Friday, November 13, 2009

The Unthinkable and the Unimaginable

Update (25MAR10): Video of the lecture (minus the interesting post-talk Q&A, unfortunately), made available on YouTube courtesy of CCA, is now posted here too.

Update (6APR10): This presentation is also now downloadable on iTunesU, together with others in the same lecture series by presenters including designer Tim Brown, artist Guillermo Gómez-Peña, and critical theorist Donna Haraway. (Thanks to Garry Golden for unearthing this.)

Last night I had the pleasure of guest lecturing at the California College of the Arts (CCA) in San Francisco. The title was "The Unthinkable and the Unimaginable: Why Futures and Design are Getting Married". Our starting point came from a speech, ever on-target, by scifi-and-design prophet Bruce Sterling at South By Southwest back in 02006:

We’re on a kind of slider bar, between the Unthinkable, and the Unimaginable, now. Between the grim meathook future, and the bright green future. And there are ways out of this situation: there are actual ways to move the slider from one side to the other. Except we haven’t invented the words for them yet.

(This talk by Sterling, by the way, is a tour de force, even by his exceptional standards: check out the mp3 via BoingBoing, and full transcript via blogger Sean Harton. Sterling also did an excellent and, it seems to me, overlooked talk about the intersection of futures and design in this same CCA lecture series, back in 02006, highly recommended: video at

An outline of last night's presentation...

It is our critical collective need to be able to think the supposedly "unthinkable", and imagine the "unimaginable", that is driving the merger of futures and design practices. Futures provides a big-picture context and sense of the stakes for design work, and design brings concreteness and communicative effectiveness to futures. Together they can do far more than simply convey propositional content about possible futures; they enable otherwise schematic, affect-free, "flat" images of the future to be fleshed out, thought and felt -- in a word, experienced -- in a more profound way.

But the notions of unthinkable and unimaginable are just the extremes of a normative spectrum: dystopian (unthinkably bad) at one end, and utopian (unimaginably good) at the other. As important for our collective well-being as it is to engage these edge-cases, part of the offer of this union of design and futures thought/practice is to move beyond the long-standing and limited utopia/dystopia binary. We need to be able to think, and feel, the "possibility space" of alternative futures in more dimensions -- ones not pre-designated (often thought-stoppingly) as desirable or undesirable. To do this, we can use Jim Dator's four generic images of the future (GIFs): continue, collapse, discipline, transform. Dator's framework, which groups scenarios into sets of narratives based on the trajectory of change that they express, can be -- and for many years at HRCFS, actually has been -- deployed generatively to map and explore the "four corners of possibility space", providing a way to range imaginatively and yet systematically towards the outer limits of possible futures, before proceeding to home in on probable and preferable ones.

The meat of the lecture lay in examining a whole series of projects which exemplify the marriage of design and futures work. My focus was on those efforts I knew best, that is, in which I was personally involved -- mostly undertaken in Hawaii over the past four years in collaboration with Jake Dunagan and a variety of artists and designers (above all Matthew Jensen and Yumi Vong). Some of the projects discussed may already be familiar to readers of this blog -- the experiential futures produced for the "Hawaii 2050" kickoff; FoundFutures artifacts including Postcards from the Future and the Chinatown project; our intervention at SXSW '08; the show curated by Sally Szwed at CCA's own Wattis Institute, and more. These stand as part of an emerging breed of exploratory design/futures work that attempts, we could say, the coinage of some of those needful words Sterling references in the quote above. Except that an important part of this new vocabulary comprises not literally words, but rather objects and experiences, and the methodological approaches that help call them into being.

It was great to have an opportunity to discuss these ideas with such an attentive, curious audience, and I am told that this instalment of the CCA's Graduate Studies Lecture Series will shortly be available online. I'll post when that happens. Many thanks to Nathan Shedroff, Nathalie Kakone, Brenda Laurel and others at CCA who helped organise the event.

Also, while we're in update mode, I should add a word or two about what's been going on here at the sceptical futuryst. In the busy time since my last post, I've joined the Executive Board of the World Futures Studies Federation, passed my comprehensive exams and begun writing my doctoral dissertation, and unofficially relocated my base of operations to the San Francisco Bay Area. I have a load of material to blog, but dissertation-writing remains top priority for the time being. Still, I do expect to be able to post here more frequently than I have in recent times, so please do get in touch [stuart at futuryst dot com] if you spot anything that belongs in the mix!