Saturday, December 30, 2017

Where do you stand?

A crucial part of foresight work, whether it's in a corporate boardroom or an undergraduate classroom, is helping people surface and test their assumptions about the future.

The Polak Game offers a simple, powerful, and generative way of doing just that.

Introducing the Polak Game (with Jake Dunagan) at our first Design Futures Masterclass at CEDIM. Mexico City, 02015 (Photo: Jorge Camacho)

Named after the Dutch sociologist Fred Polak whose work inspired it, the game is also alternatively called "Where Do You Stand?" Aided by the facilitator, players are invited to use the physical space they are in to demonstrate their understandings of the future, in terms of expectations, on one hand, and their sense of personal agency to effect desired change, on the other.

The heart of the activity is a guided conversation aimed at understanding diverse perspectives across these dimensions, including the way that people's different views are grounded in their different experiences of the world. It helps us make explicit the importance of certain aspects of our thinking about futures that are always present, yet almost always invisible. The discussion can often become quite profound.

Playing the game as part of a course in the Media Design Practice program at ArtCenter College of Design. Los Angeles, 02016 (Photo: Stuart Candy)


Participants on a sound stage for a feature documentary film shoot, directed by Shannon Owen, about Australia's South Sudanese community. Melbourne, 02017 (Photo: Stuart Candy)

It is now over a dozen years since Peter Hayward (until recently the coordinator of Swinburne University of Technology’s futures program in Melbourne) ran the game for us in Honolulu, at the University of Hawaii at Manoa futures program. Since learning it from him there, I’ve staged it many times, for classes, workshops, and even a feature documentary shoot on a sound stage; with participants in different kinds of organisations, communities, cultures, and parts of the world. The game has also begun to spread, appearing in the toolkits of more and more practitioners, as useful tools do; changing as it goes.

People sometimes ask whether there are any published works to reference that describe and unpack the Polak Game. Until now, the answer has been no.

But we have just co-authored a piece aimed at filling this gap; precisely because "foresight craft genealogies often escape not only documentation, but even our explicit notice". For collective learning in the field there's a value to capturing how, where, and why these tools of the trade emerge and evolve. The same reason applies for sharing the work here in this post.

The article is in two parts. Hayward's deals with the "Origin and Orientation" of the game, and mine focuses on its "Exploration and Evolution" as it has played out in my experience over the past dozen years.

I'll finish this post with his conclusion:
It is when I have used it with groups trying to create a vision of a shared future that I think the power of the Polak Game has become most apparent. Humans construct narratives from their own experience and sense of the world. You could say that we stand on our individual ontology. What the game can reveal to players is that we each need to meet others where they are, and listen to their ontologies, before we have any chance of creating a shared one. During the game, it often becomes obvious who in a group feels that they have power and opportunity, and who does not; who has been treated fairly in the past, and who has not. By bringing these hidden dimensions to light, those with power may feel humbled by their privilege, and those with disadvantage can feel acknowledged and heard. And from there, an enduring sense of what "our" future could be starts to emerge.

The full article, including detailed instructions for facilitation of the game, appears in the December 02017 issue of the Journal of Futures Studies: The Polak Game, Or: Where Do You Stand?

Related:
Dreaming together
Brand runner / Colonising the future on film
> The technology of public imagination
> Design fiction is a fact

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. 

Related:
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.)

Related:
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!

Acknowledgements:
- 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

Related: