Carlo Scarpa, Brion Cemetery, Altivole, Italy, 1978

This was presented at  International Conference on Design Futures, sponsored by Tsinghua University, Politecnico di Milano, Carnegie Mellon University, November 7, 2020

The future is a shape-shifter. On the one hand, it’s empty, waiting to be filled, and on the other, it is already packed. Ask anyone about the future and they’ll have a scenario, or several, to offer. Only months ago, I’m betting that most of our thoughts about the future had to do with short-term plans with colleagues, friends, and relatives – planning vacations, conferences, birthday celebrations, and the like. That all changed in 2020 with the Covid pandemic. The virus, together with the rising tides of climate crises—not to mention the social crises of racism and nationalism—have all but wiped out small futures, leaving gargantuan and fearsome futures in their wake.  Given the broad rise in depression and anxiety documented in these last months, the shift from small to big futures has happened not just in the minds of thought-leaders, activists, and designers but also in the popular imagination. The future may be ours, but who wants it?  

Certainly not the far right, which would have us enter a time machine and go back to 1950 when women and persons of color knew their place. But no amount of magical thinking can shield us from the ultimate future: death. It is this realization, or denial—literally brought home by the Corona virus—that has made the future much less abstract.  It’s time to write our wills.  And I don’t say this lightly, as you will see.  But first a bit of history.

El Lissitzky and Mikhail Plaksin, Woman With Hammer and Sickle, Agitprop 1928

For much of the 20th-century (where I spent the first 50 years of my life), the future, in design and art circles, was embodied in an avant-garde, celebrated and uncelebrated modernists who made it tangible.

These modernists—from Russian Constructivists like El Lissitzky to American design-inventors like Buckminster Fuller—drew, modeled, built, and staged utopian visions that were meant to be free from the encumbrances of the past. They wanted to build the future sui generis, in other words from nothing—as if that were possible. 

Students from the School of Architecture and Allied Arts designed, fabricated and installed this geodesic dome in seven days in April 1953 under the direction of Buckminster Fuller.

It’s useful to remember that we owe the very concept of the future to such expressions of modernity. But it’s also important to remember that El Lissitzky’s agitprop sculptures and Bucky Fuller’s geodesic domes were part of a much larger zeitgeist that had been brewing since the 17th century and the Age of the Enlightenment. 

In concert with similar developments in music, literature, art, architecture, technology, and philosophy, design’s contributions to modernity and its cult of speed (think telegraphs, telephones, railroads then airplanes and automatic everything) were meant to be “compensation[s] for the loss of the organic continuity of the past.”1 In other words, the expectation of better-things-to come (and come sooner) replaced the predictable and stable character of rituals and behaviors that had been governed by the rhythms of the seasons. Increasingly, life was determined by the artificial, in other words, by design. Just think about the difference made by electric lighting. When the architect Erich Mendelsohn put electric signage on the exterior of the Schocken Department Store in Stuttgart in 1926, he changed nights into days. Faith in technology replaced faith in miracles.

But the future’s compensations—among them, more time to shop—have backfired. We no longer know where to put the casualties of our future-making. All those things we bought, and bought into, are clogging our homes, our landfills, our oceans, and even outer space—which, incidentally now has a fleet of archeologists studying the debris we’ve shot up into the thermosphere. And, of course, the effects of our profligacy can’t be measured solely in terms of the quantity of rubble we produce—be it from endless wars or wasteful consumption. It must also be measured in terms of species extinctions, including, theoretically, our own.  All of this makes it hard to look forward to the future. Once the source of fantasies in which even dystopias were thrilling, the future has become a palpable burden.

Among designers, it is gospel that this is a burden they must assume. But to do so requires another endangered species: Optimism. Not the naive optimism of flying cars, new-and-improved appliances, holographs, or any of the digital animisms that have infiltrated our lives, but the optimism which is intrinsic to design itself—not as the production of the new, but as a matter of the reconfiguration of materials, social relationships, politics, culture and cultures—all of which carry different temporalities, one being the future. 

It is by now a commonplace that design has consequences far into the future—consequences so strong that, for the first time in history, human behavior governs the environment. There are no pockets on our planet, no aspect of our atmosphere that our actions haven’t touched. Nature and nurture are no longer distinct. By nurture, I mean design – the design of literal things as well as the design of systems of things. If we accept this larger notion of design and accept that it operates in webs of power and policies, it follows that practicing designers need to expand their purview in order for their work to have any effect at all. Otherwise it will be strangled by the way things have always been done.  

But before we shift the blame to external forces who have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo, we also have to admit that the design industry – be it the fashion industry or the building industries – have had a major role in creating the patterns of waste and pollution that currently characterize our condition.  Thus, it follows that professional design (the traditional categories of graphic, product, architecture and urbanism) and design as world-making (addressed by service design, transition design, and social design) both have roles to play in redressing our condition.  

As you can tell from that last observation, I’m not ready to throw the baby (that is, design understood as object-oriented) out with the bath water. Or give into unspoken rivalries about what constitutes the best way to practice design. In my fantasy of design’s future, the two modes of designing would be better integrated, so that when radical structural change happens, aesthetics (by which I mean, the senses) aren’t abandoned.  I sometimes worry that while designers are becoming increasingly adept at working with social scientists, they are less adept at working within the culture of design itself.

That said, I’m optimistic that designing structural change, and the formal and informal design of artifacts, spaces, and communications involved in accomplishing that change, will become complementary (and not contradictory) approaches in acting-towards-the-futureActing-towards-the-future in the present means that instead of inventing the future, designers of conscience, no matter what they call themselves, are excavating and reassessing what we bring to it.  To put it bluntly, designers are rewriting our last wills and testaments. I use the metaphor not fatalistically but hopefully, because wills are acts of generosity and caring. Made while we are living, they compel us to consider what we are bequeathing to others who live after us. But let me be clear, design for the future needs to be thought of as a communal will and designers need to be both witnesses and co-authors.  The witness role will already be familiar to those who work with communities as facilitators of conversations that lead to actions, which may or may not tangible. The role of co-author is closer to the traditional designer’s, who propose (and make) forms and situations that actively shape a dialogue about what might be included in a collective will.  

Of course, these distinctions are not hard and fast, as you will see. But before we get to any examples, I want to assure you that making a will, as I am using the term, is not the sole prerogative of the privileged. While most wills cover private property and personal possessions—and, of course—money, the collective will has no prerequisite of wealth. For example, you can be living in destitute conditions—like a refugee camp or a blighted city—that are devoid of natural beauty and still wish it for others to enjoy in the future. In her book On Beauty and Being Just, the humanist scholar Elaine Scarry poses a thought problem, which I will paraphrase here: Thinking not of ourselves but of people who will be alive at the end of the twenty-first century: would you wish for the continuous existence of plants and blossoms, even if you have none of your own?2  She (and I) believe that most would answer ‘yes.’

Of course, wishing for and actually delivering the goods to the future (be they plants and blossoms, or a home that isn’t a tent) are radically different propositions. Designers can contribute what’s missing from the ‘wishing’—namely, pathways.  Without pathways, our social and physical landscapes would remain a directionless whole. Pathways offer options with which to consider the future. I like this metaphor because doesn’t sound as finite as the word ‘design,’ though certainly pathways are designed with various methodologies. I propose we consider some now.

My first example isn’t so much a pathway or means to seeding the future, as it is a method that is fundamental to every form of design, including futuring, and that is iteration. One of the most relevant demonstrations of the expansive power of scenario building I’ve ever come across is to be found in David Eagleman’s brilliant book Sum: Forty Tales of the Afterlives. In it, he conjures 40 possibilities of what we might experience after death.  So he’s writing about the future after our future is over.  This would be just a silly exercise if it weren’t for the fact that each of his tales shows how the future was pre-determined by our lives on earth.  

In a tale called “Encore,” we learn that our Creators are talented only at creating. “They do not watch our lives unfold. They couldn’t care less.”3 What they do is wait for our lives to end and recreate them from our data. “They take it as a challenge to see if they can recover a good likeness of a person from the piles of evidence they’ve left behind4: namely, phone call records, credit card receipts, ATM withdrawals, magazine subscriptions, tax returns, and every other form you’ve ever filled out. “The Recreators can reconstruct a person so seamlessly that [their] afterlife is essentially a perfect replica of the original.”5 This is a future to which we have bequeathed our virtual selves—our digital doppelgangers, which were accumulating all the while we were living. Moreover we knew it was happening but did nothing to stop it.  This is a will that could have been rewritten, had we only thought to do so.

In another story, called “Microbe,” we die, and our bodies decompose into teaming floods of microbes that return to the earth. It seems there is no god that cared about us as whole individuals. But, in fact, in this scenario, god is a bacterium, a bacterium that is unaware of us because we are at the wrong spatial scale. God and his microbial constituents have no idea of the rich social life we have developed, just as we are unaware of theirs.6 This is a future to which we have bequeathed our ignorance of biology.  The story reminds us that we would do well to consider how germs run the world, especially in the era of COvid.

Of course, projections like these, taken from our behaviors in the present, are the foundation of almost all science fiction, as the writer Bruce Sterling would no doubt attest. And as useful as these fictions are in helping us think about the long-term risks in overlooking things like virtual surveillance and microscopic forms of life and death, designers need other tools.  One, which I find especially relevant, came to my attention courtesy of the aforementioned Mr. Sterling.  It’s called ‘pace layers.’ 

As the word ‘pace’ suggests, the concept is about pacing, or rates of movement.  Anyone consciously trying to affect and perhaps change things for the better in the future would do well to be aware of the ‘layers’ of time or pacing, in which designers, and anyone else for that matter, must operate.  This is because we need to be aware of the systemic forces that, for all our good design intentions, produce inertia and slow change down. I’m thinking of forces like governmental regulations, for example. If you want to read about all six of the pace layers—fashion, commerce, politics, infrastructure, culture, and nature—I commend you to Bruce’s essay on pace layers in my book Design as Future-Making. For our purposes, however, I want to concentrate on just one of these and that is culture, because it is stubborn and perhaps the hardest to change. 

What increasing numbers of designers have learned is that they may not be able change culture (that can take decades, even centuries) but they might open up different opportunities within existing cultures by drawing on insights from anthropologists, sociologists, and psychologists. In doing so, together with members of a cultural community, they can alter cultural legacies.

Let’s take an example from Colombia, South America. Colombia has suffered continuing armed conflict since 1964. One of the horrors of any war, civil or otherwise, is the violence perpetuated against women; and it was, and likely is, particularly bad in Colombia. Here we are dealing with not just the socio-political conflict between the government and the rebels known as FARC, but also a long history, one that goes well beyond Colombia, of cultural acceptance that women are less than human, that rape is a soldier’s reward, and that women are acceptable targets for masculine rage. I am aware of several design projects that have tried to address this web of abuse and misogyny, in hopes of restoring dignity and peace.  But I want to talk about a particularly exemplary effort to address Colombia’s future in light of this broad cultural bias against women, by using another dimension of Colombia culture—in this case crafts. 

I learned about this project from Maria Puig de la Bellacasa. She is the author of Matters of Care and a professor in science, technology, and organization at the University of Leicester in England.  More pertinently, she is a co-investigator in the project called Mending the New: A Framework for Reconciliation Through Testimonial Digital Textiles.7 She and her colleagues have been working with communities which have been crafting textiles for centuries—communities that have recently been severely affected by military violence. Maria tells me that rather than just documenting memories of war, textile crafting generates spaces of common reflection that has a healing, restorative, and constructive potential that negotiates between memory and reconciliation. 

Examples from Mending the New: A Framework for Reconciliation Through Testimonial Digital Textiles, published in “How can digital textiles embody testimonies of reconciliation?” By Laura Cortez Rico, Jaime Patarroyo, Tania Perez Bustos, and Eliana Sánchez Aldana.

The textile crafting she’s talking about involves many people—the most important being the women most affected by the war.  Essentially what happens is that women gather in kitchens and homes and tell their stories to each other while they are weaving.  Those stories are recorded (with their permission, of course) on digital fibers supplied by designers, which the women incorporate into the cloth they’re making.  When finished, each cloth can be activated so that others can hear those stories as well, and the textiles are traded from community to community. The women are the authors of their stories, while the designers contribute organizational skills (bringing women together) and technical expertise (adding sound to an otherwise mute piece of cloth). In essence, the age-old practice of oral history is amplified by the introduction of technology design. In the process, these weavings became the women’s wills. The thing I find most moving about this project is that it combines another culture’s haptic traditions (weaving) and its oral approach to storytelling with designers’ digital ways of sharing stories. In other words, it respectfully combines traditional ways of making with contemporary technology in order to bequeath these women’s stories in hopes for a better future for their daughters.

Another approach to making a will for the future, more along the lines of what most people think of when they think of design futuring, is the process of co-envisioning. This is a process, which another of your guests Nik Baerton, is especially gifted at.  I’ve worked with Nik and his partner Virginia Tassinari and their colleague Elisa Bertolotti, so I know something about their approach to co-creating possible futures. 

Welcome to Seraing, Nik Baerten and Virginia Tassinari, with Yara Al Adib, Elisa Bertolotti, Pablo Ceron Salazar, Henriette Waal, 2015

I’m going to talk about one of their older projects from 2015 so as not to repeat what Nik might tell you when speaks.  It’s included my book Thinking Design through Literature. This project is called “Welcome to Seraing.” It is a storytelling project that Nik’s team led to encourage social innovation in a neighborhood in the Belgian city of Seraing—a city that was once famous for its steel industry and is now facing severe socio-economic challenges. In collaboration with a local puppeteer, the design team worked to foster new forms of civil participation. 

As it was explained to me, the anarchic character of the puppet theatre allowed a tremendous freedom in encouraging audience participation. Specifically, it gave [the puppeteer] the freedom to make the voice of an outspoken working-class character, named Tchantches, to be forthright and honest, and to introduce characters such as the Devil, representing the private owners of industries, and the White Fairy, representing the designers, who arrive with good intentions and a great deal of naivete. (Designers take note: a sense of humor isn’t out of place in future speculations.) Furthermore, an anonymous local hero was created as a surrogate for each and every inhabitant of the neighborhood. The storylines of the puppetry performances were co-created with inhabitants of the neighborhood via a storytelling toolkit, developed by the design team and based on the team’s engagement with the inhabitants during field research.8

Now that’s a fair summary of the project’s strategies and tactics: Namely,  using puppets as surrogate citizens, and using humor to engage the audience in a civic exercise that might have otherwise been tedious. But I also want to point out that there was a larger premise at work, which is designing in a way that redistributes power.  Making the designer seem a bit silly was a stroke of brilliance.

Another important point is the project’s reliance on a very old form of design: the puppet.  Not only did the puppets literally act out the different sources of power within in the community, with an eye to distributing that power more evenly, they were also vivid and effective mediators by virtue of being familiar to the community.  This combination of what I will call ‘old fashioned’ object design (namely the puppets) with service and systems design (conversations with the community) is precisely what is needed to gain the trust of people who are well outside of the culture of designthinking with its over-reliance on post-it notes, brainstorming, and other abstractions.  This integrative design process is very similar to the previous example I offered from Colombia. Both projects involve coping with the past, towards the goal of a more humane future. But while the weaving done by the women in Colombia incorporates very specific and personal stories of violence, the conversations engendered in Seraing were more open-ended. They encouraged the city’s residents to think both poetically and practically. For example, in another phase of this design engagement in Seraing, team member Elisa Bertolotti set up a table outdoors to make business cards for jobs that people wished they had. One man said he wanted to be a postman—a postman who only delivers good news. In this case, what is being willed are hopeful pathways toward a future that is more than just safe and secure but also psychologically and spiritually fulfilling.  

Of course, approaching the future in the ways I’ve just described also requires a different understanding of time itself.  As increasing numbers of designers recognize, design is embroiled in systems that operate in a different time-space dynamic than the one they practice in. Consider the environment:  The particulate of our buildings, our children’s toys, our kitchen appliances, and food containers continue to live, as it were, in new forms that collect in the ocean, in our drinking water, in our bodies, and all other sentient and insentient bodies. All that is solid doesn’t melt into air, it morphs into different solids.  

 But for too many people, who can’t see the destruction that is happening in the present, there seems to be little motivation to act for the future. We are not hard-wired to look out our windows, see the sun shining and trees waving in the breeze, and immediately think:  “Oh, we are in the middle of an environmental catastrophe.” Moreover, we are too easily distracted by a 24/7 news cycle, another destroyer of time. But before we lay the blame on contemporary media, it’s worth noting that human beings have historically been forgetful. As the poet Petrarch wrote in the 14th century:

Anything present is accessible for the minutest fraction of time and then escapes perception, and
consequently foolish people think that it ceases to be relevant to us, or ceases to be ours. This
oblivion prevents life being a unity of past events woven with present ones: it divides yesterday
from today, as if they were distinct, and likewise treats tomorrow as different from today…[.] 9

Now the behavior of forgetfulness may be ancient but it is also true that coming to terms with time is far more complicated today than it was when Petrarch was writing.  To paraphrase Anna Barbara (one of your conference organizers): The future is already present in the ways we inhabit spaces by virtue of the media that operates in those spaces. Conventional spatial coordinates are being warped by the speed and ubiquity of the digital.10

 Another very important thinker on the effects of speed (once valued for making the future closer) is the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman. In his book Liquid Modernity, Bauman writes that speed has frayed our social relationships and diminished any sense of security in our working lives. We live in a culture of distraction.  Bauman warns of its dangers, writing: 

    People who do not have even a modicum of hold on their present [much    
    less their past, as they don’t, given the shapelessness of experience] will
    not muster the courage to get a hold on the future.11

You could also say that his is an argument against traditional futuring, which as Petrarch observed, creates a state of oblivion. This is why designers are rethinking the ways we narrate our experiences and, just as importantly, our joint histories. So, in addition to designing wills that offer ways to share experiences (as with the women in Colombia) and reshape them for future generations (as in Seraing), we need to include a codicil—a modification to the will—which insures we pass on this more nuanced understanding of time.  Time isn’t an arrow going forward. It’s more like a DNA helix, with dominant and recessive genes. (If you don’t remember your high school biology, an example of a recessive gene would be a trait like red hair or blue eyes that only appears sporadically and unpredictably throughout the generations of a family.)

With the metaphor of recessive genes in mind, we also have to accept that there will always be unknown variables that we cannot envision, anticipate, or design for. The best illustrations of this aspect of the future (namely its unpredictability) can be found in the films of Todd Twyker.  In each of his movies, the plot revolves around a miniscule change of routine – usually a change with devastating consequences. 

Film poster for “Heaven”

To just give one example, in “Heaven” (made in 2002), a woman seeking revenge against a drug dealer plants a bomb in the wastebasket in his office. But, unexpectedly a cleaning woman picks up the trash before it explodes. It does go off, but not as planned. The bomb explodes in the elevator of the office building where the dealer works, killing four innocent people instead.  Here, chance is the protagonist.

Somehow, despite the number of deaths involved in Twyker’s films, the viewer is left with an affirming sense that things could be otherwise in the future, if only we do something differently. And doing something differently is as good a definition of design as any, as long as when we do something differently, we do it respectfully and collectively. 

It’s humbling to think that even the most thoughtful and generous design is always vulnerable to arbitrary and unexpected forces (which by definition happen in the future). It would be hubris to think otherwise.  But it’s no excuse to despair, or to take no action.  Our bequests will certainly be susceptible to unpredictable events. And they may well be late in coming. But that doesn’t absolve us of our debt to the future. We still have to write, make, and build those wills, and we have to do it together.  We owe it to the future inhabitants of this planet to give them possibilities instead of taking them away.  No one wants to be disinherited, especially by design.

End notes

  1.  “Reasons to be Cheerful, 1, 2, 3…* (Or Why the Artificial May Yet Save Us),” Clive Dilnot in Design as Future Making, eds. Susan Yelavich, Barbara Adams.  (London: Bloomsbury Press, 2014), 185-86.
  2. Elaine Scarry. On Beauty and Being Just, Princeton: Princeton University Press,  1999, 119-121.
  3. David Eagleman, Sum: Forty Tales of the Afterlives (New York: Vintage, 2009) 69.
  4. Ibid, 69.
  5. Ibid, 71.
  6. Ibid, 55.
  7. Puig, Maria de la Bella Casa, Mending the New: A Framework for Reconciliation Through Testimonial Digital Textiles
  8. Susan Yelavich, Thinking Design through Literature, (New York, London: Routledge, 2019) p. 113. 
  9. “On Contentment,” Plutarch Essays, translated by Robin Waterfield (London: Penguin Books, 1992) p. 229.
  10. Forms of Space and Time,” Anna Barbara in Design as Future-Making, eds. Susan Yelavich, Barbara Adams (London: Bloomsbury, 2014) p. 225. 
  11. “Thinking in Hard Times” in Liquid Life, Bauman, (London: Polity, 2013) p.135.

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