Designers using Futures Thinking. Superflux Case Study
We shall find it increasingly difficult to understand our personal and public problems without making use of the future as an intellectual tool (Toffler 1971).
To shape the future, the use of scenarios, artefacts from the future, and prototyping used as exploratory media and to act as provocations, are prime areas for designers to bring innovative ideas to life.
The question we need to ask first though is how do we get to the ideation stage. There are online toolkits and models designed to give structure to Futures Thinking workshops some of which I’ve started to gather in the resources page. Another way is to get insights from practitioners via interviews and case studies.
FHbD is in the process of organising some interviews to gain this insight but in the meantime let’s have a look at a case study.
Mitigation of Shock – Case Study
“A pragmatic experiment practicing hope for a future disrupted by climate change.” — Mitigation of Shock by Superflux
Project Lead: Jon Ardern
Project Team: Anab Jain, Maël Hénaff, Mikhaela Dietch, Jon Flint, Vytautas Jankauskas, Jake Charles Rees, Alix Mccabe, Danielle Knight, Nicola Ferrao, Matthew Edgson
Superflux was commissioned by José Luis de Vicente for the After The End of the World show. Kristin Dunlop and her team at Suncorp (now Climate KIC) supported the initial research.
Installation link: http://superflux.in/index.php/work/mitigation-of-shock/
Background and context
In consideration of our changing climate and our current lack of action of mitigating the worst effects Superflux has created a speculative space that is ‘strangely familiar’1. In this future, Superflux created an environment that shows the interconnectedness we will need with our environment, even within our homes. Connection with our food production both protein and plant based, our connection with technology, our connection with neighbours and neighbourhoods.
Superflux describes that the ‘experience is intended to nurture hope and motivate transformative action‘1, that society is not doomed that we will continue to adapt, technologies will continue to evolve for the changing present, and we have the time now to make transformative changes to our lifestyles.
The year 2050 was elected as it represents a future that is not too distant, youth of today will at that time be in their 40s, about their parents’ age now. 2050 also sits within current forecast climate models1.
Designed with a more-than-human approach, the flat works as an interdependent system where humans are but one part. Superflux suggests the time of humans seeing ourselves as outside the natural order is over, ‘we can no longer live with the illusion of isolation’, the speculative space demonstrates a microcosm of interacting species, ‘in more complex human and non-human relationships’.
Mitigation of Shock is built in the context of food insecurity brought about by climate change. ‘The future home merges the macabre and the mundane as the social and economic consequences of climate change infiltrate the domestic space’2. It is also build around facts and insights gathered from key experts in the field, and from an understanding of present day trends.
The year 2050. London, UK. A converted flat, that was once destined for comfortable automated living and never quite got there. Instead we see a series of ad-hocked hydroponic farming shelving clusters hooked up to make-shift soil analysis, irrigation and lighting systems; we hear the endless drone of water pipes and pumps. Scattered around the apartment are other artefacts that seamlessly live in this future; cookbooks for pet consumption and alternative protein sources, terrariums filled with crawling grubs (the alternative protein) and newspaper shreddings, scattered newspapers with headlines proclaiming of crop failures, automated systems from a more hopeful time aren’t functioning properly, plant and seed specimen vials placed randomly around the flat as if left mid-work – telling us the viewers how valuable every seed is in this new world and how essential and endless the process of farming your own food has become.
The narrator tells of the transformation of civilisation through a speculative narrative, the period of unrest and fighting was taken over by the realisation we all now depend on each other for survival. Being neighbourly now means more than it has for centuries. Interconnectedness. The ones that go it alone don’t make it.
There’s a small window in the apartment that gives us a glimpse of this transformed and declined future. A city skyline in the distance with incomplete towering constructions; stopped midway as life’s basic necessities dried up. Closer by are communal houses, and converted rooftops covered in plastic for self sufficient farming and any excess for barter at the local market – the new financial paradigm.
Analysis and interpretation
The installation works marvellously on several levels. As a provocation to imagine this future and its society on a very intimate level. The props and the set allowing us both macro and micro framing of this future. From the utilisation of grubs as an alternate protein source, and tech driven soil analysis for careful nurturing of precious seedlings, to global crop concerns across newspaper front pages, to neighbourhood and city wide views from the window.
A favourite detail in the narrated video above is the flashing digital radio interface “Time is not set”. This is a very John Conner moment: “The future’s not set. There’s no fate but what we make for ourselves.” (Terminator 2: Judgement Day)
Only a couple of props seemed a little jarring to this provocation which brought some of the theatrics to attention; cigarettes, the new books and newspapers.
The printed material are a familiar and convenient vehicle to tell of the changed world that civilisation is dealing with. But consider this changed world; starved of many luxuries and finances, and people struggling for their food security. As we understand newspapers today they survive as a platform for advertising (which there wouldn’t be much of in this changed world), printed on paper (a resource demanding manufacturing process), and the printing process and distribution channels make newspapers an awkward element for me.
The cigarettes too. Today when piled up in an ashtray you can envisage a stressed environment, sleeplessness, and perhaps isolation. However, the farming, processing and distribution of these products seem out of kilter with the portrayed future of insecure harvests and economic woes. But perhaps these theatrical details communicate with us in today’s language to help us cross the threshold into that future and allow us to suspend disbelief and absorb this reality. Without them it may be too alienating an experience, and we will discard the work as fanciful.
I do like the fact that a few old books, Diet for a Small Planet (1971) and The Grub Bag (1971) sit on the shelf that brings the concept of old knowledge (80 years by this time) is being resurrected in this future. 1971 is also the time Alvin Toffler’s book Future Shock (1971) is published and was making thinking of the future mainstream.
The need for these types of speculative works is vital. It invites us in to physically and emotionally explore a possible future. It brings a world-sized issue to a size individuals can grapple with. We can view this future from micro to macro framing and really get an experience with current trends and motivations, observations, and current political headings, and where all this may take us.
Our reaction to these provocations is to clear the way to see beyond the present day confusion, complexity and anxiety to encourage individual change to aim to better outcomes.
As designers we can see that speculative work like Mitigation of Shock, as an an example of Futures Designs in practice, exemplifies our need to embrace Futures Thinking and what it can achieve for our practice, our clients, organisations and governments, and the public.
Superflux of course did not arrive at this speculative experience in isolation. They interviewed key people ‘with experts from NASA, the UK Met Office and Forum for the Future’2.
Like with Design Thinking and HCD processes knowledge gathering and involvement from the right people at the right time is a key ingredient to a successful outcome. The speculative experience embodies all the research and collected data in an immersive manner so the complexity can be experienced with all our senses making the digestion of the information easier to contend with.
1. (Motivation): http://superflux.in/index.php/work/mitigation-of-shock/#process
2. (Context): http://superflux.in/index.php/work/mitigation-of-shock/#context
Toffler, A. 1971. Future Shock, Bantam Books.