In September 2011, Anab was invited to Blowup: The Era of Objects, a round-table event curated by Michelle Kasprazak for the V2_Institute for Unstable Media, in Rotterdam. Presenting alongside Julian Bleecker (Near Future Laboratory) and Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino (Really Interesting Group), the session focused on the looming 'era of objects':
'We are rapidly entering (and perhaps even have already entered) an era where we are able to print 3D objects at our desks, make and share laser-cut gifts for friends, and use off-the-shelf tools to plug these creations into the web and have them send status updates on our behalf. We have some commonly-held visions of the future, but what could our very wildest dreams (and nightmares) look like, beyond the cliché of the flying car? What answers can we find in speculative design? Our expert guests will explore these questions in collaboration with the audience in a hands-on, "open think-tank" format.'
Modelled loosely on a television talk show, the session began with a series of short presentations from Anab, Julian and Alexandra, which led into a longer Q&A session with the audience. We then delivered a series of three speculative design briefs to the audience of students, who broke out into groups to sketch and brainstorm their ideas.
In her presentation, Anab used the lens of speculative design to unpack some of the nuances of our body of work, focusing on the tools and methods of something we at Superflux have begun to describe as 'design futurescaping.' Instead of an individual, self-sufficient methodology, we envision design futurescaping as a way of approaching strategy, product and service invention, and client-led design. Instead of evading risk and uncertainty, design futurescaping works with it as a constraint and subject of enquiry:
'A futurescape is cast as an analogue for the physical landscape; a heterogeneous topography of unevenly-distributed futurity; infinitely extendible; punctuated with features and landmarks... Design futurescaping channels multiple voices to create hybrid, humane alternatives to the deterministic, ‘business-as-usual’ consensus future.'
Beneath the umbrella of design futurescaping, we have assembled a toolkit of methods and processes which we use with clients and collaborators – deploying them in support of everything from strategic foresight to our own design workshops.
Focusing in on the core themes of Blowup, Anab began by looking at current work being done on the 'internet-of-things', exploring the potentials of emerging technologies and the tools of speculative design to forge new relationships between humans and their technologically-augmented companions – pets, livestock, and working animals.
What began as a highly speculative project on wifi-enabled dalmations in 2006 now proves technically feasible (and financially attractive), with Dutch company Sparked using wireless sensors to track the health of their cattle. This made Anab think of India's free-roaming cows. As hosts for sensors and transmitters, could they provide the hooved substrate for a new technological platform? This would be mobile internet service capable of reaching parts of the country where connectivity is otherwise rare, as part of an endlessly flexible, resilient mesh network.
Anne Galloway’s post 'An Internet of Cows (and Sheeps!)' reflected further on some of the 'killer implications' of internet-enabled cows. For Team Superflux, the opportunity to create props and story fragments from these ideas is the most exciting part, enabling us to intervene in the debate in a way that helps people to start thinking about the implications now, widening the field, without prescribing or limiting possible reactions.
The second part of Anab's talk used case study of a Superflux project with a client-collaborator from the world of scientific research, ‘Song of the Machine', as a way of highlighting the possible real-world implications of speculative design.
Our collaborator Dr. Patrick Degenaar, and his team are developing an optogenetic retinal prosthesis, a set of technologies capable of restoring sight to those suffering from degenerative visual impairment. A virus is used to 'infect' the dead retinal nerve cells with a light-sensitive protein; a wearable headset converts visual input into pulses of light, which are fired at these re-sensitised cells, mimicking the "neural song” the healthy eye uses to communicate with the brain. This artificial song is then interpreted as “vision” by the brain's imaging centers.
The researchers have been testing their image augmentation concepts with a user group whose visual “resolution” is similar to the vision that will be possible with the first generation of these optogenetic retinal prostheses. They found that a simplified, cartoon-style vision might be the option best able to help participants function in their everyday life.
Though functionally the most effective option, many users found the simplified effect unsettling or otherwise uncanny, claiming: “I’d rather be blind then have my world look like this.” As scientists, the researchers were approaching this problem from a data-driven perspective, assuming that people want to be able to see something, regardless of the system's weaknesses.
As designers, we give a lot of thought to the emotional experience of these kind of radical technologies, asking what it might feel like to have your body modified to interface better with a machine, what it might mean to have prosthetic or augmented vision, and what the technology’s operating system and interface might look like. These specifics have a huge impact on the way users will relate to other people and, more generally, to their world.
Such possibilities had not been envisaged by the scientists. By highlighting and describing some of their 'unknowns unknowns' (the things they didn't know they were missing), we helped them to begin working through what it might mean to live your life, lay down memories, and even fall in love through the lens of this technology.
Ultimately, this is the value of design futurescaping. This project is not "just science fiction” or a shiny vision of some distant future. We are already working on the next phase of this project: shaping the commercial product in close collaboration with technologists and members of the visually impaired community. Though the real (legible) value comes in the shift from speculation to shipping, the latter is the endpoint of a process. Without first expanding the field of possibility, and mapping possible futurescapes, the final outcome will suffer – hampered by in-group blind spots, tacit assumptions, skeuomorphism and legacy futures.
Anab concluded with a quick look at some of the ethical implications of this kind of future-facing work. As an example, she showed a letter written to Jon Ardern, regarding his project ARK-INC (2006). ARK-INC was a speculative platform offering products and services to help facilitate in a post-crash civilisation. It has been described by Jon as a form of 'super-fiction'.
The letter, from Helen in New Orleans, was addressed to ARK-INC, under the assumption that it was a real company, instead of a fictional project.
Over the past few years, people like Helen, who narrowly survived a serious natural disaster, have begun to see the value of such services. The framing of this project made an extreme scenario seem plausible. The fiction became a reality for at least some of the audience, and, were we to have taken it forwards, Jon would have had to deal with questions of collaboration, ethics and execution, not to mention some potentially problematic legal implications.
These examples were inteded to demonstrate how speculative design and design futurescaping can help users, clients and collaborators to explore a range of future possibilities, widening the lens without reinforcing existing assumptions or boundaries. The tools and methods provide scripts to begin a dialogue between humans and technology, and these scripts are realised asproducts, services, experiences and stories with the potential to enrich our (everyday) lives.