When we think of distant futures, we tend to envision trends coming to their full expression. “In 30 years… everyone will…” or “No one has…” statements. We often neglect to imagine a “day-in-the-life” that evokes “sometimes” or “might” statements. It’s just much easier to do this (I’ve described it in my paper Making the Futures Present, AHM Greyson). Those nuances affect the difference in how we make strategic decisions today. We can do this by practicing living in the future, as if it is the present. The Tofflers propose that an individual can be “pre-adapted” to an otherwise unfamiliar future by seeing and hearing, touching, tasting, and smelling a new world.
The Tofflers describe “experiential simulations” that are designed for the public to help people to pre-adapt. “He will be able to interact vicariously with the people in his future,” they wrote, “and to undergo carefully contrived experiences designed to improve his coping abilities.” The Tofflers suggest that experiences within a myriad of future-oriented environments encourage and develop long-term thinking skills. For example, their concept of “enclaves of the future” help compensate for our temporal lack of “future heritage.” These enclaves are environments like a community square, a gated community, or remote villages. These communities provide a focal point for contrived “work-learn-and-play” environments staffed with artists, poets, labourers, and other skilled talent. They are a public design studio for families and communities to become conditioned and prepared to “cope with their own personal tomorrows.”
“Local government, schools, voluntary associations and others,” they wrote, “also need to examine their potential futures imaginatively. One way to help them do so would be to establish community ‘imaginetic centers’ devoted to technically assisted brainstorming. These would be places where people noted for creative imagination, rather than technical expertise, are brought together to examine present crises, to anticipate future crises, and to speculate freely, even playfully, about possible futures.”
An experience of the future is a shot in the arm in the present. We can immerse ourselves in authentic debates. We designers must practice humanizing our futures for the citizens, customers, and creators we serve. Ideally, when we design we aspire to address the burning question of people like Greta Thunberg, “Is this what we want for our next generation?”
Experiential learning can help us to be deliberate about creating the future we want. Elements of storytelling: character development, setting, plot, conflict, theme, narrative arc, situation, and props, contribute dimensions of understanding. It is a process and a product for constructing future experiences and artifacts to help us think critically. Uncertainty is a fertile space. It can help us learn how to cope.
A call to action
I call on all designers to address an immediate question in our work, “Is this what we want for our next generation?” Robust imagining of a person, place or thing supports the scenario in our mind to become a reality. We get to decide, if it’s a reality that we prefer, long before we see it play out in the real world.
Speculative design is an emergent form of experiential simulations that connects people with uncertain consequences. Anab Jain is a speculative designer, Professor of Design, TED Speaker, Futurist, and director of the design and film studio Superflux. She says, “We have learned in our work that one of the most powerful means of effecting change is when people can directly, tangibly, and emotionally experience some of the future consequences of their actions today.”
We will always need frequent reminders of the day-to-day consequences that may result if long-term thinking is neglected. My recommendation for speculative design is to put “What if…?” at the front of your design process. Consider the potential of your ideas with these suggestions:
About After Shock
Marking the 50-year anniversary of the publication of Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock, After Shock brings together the world’s foremost futurists and thought leaders in a compendium of diverse essays that spark imagination, rally important causes, and inspire solutions to the many challenges we face.
Other writers in After Shock including Ray Kurzweil (The Singularity Is Near), George Gilder, Lord Martin Rees (yes, he has minor planet named after him), Jane McGonigal, Newt Gingrich, Alan Kay, David Brin, Cat Tully, Donna Dupond MDes SFI, Joe Tankersely, Po Bronson, John Schroeter (Editor), and Deb Westphal (Foreword).