Designing Back from the Future

As I mentioned in my previous post, which is a summary of my book’s design chapter, scenarios – stories about possible futures – are an important tool in the design tool box. Scenarios have an interesting history, having been developed by Herman Kahn for the US RAND Corporation in the 1950s to support US military nuclear war planning. They have also been used by large corporations, foremost among them Shell, to explore possible energy scenarios.

Prototyping Brighton 2050

More radically, in 1995, the Global Scenario Group started developing multiple planetary scenarios, ranging from Conventional Worlds in which companies or governments continue the status quo, to Barbarization marked by breakdown or retreat to Great Transitions that present visionary alternatives focused on natural preservation, material sufficiency and social justice. Scenarios have also been used in teaching, and in the design chapter I write about an activity called Designing back from the Future, inspired by Anne-Marie Willis and conducted with students at Sussex’s School of Global Studies to imagine and prototype their preferable futures. For Willis, scenarios are the projection of likely futures, opening them up for reflection, including on actions that need to be taken to achieve the visions. The Sussex activity comprised two Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) design workshops ran by design Research Associate Paul Braund and student coordinators and a Big Build exercise I carried out as part of a third year undergraduate course on Urban Futures. In both activities, students explored what Brighton, where most Sussex students live, might look like in 2050.

Students at one of the SDG workshop

For both activities, the space was set up as an invitation for students to play, experiment, build and have fun. Tables for small groups were covered with thinking materials (sticky notes, marker pens, stickers, large sheets of paper, photos, quotes etc), building materials (crafty stuff, play-doh, pipe cleaners, foam sheets, pins, string, LEGO and wooden blocks etc) and of course snacks. In general, multi-use materials are preferable to single-use objects to provide students with base materials that can be manipulated to externalize ideas. To introduce an element of ambiguity, each table also had a random object, including a knight, a small plush animal and a Lego object, which needed to be incorporated into the prototype. Student were excited as they settled into the space and many of them quickly began to explore the materials with their hands, opening cans of Play Doh and often commenting how its distinct smell brought back childhood memories, or grabbing sticks of pipe cleaners and bending them into whimsical shapes.

Such making ‘prompts physical, intellectual and emotional responses’ through a form of hand knowledge, where students’ hands become translators between words and materials. According to Tim Ingold, a leading design anthropologist, making involves deep situatedness, active participation and real-time connection, a coming together of mind, body and material that Ingold calls ‘animacy.’ While social science students might not experience this as intensely as art and design students, making can nevertheless open up cracks in which thinking can happen and learning can stick better. Alongside these materials there were questions, prompts and instruction sheets on the tables, as from experiences we knew that informal learning needs clear structures and guidelines to be successful.

Thinking and building materials invite students’ creativity

The overall question was ‘What do you want the world to look like in 2050?’ For the SDG workshop, which ran over 5 hours, the format was more open-ended and the first task was for groups to develop a concrete vision and action plan for their preferred future, which led to some intense negotiations as diverse group members agreed on a collective vision. Several starting questions were posed to help the students: What things will have been achieved? What new institutions, laws, norms and behaviors will have been created? Who would participate in the change project and who would be affected and how? To compensate for the lack of a research phase that usually accompanies scenario exercises to keep them from becoming fantasies (although students did look up some information on their laptops), students were encouraged to localize their scenarios in a place that was familiar to at least one participant in the group. The group working on SDG 11 on cities selected Brighton, which allowed all members to draw on their own experiences of living in or near Brighton. For the in-class Big Build, which was only 2 hours long, I had pre-developed the following scenario in the interest of time: ‘Brighton in 2050 is a self-sustaining, hospitable and generous city. Its environmental footprint is minimal, it is welcoming of diversity and provides all of its residents with a decent quality of life.’ Tables had been set up around three specific topics that corresponded to themes studied throughout the term: sustainable infrastructures, deep governance and radical conviviality. Each group had their own brief, further specifying their vision through guiding what-if questions and providing examples as starting points for their scenario journey.

Once students had further developed their visions, they were prompted to think about concrete ways through which to realize it, beginning with a brainstorming session. In parallel students started building prototypes of their scenarios with the materials at hand. Their emerging visions included tried and tested ideas, such as taking Brighton’s well-known status as a sanctuary city as a point of departure to create spaces where refugees could obtain homes, food and skills and be integrated with fellow urban residents through living with them and working in cafes and shops. Environmental visions included solar panels, bike stands, community gardens and a public assembly place. More far-reaching proposals were to build a mega-greenhouse and a free tram line. Most radically, one group proposed to repurpose Brighton’s famous Royal Pavilion as a communal food hall. None of these ideas were blue-sky or totally new, but that was not the point of the activities. What was remarkable was how the students brought together different domains in their scenario creations: their own experiences as Brighton residents, theoretical knowledge gained in class discussions, inspirations from other initiatives they knew about as well as practical making. Collectively, they built plausible scenarios that were materializing alternative urban futures that were desirable to them, while considering the rights and needs of diverse groups.

Prototyping an urban alternative future (notice the knight) 🙂

Although because of time restrictions the groups did not reach the final stage of the exercise, which would have involved thinking through the specific actors, institutions and measures involved in realizing their alternative futures, they clearly enjoyed the creativity of the workshops and learned from it. This was evident in their comments that were collected in questionnaires and some follow-up interviews. Students wrote about encountering ‘a new way to think (not just words),’ which speaks to ideas of whole-person learning and hand knowledge I am developing in the book. Comments such as ‘how to involve different backgrounds into development’ and ‘a more open way of thinking outside the modules’ showed how spaces for possible actions and connections were opened up. One student wrote that they realized ‘that there are 100 ways to work‘ and another commented that ‘the workshop highlighted the complexities of designing and implementing solutions and the contradictions and huge interlinked challenges,’ which shows that ideas about change itself had broadened. Many students also expressed how they enjoyed engaging with fellow students in a more practical, hands-on and fun way. And for some, the workshops had ‘reestablished hope and encouragement for the future [through] more hands-on learning, not just [learning about] theory not working.’ This comment speaks to the potential of creative learning that incorporates an open-ended, experimental approach based on asking questions, developing possible responses through collaborative learning and then prototyping visions for alternative futures.