Designing Futures

Having just finished a draft of my design chapter, I thought it might be interestig to provide a brief summary here. The chapter argues that design’s future orientation and open-ended methods, together with its use of creative spaces and materials (inspired in part by a visit to the Stanford during which many of the images in this post were taken), are well-placed to inform a critical-creative pedagogy. They can help students to become more confident with experimentation, ambiguity and empathy in their learning, as I show through a detailed presentation of two learning activities that involve the building of future scenarios.

How can we invite students’ creativity into university spaces?

The chapter draws mainly in the work of Tony Fry, Arturo Escobar, David Staley as well as Tim Ingold and other design anthropologists. In this post I outline the main arguments of the chapter while in the next one I present one of the learning activities.

In his groundbreaking book Designs for the Pluriverse, Escobar seeks to reclaim design, whose commercial version are often seen to contribute to unsustainable life styles and consumption habits, for the making of alternative worlds. Transition design in particular can help ‘embrace the vital normative questions of the day . . .  from out-of-box perspectives.’ In my chapter, I work with this concept of socially-conscious design, which has developed within the larger discipline since the 1960s and recognizes itself as a fundamentally ethical and political activity. I also conceive of a design as an innate human capability that incorporates both intellectual and material activities and results from our abilities to prefigure and imagine what we want to create.

As Karl Marx famously wrote

‘a bee puts to shame many an architect in the construction of her cells. But what distinguishes the worst architect from the best of bees is this, that the architect raises his structure in imagination before he erects it in reality.”

Design has also been codified and become a professional field of study and practice. Last but not least, design has been called the art of the possible because of its inherently optimistic orientation, and, like the generative theory I use in my book, ‘transcends the limits of deconstructive and discursive analysis by venturing into the positive project of how the world can be – and be understood – otherwise,’ according to Escobar.

A van stuffed with cushions and drawing materials in the entrance area of the Stanford dschool invites playfulness

So what can design bring to challenge-focused teaching in the social sciences? In the chapter, I show that its open-ended approach and iterative process of continuous testing and adjustment, the practice of prototyping to test assumptions and responses, the posing of what-if questions to disrupt taken-for-granted understandings and understanding the concept of wicked problems (which I already explored in relation to COVID) can make students more comfortable with experimentation, ambiguity and empathy.

  1. Experimentation involves students being playful, taking risks and exploring boundaries, which can lead to unexpected outcomes and surprises. Experiments can fail, and reframing failure as learning opportunities involves iteration as a continuous process of reworking. Emphasizing the open-ended and emergent qualities of things can help students keep an open mind and explore different avenues before settling on a specific course of action. This goes together with the ability to use questions in an exploratory way, by wondering whether they are even asking the right question rather than knowing the answer before the question is even posed.

What if teaching embraced rapid experiments?
  • Ambiguity means being open to more than one possible meaning or interpretation. Judith Harding and Lynne Hale show how the ability be comfortable with ambiguity is one of the key markers of creative problem solving processes, when a problem is clarified and different responses are considered. Design methods can help students to embrace ambiguity by enabling them to look at various angles of a problem or situation, suspend judgement and not rush to a solution. Harding and Hale give the example of providing students with purposely puzzling instructions for a learning activity and then resisting demands for clarification, instead explaining that students’ experiences of discomfort or frustration are part of the learning experience.

What if students were encouraged to dwell in ambiguity?
  • Empathy, broadly defined as the ability to imagine other people’s feelings or to emotionally identify with another person – to put ourselves in their shoes – involves cognitive processes of understanding and affective processes of emotional and embodied labor. Steve New and Lucy Kimbell argue for ‘designerly’ rather than managerial empathy that involves taking a ‘creative leap into the experience of another’ through techniques such as visualization, the construction of personas, role-play and co-immersions. In teaching, engaging empathy needs to complemented with research to avoid empathy’s negative potentials. For example, asking students to put themselves into other people’s shoes without understanding their situations can lead to students projecting their own emotions or experiences unto others and to patronizing assumptions or misrecognition. On the other hand, empathy can connect to pedagogies of unlearning and decentering privilege by providing situations where students encounter, learn about and interact with difference. Empathy also connects to Bruno Latour’s writing about design’s humility, which I have written about in the context of COVID.

Another element that design brings to creative teaching is its future orientation. To better understand universities’ overall relationship with the future, Keri Facer’s work on modes of stewardship, modelling, experimentation and critique has been particularly instructive. In his book Design Futuring, Tony Fry argues that ‘design futures or defutures – it rides the line between bringing things into being that sustain the conditions upon which viable futures depend and taking the possibility of such futures away.’ To support the field’s futuring capacity, he proposes the practice of ‘prefigurative criticism,’ whereby emerging products or processes are associated with negative values, for example through placing them into undesirable contexts, which would decrease demand for them. Students could explore such a recoding of the value of things through creative alterations of brands, adverts or billboards, following the path-breaking work of organizations like Adbusters. They could also examine their own consumer habits and the values underlying them and then experiment with recoding.

I want to conclude this post with reference to the ‘Future University’ proposed by David Staley as part of his utopian universities design speculations. Such a university would focus on both pure futuring, through a liberal-arts type education where students explore the future ‘as a possibility space,’ and applied futuring, through more vocationally-oriented teaching where students are ‘making the future happen.’ Teaching would encompass systems thinking, dystopian and utopian science fiction reading and writing, and the incubation of new social forms within universities that become a kind of living laboratory. It would also include the creation of design fictions through the making of prototypes that materialize students’ visions of the future. This future university is a great example of critical-creative learning that fosters students’ curiosity, introspection, imagination, situational awareness and humility. Elements of it already exist in many innovative university programs that have recognized the need to become incubators to foster collaborative learning and interdisciplinary problem solving to help students better address contemporary wicked problems.

What if this was the motto?