Thursday, November 30, 2017

Futures on film

A little while back I happened across my first published foresight paper, which I’d thought long lost.

Futures on film: Using movies to explore possible futures is exactly what it sounds like. It looks at using movies set in the future as a basis for futures-oriented dialogue, especially in the classroom.

The collection it appeared in, back in 02004, was paper-only and not in wide circulation, but the text turned up in a trove of files burned to CD-ROM over a decade ago, and recently consolidated on my current laptop.

The piece came out of a workshop I co-ran in Hungary in 02003 at the Budapest Futures Course, a graduate-level summer intensive introduction to the field, supported by the World Futures Studies Federation and UNESCO. My co-organiser of the session and co-author of the paper was Bernadett Szél, then an economics student in the futures program at Budapest University of Economic Sciences and Public Administration. (That university has since become Corvinus University of Budapest, and Dr. Szél has since become a member of parliament in Hungary’s National Assembly.)

My first futures conference was in 01997, and by this edition of the Budapest Futures Course I had some hunches about directions worth exploring in the field. I’d also finished as an undergrad the year before (in arts and law), and was living not too far from Budapest –– in the former Yugoslavia, supporting myself with savings from my first post-graduation job back in Australia. I was attempting to produce a feature documentary about Montenegro’s quixotic plan to become the world’s first "ecological state". It eventually dawned on me that this fascinating but ill-fated endeavour, the notion of an ecological state, was at heart a futures project, and that my also ill-fated (for different reasons) doco about it was a futures film project. But that's another story.

Perhaps it says something about the state of play in the field in 02003, its relationship to media other than text, that using movies as a basis for exploratory conversation seemed an experiment worth writing about. I'm sharing this modest article unearthed after so long because, despite its shortcomings, it gestures in a direction that would within just a few years lead on to some exciting new territory in futures.

The notion behind Szél's and my workshop, and this paper based on it –– that futures should engage with other media more fully –– is a precursor to the argument for developing what soon began to crystallise as a new frontier of practice, experiential futures.

The notion of a media-enriched mental ecology for higher-resolution futuring is here in seed form:

One rich set of materials which can be put to use in futures studies is found in the arts, where individual and collective fantasies, fears and hopes are explored. Such exploration arguably constitutes one of the crucial socio-cultural functions of art - and of course all fantasies, fears and hopes implicitly contain a future orientation. ...

Film stories, and film images, can be regarded as a sort of experience which all individual viewers can be seen to have in common, and to which all can therefore somehow relate. While this is true of any work of art available to the general public, there is an important distinction between the written word and the image. From reader to reader a book about or set in the future is sure to inspire very different mental images, but what we see in a film varies much less from viewer to viewer. The way we watch films in the cinema reinforces this point: stories on our screens 'transport' us to other places, offering the audience an experience to which it willingly yields. We pay to sit in a darkened room, to watch light and shadows on the wall, to block out superfluous sensory input, indeed to devote our full attention – one of the few contexts in which this is willingly given or even possible for individuals in developed societies – to a story which will not be interrupted, and in which we can therefore be immersed. We pay to be dwarfed by the larger-than-life figures and tales unfolding on a huge, elevated screen. 
This 'shared experience' can then be used as a starting point for discussion, so the individual adventure of watching a film can be transformed into a team activity. ... The experience offered by a film is of course in a sense vicarious, but as an educational experience it becomes anything but vicarious: it can be thought-provoking, participative, and engaging.

A descendant of this line of exploration can be found in recent work like this piece co-written with Jake Dunagan.

And we’ve continued to use film, on and off, in the years since. We made no-budget videos as "artifacts from the future" in Hawaii back in 02007 to try out some ideas for helping audiences time travel (Neural Rights ManagementAloha Tonight). More recently, the start of the NaturePod project video (02016) starts out with a diegetic commercial. Last spring, I devised and led a course called Future Documentary at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where students were challenged to create their own future film fragments, then put them out into the world. But even the first and simplest of film-based approaches to futures, scaffolding conversation using screenings of existing movies, still comes in handy. A few years ago, I chose Gattaca, Her, and Samsara to show as part of my Duke University TIP summer course for high school students from across the US.

Our experiential futures experiments have included not only film, and not only tangible future "artifacts" (which in the intervening years have often come to be referred to as design fiction, and then more recently speculative design), but also art museum and gallery exhibitsinteractive installationguerrilla interventionsalternate reality gamesimmersive theatre and live action roleplayingtrade show product demosmail art, and more.

Now over a decade old, experiential futures has come a long way. Its inspiration may in a sense have begun with film, but fortunately it did not end there.

There's something encouraging and apt about this trajectory, I like to think; this shift of focus from the consumption, appraisal and critique of Hollywood's images of the future, to the active, creative, and critical generation of our own, using every form we can think of to help bring futures more vividly to life. 

The technology of public imagination
> Brand runner / Colonising the future
Death of a President
> The Experiential Turn
> Experiential futures turns ten
> Future documentary
> Gaming alternative futures

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Life after texting

From SMS to RSI.

Comic by Dan Piraro spotted this afternoon on the wall of a cafeteria in the CMU business school.

See also Matt Groening's "Life in hell" glimpse of 02050.

(Colour image above via Twitter.) 
(Updated 30nov17: Originally posted "from SMS to SOS..." but the latter just wasn't the right TLA.)

Feeling old?
Questioning hyperopia
> Facing future
Life in Hell, circa 02050

Tuesday, July 04, 2017

Could this be the future of parenting?

NurturePod installation and photos by Stuart Candy

This experiential scenario from a not too distant future, my first "solo" art museum installation (really, all this work is highly collaborative), is now live at M HKA, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Antwerp, Belgium.

Futurist/journalist Andrew Curry and I recently had a chance to chat about the project for an upcoming issue of the Association of Professional Futurists quarterly, Compass. Many thanks to Andrew and APF for sharing the transcript below (edited for clarity and length).


Andrew Curry: What we have here is a very small baby –– not a real baby –– in a little pod surrounded by all sorts of digital stimulus looking after her or his needs. This is a "programmable para-parenting pod", which basically removes the need for parents to get involved, as far as I can tell. It's a bargain at €789, obviously. What was the brief, Stuart?

Stuart Candy: The brief for A Temporary Futures Institute was to create some kind of a design contribution corresponding to Dator's generic images of the future; grow, collapse, discipline or transform, and I was assigned "transform". I had this quite large space and could basically do anything that fit the budget and time. To get from those broad parameters to the final installation really started from the name. There was a prior project (which appeared in Compass) called NaturePod, a hypothetical product from a handful of years away, addressed to stressed-out office workers who may need to reduce their cortisol levels and increase productivity by spending time in nature, without leaving their cubicles. That was a provocative take on what happens when you marry supposedly biophilic interior design trends to virtual reality.

AC: So this is a kind of companion piece?

SC: Right. It came about in a conversation with my longtime collaborator, Jake Dunagan –– a lot of our work is based on wordplay and being silly –– and he said, "well, when you're done with NaturePod, you should do NurturePod, ha ha ha". He was joking, but I thought it was a brilliant idea. Then this opportunity came along, and I realised that, while this might not be my idea of a transformation, it does actually correspond to a popular notion about what immersion in virtual environments means.

AC: It comes with all this very nice packaging and sales material. Clearly something about the commercialisation of it engaged you.

SC: A lot of the experiential futures work I've done is about bringing encounters with futures into an everyday context. Hence guerrilla futures projects like NaturePod; we launched it at an architecture and design trade show, so the people who came across it thought it was real. The organisers of the trade show knew what we were up to, but the thousands of others attending didn't. I was interested in trying to import the lessons and techniques from creating encounters "in the wild" into the cube of a contemporary art museum. That's why this piece is not sitting on a white box; it's sitting on the kind of table you might find in an Apple Store.

AC: The NurturePod box has all the kind of labelling detail you would expect to see in a package. Is that part of the experience as well?

SC: I think the attention to detail that makes a hypothetical resemble the real is an important part of this practice. It is intended to invite, not a suspension of disbelief exactly, but more an investment of belief, a kind of willing desire on the part of the viewer to say okay, suppose that I did come across this in a few years' time. What do I think about that? What do I feel about that? I think the details provide added dimensions of engagement so they can dive deeper, if they want to. Most people are probably going to engage with the main image; a glanceable, instagrammable baby in a pod wearing a headset. But for those who take the time, there is more detail to enjoy, or be dismayed by, according to your taste.

AC: There's a little tag, "control baby's experience with the NurturePod App", and a kind of WiFi, Bluetooth-type logo suggesting I can download it. I haven't actually tried to do that; I'm guessing that bit might not be real?

SC: That's right, it does break at a certain point because it isn't real, but it's supposed to feel like it is. All of these messaging elements are scaffolded in detail on existing products, and existing idioms that we recognise subconsciously, being citizens of the early 21st century. We’re literate in ways we don’t even realise about the semiotics of marketing, and electronics in particular. This is using that language to get something across about a seemingly imminent possibility.

AC: One more thing that strikes me about this, about the languaging, is it's not just about marketing. There are a whole lot of cues about the idea of the new, the idea of the modern, and the classic ways in which technology companies make us feel inadequate and then sell us reassurance.

SC: I suppose using those tropes could be said to invite reflection on how embedded in the tropes we are, because we know this particular thing doesn't exist. But that's a bit of an intellectual angle. I find people's emotional responses interesting, from watching them interact with it and from what they've shared in conversation.

AC: What sort of things have they said?

SC: "I'm really drawn to this, and also repulsed by it." There's this sense of being torn, and that is quite satisfying to hear, because I think creating or inviting a complex emotional response is something that we should strive for in futures work. This is why design and film and performance and games are important –– the whole repertoire of approaches to experiential futures; like the proverbial toothbrush that reaches places regular ones can't. Hopefully we are on our way to a better futures toothbrush.


The NurturePod installation is just one part of A Temporary Futures Institute (ATFI), a boldly experimental M HKA exhibition which opened in April, curated by Anders Kreuger and Maya Van Leemput.

(M HKA was also the main venue for Design Develop Transform, where Kelly Kornet and I recently presented the Ethnographic Experiential Futures framework.)

There are some stellar artists featured in ATFI (including Michel Auder, Miriam Bäckström, Alexander Lee and Darius Žiūra), and the other futurists involved in the exhibition are Agence Future (Maya Van Leemput and Bram Goots, Belgium), The Centre for Postnormal Policy & Futures Studies (Ziauddin Sardar and John Sweeney, UK/US), and Mei Mei Song (Taiwan).

Show runs until 17 September –– so if you're within range of Antwerp, check it out!

- Seth Keller and Kazuki Guzmán, Fabrication consultants
- Tarik El-Khateeb, Graphics consultant
- Special thanks: Maya Van Leemput and Anders Kreuger (for curating ATFI); Bram Goots (for crucial logistical help), Ceda Verbakel (for copywriting assistance); Giulia Bellinetti, Georges Uittenhout, and the rest of the team at M HKA (for essential technical support); Jake Dunagan (for inspiration); Jessica Charlesworth, Ilona Gaynor, the Toronto Uterati (for helpful conversations)

See also (last updated 16aug17):
- Features in VICE and Boing Boing
- Opinion piece in The Irish News on NurturePod and the future of parenting
- Bruce Sterling's repost of the interview above at Wired
- Article from Harpers Bazaar on what to see at A Temporary Futures Institute
- Video from ARTtube about ATFI (5 1/2 mins)
- Show summary from Belgian newspaper De Morgen (in Dutch)
- ATFI exhibition brochure (pdf)
- Two contemporary artists I greatly admire whose work has influenced this piece one way or another: Patricia Piccinini and Ron Mueck


Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Syrian refugee girls imagine their futures

Today I want to share an experiential futures project cocreated with a group of individuals usually pushed to the margins in every way. Here they appear in the spotlight, with a call for their dreams to be recognised and their voices heard.

Hiba, aged 9. Vision: future paediatrician. "I have always wanted to help children. I am kind and loving, and therefore an excellent doctor that children can trust."
Photos and captions: Meredith Hutchison / International Rescue Committee [via IBT]

The premise of "Vision Not Victim", created by photographer Meredith Hutchison, is straightforward. The girls are asked about what they want to be when they grow up, and then they do a photo shoot where they dress up as if it has happened, and talk about how it came to be, speaking as their future selves.

Supported by the International Rescue Committee, a global humanitarian and aid organisation, this iteration of the program was carried out in Syrian refugee camps in Jordan (video), after being piloted in the Democratic Republic of Congo (video).

IRC explains:
Every girl designs and directs her own shoot where she poses as her future self — achieving a goal. Whenever possible, we try to do these shoots on location, in actual working environments, so girls can meet people in their envisioned field and truly step into their future. 
As empowering as the photo shoot experience itself may be, the outcomes don't stop there: "Perhaps the most moving and impactful part of the program is the moment when the girls share their photographs. They beam as they receive their images and run to show parents and friends."

An opportunity to see and do differently ripples outward from this bold declaration of possibility.

Haja, aged 12. Vision: future astronaut. "Ever since we studied the solar system in primary school, I have wanted to be an astronaut. I love being an astronaut because it lets me see the world from a new angle. In this society my path was not easy – many people told me a girl can’t become an astronaut. Now that I have achieved my goals, I would tell young girls with aspirations to not be afraid, to talk to their parents about what they want and why, to always be confident and know where you want to go."

Fatima, aged 16. Vision: future architect. "When I was young people told me that this is not something a woman could achieve, and they encouraged me to pursue a more 'feminine' profession. Now that I’ve reached my vision, I hope I am a model for other girls."

Fatima, aged 12. Vision: future teacher. "In this image, it is the early morning and I am waiting in my classroom for my students to arrive. I teach younger children to read and write Arabic."

Amani, aged 10. Vision: future pilot. "I love planes. I finished my studies and found a way to get to flight school. Now, not only do I get to live my dream, but I also get to help people travel, to see the world, and discover new places."

Muntaha, aged 12. Vision: future photographer. "As a professional photographer I use my images to inspire hope in others – to encourage love and understanding."

Notice how they speak from inside the future scenario, visualising and roleplaying their accomplishment; not "I want to..." but "I have..."

The import of this shift in imagination can be profound. Here's an example related by the photographer, reported by CNN:
Hutchison remembers one girl who was engaged to be married though she was younger than 13. (The photographer asked that the girl's name not be used to protect her identity.)

"I distinctly remember the moment when we showed her parents her vision images. Her mom was just ecstatic and her father ... was absolutely silent -- and smiling -- but silent, thumbing through the images.

"I think he was just in awe that this could be his daughter."

By the end of the program, the parents had called off their daughter's engagement and had committed to helping her finish her education.

That's the power of the photographs -- something unquantifiable happens to the girls, Hutchison says. 

I recently read Rebecca Solnit's book Hope in the Dark. which focuses especially on citizens and activists pursuing what may appear to be lost causes. It's an extraordinary work –– I wholeheartedly recommend Solnit's writing in general –– and her analysis of how hope functions manages to be simultaneously tough-minded, filled with compassion, and uplifting.
To hope is to give yourself to the future, and that commitment to the future makes the present inhabitable. [...] Despair demands less of us, it's more predictable, and in a sad way safer. Authentic hope requires clarity––seeing the troubles in the world––and imagination, seeing what might lie beyond these situations that are perhaps not inevitable and immutable.
In a similar spirit, it's elevating to find a project carried out in such desperate circumstances, contributing to the possibility of those circumstances being transformed.

And it brings us back to an issue we've noted before: foresight is a right. Everyone should be able to think about the future, but not everyone gets that chance.

Having attempted at various times to narrow that gap by bringing futures to life in unscripted environments (albeit so far in no setting as fraught with complexities as a Syrian refugee camp must be), I have great appreciation for what Meredith and her collaborators have done here.

We can readily grasp the transformative potential of a well-wrought experiential scenario –– that is, making a possible future vividly available to think and feel today –– whether at the scale of a country (as in Tunisia, during the Arab Spring, with the aspirational 16juin2014 campaign); a group (as in Hawaii 2050); or an individual (as in Derren Brown's apocalyptic wakeup call to one troubled English kid, which painstakingly simulated the end of the world exclusively for him). But examples as fully realised as these can be resource intensive.

Vision not Victim is based on a conceptually simple, apparently inexpensive, yet deeply personal intervention. It invites a young person to vividly articulate –– enact, actually –– a preferred future, and so enable a powerful reperceiving of potential awaiting activation in the present.

(More than a year after first hearing about this project, I've noticed that its structure appears to describe the same arc as the generic Ethnographic Experiential Futures process recently shared here: MAP [unearthing a preferred personal future, in this case] > MEDIATE [staging the photo shoot] > MOUNT [sharing the photos with the girls and their families] > MAP [capturing reactions].)

The opportunities and challenges around the right to foresight are, of course, not evenly distributed. This becomes particularly obvious when we think about it as an ongoing rather than a one-time need.

Consider the work of education designer and futurist Amy Satterthwaite, formerly a Toronto schoolteacher (and one of my teaching assistants at Duke University's TIP futures summer school a few years ago - video). She is now working to change schools through Ashoka Canada.

In her award-winning final MDes project at OCAD, Foresight for Every Kid, Amy's research highlights the fact that
low-SES students are more likely to be present-oriented, chiefly a consequence of the 'tunneling' that occurs due to scarcity. Middle-class, higher-SES students, on the other hand, are more inclined to think on the future as they are less burdened by unmet needs in the present. [...] Academically successful students... are those who can imagine fairly far into the future, set goals, and defer gratification in order to work toward them. In this system, our present-oriented students' perspectives are less likely to be acknowledged, honoured, and validated. ...Foresight for Every Kid suggests that educators must first shift their mindsets, tuning in to the time perspective bias in their practices, and adjusting accordingly.
In many respects of course, Syrian girls in a refugee camp in Jordan, on one hand, and low-SES public school children in Canada's largest city, on the other, are incredibly different groups and contexts.

Still, there are at least two key ways in which tracing connections across those differences might be useful.

First, to do so shows how the universally accepted right to education also entails the right to foresight. The chance to envision personally meaningful and motivational long-range outcomes is, at the individual level, a foundation on which the whole enterprise of education ultimately depends.

Since foresight is ultimately about making change in the present, enabling it is not just an "important" priority (aka worthy but perpetually deferrable), but one that needs to be recognised as urgent, too.

Second, it underlines that replacing "victim" with "vision" is really a widespread need, not confined to geopolitical hotspots.

A corollary of this understanding that yes, there is dark to be found everywhere, is the space for hope; the opportunity, in Solnit's words, to make a "commitment to the future [that] makes the present inhabitable".

Herein lies an opportunity for meaningful engagement and contributions from diverse concerned citizens –– educators, futurists, designers, artists, and the rest of us, too –– far and near.

Rama, aged 13. Vision: future doctor. "Walking down the street as a young girl in Syria or Jordan, I encountered many people suffering – sick or injured – and I always wanted to have the power and skills to help them. Now, as a great physician in my community, I have that ability."

Merwa, aged 13. Vision: future painter. "In this image, I am a popular painter, working on a landscape in oils. I have my own gallery where I sell my paintings and sculptures. My hope is that my artwork inspires peace in the world and encourages people to be kind to one another."

Malack, aged 16. Vision: future policewoman. "I’ve always wanted to be a policewoman because the police not only keep people safe, but they also create justice in society. I also work to inspire other young girls to become policewomen – supporting them to dream about their future and thinking about how they will overcome obstacles."

(Big thanks to Vanessa Timmer for the lead!)

> Foresight is a right
Ethnographic Experiential Futures
Wish you were now
The act of imagination
Where every day is career day
> Second nature
Apocalypse for one
Tunisia's national-scale Experiential Scenario