or in the great anthology on Ephemeral Urbanism from Harvard GSD).

What would it take to diffuse the plurality of their approaches and what lessons can be learnt from these examples of communities already practising processes of transition?

This brings me back full circle to the opening collage to ask —

Could design futures methods help us mainstream alternative, pluralistic, context specific visions and narratives for place-based transitions, and in the process, anchor our need for belonging and identity?

Over the years I’ve seen a breadth of diversity in the scope, scale, methods and impact sought by existing initiatives to independently develop the fields of design, architecture, urbanism, and futures, as if they are tight, bounded containers. I’ve seen little recognition of the messy and unbounded reality of change processes and little willingness to look into other fields for ways of understanding and inquiring. For example, while urban sociology has widely been drawn upon by architects and urbanists in analysing topics such as urban governance, regeneration, urban inequalities and spatial divisions, attempts to draw upon transitions’ studies or futures are few and far between. Likewise, architecture and human-centred design seem to still happily ignore one another, despite sharing common grandparents — and the list could go on.

So how can we stitch these gaps between different fields to enable us as practitioners and researchers to advance faster together?

What next?

I have more questions than answers, but these explorations into the overlaps between design and futures methods as enablers of urban transitions will form a large part of my next few years, as I’ve joined the Centre for Environmental Policy at Imperial College through a PhD scholarship from the London Interdisciplinary Social Science Centre.

Interested in exploring Future Tense?

Over the next years I’ll be designing and facilitating a series of experiments, coaching and learning alongside existing initiatives, as well as helping build a global community of practice situated at the interconnection of the topics above. I’d love to hear from you if the topics I’ve talked above resonate.

It might be that you’re a city strategist working on socio-environmental resilience, a change maker pursuing different solutions to complex place-based challenges, an activist already living the change, or an educator wanting to enable your students to deploy their agency for positive change.

Get in touch at @futuresforensics / corina.angheloiu17@imperial.ac.uk

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Corina Angheloiu
Future Tense

Strategist, researcher, and facilitator passionate about enabling systemic change and the role cities can play in this