Michael Smyth’s POV
This interview is part of the collection called FuturED, that explores the relationship between education and futures study. We created a form to interview educators, academics, designers, and anyone who works in the field of design fiction, speculative design, critical design and so on.
The result is a mix of different visions, tools, methods, to teach how to think at the futures.
Dr Michael Smyth is an associate professor in the Centre for Interaction Design, School of Computing, Edinburgh Napier University, UK. He has been active in the fields of human computer interaction and interaction design since 1987. He is the co-editor of the book entitled “Digital Blur: Creative Practice at the Boundaries of Architecture, Design and Art”.
As Near Future Designers it’s not unusual for us to have difficulty to explain our job, because there isn’t yet a common perception of why and how the exploration of possible futures would be a profession.
For this we would like to issue a challenge to you today:
Can you explain to us what you do as you would explain it to your parents?
I tell stories, not stories about the past, but stories about our futures. In these stories people might be transported to different times and places that somehow reflect back at us new aspects of the world we think we know. Sometimes the stories are about familiar places that are turned upside down, other times they are changed very little, but they are always about ordinary people like you and me.
The stories I tell allows us to better understand our world and our place in it and critically what that could be like in the future.
Today Future is a hot topic. Why, in your opinion? How do you relate to future? Why do people talk about future instead of futures, plural?
Everyone is intrigued by the future, whether it is tomorrow, next year or many years in the future. The future is beguiling, it offers opportunities but it is also holds dangers of the unknown and therein lies its fascination.
I grew up in a generation that can remember men landing on the moon, we listened to the music of Ziggy and dreamt about a future and things that did not yet exist. Whether it was because I was young, but that future seemed a long way ahead, it was both beguiling but somehow disconnected from everyday life. The futures that stuck with me were the ones about people, they may have been living in futuristic worlds and driving flying cars, but their hopes, motivations and desires were essentially the same as mine. These were the futures that spoke to me then and continue to now.
People talk about ‘the future’ because it is connected to the present, maybe it is only when we imagine more distant futures can we conceive of there being more possibilities and trajectories stretching out before us. It is that uncertainty that raises different possibilities.
Future is a complex matter, involving culture, technology, psychology, anthropology, complex dynamics and a whole lot of other things.
What does it mean to study and research the future and, connecting with the
previous question, what does it mean to “teach” how to study and research the future? How do you do it?
The future has always held a certain allure, exploring the space that lies tantalisingly beyond the current and the now. Seeking the signs and signifiers of today that just might indicate a possible future. Design practice is conventionally grounded in reality and in the possible. Critical or speculative design exploits these pragmatic limitations to question our assumptions and preconceptions about the roles that products and services play in everyday life. The creation of fictionalised designs is a strategy to activate the imagination rather than to specify technology or make particular claims about the future. By extrapolating current weak signals into the future, design fictions confront us with the now as well as the possible by tracing out the often conflicting trajectories ahead. The key attribute of design fiction is its ability to start conversations around this tension between present and future(s).
I try to teach students how to be open and receptive to these signals and to provide them with the means to articulate their visions. To think about what they do, and to do what they think.
Which education models and practices do you think are more useful in your practice? Talks, lectures, workshops, experiences, e-learning, masters…Do you have an educational model or practice which you would consider to be the perfect one? Maybe something which is not currently possible or expected in current universities and schools?
The work of Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby has had a major influence in how I think about design practice and how it can create provocations that act as catalysts for debate. This process challenges us to ask questions and to consider the world that such designs might inhabit. The subsequent debate can help to achieve technological futures that reflect the ‘complex and troubled people that we are, rather than the easily satisfied consumers and uses that we are supposed to be’ (Dunne & Raby, 2011).
Julian Bleecker and Nicolas Nova and the work of the Near Future Lab has reinforced the importance of articulating ideas in the form of design fictions and also that the future is only just out of sight. These fictions create stories that unpack and humanise the future, enabling us to focus on the minutiae of behaviour and the subsequent questions and discourses that are raised through the exposure of our needs, desires, habits, rituals, values and priorities.
A personal favourite of mine is a book called Non-Object by Branko Lukic (2010), in which he describes a series of fictional objects. If you like, objects residing just beyond the present. In the introduction to the book Barry Katz described design as a means of surveying the bounds of the believable and pressing against the perimeter of the possible. This characterisation of design as a means of ‘cultural research’ closely parallels the aspirations of critical design. Indeed Lukic views design as a way to probe the emotional space between the human and the artefact and, in a wider sense, a more complete understanding of our object world will provide a means through which we can better understand ourselves.
Finally, what do you think if we say that “the Future doesn’t exist”?
Not now, but it will ….