Friday, August 19, 2016

Introduction to Experiential Futures in The Economist

This is a short article I published in The Economist's annual look at the year ahead, The World in 2016.

Part of a section called "Minds on the Future" included for the thirtieth edition of The World In, my contribution appears right between a piece by the chief economists of Google and IBM, Hal Varian and Martin Fleming, and another by Canadian science fiction novelist Margaret Atwood. That's good company for an introduction to Experiential Futures––in this case, outlined with reference to Time Machines developed with learners around the world, from Singapore to Mexico.


'Experiential Futures: Show and Tell'

Within a generation, those unable to afford time outside Toronto’s dense urban environment will resort to Nature Deficit Disorder Clinics, where they will get essential dietary supplements along with a virtual rainforest immersion and brain scan.‡

In Singapore, a popular museum exhibition will chart the startling social transformations over the previous few decades in romance, sex and marriage, including the introduction of state-subsidised love robots to maintain well-being across the population.

Mexico City will be subject to severe flooding, and a peer-to-peer emergency service called Operación 
Axolotl will emerge as citizens step up to meet each ­other’s basic needs.

By 2044, young people in North Carolina will face a critical choice at the age of 18: whether to let life’s slings and arrows take their natural course, or to accept the wonders of modern medical technology and become, in effect, immortal.

How can anyone possibly claim to predict all this, you may ask? Actually I’m not predicting that these things will happen—even though I witnessed them all first-hand.

As an experiential futurist my job is to create, and to help others create, transmedia situations where such possibilities can be thought, felt and used to make better decisions. In this practice, all media are fair game for bringing futures to life, from interactive performances to physical artifacts, from video to food: whatever enlivens a future scenario as a potential reality-in-waiting.

If Andy Clark, a cognitive scientist at the University of Edinburgh, is right, thought isn’t confined to the boundaries of our skulls. We think with our environments. The map or smartphone in your pocket is a deliberate extension of your thought processes.

We can design situations that help us understand possible futures by visiting them. How much more powerful this is than the white papers and slideshows that are the typical focus of future-gazing in boardrooms and at UN summits.

Driven by the irrepressible human urge to bring our inner worlds to life, the culture of public imagination is set to make a leap: in coming years we can expect to see more and more companies, governments, advocacy organisations and communities creating and sharing experiential futures. The sooner we learn to use and democratise collective imagination to dramatise our alternatives, the more powerful will be our capacity to shape change towards just and worthwhile ends.


The World in 2016 appears in print in 90 countries and was translated into more than 30 languages, with circulation of the English-language edition exceeding two million copies.

While approaching the tenth birthday of Experiential Futures, and half a decade after writing a doctorate on that topic, for this little description to reach such an audience feels like a valuable step towards public visibility and normalisation of a practice that I suspect is essential to the development of a collective cultural capacity for foresight.

Full text pdf is here.

‡ This Time Machine, created in the Foresight Studio at OCAD last year, eventually led to the NaturePod project for Interface Inc.

> Foresight is a right
> Build your own Time Machine
> Dissertation: The Futures of Everyday Life
Dreaming together
> Journalism from the future

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Always Tomorrow Now

Logo via MuseumNext / photo via The Rio Times.


I recently spent a month as an artist in residence at the newly opened Museu do Amanhã (Museum of Tomorrow) in Rio de Janeiro.

Housed in a spectacular building from Spanish neofuturistic architect Santiago Calatrava, the Museum attracted half a million visitors within six months of opening in December 02015.

As we'll see, this institution has a resonant rationale and an intriguing approach to what a museum can be.

It's an honour to have been selected earlier this year as the Museum's inaugural Fellow.

Back in 02011 I'd been invited to a gathering in Rio to help generate exhibition concepts, but couldn't make it. So it was a source of delight and curiosity to spend several weeks in situ this June and July, and learn all about how this noble experiment in engaging diverse publics in diverse futures has unfolded so far.

There's more to say in a later post about the project I did while in residence, hosted by the Museum's wonderfully energetic Laboratory team.

But today I want to share a conversation with Luiz Alberto Oliveira, a physicist with a PhD in cosmology, a former lecturer in the history and philosophy of science, and the Chief Curator of Museu do Amanhã.

The following is an edited transcript of a conversation we had in Rio on July 6th. I am grateful to the Museum for hosting me, and of course to Dr Oliveira for taking the time to speak.


Stuart Candy: What attracted you to this project?

Luiz Alberto Oliveira: It was daring. It had none of the usual boundaries or limitations, and it could have very important consequences for the practice or diffusion of science in Brazil.

We wanted to develop something from scratch, to discuss how a new kind of science museum could be devised.

We wanted to bring to the Museum of Tomorrow a different concept of time: the idea that in the present, you prepare, you make a different path to different possible futures. It’s not a river in the sense that you have one source and one end. You have, in fact, a delta of possibilities.

This is the main concept of the Museum, that tomorrow is not a date on the calendar, tomorrow is not a place where you will arrive. Tomorrow is a construction. Tomorrow is open to be built.

Image via MuseumNext.

SC: And how does the organisation of the Museum impart this concept to visitors?

LAO: We settled on telling a story organised in five great areas. Why five? It is a dialogue with the architecture. Calatrava provides us with five roof undulations that roughly define the areas in which we set our museography.

So we came to the idea that the story should be made up of a sequence of great questions that mankind has always asked itself, so we could say in a very real sense that our content is questions.

Where do we come from?
Who are we?
Where are we?
Where are we heading?
How do we want to go; which values do we want to convey to the future?

This is the spinal column of the museum.

We use science content to illustrate these great questions, and the idea is that people come to realise that the future is not done, the future is in the making. It is in their hands, at least in part –– to collaborate in this future-building.

Image via MuseumNext.

SC: This idea of a museum that isn’t about the past but is about the future, about choice, about ethics, does it have any precedents or parallels elsewhere in the museum world?

LAO: As far as we know, no, it doesn’t.*

SC: You made a very deliberate choice in naming this institution, “The Museum of Tomorrow”. Can you speak to that?

LAO: In the common sense, the future is far away.

But tomorrow is always here. Somewhere, at this precise moment, the sun is rising in the east. All the time, it is tomorrow somewhere.

This idea that tomorrow is always inside every now was what convinced us that it’s a “museum of tomorrow”, not a “museum of the future”.

SC: A museum about things that haven’t happened yet faces certain challenges. What are those challenges from a curator’s standpoint?

LAO: We established some trends which will shape the future some decades ahead: what science tells us about the possible scenarios for the climate, the changing of biodiversity, the growth of the population, the number and complexity of cities.

From all these you can forecast some reasonable scenario. But what about the unexpected that this cannot and will not take into account?

We did not want to become a museum of prophecy. That was the greatest challenge, the greatest danger, because people would come here and say, “Well, you’re telling us that the future will be this.” That’s not what we want to do. We want you to understand that the present is this, and the future? Well, there are many. This is the point; the futures are plural.

SC: A museum of questions rather than a museum of answers.

LAO: Yes, yes, precisely.

Image via MuseumNext.

SC: When you talk about wanting to have a certain emotional impact on visitors, what’s the goal? 

LAO: You want to take people away from their everyday perspective so they can understand that the world in which we live is much more complex, varied, surprising, full of wonderment, than everyday life which uses you, trains you, and tames you to become a useful citizen, a working citizen.

We want to provide a sort of entertainment; entertaining in the sense that it distracts you from your usual ways of thinking. To have different ideas, different perspectives. They just cannot become indifferent! If they leave the museum just as they came into it, we have failed completely. But if they are disturbed, well, that’s okay.

SC: What about the Brazilian context, and Rio in particular? Are there any special challenges or affordances for this project?

LAO: First, perhaps the fact that we are a museum open to the future, but we are sitting in the very heart of Rio de Janeiro’s history. You can see all the landmarks of centuries around us. This heart of the city was abandoned for decades. So we are in a way a flagship of this new moment, of this new period of the city’s story.

I think the Cariocas, the people of Rio, understood that. They took possession of the renewed plaza, because you know, it’s theirs.

On the other hand, we have the very difficult condition of the country at the moment. The legitimate government was overthrown by a parliamentary coup, and a bunch of gangsters took power for themselves. So we are in a struggle for democracy itself, the very core of democracy, which is election.

But many people tell us that the museum is a counterpoint to this situation. This is something inspiring. We wanted to inspire people––but I did not know that it would be in this sense, that we became a symbol of a better future for the country.

Image via MuseumNext.

SC: The invitation to regard the future as shapable and as plural is a deeply political position.

LAO: Certainly. You cannot deal with conviviality, with living together, without politics. It’s impossible. So in fact, we are a political museum. We cannot say that as a slogan of the museum, because people would not understand in that sense. They would think that we are engaging in this or that political party, which is not our intention.

SC: I see vast potential not just in this institution, but in this category of institution, a kind of museum that is needed everywhere. There is a need for effective invitations to people, to draw out their vision for how things could be different.

LAO: I understand and I agree completely, because I think this is a path for renewing democracy itself.

* We'll revisit the question of the Museum of Tomorrow's conceptual cousins in posts to come.

> Dreaming together
Whose future is this?
The technology of public imagination

Tuesday, August 02, 2016

The People Who Vanished

The People Who Vanished is a transmedia narrative project dealing with the prehistory of the Phoenix area, staged at the inaugural Emerge Festival hosted by Arizona State University in March 02012. Jake Dunagan and I designed and led a two-day workshop in which we produced an experiential scenario with 20 festival participants.

Although we had been doing Design Fiction and Experiential Futures for five or six years already by that time, we were excited about the challenges of co-creatively involving a group this size, and especially of the compressed production timeline, both highlighting the need for a shared mental model and clear framework for collaboration.

What follows in this post is a written snapshot of that design process. It's an excerpt from an article we recently published in the peer-reviewed journal Futures.† (File under: better late than never.) The article, or this lightly edited bit reproduced below, can certainly be read alone, although for a sense of the originally intended effect watch this video first; the tale as revealed to a live audience at Emerge (18 min).

† S. Candy, J. Dunagan, Designing an experiential scenario: The People Who Vanished, Futures (2016),


The name Phoenix invokes the bird of Greek myth which would periodically burn up and rise again from its own ashes. It is a striking but little known fact that the city was so named precisely because it was built atop the ruins of a lost civilisation.

Beneath the streets and sidewalks of today’s Phoenix of four million inhabitants lie the remnants of the Hohokam, a society which flourished from around 0CE to 1400CE; “from Christ to Columbus”.

The Hohokam were expert canal engineers and irrigation agriculturalists. They built a thriving civilization in the desert lasting almost one and a half millennia. They farmed the land and channeled water through massive canals without any of the modern tools and equipment we have today. However, about a century before the arrival of Europeans in North America, they suddenly disappeared, for reasons that are unknown, and that are still debated by archaeologists.

The name Hohokam is an O’odham word meaning “the people who vanished”. Being an oral culture, it is unknown what they called themselves.

A question which we hoped to evoke for participants at Emerge became: “could the people of today’s Phoenix be the next to vanish from the valley?”

In order to push the boundaries of experiential futures, to do justice to the scope of the historical (and future) questions at hand, and to create a unique and fun learning experience for our workshop participants, we were drawn to the idea of executing a project at a monumental scale. We wanted to create something big; something that demanded attention; something that would appear suddenly and without warning — and that could carry deep meaning for the attendees. In our practice we and others often create hypothetical “artifacts from the future”, but in this case thought it could be interesting to create a fictional artifact from the past, in order to enable a reperception of present and future.

Throughout history, there have been breakthrough moments when we humans have been forced to confront our own ignorance and reimagine our collective story about who we are and where we came from. The unearthing of dinosaur fossils revealed a strange and diverse lifeworld on Earth long before human existence, overturning earlier thinking about natural history. Similarly disruptive were cultural discoveries such as the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Rosetta Stone, the city of Pompeii, and ancient technologies such as the Antikythera machine. The rediscovery of ancient philosophy, architecture, or artifacts from time to time has not simply added to a trove of curiosities from the past; but has heralded revolutionary change in society’s self-understanding. The Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and other epochal transitions have been initiated or accelerated by such archaeological moments.

There are always bound to be, this line of thinking suggests, possibility grenades beneath our feet, primed to explode our fragile certainties and platitudes about the story of our world. As U.S. President Harry Truman once said, “The only thing new in the world is the history you don’t know.” 

What could this “new” and transformative –– if hypothetical –– slice of history be for Phoenix?

Examining the map pieced together by 20th century archaeologists of the extensive network of ancient canals spanning the area... yielded what turned out to be an essential insight: in addition to their obvious practical uses, the Hohokam canals could have had some previously unsuspected symbolic functions.

An idea emerged: towards the end of their tenure, the Hohokam may somehow have manifested a distinctive symbol in the archaeological record – one also appearing in the pre-collapse periods of other cultures. … Now we could recount the fortuitous “discovery” of a transcultural, transhistorical symbol of impending civilisational collapse. It would not be necessary (and in the circumstances would also not be desirable) to try to explain the precise means by which this harbinger of disappearance had cropped up around the world throughout history; the sheer “fact” of apparently concrete evidence of the mystery itself could provide the desired archaeological moment.

We would tell the following story: In puzzling out the fate of the Hohokam, our group had spotted this curious anomaly on the map, and had then been inspired by the thought of a symbolic, and not merely functional, role for the canals. One of our number then had the idea to do a google image search for this pattern and see what turned up (still true –– sort of). Shockingly, this search showed up a range of other instances of the same ‘glyph’ in diverse archaeological records elsewhere: the Harappan of the Indus Valley, the Anasazi, the Nazca, the Polynesian peoples of Rapa Nui, aka Easter Island. All this part was of course completely simulated; photoshopped into found photographs from these places. We would also be able to show how the glyph had turned up subtly but unmistakeably, inscribed in the patterns on Hohokam pottery too. And the kicker: the sole common characteristic discernible across all these disparate cultures, from wildly different eras and geographies, was that they had all disappeared. They were all collapsed civilisations.


Bruce Sterling in Wired: "When one walked outside the auditorium afterward, there was a huge mystic glyph installed on the side of a local mountain."


Project Credits:
- The People Who Vanished were: Carlo Altamirano, Michael Baran, Rachel Bowditch, Chris Danowski, Tyler Eglen, Erik Fisher, Paul Higgins, Gordon Knox, Oscar Lopez, Blakely McConnell, Julie Rada, Matt Ragan, Reed Riner, Joya Scott, D.A. Therrien, Trish Yasolsky and Bobby Zokaites
- Special thanks: David Abbott, Tain Barzo, Joel Garreau, Jerry Howard (Arizona Museum of Natural History), and Cynthia Selin

See also:
Aisling Kelliher and Daragh Byrne (Carnegie Mellon University) in Futures journal
Cynthia Selin (Arizona State University), one of the organisers, situating this work in Futures
- A trove of documentation (still images and timelapse video) from our workshop, via Carnegie Mellon
- Post about the Emerge exhibition featuring The People Who Vanished and other projects at ASU Art Museum
- A terrific design fiction video created by a group led by Near Future Laboratory's Julian Bleecker and Nick Foster in another workshop taking place at the same time


The paper excerpted above goes on to describe a framework that we devised during the workshop and have kept developing and using since as a conceptual model for scaffolding experiential scenarios and design fiction; the Experiential Futures Ladder. Implications for the foresight field of this multi-scalar mode of thought, as well as of the experiential turn more broadly (towards design, media, games and performance) are outlined.

The full text of the article in press, "Designing an Experiential Scenario", can be found in pdf here.

The journal permalink is here.

> On the eve of Emerge
> Dreaming together
A History of Experiential Futures 2006-2031
> Experiential scenarios on video