Through October and November, Superflux has been humming along in a contented, cheerful kind of mood – with the occasional glimpse of that much-sought-after state of 'flow'. Though some of our projects must remain hidden behind the studio cloaking device, we thought it was about time for another round-up of our activities.
Anab and Jon are recently returned from Belgium, having been at MAD in Genk, running a cross-disciplinary student workshop on Design for Human Enhancement.
Attempting to unpick the consensus visions and 'shiny corporate future' of genetic modificiation and human prostheses, Anab and Jon used the work of several artists and designers to locate these emerging technologies in a wider social and cultural context.
Elsewhere, we were invited by Cynthia Smith, curator of the Design for the Other 90%: CITIES exhibition to shared some of our thoughts, resulting in a guest post on 'India's Elastic Cities' on the Cooper-Hewitt Design Blog.
Our collaboration with Dr. Patrick Degenaar progressed into its next stage, as we worked on a series of design proposals for the retinal optogenetic headset. Working with the talented (and extremely versatile) designer Patrick Stevenson-Keating to produce a 3D prototype, we were impressed with the finish and quality of the final printed object, which Dr. Degenaar and his team are using in their presentation to prospective investors. Its exciting to see how a project moved from the Lab to the Consultancy, providing an excellent opportunity to flex our making muscles, and get our hands on a tangible, material output.
And in terms of making and prototyping, Tim, Mark, Jon and Anab continue to make good progress with Project SAM on the Lab front, we made a significant breakthrough during our recent hackday. Hopefully, we'll have something tied up by early next year, so more on this as soon as we can.
For much of the last couple of months, I've been out of the studio, representing the company at a couple of events in London, and, more generally, swotting up on design and foresight.
Back in the summer, we were invited by Dr. Wendy Schultz to present some of our design fiction and futures work at the Association of Professional Futurists' V-Gathering, an 18-hour web conference unfolding (virtually) across three continents. With the rest of the Team Superflux out of the country, I stepped in to fill the gap, pitching a talk with the title, 'My Radio Prefers Bacon: Adventures in Speculative Culture.'
Catching a train up to the APF's pop-up media centre at the The Futures Company's London HQ, it was a great opportunity to hang out with Wendy, Andrew Curry and Victoria Ward – experts in their respective fields. A recording of the talk is now online, bookended by Andrew's introduction and a round-table discussion on design, foresight and notions of 'plausibility'.
The following week, I headed up to the Architectural Association for the London half of Thrilling Wonder Stories 3, where I was shown an Italian magazine by Bruce Sterling, caught up with an iPad-wielding Carolina, and watched live amateur taxidermy. Like you do.
A few days later, I dropped in on the AA for an afternoon crit with the crew from Unknown Fields, many of whom will be hitting the wilds of Alaska for the winter solstice. Though still early days, it was really satisfying to see the students starting to engage with contexts, technologies and ideas. I left unit convenor (and Thrilling Wonder Stories co-organiser) Liam Young about to commence a marathon car journey from London to Eindhoven, where he would be playing drone-wrangler.
Yes, drone-wrangler. Specifically, wrangling the drones of 'Electronic Countermeasures' – an interactive installation for GLOW, Eindhoven's annual festival of light art. Superflux collaborated with Liam (TTT), Eleanor Saitta and Oliviu Lugojan-Ghenciu to bring the project to fruition. Here's the blurb:
'Today we are much closer to our virtual community than we are to our real neighbours. This death of distance has created new forms of city based around ephemeral digital connections rather than physical geography. In this context the Electronic Countermeasures explores the design and manufacture of a flock of interactive autonomous drones that form their own place specific, local, wfi community and pirate file sharing network. Drifting slowly above the water of Eindhoven’s parks the fleet of modified quadrocopters perform a balletic aerial choreography as their soft glow reflects in the canal below.'
In the end, we only lost one drone to the canal. Not too bad.
In the background, I've been slowly chewing my way through Stuart Candy's PhD thesis, which, taken in light our recent work on design futurescaping, is sparking some interesting thoughts and realisations. A couple of excerpts really stuck out. First, on the relationship between design, politics, and futures:
'To both design and politics, futures affords some tools to crack open times-to-come as a far richer domain for discussion. It also offers the holistic systems-thinking and temporal reach that are necessary to move beyond ideology-driven argumentation about ‘the (singular) future’ into more systematic and multi-dimensional exploration. Politics, in its theoretical aspect, gives futurists and designers a sensitivity to power relations and a range of conceptions of the good and the just at the social level, and in its activist aspect, represents a tradition of exploring and concretely operationalising these ethics in the world. Designers give to futures and politics practitioners a much-needed dose of communications acumen and facility with media, along with a fusion of aesthetic (used here in the narrow sense) with the pragmatic; a necessary equilibrium between form and function.'
And then, on the role of the futurist and the speculative designer:
'Whether the task involves confronting residents of an historic urban district with the unexamined possibility of local businesses being ousted to make way for national chains and the juggernaut of ‘gentrification’; or suggesting to tourism industry representatives that the still-inchoate Hawaiian sovereignty movement may one day soon lead to a rejection of United States occupation and a re-establishment of the traditional ahupua‘a as an ecologically aligned unit of governance; or urging Korean authorities to contemplate the possibility that a much-feared downward trend in population may provide unimagined advantages in the long run (all these are examples of projects I’ve worked on), the future provides a mainline to many matters about which people care most, and thus contains keys to a critical adjustment of perceptions and sensibilities.'
This de/colonisation of the consensus future is something we've been seeing a lot of in the last couple of months, from Anab's participation in Sony's FutureScapes project (blending social justice, sustainability and consumer electronics with a surprising amount of success), HSBC's sudden interest in foresight, or Demos Helsinki's community-mediated backcasting for SPREAD 2050. Wherever the conditions are right, long-term thinking and futures methods seem to be taking root, even if it involves reinventing the wheel.
And looking ahead at the level of the studio, the second week of December sees us joining friend-of-the-flux Scott Smith on a week-long trip to Dubai, where we'll be working on a super-exciting secret project. Jon has been working to get us ready for an epic film shoot, preparing and testing the gear, whilst both Anab and Jon have been working on project strategy, style and aesthetics. Though I can't speak for the others, I'm literally vibrating with anticipation.
Though we've been reassured that she's now back on the grid, Carolina was last seen in a forest in Dorset, and before that, Ecuador, where she was wrangling a giant digital waterfall as part of her work for Nexus Interactive Arts. When all our feet are back on London asphalt, Team Superflux will be in crunch mode, working on projects, prototyping, and big-picture company strategy for the year ahead. We look forward to catching up with you then.