This essay examines the conditions required to help Eindhoven develop an alternative, social version of a smart city, including participatory design methods.
This project explores the potential of building IoTA: An open, educational internet-of-things platform to encourage creativity, collaboration and technological literacy.
At some point in the last couple of days, as the temperature in London plummeted, this post morphed from ‘Autumn’ to ‘Winter’ news. But I’ll stick to the title, just to try and make 2014 that much longer, and delay the inevitable.
The last quarter has been one of the most challenging we have had in the studio’s history, testing every ounce of our perseverance, integrity and commitment. But it has also made us more resilient and we feel proud of where we are today because of it. I want to use this opportunity to thank everyone who has supported and encouraged us in this journey. And so, this post is a quick roundup highlighting some of the good things that have happened recently.
1. DRONE AVIARY in Tokyo
We are thrilled to be able to show the first instantiation of the Drone Aviary project at Tokyo’s stunning 21_21 Design Sight Gallery. It forms part of part of a great show titled The Fab Mind: Hints of the Future in a Shifting World. A shoutout to Dimitri Papadimitriou, Jon Flint, Ian Hutchinson, Sam Conran and Georgina Bourke who played a key role in getting it shipped. And Yosuke Ushigome for orchestrating the work in Tokyo. We shared some of our thinking behind the project on Virgin’s Unite’s series around drones, which was also picked up by Richard Branson. We wiill be doing a detailed post about the project and the work so far very soon, and also sharing more information on the next show in London. I have been leading this project and feel really happy that we are finally moving forward in a direction we want to pursue after some serious set backs.
2. PRODUCT INVENTION HACKATHONS
We recently wrapped up a big client project focusing on product invention and experience prototyping designed in the form of a series of week-long hackathons, led by Anab. The project remains strictly under NDA, but if all goes to plan, you should see the products out in the world by 2016. It was a joy to work with the very talented Philipp Ronnenberg, Dan Williams and Matt Shannon. The studio was a frenzy of intense activity, as concepts and prototoypes were churned out like never before. And ofcourse, it was a real joy to make proper use of our new Ultimaker. The sheer joy on the face of the key stakeholder, as they saw and played with product prototypes, made the efforts more then worth it.
3. BUGGYAIR KICKS OFF
We are thrilled to continue to receive support for IoTA, as we develop demonstrators that show our investigative research and design approach around IoT. The first version of the website is ready, and Anab wrote about the things we learnt during the journey for Nominet Trust. Based on those foundations, we are now working on BuggyAir, where a group of parents will use bespoke sensor kits to measure ground level air pollution that directly affects their children’s health, and use the generated data as evidence for long term behavioural and legislative change.
4. CITIES UNLOCKED LAUNCHES
Future Cities Catapult just launched a major project: Cities Unlocked in collaboration with Microsoft UK and Guide Dogs. We are proud to have been one of the project partners, working with blind and partially sighted people to identify the characteristics of future cities which will enrich their experiences, and to develop potential cityscapes which would inspire them to make journeys into cities and around them. We will be sharing a detailed report about our approach, methods and outcomes in the coming days, but here’s a great interview with Sara Hendren, whom we interviewed early in the process. Also some good press over on BBC, Dezeen and others.
5. BLURRING THE LINES, BRITISH COUNCIL
We are featured in British Council’s remarkable ‘Blurring the Lines’, an exhibition about culture in flux, told through sixteen stories of people reinventing creative exploration and participation. The exhibition is free and open till 19th December, so if you are in the area do check it out. After all, any show where we can sneak in a Playmobil cant be missed.
6. FUTURE FICTIONS, Z33
Dynamic Genetics vs Mann is currently part of the Future Fictions show at the great Z33 in Belgium. With this show, Z33 continues the debate about our future, exploring how contemporary artists, designers and architects relate to future thinking and imaging: from mapping, questioning and criticizing, to developing complex visions about the structures and systems that may shape our life in the future. Designed specifically for the UK context, I continue to hope that one day soon, this project would be show here on home territory.
7. FEATURED IN WIRED UK
I am very pleased that there’s a feature about the Drone Aviary in WIRED UK! (although there seems to be some confusion about the title of the project)
8. FEATURED IN BLUEPRINT MAGAZINE
Blueprint magazine has a great article by Vernica Simpson “Speculate to Accumulate” which features our work and practice.
9. UPCOMING TALKS IN THE US
From Monday 10th Nov, Anab is on a whirlwind tour of the US, for a series of talks, meetings and teaching. Starting with New York, where the first public talk is at the School of Visual Arts, followed by School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where she is part of their visiting artists program. She then goes to Ann Arbor as part of the prestigious Penny Stamps series, and then finally at MOCAD in Detroit. If you are in any of these cities next week, go say hi.
10. LONG NOW LONDON
After much delay we are pleased to have reinstated the great Long Now London meetup group, with Corinna Gardner from the V&A and Alastair Parvain from Wikihouse as inagural speakers. We are grateful to Hub Westminster for offering us the venue, and to Ana Bradley for helping us with drinks sponsorship.
Ten is a good number so I’ll stop here. We also have some exciting news about new people joining us, a project around Indian spacecraft and more, but I’ll save that for another post.
A futurescaping workshop challenging design students to probe notions of borders, territories, and the fragile, increasingly precarious relationship between people and their government
The year has flown by! What should be a monthly update has now become a quarterly (perhaps even semi-annual) update, our attempt to share studio highlights, and a fleeting moment to reflect on what has happened and what we have learnt.
On the Consultancy front, we have been lucky to have the opportunity to work with some great clients this year. Couple of quick project hightlights that we can share publicly:
Future Cities Catapult / Family Day Out Programme
One of the most exciting projects we have been working on this year is with the Future Cities Catapultcalled ‘A Family Day Out Programme’. The project seeks to work with partially sighted and blind people to help identify the characteristics of future cities that will enrich their experience of it and develop potential cityscapes that would inspire them to make journeys into cities and around them. We have been through an extensive design research, horizon scanning and futurescaping process and are currently visualising some of the outcomes.
Museum of Future Government Services / PMO, UAE
We were lead creative consultants for the concept and scenario development of the Museum of Future Government Services commissioned by the Prime Minister’s Office of the UAE, working the incredible Tellart, Fabrica, Near Future Laboratory and Institute of the Future, spearheaded by Noah Raford. The project launched at the Government Summit, a global platform dedicated to the improvement and enhancement of government services and related opportunities. The six exhibits being shown at the Museum are immediately visually compelling, yet provocative, and ambitious visions of how services ranging from border control to health care to education could be delivered in the future, in an attempt to stimulate thought and action, from their leaders and civic officials in the UAE. Our colleagues at Tellart and Fabrica, working with the PMO, have done a remarkable job in translating concepts, developing elements, and ultimately executing the exhibits.
On the Lab front, currently two projects are keeping us on our toes.
Things that Fly and Watch Over You: Quadcopters, multirotors, positioning systems, and such other stuff has kept us occupied in the Lab, in huge amounts. Project Impossible is a beast that is simulteneously exciting and terrifying. One of the most fun part of the project is an opportunity to work with a host of amazingly talented people, all to be announced in an upcoming press conference.
IoTA: Internet of Things Academy: A full update on this project requires a separate blogpost, but suffice to say, we have made good progress. We are grateful to have a team of great people working with us: Gyorgyi Galik, Philipp Ronenberg, Martin Charlier and Daniel Pomlett. We have moved in a different direction from our initial proposal, but feel we now have a much clearer, far more exciting direction. Our focus is on people, on social and environmental concerns, and thinking of ways in which IoT can ultimately shape and influence legislation and policy. We are grateful for the incredible support of our partners Hugh Knowles and Louise Armstrong from the Forum for the Future and funders Nominet Trust and Founders Forum for Good, as well as the brillants folks at Suncorp who have been supporting our work. For regular updates follow @IoTAcademy on twitter or have a peek into our process on our tumblr.
Also on the Lab front, we were in India earlier this year, and have revisited Lilorann, with an renewed interest in Tactical Design and Tools for Critical Jugaad. We are in talks with several collaborators in the hope of realising a small thing this winter. Stay tuned.
Our Associate Tobias Revell has recently completed a commission ‘Monopoly of Legitimate Use‘ premiered at the Lighthouse Brighton, which we highly recommend making a trip for. Also, Yosuke Ushigome is currently developing a fascinating project “exploring high-speed and speculative trading of our bodily-harvested energy/data/knowledge/assets” to be exhibited in October in Tokyo.
TALKS & EXHIBITIONS
Keynote, Futureverything: I delievered a keynote at the Futureverything Festival in Manchester end of March. Titled ‘Valley of the Meatpuppets’, the talk explores the ethereal space where people, agents, thingbots, action heroes and big dogs coexist and how influence is designed within this space. I think the conference videos should go online soon. It was also great to exhibit the 5th Dimensional Camera and Open Informant at the Festival too.
Design and Violence, MoMA New York: We were invited by Paola Antonelli to contribute to their online show Design and Violence with a critical response to the work of Phil Ross. We wrote a short fiction piece exploring a future world where Mycotecture becomes a favoured material and what its implications might be.
V&A Friday Late: Candyce and I presented Dynamic Genetics vs Mann, followed by a series of sessions with the Synbio Tarot Cards at the V&A Friday Late for Synthetic Aesthetics. We had never run this sort of a session previously, but judging by the evening’s success are considering new avenues for such toolkits.
We will be showing Dynamic Genetics vs Mann at the DEAF Biennale in Rotterdam later this month as part of the ‘Blueprints for the Unknown’ Exhibition, and hoping that there will be a way for the project to be shown in the UK soon, perhaps where the project will resonate the most. I will also be giving a talk at the DIY ‘Altopia’ Seminar at the Biennale. I’ll be joining Tobias Revell at the Lighthouse to discuss his new work and explore themes of migration, borders, and networks. And I think that might be it, in terms of talks this year, apart from Chicago much later this year. Due to time contraints I have recently had to turn down few very exciting conference invitations for this year, but looking forward to it next year.
We enjoy teaching and our favourite form is intense workshops, which gives us an opportunity to set a brief, and a concetrated time with students to develop responses. We just wrapped up a workshop at HEAD, Geneva, with the Media Design MA students, working with them on a highly challenging brief titled ‘Failed States: Tactical Design for Uncertain Futures. Developed in collaboration with Justin Pickard, we invited students to design thoughtful responses to emerging political tensions at the intersection of migration, housing, climate change, robotics, surveillance, currency and finance, energy, public protest, and the hollowing out of the contemporary nation-state, for a near-future Switzerland. Needless to say, it was a highly energetic, inspiring week, and we’ll be writing a bit more about it soon.
This was meant to be brief, so I’ll stop. Just a quick final note to say that we are also considering new projects, collaborations and partnerships for 2015, so if you have something in mind, do drop us a line.
Adios, be well!
The Museum of Future Government Services, UAE, is an interactive design futures exhibition, conceived and developed in partnership with Tellart, Fabrica, IFTF and Near Future Laboratory.
Continuing with our series of guest posts on the blog, we invited Scott Smith to share his thoughts on the notion of ‘superdensity’, something he has talked about in the past. Scott kindly agreed, and today we are delighted to share his brilliant reponse.
It’s the Future. Take an Umbrella.
About two and a half years ago, I wrote a blog post titled “The Future is Here Today, and It’s Superdense“. The phrasing was a reference to the apocryphal William Gibson phrase that’s a frequent crutch for people speaking prospectively in public fora: “the future is here today, it’s just not evenly distributed.” The trigger for the post was a cascade of world events that made “normal” a fairly useless construction—the Arab Spring was unfolding, the Euro crisis was in full swing, and oh, Japan had been laid low by a triple-whammy of earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis.
My intent in describing it as superdense, something typically used to talk about neutron stars or quantum information theory, was to find a way to describe how the typical Gibsonian loose distribution of future drivers and emergent trends was momentarily compacting into a tightly clustered ball of WTF. What we think of as the future, in particular bits of dystopia and chaos, wasn’t hiding in bits and pieces under this bush or over in that desert, but was all happening at once, or so it felt.
I also wanted to get across the sense of condensation—of various threads and elements, some connected, some not, coming together in a fairly knotty but spectacular way. While the tragedies in Japan were in some sense of a chain of causation (earthquake causing tsunami causing reactor damage), the events in the Arab world and the Euro crisis were in some ways quite connected via the sensitivities of the economic markets, political weaknesses and so on.
One could say—to keep piling on metaphors—a variety of chickens were coming home to roost. Others have talked about this period of protracted superdensity as a New Normal, where the general social, technological, economic, political and environmental conditions we had previously taken for granted no longer seem to pertain. In this period of deep flux, new power structures are emergent.
So far, so good. We’ve found various bits of language to describe the state we feel we’re in, but we don’t have a good system for coding and signaling the changes in state we experience, particularly as it applies to us as individuals, or to where we live or frame our existence (to our communities, economies, networks, etc). How fast is x changing in relation to me? To others? How strong is a particular driver, trend or state at this moment, and will it change? One person’s weird may be another’s normal, for example. From Chittagong in Bangladesh, for example, a hurricane and technological blackout in the New York metropolitan area might seem like seem a more normal distribution (though certainly not wished upon others).
Occasionally, when trying characterize the dynamic, often changeable nature of the future, I’ve resorted, unscripted to meteorological metaphors, describing how what we think of as “the future” as a phenomenon that washes over us from time to time like a storm front, full of pressure changes, turbulence, and with occasional destructive force. We talk about trends as parts of particular futures, as “building,” “gaining strength” or “rising,” for example. Fans of “Game of Thrones” speak cryptically online about how “winter is coming” as a means of characterizing what they see as a long-term shift toward instability or stagnation. The New Normal is, in effect a kind of climate change metaphor, conveying an expectation that conditions under which we’ve made assumptions and decisions in the past—or even the whole physics model of our reality—has altered in a fundamental way. Temperature, precipitation, humidity are all out of whack in our decision-making models.
As I sit thinking about this problem, a familiar sound comes on the streamed radio station to which I’m listening: the audio cue that tells me it’s time for the Shipping Forecast. If you aren’t familiar with it, the Shipping Forecast is generated by Britain’s Met Office and broadcast on BBC Radio 4 at four intervals during the day. The Forecast splits the seas surrounding the UK and Ireland into 31 areas, reaching as far northwest as Iceland, east to Norway and Denmark, and south along the Continent to Spain and Portugal, and provides updated weather and sea conditions in these zones to guide both commercial and private shipping as it makes its way to and fro within the area. Similar forecast frameworks are used by other countries, with similar structures.
Many people, sailors and civilians alike, speak about the Shipping Forecast as having a sort of mythical quality—with evocative if slightly opaque names for the regions like Fastnet, Forties, Rockall and German Bight conjuring up something otherworldly, recognized but exotic. Announcers delivering the broadcast read out a standard format of information from each region: regarding wind speeds and direction, air pressure and tracking, precipitation, and so on. While the data sounds almost like a numbers station, it’s meaningful to those who use it, and from it one can create a very precise map of pressure across thousands of square miles of sea. The Shipping Forecast is a powerful shorthand that lets navigators know what to expect, how fast change is occurring, and in which direction it is moving.
Image credit: http://simonholliday.com/shippingforecast/trends
Would something like this be desirable as a means of navigating the New Normal? For understanding how to anticipate superdensity, and even to ride its kinetic energy? I wonder if what we need is a Shipping Forecast for futures—sliced into topical regions, with key forces identified, metrics described, and possible trajectories plotted? “Solar energy, veering 6 to 7, backing 3 later based on pending regulation, sporadic innovation, moderate to good.” “Surveillance, severe gale 9 to violent storm 11, hacking, squalls later, poor, becoming moderate later.” “Bioprinting, 3 to 4, fog, clearing later.”
As with many forecasts, the data is similar but the outcomes vary based on your position relative to the forces at play. Are you in a big or small craft, so to speak? Vulnerable, or protected? Is turbulence your friend or enemy? The standard language of the Shipping Forecast is interpretable by all, but value is variable depending on who or what you are, and where you stand, sit or sail, much like the security warnings we’ve grown weary of in recent years, with their orange/yellow/reds.
So, I make the modest proposal: let’s develop a Shipping Forecast for the sort of weird, New Normal futures we increasingly encounter. I’m sure we can come up with 30-odd social and economic issues, emerging technologies or environmental trends that we can all agree need tracking. Monitored by an appointed body (a Future Measurement Agency?), these factors can be reduced to publicly digestible metrics, and delivered in a daily report via print, radio and Internet.
Wondering whether Iran’s opening to the West is about to set off a chain reaction of international political reconfigurations? Want to know whether that new biotech product is an immediate gamechanger or just a slow burn? Is a new pandemic something to be concerned about? Tune in each night before bed, get a snapshot view of the future through the glow of your tablet, or a rip-and-read ticker tape via your mini-printer.
I’ll admit, it sounds a little strange, and yet we’ve spent far, far more time, money and effort developing sophisticated social media analytics, high-powered dashboards that allow financial traders at a glance views of market microturbulence, and, as we’ve found out recently, all-consuming social graphs of all of our interactions and connections. Why not, then, provide such metamaps of “future-weather” as a public good? Widespread knowledge of imminent turbulence and (dare I re-appropriate the word) actual disruption might go a long way toward connecting our actions and reactions to wider conditions.
Unlike the actual Shipping Forecast, to which sailors and ship captains can only respond in a reactive fashion, the forecasting model I propose is actually a feedback loop of sorts—a sort of Quantified Self for society. No, we can’t control (all) earthquakes, but there is a lot of the near-future that is in our control—if we can reconnect our conscious lives to causation. We may choose not to shape the waves coming at us—which is always an option in the decision-making process—but if we are going to apply so much of our time and effort to collecting data and crafting visualisations, surely this little experiment isn’t asking too much.
INTRODUCTION BY ANAB JAIN
Whilst our practice is primarily project-led, whether thats client-focused, commissioned or self initiated work, we also like to continually find new ways of exploring the theoretical frameworks within which many aspects of our work are situated. With this in mind we have decided to invite people, whose ideas and research we find inspiring, to contribute to the Superflux blog, with the aim of creating an open space for discussion and reflection.
And so we are thrilled to have writer, researcher and futurist Paul Graham Raven kick-off this endeavour, by discussing the idea of Infrastructure Fiction in the context of his research work at the Pennine Water Group.
Photo Credit: Vivi Trujillo/Corporacion Fractal
My name’s Paul Graham Raven, and I’m a researcher in infrastructure futures at the University of Sheffield. Team Superflux have very kindly invited me to take the mic and talk about the potential of applying critical design practice and futures thinking to the infrastructural domain. What follows is very much a theory under development; feedback and critique is not just welcome, but actively encouraged.
To begin, though, allow me to quote one of my hosts:
“These projects bypass the established narratives about the present and future that create the hypnosis of normality, and in doing so allow for an emotional connection with the raw weirdness of our times, opening up an array of possibilities.” – Anab Jain, keynote talk from Next13
I’ve begun with this quote from Anab because it’s one of the neatest summaries I’ve found of what design fiction does. Defining how it does what it does, however, is a little more slippery, as it’s less about method than it is about results. We can say that design fiction tends toward the visual: images, videos, simulations, renderings, even theatrical performance. We can also say that in order to produce the desired effect – which we might sum up as a thought-provoking cognitive estrangement – a design fiction has to believe in itself, or at least give the impression of believing in itself. But rather like the presentation of a paper at a conference, the images and videos and so on are the medium, a delivery system for the memetic payload. The payload is possibility, the potential for a different world: a loud bang to break the spell of hypnosis.
Over the last year and half, a bunch of infrastructure academics and researchers, myself among them, managed to commit design fiction by accident.
“All-in-One” was an EPSRC-funded project involving researchers and investigators from the University of Sheffield’s Pennine Water Group, Cranfield University, De Montfort University and the University of Leicester. The project’s remit was unusually open-ended, especially for an infrastructure gig: the basic research question was “would it be possible to replace all the disparate utility infrastructures which we have currently with a system that uses one single unified infrastructure to fulfil all the needs of end-users?” (Research questions are the polar opposite of poetry.)
With a background in science fiction and speculative thinking, this was right up my street. But it was new territory for the civil engineers, modellers and risk analysis types I was working alongside; they were used to working in predominantly quantitative modes, with established systems, analytical frameworks and processes, with strict specifications and roadmaps to completion. Infrastructure is prosaic, practical stuff – it’s mundane, in the literal sense of being of-the-world. It’s about keeping the lights on; if you start getting all visionary, people might think you’re some sort of Tesla wannabe.
Design occupies an interesting position astraddle C P Snow’s two-cultures divide, with one foot in the engineer’s world of practical considerations and the manipulation of materials, and the other foot in the more arty realms of the unfettered imagination. Designers think differently to engineers because design has internalised the notion of critical production, of praxis as discourse, of reflexive rhetoric. To a designer, what a thing means is as important – sometimes more important – as what it does and how it does it.
My theory is that is if you combine a speculative writer like me with engineers, then the gestalt entity that results sits somewhat nearer the centre of the two-cultures spectrum. Just about where you might expect to find a designer, in fact.
The core output of the All-in-One project’s early stages were a handful of vignettes that described possible – if not necessarily plausible – solutions to the All-in-One question. These largely took the form of presentations in the established engineering project-proposal style: much talk of practicalities, materials, logistical problems and sociopolitical challenges.
But leave the format aside for a moment, and look at the actual ideas we came up with: a “city blood” circulatory system, wherein energy is carried to homes dissolved in water like oxygen is carried to our cells by haemoglobin; a rhizome-topology urban network of underground freight-delivery tunnels; the entire planet powered by orbital solar collector satellites, and eventually by a belt of photovoltaics on the moon; and a subterranean modular city based around the central need for water, energy and fresh air. These are combinations of prior speculations and actual contemporary tech developments (the “solar globe” vignette owes a debt to the Shimizu Corporation’s more ambitious blue-sky projects, for instance, and my own “Intertubes” vignette used the Foodtubes proposal as its jump-off point), and they were put together with an engineer’s eye for actual achievable systems, at least as far as technological plausibility is concerned. The links embedded above will let you download the “condensed flyers” we did toward the end of the project; you’ll note that these still speak the language of the proposal, of the project pitch. We were trying to convince our audience of the possibilities, because we were also trying to convince ourselves of them.
Remember what I said back at the beginning, about how design fiction has to believe in itself to do its work? I think if we’d had the knack of that, if we’d found ways to present them not as proposals but as faits accompli, we’d have had four chunks of infrastructure fiction on our hands.
Why would anyone want to do design fiction about infrastructure, though? That’s not just a valid question but an important one, and it calls back to that quote of Anab’s that I opened with. But first, we need to decide what “infrastructure” actually is.
Outside the world of civil engineering, infrastructure is profoundly unsexy. Oh, sure, there are people who can work up an aesthetic appreciation of a really good bridge, or admire the robust geometry of the classic British electricity pylon, or even enthuse about the mud-caked technological sublime of a tunnel-boring machine… but infrastructure’s function is not a thrill in its own right. That wasn’t always the case, though. The first electric lighting systems, the bridges and tunnels and engines of the pioneering railways, the epic sewers concealed by Bazalgette’s Embankment on the Thames: they were wonders of their age, and changed the way life was lived wherever they appeared2.
But we grew accustomed to them, and now – at least here in the West – take them for granted. Indeed, we might nowadays define infrastructure as being that part of the built environment which is only ever noticed when it stops working. At all other times, it’s lurking in the background, humming away in the interstices, invisibly providing you with, as the stacktivist Jay Springett puts it, “the means to not die” – plus, depending on the nation-state in which you find yourself, providing the means to achieve a variety of tasks and/or move around the landscape.
Even when you spend most of your working day thinking about infrastructure, it’s surprisingly hard to make the leap from the abstract to the actual – as illustrated by the number of times I’ve caught myself stood with my brow creased and my mouth full of toothpaste, thinking about ways to encourage more careful domestic water usage habits, while the tap pours a couple of litres per minute of meticulously and expensively treated water straight down the plughole.
No one would describe Douglas Adams as a “hard” science fiction writer, but I’ve long felt that he was better than many of his more serious contemporaries at communicating the paradoxical relationships we humans have with the world we inhabit. Near the start of the third Hitchhiker’s Guide novel, Life, the Universe and Everything (Adams, 2009), Arthur Dent and Ford Prefect observe the arrival of an unusual spacecraft (which, if I remember correctly, looks rather like a low-budget Italian bistro turned on its side) in the middle of Lords cricket ground during an important test match. This spacecraft remains unnoticed by the players, the crowd, or even the stolid BBC reporters covering the match; this is because it includes a device which generates a “Someone Else’s Problem” field, whose inventor realised that, while making something invisible is very tricky, making something look like someone else’s problem is much, much easier, as most people are predisposed to that position.
The challenge for infrastructure fiction is to dispel the Someone Else’s Problem field and reveal the elided centrality of infrastructure to pretty much everything we do. Its challenge is to explore what infrastructure means.
To do that, we’re going to have to kill off some assumptions.
From a designer’s point of view, infrastructure is a given. It’s the invisible and unacknowledged stuff – supply chains, communications networks, utility grids – that make the designed object producible, deliverable, and able to function as intended. Without infrastructure, there would be no designers. It’s the oxygen of the profession.
From an infrastructural engineer’s point of view, infrastructure is an intricate and interdependent web of entangled systems which ends at the point where it goes through the wall of your home, factory or office, thus granting the occupants the ability to do a variety of things, starting with not dying.
Appropriately enough – or so you’d think – these are both structuralist conceptions: understandings of a system in terms of what it does and how it does it. Capacities, voltages, efficiencies, safety features, diurnal demand profiles, materials, specs… engineering bread’n’butter, in other words.
Both of these conceptions are both right and wrong.
The first assumption that needs to die: that infrastructure enables designed objects. As the old saying goes, the problem is that it’s not even wrong; it’s just one-sided. The relationship between infrastructure and designed objects is duplex, a synthesis. The multiplication of designed objects, of tools and machines and appliances, both necessitated and enabled the construction of infrastructure, which in turn enabled a further proliferation and multiplication of appliances. Look at the history of electricity grids, for instance; the basic physics had been understood for quite some time before anyone came up with useful and affordable (and safe) ways to use this new phenomenon, but selling those appliances was dependent on there being an infrastructure to connect them to. Neither sprang fully-formed from the Zeus-brow of human invention. They co-evolved; they’re still co-evolving. (Though one could make a good argument that the designed objects are presently out-evolving the infrastructure, at least in some locations.)
The second assumption that needs to die: that infrastructure ends at the wall of your house. This is a little like assuming that the chunky plastic pistol-shaped thing with a cable coming out of the handle is what drills holes in your walls. It is the drill-bit that drills the holes; the motor unit of the power drill simply enables you to use the drill-bit to make bigger, deeper holes more quickly, and in a greater variety of materials than you could make using elbow grease alone. The power drill is not the tool; it is a function-specific extension of the infrastructure, an interface between the tool and the abstract world of harnessed energy.
When you connect a device to an infrastructure, the latter is effectively subsumed by the former. It’s a sort of metonymy: the power and potential that we imply when we speak of a power drill is actually the power and potential of the electricity grid, an electrical loa riding the horse of the drill.
You don’t believe me? Unplug the power drill from the wall, take it somewhere there are no wall sockets. Or take a nicely chromed faucet to some place without a water distribution mains, or a smartphone to somewhere where there’s no signal.
Ain’t much use to you now, is it?
This is what you see when the spell of Anab’s “hypnosis of normality” is broken around infrastructure. Design fiction is getting pretty skilled at problematising the power drill (faucet, smartphone, whatever) from the perspective of the user; what infrastructure fiction needs to do is get skilled at problematising the tap as seen from the other side of the wall.
(As-yet-untested thesis: a functional and/or designed object which in no way requires or depends upon an infrastructure can itself be considered a sort of infrastructure.
The more you think about it, the more you realise how tiny a category of things that actually is.)
There was no predefined methodology for the All-in-One vignettes. When we started in on them, all we had was a broad blue-sky research question and a wiki stuffed with ninety or so new or improved technologies; each subgroup of the project team set out to answer the former using items taken from the latter.
As such, they’re not a matched or complementary set of futures like you’d get from the classic 2×2 matrix. Each vignette reflects the assumptions (and the obsessions) of its creators. In the long run, infrastructure fiction practice may want to avoid this sort of haphazardness, but it might be beneficial at this early stage. After all, critical design is a critique of design, an inherently reflexive undertaking. So critical infrastructure design should surely do something similar: expose flawed heuristics and frangible assumptions, especially those of its own practitioners.
There’s an subtle difference between those who started with an idea and generated a world around it which would make it possible (as in the “Solar Globe” and “Intertubes” vignettes), and those who started with a set of problematic assumptions about the world and created an idea to solve them (as in the “Subterrania” vignette). This is a tension I see a lot of in the nascent discipline of science fiction prototyping; the term has been popularised by Brian David Johnson of Intel in his book of the same title (Johnson, 2010), which makes a case for the writing of science fiction narratives as a method for extrapolating the consequences and implications of new ideas, technologies or phenomena.
Bruce Sterling talks about design fiction as being diegetic prototypes, as “stories that tell worlds”: the object or product or service in the foreground implies the social, political, economic and technological dimensions oif the storyworld in which it must be assumed to exist, and it is this implication of diegesis that does the “work” of design fiction. One of the difficulties I have with Johnson’s approach (which I’ve been wrestling with in a paper currently under review at Technological Forecasting & Social Change) is that it explicitly subordinates the diegesis to the novum. Much like the classic Gernsbackian science fiction story, the idea is the star, and everything else follows from that; the world is assembled so as to accommodate and extrapolate the idea. Or, to put it another way, diegetic prototyping “creat[es] ‘pre-product placements’ for technologies that do not yet exist” (Kirby, 2009). Such practice can be (meta)critical, as in much of what we think of as design fiction, but Johnson’s approach is more advocative; design fiction uses the foreground to make you think about the background, while Johnson’s mode of prototyping uses the background to make you think about the foreground.
To me, this looks like a case of cart before horse – in fact, I’d argue it accurately reflects the problematic mindset of contemporary tech-biz approaches to innovation, but that’s a rant for another day. As suggested above, new technologies and infrastructures alike came into existence as a result of the continuing socioeconomic interactions of people and other already-existing technologies and infrastructures; as such, you need to do a bit of thinking about the world before you can do any sensible thinking about a new thing that you’re proposing to introduce to said world.
That’s not to say Johnson’s wrong, though. In fact, I think the All-in-One vignettes show that you get different sorts of prototype from each approach – but I need to do a whole lot more experimentation and tinkering with techniques before I feel I can quantify those differences, and what value they have. My theory is that a reversed approach might be more useful at the infrastructural scale: that one can start by imagining a coherently problematic world or worlds, much as you might with a 2×2 matrix, and allow it/them to suggest objects or products or services that might come into being as a response to such; “worlds that tell stories”, in other words3.
What keeps our vignettes from being true design fictions is their format: they are proposals, not yet convinced of themselves. We were still thinking in engineering terms when I finally realised how close we were to doing design fiction: thinking about feasibility, roadmaps and path-dependecy, about practical barriers to actualisation and so forth, as opposed to making the design-fictioneer’s leap and imagining the problem already solved, so as to ask what that solution might tell us about the problem that we hadn’t already noticed.
Convincing engineers that feasibility can be handwaved away in order to focus on meaning and implication is surprisingly difficult, as it goes against every instinct of their practice. I got there in the end with my colleagues, but the approach needs to better systematised and tested before it’ll float easily with an unprepared audience; that systematisation is what I hope to spend the next few years working on.
But imagine for a moment that our “proposals” concretised properly; imagine for a moment we’d had the skills and resources to make true design fictions of them. Imagine them being convinced of themselves, delivered as slick three-minute IPO promo videos, as guided tours of installations or facilites, or as reports from industrial spies or saboteurs. Imagine them narrated by a non-engineer: by an eco-activist, a ruralist refusenik, a hypernationalist political firebrand, a ubicomp urbanite, a lobbyist for Big Carbon, by Joe Sixpack or a Daily Mail NIMBY. Imagine them as faits accompli, presented in a manner that elides their fictionality.
See? Design fiction, of a sort.
While it’s satisfying to retrospectively identify the All-in-One vignettes as a form of design fiction, or even to coin the term “infrastructure fiction” for them, the question remains: what use are they?
For the Superfluxian audience, such a question is probably (hopefully?) anathema: design’s internalisation of critique makes the point moot. They’re thought experiments, exercises in reflexive critique of both practice and principle. The ends justify the means, right? So all I need do is remind you to stop thinking that infrastructure is Someone Else’s Problem. Unless you’re spinning wool from your own sheep or whittling wooden spoons, everything you do touches (or is touched by) infrastructure. This means there’s a whole new layer of questions you could be asking in your practice – and as climate change, resource distribution inequity and fragile global supply chains become increasingly dominant forces in the chaotic megasystem of the world, they’re questions you need to be asking.
To my colleagues in engineering, and to businesses and agencies thinking about innovation and infrastructure and the troubled times ahead, I would say this: you have been trained, and trained well, to imagine the possible as constrained by the plausible, for what you imagine must be buildable. That’s as it should be… but you must learn to switch it off from time to time.
This isn’t so much about thinking outside the box, that most tired of innovation cliches; if anything, it’s about thinking about the box, asking how and why the box constrains you. It might help to think of vignettes and infrastructure fictions as a type of theoretical model, albeit one that is almost entirely qualitative. The point is not to see whether they hold up to the tests of physics, or whether they can be evaluated against cost, resilience or feasibility; indeed, it is to be expected that most infrastructure fictions would fail at least one of these types of test. And therein lies the real point: failure is instructive, and the failures and flaws of imaginary systems at this sort of scale – not to mention the circumstances which might influence the likelihood or otherwsie of that failure – are impossible to explore in reality.
Design fiction is a sandbox, a test-bed, a gedankenexperiment; it’s the technological archaeology of imagined futures. If design fiction is a discourse both in and around start-up culture and bleeding-edge technologism, then infrastructure fiction can do the same thing for global sustainability, infrastructure policy and the iteration of appliance functionality. It can break the hypnosis, collapse the Someone Else’s Problem field. It can make infrastructure legible – and once you can read a story, you can write it a new way.
Of course, you can still do infrastructural engineering without thinking about the context in which you’re doing it; we’ve been doing that for the last hundred years or more, after all.
But look where that got us.
1 – Tesla’s place in the geek canon is not echoed in the trad engineering canon; indeed, I suspect that’s a big part of why he’s in the geek canon at all.
2 – This sensawunda lives on in attenuated form in the collective culture of civil engineering; my favourite conference drinking game5 involves taking a drink every time a presenter or panellist speaks in reverent tones about the ambition and longsightedness of the Victorians. Regrettably, the culture has largely forgotten that those genuinely astonishing projects were made possible by a nigh-total lack of regulation, and a class system that permitted the systematic exploitation of the navvies.
3 – I’m thinking of calling it “mimetic prototyping”, because Plato isn’t around to call me out in an angry blog-post for misusing the other half of his dialectic.
4 – We did try making some videos, but the main thing they communicated was that the making of videos is best left to people who know a lot about making videos, or at least those who have the time and resources to make a proper go of it.
5 – To be totally clear, there is no actual drinking involved. Well, not during the conferences, anyway.
Adams, D. Life, the Universe and Everything. Pan, London, 2009
Johnson, B. D. Science Fiction Prototyping: Designing the Future with Science Fiction Morgan & Claypool, San Francisco, CA, 2011
Kirby, D. “The Future Is Now: Diegetic Prototypes and the Role of Popular Films in Generating Real-world Technological Development.” Social Studies of Science 40.1 (2009): 41–70.
An overview of our studio’s research practice, process and ethos presented at Fabrica, Italy.
A talk exploring cultural turbulence, technological acceleration and increasing complexity, in the context of our ongoing work.