Near Future Design? I want it to be taught in schools

Near Future Design? I want it to be taught in schools

In Conversations — By Nefula — 15.06.2015

A conversation about Near Future Design and Design Fiction with Julian Bleecker and Nicolas Nova.

A designer, engineer and photographer with a background in computer science and humanities. A researcher, ethnographer and writer oscillating between social sciences, and HCI (Human-computer interaction). Both of them have a great sense of humor. They are Julian Bleecker and Nicolas Nova.

 

Founders of the Near Future Laboratory together with Nick Foster and Fabien Girardin, Julian and Nicolas work was essential in the conceptualization and definition of Near Future Design (NFD) as a discipline, a powerful imaginary and a concrete methodology to confront the challenges of a complex and constantly mutating present: the exponential innovation.

 

We asked them along to an interview to inaugurate the newborn Nefula blog. We genuinely wished to confront with them about the means of NFD, about the urgency to embrace it and become ourselves near future designers. We finally met them late one afternoon, around  a month ago, on Hangouts. The result was an intense and stimulating conversation, richer than we could expect and which we are happy to share.

 
 

Nefula:

We consider yourselves as the very pioneers of NFD and Design Fiction worldwide. How and why did it all start?

JB:

In 2005 I was spending time in Palo Alto at the Institute for the Future. I attended some of their workshops, which were focused on 10 to 20 years forecasts. My instinct told me that it was too far in the future: the years range of the research was too wide. I was much more interested in things that could have been experienced sooner, by prototyping, testing, conceptualizing and discussing them in a shorter period of time. That is when the notion of Near Future became exciting to me.

JB:

Then I thought about the next step: “what could I do now?” I wasn’t going to invent a new vaccine or spending 20 years developing a new form of energy, I wasn’t going to do something outside my direct possibility or over my ability. The question was: “what can I do now and how can I do it very quickly?” This addressed more questions about ethics in use, as “how to change the way the world influences the conversation about future to create a more habitable world to live in?”

NN:

It’s also interesting to point out that these kind of Near Futures and Design Fictions approaches are the cross road between foresight and design. Designers are interested in the here and now, about what is next product for the market. We are interested in future research industry. Hopefully we had started this conversation at the time when we built the Near Future Laboratory.

Nefula:

What characterizes the NFD approach and why it is relevant in the contemporary?

JB:

The Near Future Design approach is specific to this era in which ideas are shared in impressive ways through digital networks and technologies. This approach concerns the way ideas are consumed, shaped and influenced; it also concerns how fast these ideas spread among large audiences or how the mass media affect people’s decision making. In all of this, the Near Future Designer role is to translate these ideas on a practical level, as a new means of production, new ways of laboratory prototyping, or to turn data in a functional thing. Its practices belong to the very present, they evolve and change very quickly, but I do not think they will last forever. Now we have this sense of urgency, that is linked to the era we are living. We should not design something for 50 years in the future because the world will be dramatically different, in a very wireway. For instance, we are going to face the running out of water and the lack of resources. As time passes, everything changes towards that direction and that is why we have to act more quickly to build a better future. We have to stop focusing on twenty years from now forecasts. Near Future Design is born for this reason: to face these changes in a faster way that we were able to do in the past, without forgetting to ask ourselves why we are doing it and how we are doing it.

NN:

The machine of consumerism is completely sick. We need to rethink the way we produce things, the reason why we produce them and probably sort out alternatives ways to design objects and services. We have to seek for possibilities to live in a more habitable world. Living out on some other planet is not the right solution. We need a community of designers able to find these alternatives, asking themselves: “how can we create things and find solutions to problems we yet don’t know?”

Nefula:

Future is a valuable object, most of the time spoken as a singular word: industries, companies, politicians always declare “This is the future!” – like it’s not modifiable. Instead the future(s) is plural and is something we continuously build: we consider it a “collaborative performance”, at the center of our design practice. What do you think about this?

NN:

When I hear media and people talking about the future, it looks like they are talking about something coming from above, from the sky over our heads. As if the future was something built on a different planet.

NN:

I don’t think this is the correct approach. Future is what our society decides it to be, here and now. As time passes, everything evolves. All the behaviors, practices, technologies and social practices are already in the present we are living. These are the seeds of the future, performed not just by humans, but also by non-human societies like robots or animals, participating together to the co-creation of the near future. Of course, this is quite complex and it could feel like there is no sense of responsibility in all of this, having humans and not-humans acting together. This addresses a good question: what is the level of responsibility shared between these parties and how can we make people aware of its complexity?

JB:

When I heard the word performance I started thinking about how we produce artifacts in order to have a response on people. We deliberately address our concerns in the creation of these artifacts and we do it to let people engage conversations about them. I think that this is a better way to receive an answer from people than making them deal with pure forms of criticism.

Nefula:

Post-human responsibility, the role of feedback: there is potential for another entire interview here! But, what want to discuss about “possible” futures and “preferable” futures, which are two very different concepts: how can Design Fiction and Near Future Design help people and societies to express themselves about preferable futures?

NN:

A design fiction project aims to materialize this object and, along with it, the symptoms of the consequences of its presence around us. For instance, if we make it real as a prototype, or we show it in a catalogue or in a magazine, we force people to ponder about this object and, hopefully, to start a discussion on its consequences. People may realize a certain way to use it or think about the values that reflects. This is the whole purpose.
When designing a Design Fiction project, the difficulty is to structure this process. How can we make this discussion relevant for the audience we refer to? This is a very important step to focus on.
An example is the Winning Formula project that we did in collaboration with the National Football Museum of Manchester. We worked on a fictional newspaper about the future of sport, with data analysis and visualization. The interesting thing about this project is that it was distributed through the Manchester Evening and there were probably a hundred thousand copies of this fictional magazine in people’s hands. As outcome, we had a lot of people discussing about this newspaper and its meaning. If it was possible, it would have been interesting to spend time with these people, listen to their opinion and see how they engage the conversation on the artifact. This would have helped to redefine the course of the design project.

JB:

Design Fiction can influence a conversation or suddenly change someone’s perspective, point of view or understanding. It affects people’s relationship to the world and there is no recipe to do that. Nicolas brought up the idea of materializing the symptoms and I think that this describes the first step of the process. In the work that we do, it’s like seeing the world in a mirror, like a reflection: how it looks like today, how it might look like tomorrow and the consequences that could affect our relationship to the world. This relationship is shifted and normalized.
In the Winning Formula project, one of the inputs that worked the most is the consequences of data linked to sport. This is new in the context of big data, even though sport has always been driven by data. Baseball in the USA is the classic example, people are very interested in the stats about players, as the amount of their home runs in a particular field or period of time. It’s easy to imagine a world in which teams are owned specifically because of the data and not for traditional reasons. They make money because people buy tickets, so now it could be more like making money because the data has more value than the experience itself. This happens to the point that some newspaper wonders if it would be better to simulate the game than actually play it.
It’s up to us to raise this kind of questions, but it’s important to do it without overstating the implications and the consequences that may change people’s relationship to the world. We are able to do it in a better way than other design, strategy or forecasting practices can actually do. We pose questions in a form that materializes a fact and this is pretty unique, especially because we spend a lot of time thinking how we are going to do it: it may occur as an object, an artifact or a new law and this is the step where a lot of creative energy goes into. It’s easy to say “the world is gonna change because of big data”, but considering that the world will be part of this it’s quite different.

Nefula:

Thank you so much, we could continue this conversation for ages! But before leaving you, we have one last question: how do you see the near future of Near Future Design?

NN:

Well, UBS Switzerland wants to practice Design Fiction in a future banking world. I am not sure about what they really mean by that, but I am kind of intrigued that an institution like this will use that word. I am very curious to see what they put behind that. It’s an interesting sign, because it can turn Design Fiction into some commonly used. There’s also a lot of misunderstandings about Design Fiction. I was attending a design management conference in Paris and there was a guy wondering about what a Design Fiction project is. To him, it was a story or a sort of narrative, but not a project. It felt like I was in a parallel dimension… One of the prospective is to establish Design Fiction as an approach: when the idea about it will circulate and spread, people will think about it in a different way.

JB:

My ambition is that it will become a practice on which the next generation of designer will base its work. I hope that, to some point, everybody will be using Design Fiction as an instrument to consider the reasons and the ways in which we do what we do. This practice allows us to understand what we do, how to do it and when to do it. I would be glad to see more people experiencing this practice and turning it into something new. I want it to be taught in schools!
 

We felt what Julian said had a very concrete (and quite prophetic) closure to our dense conversation. What happens when NFD methodologies become part of the education system, when kids learn it in classrooms (among literature, mathematics, history…), and use it to deal with their own future(s) by doing regular homework? Is this one of the possible ways in which we can try, as societies, to radically confront exponential innovation and play with it?
 
What we can say as Nefula, is that we consider education is a global media: one of our goals is to teach and share the NFD methodology we have built (and we are building) to enable organizations, companies, communities, activists, students and as many people as possible to create their futures and have a say on that.