Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Adopt-a-vision: WikiLeaks edition

Could this be the future of WikiLeaks?


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Many organisations claim some larger purpose, although not that many offer a specific vision for the future they wish to bring into existence. As it turns out, even fewer make explicit such visions as they purport to follow by actually showing how the world could look, feel or work differently if they succeeded.

One technique I've developed for teaching experiential futures practice in recent years is to have students identify and adopt an existing vision –– as publicly stated, when available, or inferred, when it's not –– of an organisation they deem worthy of closer attention. The students can then draw on the whole range of experiential futures approaches and their cognates (strategic foresight, transmedia storytelling, design fiction, live action roleplaying) to bring that vision to life in the present, while in a sense reflecting the organisation's aspirations and assumptions back to it in a more detailed form.*

This is a way to interrogate existing futures discourse with greater rigour, and to prepare to hold our own investigations to a deeper level of consideration. As a side effect, it can also produce materials that a wider audience may find useful.

Adopt-a-vision: think of it as a sort of guerrilla consulting engagement; a service to the public imaginary; a contribution to the future as a commons.

Last year, a team in my Experiential Futures course adopted a vision for WikiLeaks and devised a guerrilla futures project around it, set a generation from today.

Check out the project video (1 1/2 mins):


The group that made this comprised five graduate students hailing from the Inclusive Design and Strategic Foresight programs at OCAD: Abid Virani, Anna Colagrossi, Chad Lesch, Courtney Cooper and Laura Mills. They lay out the story below (edited statements from project documentation).

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Where did the future scenario driving the project come from?

Our final challenge was to select a vision of the future to materialise and enact for unsuspecting passersby [in downtown Toronto]. We thought about topics from ethical supply chains to creative commons, open source to democracy and accountability.

We tried to articulate the vision of Anonymous, but it was challenging to nail down a vision for such a decentralised and varied group.

In the end, we settled on WikiLeaks because we share the belief that transparency can help the public make better decisions and hold organisations and governments accountable for their actions. We chose 02040 as our time horizon.

What future vision did you uncover for WikiLeaks?

In this preferred future, people expect transparency from their governments, corporations and NGOs. Technology is ubiquitous and the public is highly educated and informed. People realise the power of their spending habits and wield that power to stand up against corruption and exploitation.

How did you arrive at a concrete situation from there?

Once we had a clear scenario in mind, we scouted locations. We noticed many empty storefronts and were inspired by the DineSafe signs on all the restaurants, then brainstormed how the role of WikiLeaks could develop and how companies might signal their transparency in the future.

We imagined that a transparency agency might emerge that would issue a well-known certification similar to Organic or Free Trade. We decided to call this organisation WikiAudits.

For the live portion, we decided to film a WikiAudits representative being interviewed by a local news station. The scene started with a WikiAudits Representative hanging a closure notice on a storefront and a news crew arriving for an interview. Our hope was to spark the curiosity of bystanders and engage them in a conversation about transparency and corruption.

How did things go on the day?

The day of the intervention was much colder than expected. We met at 10am and set up our home base at Little Nicky’s [a café near campus]. We spent the majority of the day filming and performed the intervention three times.

The biggest challenge was attracting attention. The biggest takeaway was that creating an experience in an open setting requires very compelling signals to provoke participation. What can often be missed in an open setting is an activation (a prompt, if you will) that can transport the participant into your designated future.

Despite some of the setbacks, we feel we built a well thought out and executed experience.

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I was recently in contact with the group's videographer, Abid Virani, who observes that the scenario they developed, six months before the U.S. presidential election, is eerily on track –– starting with the footage incorporated into their video of the Boston Globe's monitory "front page from the future" set in April 02017. (This was an unusually creative attempt on that newspaper's part to warn of the possible adverse consequences of a Trump win, published in April 02016.)

"The newspaper depiction of deportations from America, riots amongst increased policing and gold curtains all look plausible for Sunday, April 9th, 2017," says Abid. But it's not all grim: "The idea of WikiAudits was plausible to us as well and the entire project reflects what I now see as an optimistic outlook of the future."

Turning to the lessons of the project more broadly, he adds: "The mere act of considering a possible future and documenting it allows us to understand the present with greater nuance, and it can inform us of how to navigate forward."

"There is no shortage of possible futures, but I suspect there is a shortage of energy put towards imagining them."

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In a sense, Adopt-a-vision is an effort to generate and channel some of that missing creative energy towards public imagination.

It also seems to be a relative of political activist duo The Yes Men's signature move, Identity correction, described by Yes Man Andy Bichlbaum as "exposing an entity’s inner workings to public scrutiny". A key property that Adopt-a-vision has in common with Identity correction is a kind of ventriloquism; a tactic of assuming the mantle of an organisation, speaking in its voice.

But there are differences too. Identity correction often (not always) draws its potency from statements being mistakenly identified as coming from the target organisation. For Adopt-a-vision, the target org's public persona and statements are just a starting point; the intervention need not be taken to be authoritative in order to resonate.

A form of culture jamming, Identity correction has a critical agenda at heart, being usually applied to "some entity running amok". This can be immensely valuable, and some of my favourite guerrilla projects do precisely that (the Yes Men's New York Times Special Edition is a beautiful, multifaceted example; and their Dow Chemical intervention on BBC World in 02004 is simply staggering).**

Adopt-a-vision is not necessarily critical in the sense of requiring an entity running amok, or jamming in the sense of subversive. The approach is flexible: you might choose an organisation that worries you, or one with an agenda you wholeheartedly share. The point is not necessarily to propagandise for or against, but rather to use designed objects, performance, and film to ramify that entity's preferred future into a more granular hypothetical to think and feel with. In this way, you can aim for even greater depth of exploration of a future vision than the organisation itself might offer.

None of this, of course, guarantees any particular outcome. The ingenious future fragment created by Abid and colleagues, portraying a WikiLeaks spinoff that works locally to make companies ethically transparent at street level, may or may not be a likely trajectory.

But whereas a tactic like Identity correction is about revealing what is true, Adopt-a-vision is about probing what is possible. It's not a matter of prediction –– it's a matter of thinking through the possibility space by generating more detailed reference points within it, to see where those in turn could lead.

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My thanks to Abid, Anna, Chad, Courtney and Laura for their work on this, and courage to vision adopters and future explorers everywhere.

* For more on using experiential futures to "hand an audience's assumptions back to them", see The Futures of Everyday Life, p. 103, note 224.
** For more on culture jamming and guerrilla futures projects, see TFOEL Chapter 5.

Related:
Impacting the Social

Thursday, January 19, 2017

How to move to Canada*

*Without leaving home

A surprising guerrilla futures intervention speaks to the current political moment.

All photos by SAIC American Futures class

For many progressives in the United States, Canada conjures a wistful ideal of multicultural harmony and civility. After three years in Toronto, followed by six months of electoral madness back in the U.S., I can understand the romanticisation of our neighbour to the north. Indeed, the fact that the Canadian immigration website crashed on election night was interpreted by many as a sign of widespread alarm at the prospect of a Trump administration, an impending reality to which people around the world are now adjusting.

The grass may or may not actually be any greener in the land of moose and maple, but as things take a turn for the disturbing in America, the more utopian the idea of "Canada" becomes in contrast.

This post is about a project created by my students in "American Futures", a special one-off experiential futures course at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. I designed the curriculum to use the unfolding 02016 U.S. presidential contest as fuel for our collective imagination, and with the election itself taking place a month before semester's end, the culminating efforts of the class were conceived and staged in response to the incoming president's shock victory.

MFA student Cat Bluemke pitched this particular intervention, drawing on her Canadian background to imagine a near-future organisation called CanAssist.Us, and following her lead, the whole class worked together to bring it to life in the streets of Chicago. Below is an email interview with Cat (edited for length and clarity).

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What is the premise of this project?

CanAssist.Us is a [hypothetical] private company that helps clients navigate the Canadian immigration system for Americans under President Trump. The project channels the anxieties driving this escapism into critical review of the individual’s responsibility within their community to challenge complacency in this reality.



What is the near-future situation you created for people to bring that scenario to life?

The initial ideas for the project were obvious once a few days had passed since the American presidential election results. CanAssist.Us is an absurd but potential reality from a near “post-truth” future (02018, perhaps). Using the familiar form of sidewalk canvassing, the performers offered the ultimate service to "get away from it all".

Once a member of the public engaged, the structure of this American future came into the picture: dehumanising "reform"; life-threatening retraction of health services; and destructive global relations; all promises of a Trump presidency.

[A short questionnaire quickly showed how simply quitting America might not be so straightforward; but to channel people's real concerns productively, and help them manifest the ideal of "Canada" locally,] suggestions for immediate action were presented as workshops the audience could take in their own communities. [These included Multicultural Awareness, Intersectionality, and Anger Management -- as well as popular intensive courses such as Poutine 101.]

How did the public react?

Satire is a great tool for starting a conversation, a united front can exist through a well-structured joke. Structuring that joke to include everyone -- consistent with our urge of a united, intersectional left -- was the difficult part. However, after establishing our position through humour, once we began working with the public, the conversations came easy. The reactions were overwhelmingly positive.



Where does this project sit in relation to other things you've seen that aim to deal with the emerging state of American politics and futures?

The Black Lives Matter movement deserves enormous credit for its accomplishments as a platform for multiple systemic injustices to enter public scrutiny.

CanAssist.Us was more explicitly influenced by artists like Eva and Franco Mattes or the Yes Men, whose public interventions disrupt the complacency that has become the norm.

Where does it sit with respect to projects that you personally have done before?

Both in concept and in execution, CanAssist.Us complements the project Tough Guy Mountain, a group project based out of Toronto, Canada; part art collective, part postcapitalist advertisement agency, and part fantasy table-top RPG.

How does the design of this intervention speak to and work with concerns of the present? How does it make use of the future?

CanAssist.Us uses experiential futures to demonstrate what realities could still be averted, and to encourage the will of the individual to unite under this goal. The situation of our American reality makes the future a particularly urgent tool to engage with.

What challenges did you discover working in a guerrilla futures mode?

I think the whole group could agree that next time, we’d rather guerrilla future on a sunny beach. Jokes aside, the participation of the group members was key in the project, and I’m so thankful that everyone shared in the passion. The kind of improvisation and confidence that is required of a guerrilla futures practitioner is really incredible, but this kind of dedication is desperately needed in order to create a future reality that benefits us all.



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Many thanks to Cat and the whole of the American Futures class for all their creative contributions, and willingness to brave the Windy City winter to enliven public conversation with an experiential flash-forward.

I appreciate this ingenious effort to turn an understandable sense of alarm, and the potential impulse to flee or turn away, into constructive engagement with possibilities for action in our communities today, through exploring what it means to bring "Canada" (code for "a better place") to where we are.

Our thanks also to Jonathan Solomon, Helen Maria Nugent, and office staff in the design department (AIADO) at SAIC for wonderful assistance and support.

And best wishes to all concerned, as this troubling new chapter begins in the grand experiment that is the United States.

The class and project team comprised Cat Bluemke, Angie Gonzalez, Miiko He, Josh Leslie, Stella Shen, Clint Stayton, Alexander Wilson, and several other students who wish to remain anonymous.

Related:
> Impacting the Social
> Future documentary
Introduction to Strategic Foresight
> The weight of alternatives
> Stephen Duncombe on the Art of the Impossible

Thursday, December 29, 2016

The Experiential Turn

How and why has foresight practice been turning towards design, media, arts and games –– and what does it mean for the future of futures?

Plastic Century: interactive installation at California Academy of Sciences. Project by Stuart Candy, Jake Dunagan, Sarah Kornfeld and Wallace J Nichols, San Francisco 02010. Photo by Mike Estee.

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The Experiential Turn
by Stuart Candy and Jake Dunagan
Human Futures, Issue 01, December 02016

For futures studies to impact mainstream culture and contribute to civilisation-scale “social foresight” (Slaughter, 01996) it must be capable of bridging the “experiential gulf” between abstract possible futures, and life as it is directly apprehended in the embodied present.

The persistence of an experiential gulf in foresight work, an idiom given to abstraction because it is about things that do not exist, is one of the main reasons for what we would say has been the field’s insufficient impact on mainstream thinking about the future over the past half-century. By contrast, the grounding of forethought in both material and emotional reality very much increases its potential impact on thought and behaviour. (Candy, 02010, pp. 61ff.)

Enter experiential futures, the key motivation and rationale of which is to enable more effective foresight work, exploring and shaping change, by using the whole continuum of human experience as the palette of engagement.

Hawaii 2050: public event kicking off a statewide sustainability planning process. Project by Stuart Candy and Jake Dunagan with Hawaii Research Center for Futures Studies and collaborators, Honolulu 02006. Photo by Cyrus Camp.

Experiential futures, “the design of situations and stuff from the future to catalyse insight and change” (Candy, 02015), has a deliberately wide compass, including not only futures-inflected editions of conventional design outputs (print material, concept images, prototypes, physical artifacts, etc), but also installation, mail art, advertisements, immersive theatre, guerrilla intervention, digital simulation (VR/MR/AR), and games. Tangible, immersive, interactive, live, and playable modes are all in scope. [1]

The origins and early cases of experiential futures are described in detail elsewhere (Candy, 02010), but to provide a sense of how far and how fast this area has developed over the past decade, and with growing numbers of other practitioners experimenting in these modes, the authors have worked on projects ranging from immersive experiential scenarios for a group of 550 people at a public policy-oriented sustainability event, to guerrilla street art campaigns, to national-level museums of future possibilities. Partnering organisations have included local, state, and federal governments, community groups, educational and cultural institutions, private enterprises, and nonprofits. We have also developed the practice through teaching in the world’s first two futures programs offered at design schools, at OCAD and CCA.

The Experiential Futures Ladder: Most traditional futures practice, and certainly scholarship, operates on a high level of abstraction, above the experiential threshold, while experiential work explores more concrete manifestations of futures –– possible, probable and preferable.

What then are some of the challenges for futurists making, or contemplating, an “experiential turn”?

They include becoming transmedia producers as well as the transdisciplinary thinkers that we already try to be. This in turn entails not only participating in, but likely often facilitating, collaboration across even more diverse skillsets, and broaching new boundaries – such as those between the expressive/narrative arts and analytical scholarship – in addition to the disciplinary siloes which the field already habitually challenges. [2]

Enabling group thought and creative processes has been an important part of the futures field for years (Jungk and Mullert, 01987; Dator, 01993), and the stakes may be obvious to many already, but the affordances of group creativity and cognition using an experientially augmented toolset, and the details of what works best in what circumstances, are only now beginning to be worked out.
Here, then, we offer some suggestions for core skills and sensibilities that need to be developed further; among them certain competencies already widely accepted and understood, alongside others that may be less familiar.

Futurematic Vending Machine: design jam at OCAD University to fill a vending machine with future artifacts created by participants. Project by Situation Lab and Extrapolation Factory, Toronto 02014. Photo by Stuart Candy.

In order to become a good experiential futurist, you should: [3]

● Become a student of the history, culture, and present situation of the places and people with whom you are co-creating – in order to empathise with and build upon their knowledge and experience.
● Become a perceptive mindreader – in order to understand the mental models of participants or audiences, and then decide how to expand or challenge those models.
● Become a flexible thinker with the habit of long-zooming and scale-toggling – in order to venture, with your transdisciplinary readiness to roam, wherever the inquiry may need to go.
● Become a master of situations – in order to facilitate the co-creative processes of groups, which includes recognising what to nail down, what to leave open, and when and how to improvise changes in response to the needs of the moment.
● Become an engineer of experiences, bridging the gap between the ground of present sensation and islands of abstract possibility – in order to be prepared to use whatever it takes to catalyse heightened creativity, thoughtfulness, engagement, and action, in yourself and others.
● Become a fastidious documentarian – in order to capture the materials, feedback, and insights created during what is a singular, often ephemeral, experience.
● Become a willing collaborator with others you meet along the way – in order to be poised to join forces with those who have skills that you don’t, since no social foresight can be accomplished alone.

Time Machine CDMX: a student-created immersive scenario set in Mexico 02028. Class led by Stuart Candy and Jake Dunagan at CEDIM, Mexico City 02015. Photo by Stuart Candy.

Overall, perhaps the central emerging challenge for foresight practitioners has less to do with generating and broadcasting ideas about the future than with designing circumstances or situations in which the collective intelligence and imagination of a community can come forth. To design and stage experiences of the future(s) is one class of activity. To attend to the design of processes whereby such experiences are designed, making scalable structures of participation, is another. Both frontiers must figure in the unending quest toward “a truly ‘integral’ approach to inquiry” (Voros, 02008).

Finally, we emphasise that the outcome of all this is not simply to create interesting experiences; it is to make experiences that lead to the creation of better futures. To catalyse better futures is “the work” we futurists are called to do, and being willing to recognise the shortcomings of our existing conventions, as these become apparent, and to evolve towards new horizons in how we operate and cooperate––just as we urge and aspire to help our clients, audiences, students, and other constituencies to do––is a critical part of that duty.

Notes:
[1] The original article from which this shorter piece comes (Candy and Dunagan, 02016) deals in detail with the blossoming romance between futures and design, including parallel areas of practice such as design fiction and speculative design.
[2] See Ramos, 02006, for an earlier articulation of this line of argument. A decade of experiential futures work can be regarded as a decisive turn in the field towards meeting this challenge.
[3] The tremendous influence of Jim Dator on this part, and in general, is gratefully acknowledged. See the section titled “To Be A Good Futurist” in Dator, 01996. Our list supplements rather than replaces that one; although note the shift in emphasis between there and here, from mastery of content, toward mastery of process, in service of group intelligence and creativity.

References:
• Candy, S. 02010. The Futures of Everyday Life [doctoral dissertation]. University of Hawaii at Manoa, Department of Political Science.
• Candy, S. 02015. The Thing from the Future. In: Andrew Curry (Ed.). The APF Methods Anthology. London: Association of Professional Futurists.
• Candy, S. and Dunagan, J. 02016. Designing an Experiential Scenario: The People Who Vanished. Futures (In press).
• Dator, J. 01993. From Future Workshops to Envisioning Alternative Futures. Hawaii Research Center for Futures Studies.
• Dator, J. 01996. Futures Studies as Applied Knowledge. In: Richard A. Slaughter (Ed.). New Thinking for a New Millennium. London: Routledge, p. 105-114.
• Jungk, R. and Mullert, N. 01987. Future Workshops: How to Create Desirable Futures. London: Institute for Social Inventions.
• Ramos, J. 02006. Consciousness, culture and the communication of foresight. Futures, 38(9): 1119-1124.
• Slaughter, R. A. 01996. Futures Studies: From Individual to Social Capacity. Futures, 28(8): 751-762.
• Voros, J. 02008. Integral Futures: An approach to futures inquiry. Futures, 40(2): 190-201.


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The full text of this piece can be found in pdf here.

It appears in the inaugural issue of Human Futures (December 02016), a publication of the World Futures Studies Federation.

The piece represents an edited excerpt (about 10%) of a full-length article and case study of an experiential futures project we did at Arizona State University’s inaugural Emerge festival. That article – excerpted previously at The Sceptical Futuryst here – appears in a special issue of the journal Futures on the theme of Experiencing Futures, guest edited by Cornelia Daheim and Kerstin Cuhls.

Related:
Ghosts of futures past
> The Futures of Everyday Life
> Foresight is a right
A Question of Scale
> The People Who Vanished
> Emerge 02012

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Future documentary

Image via The History Blog.

I'm currently in the School of the Art Institute of Chicago's Department of Architecture, Interior Architecture and Designed Objects as Mitchell Visiting Professor, and I've been very excited to have the chance to put together a brand new course on my choice of topic for the Spring semester.

Future documentary has been an interest of mine for quite a while (some links below). Check out the draft outline –– thoughts welcome.

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AIADO 954 001, Spring 2017
School of the Art Institute of Chicago

FUTURE DOCUMENTARY
Investigating and making media from alternative futures

‘Future Documentary’ is a class about the worldbuilding required to imagine and immerse ourselves and others in possible universes. Intended to challenge and amplify the skills of designers, storytellers, performers and makers of all kinds, the course will explore and use the power of films, audio, and other media “from” alternative futures to summon compelling new realities in tangible form.

Intended themes and activities include:
● Critical viewing of future documentary and related genres, cf. science fiction, mockumentary, design fiction, future journalism, and Alternate Reality Games
● How futurists think; possible, probable and preferable futures
● Use of frameworks for generating future scenarios and worldbuilding
● Creation and actual deployment during semester of future documentary media
● Guerrilla interventions, ethics of media activism, and the art of the hoax

Indicative filmography (NB not all are documentary, not all deal with futures, and not all are films):
Black Mirror (02011-present) (UK) [TV series] Charlie Brooker
The Blair Witch Project (01999) (USA) Daniel Myrick, Eduardo Sanchez
Bye Bye Belgium (02006) (Belgium) Isabelle Christiaens, Philippe Dutilleul
Children of Men (02007) (UK) Alfonso Cuarón
Cloverfield (02008) (USA) Matt Reeves
Český sen (Czech Dream) (02004) (Czech Republic) Vít Klusák, Filip Remunda
The Day Britain Stopped (02003) (UK) Gabriel Range
Death of a President (02006) (UK) Gabriel Range
District 9 (02009) (USA) Neill Blomkamp
Ever Since the World Ended (02001) (USA) Calum Grant, Joshua Atesh Litle
F for Fake (Verites et mensonges) (01975) (France) Orson Welles
Hyper-Reality (02016) (Colombia/UK) Keiichi Matsuda
If… (02004-02005) (UK) BBC
The Institute (02013) (USA) Spencer McCall
Menstruation Machine (02010) (Japan/UK) Hiromi Ozaki
The Office (02001-02002) (UK) [TV series] Ricky Gervais, Stephen Merchant
Oil Storm (02005) (UK/USA) James Erskine
Punishment Park (01971) (UK) Peter Watkins
● Radiolab: War of the Worlds (02008) (USA) [audio] Jad Abumrad
Series 7: The Contenders (02001) (USA) Daniel Minahan
Smallpox 2002: Silent Weapon (02002) (UK) Daniel Percival
The Swiss Spaghetti Harvest (01957) (UK) BBC
Tetra Vaal (02004) (South Africa) Neill Blomkamp
Wanderers (02014) (Sweden) Erik Wernquist
The War Game (01966) (UK) Peter Watkins
War of the Worlds (01938) (USA) [audio] Byron Haskin

Related:
> Death of a President
> Journalism from the Future
> Strategic Foresight Meets Tactical Media
> A film from the future
> In Praise of Children of Men
> Revisiting The Catalogue
> Amusing Anachronisms