WHY WE NEED TO IMAGINE DIFFERENT FUTURES: TED TALK
In 2017, Anab opened the TED Conference in Vancouver, with the talk ‘Why We Need to Imagine Different Futures’. The talk gave a glimpse of our studio’s work, values and mission. It was incredible to have this platform to share our work and ideas with 2500 conference attendees, as well as all those who saw it at the various cinemas as part of the TED Cinema experience.
This is the transcript of the talk:
I visit the future for a living. Not just one future, but many possible futures, bringing back evidences from those futures for you to experience today. Like an archaeologist of the future. Over the years, my many journeys have brought back things like a new species of synthetically engineered bees; a book named, “Pets as Protein;” a machine that makes you rich by trading your genetic data; a lamp powered by sugar; a computer for growing food.
OK, so I don’t actually travel to different futures — yet. But my husband Jon and I spend a lot of time thinking and creating visions of different futures in our studio. We are constantly looking out for weak signals, those murmurs of future potential. Then we trace those threads of potential out into the future, asking: What might it feel like to live in this future? What might we see, hear and even breathe? Then we run experiments, build prototypes, make objects, bringing aspects of these futures to life, making them concrete and tangible so you can really feel the impact of those future possibilities here and now. But this work is not about predictions. It’s about creating tools — tools that can help connect our present and our future selves so we become active participants in creating a future we want — a future that works for all.
So how do we go about doing this? For a recent project called Drone Aviary, we were interested in exploring what it would mean to live with drones in our cities. Drones that have the power to see things we can’t, to go places we can’t and to do so with increasing autonomy. But to understand the technology, getting our hands dirty was crucial. So we built several different drones in our studio. We gave them names, functions and then flew them — but not without difficulty. Things came loose, GPS signals glitched and drones crashed. But it was through such experimentation that we could construct a very concrete and very experiential slice of one possible future.
So now, let’s go to that future. Let’s imagine we are living in a city with drones like this one. We call it The Nightwatchman. It patrols the streets, often spotted in the evenings and at night. Initially, many of us were annoyed by its low, dull hum. But then, like everything else, we got used to it. Now, what if you could see the world through its eyes? See how it constantly logs every resident of our neighbourhood; logging the kids who play football in the no-ballgame area and marking them as statutory nuisances.
And then see how it disperses this other group, who are teenagers, with the threat of an autonomously issued injunction. And then there’s this giant floating disc called Madison. Its glaring presence is so overpowering, I can’t help but stare at it. But if feels like each time I look at it, it knows a little more about me — like it keeps flashing all these Brianair adverts at me, as if it knows about the holiday I’m planning. I’m not sure if I find this mildly entertaining or just entirely invasive.
Back to the present. In creating this future, we learned a lot. Not just about how these machines work, but what it would feel like to live alongside them. Whilst drones like Madison and Nightwatchman, in these particular forms, are not real yet, most elements of a drone future are in fact very real today. For instance, facial recognition systems are everywhere — in our phones, even in our thermostats and in cameras around our cities — keeping a record of everything we do, whether it’s an advertisement we glanced at or a protest we attended. These things are here, and we often don’t understand how they work, and what their consequences could be. And we see this all around us. This difficulty in even imagining how the consequences of our actions today will affect our future.
Last year, where I live, in the UK, there was a referendum where the people could vote for the UK to leave the EU or stay in the EU, popularly known as “Brexit.” And soon after the results came out, a word began to surface called “Bregret”, describing people who chose to vote for Brexit as a protest, but without thinking through its potential consequences. And this disconnect is evident in some of the simplest things. Say you go out for a quick drink. Then you decide you wouldn’t mind a few more. You know you’ll wake up in the morning feeling awful, but you justify it by saying, “The other me in the future will deal with that.” But as we find out in the morning, that future “you” is you.
When I was growing up in India in the late ’70s and early ’80s, there was a feeling that the future both needed to and could actually be planned. I remember my parents had to plan for some of the simplest things. When they wanted a telephone in our house, they needed to order it and then wait — wait for nearly five years before it got installed in our house.
And then if they wanted to call my grandparents who lived in another city, they needed to book something called a “trunk call,” and then wait again, for hours or even days. And then abruptly, the phone would ring at two in the morning, and all of us would jump out of our beds and gather round the phone, shrieking into it, discussing general well-being at two in the morning.
Today it can feel like things are happening too fast — so fast, that it can become really difficult for us to form an understanding of our place in history. It creates an overwhelming sense of uncertainty and anxiety, and so, we let the future just happen to us. We don’t connect with that future “us.” We treat our future selves as a stranger, and the future as a foreign land. It’s not a foreign land; it’s unfolding right in front of us, continually being shaped by our actions today. We are that future, and so I believe fighting for a future we want is more urgent and necessary than ever before.
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. Earlier this year, the government of the United Arab Emirates invited us to help them shape their country’s energy strategy all the way up to 2050. Based on the government’s econometric data, we created this large city model, and visualized many possible futures on it. As I was excitably taking a group of government officials and members of energy companies through one sustainable future on our model, one of the participants told me, “I cannot imagine that in the future people will stop driving cars and start using public transport.” And then he said, “There’s no way I can tell my own son to stop driving his car.”
But we were prepared for this reaction. Working with scientists in a chemistry lab in my home city in India, we had created approximate samples of what the air would be like in 2030 if our behavior stays the same. And so, I walked the group over to this object that emits vapor from those air samples. Just one whiff of the noxious polluted air from 2030 brought home the point that no amount of data can. This is not the future you would want your children to inherit. The next day, the government made a big announcement. They would be investing billions of dollars in renewables. We don’t know what part our future experiences played in this decision, but we know that they’ve changed their energy policy to mitigate such a scenario.
While something like air from the future is very effective and tangible, the trajectory from our present to a future consequence is not always so linear. Even when a technology is developed with utopian ideals, the moment it leaves the laboratory and enters the world, it is subject to forces outside of the creators’ control. For one particular project, we investigated medical genomics: the technology of gathering and using people’s genetic data to create personalized medicine. We were asking: What are some of the unintended consequences of linking our genetics to health care? To explore this question further, we created a fictional lawsuit, and brought it to life through 31 pieces of carefully crafted evidence. So we built an illegal genetic clinic, a DIY carbon dioxide incubator, and even bought frozen mice on eBay.
So now let’s go to that future where this lawsuit is unfolding, and meet the defendant, Arnold Mann. Arnold is being prosecuted by this global giant biotech company called Dynamic Genetics, because they have evidence that Arnold has illegally inserted the company’s patented genetic material into his body. How on earth did Arnold manage to do that? Well, it all started when Arnold was asked to submit a saliva sample in this spit kit to the NHI — the UK’s National Health Insurance service. When Arnold received his health insurance bill, he was shocked and scared to see that his premiums had gone through the roof, beyond anything he or his family could ever afford.
The state’s algorithm had scanned his genetic data and found the risk of a chronic health condition lurking in his DNA. And so Arnold had to start paying toward the potential costs of that future disease — potential future disease from today. In that moment of fear and panic, Arnold slipped through the city into the dark shadows of this illegal clinic for treatment — a treatment that would modify his DNA so that the state’s algorithm would no longer see him as a risk, and his insurance premiums would become affordable again. But Arnold was caught. And the legal proceedings in the case Dynamic Genetics v. Mann began.
In bringing such a future to life, what was important to us was that people could actually touch, see and feel its potential, because such an immediate and close encounter provokes people to ask the right questions, questions like: What are the implications of living in a world where I’m judged on my genetics? Or: Who might claim ownership to my genetic data, and what might they do with it? If this feels even slightly out-there or farfetched, today there’s a little-known bill being passed through the American congress known as HR 1313, Preserving Employee Wellness Programs Act. This bill proposes to amend the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act, popularly known as GINA, and would allow employers to ask about family medical history and genetic data to all employees for the first time. Those who refuse would face large penalties.
In the work I’ve shown so far, whether it was drones or genetic crimes, these stories describe troubling futures with the intention of helping us avoid those futures. But what about what we can’t avoid? Today, especially with climate change, it looks like we are heading for trouble. And so what we want to do now is to prepare for that future by developing tools and attitudes that can help us find hope — hope that can inspire action.
Currently, we are running an experiment in our studio. It’s a work in progress. Based on climate data projections, we are exploring a future where the Western world has moved from abundance to scarcity. We imagine living in a future city with repeated flooding, periods with almost no food in supermarkets, economic instabilities, broken supply chains. What can we do to not just survive, but prosper in such a world? What food can we eat?
To really step inside these questions, we are building this room in a flat in London from 2050. It’s like a little time capsule that we reclaimed from the future. We stripped it down to the bare minimum. Everything we lovingly put in our homes, like flat-panel TVs, internet-connected fridges and artisanal furnishings all had to go. And in its place, we’re building food computers from abandoned, salvaged and repurposed materials, turning today’s waste into tomorrow’s dinner. For instance, we’ve just finished building our first fully automated fogponics machine. It uses the technique of fogponics — so just fog as a nutrient, not even water or soil — to grow things quickly. At the moment, we have successfully grown tomatoes. But we’ll need more food than what we can grow in this small room. So what else could we forage from the city? Insects? Pigeons? Foxes?
Earlier, we brought back air from the future. This time we are bringing an entire room from the future, a room full of hope, tools and tactics to create positive action in hostile conditions. Spending time in this room, a room that could be our own future home, makes the consequences of climate change and food insecurity much more immediate and tangible.
What we’re learning through such experiments and our practice and the people we engage with is that creating concrete experiences can bridge the disconnect between today and tomorrow. By putting ourselves into different possible futures, by becoming open and willing to embrace the uncertainty and discomfort that such an act can bring, we have the opportunity to imagine new possibilities. We can find optimistic futures; we can find paths forward; we can move beyond hope into action. It means we have the chance to change direction, a chance to have our voices heard, a chance to write ourselves into a future we want. Other worlds are possible.
Huge thanks to TED, especially Helen Walters and Chris Anderson for the kind invitation.