Future Fictions Prologue

Less than a month to go before Future Fictions. Perspectives on world-building opens in Z33.

While our production and technical team are working their magic in our exhibition spaces to create the best possible circumstances to present art and design work of a selection of 20+ international artists, designers and architects, I wanted to share with you a bit of the thinking behind Future Fictions.

Summarized around five core questions, it points towards my quest to understand the phenomenon and practice of future thinking and become future literate.

Karen Verschooren

Research context and questions

Identifying the research context for Future Fictions, I wanted to take a step back to unravel the current phenomenon of future thinking and future imaging, as opposed to making statements about the rights or wrongs of certain proposed scenarios. Providing the larger context of what future thinking/imaging is, who is doing it, what tools are being used, why it is happening, and what its effects are, offers a framework for understanding the different visions and messages that are circulating when discussing our future. In other words, I chose to embark on a quest for future-literacy.

The question of ‘What is future thinking/imagining?’ prompts us towards thinking about the value of concepts of time, memory, change, imagination, past, present and future. If ‘time’ is understood, not in its temporal quality, but as a factor of change, the concept of the flattening of time can be understood as an acceleration of change, towards which we not only can have an intellectual, but also an emotional response (for many people one of nausea). One can understand the concepts of ‘present’ and ‘future’ as concepts related to time (in its temporal or change quality), or one could also understand them in experiential terms: as the feasible and normalized (present) versus the infeasible and un-normalized (future). Breaking up these concepts allows one to see the future being played out in the past or present and vice versa, the past working through the present and future.

Historically limited to a set of authoritative voices, the question of ‘Who is Future Thinking/Imaging?’ points us to the explosion of professions that have made thinking about the future their main business. This directly leads to an explosion of tools and scenarios proposed, but also points towards a wider array of vested interests. Whether in the enthusiasm of the moment, in the glitter of good looking futuristic images or the fear for gloriously constructed apocalyptic scenarios, what often seems to be forgotten is precisely this question of stakeholders and their agendas: Who is sponsoring future think tanks and why? Who is asking people to contribute to the next Mars robot? What does it mean when Intel’s Tomorrow Project give invited science fiction writers access to their recent research to write stories? Can we say/warn that speculative design or design fiction is incorporated by present day power structures? Can we say that the homo faber (and connected to the network, the crowd faber, or the making crowd) is being incorporated by present day power structures? If this is the case, then the future might just be more of the same but thinner, smaller, better, stronger, governed by fewer, and stronger power structures. However, this paints maybe too bleak a picture. Whatever may be, it seems it becomes more and more important to gage every vision/fiction critically, relating it back to its stakeholders and their agendas.

This growing group of future thinkers use a growing toolset for future thinking and visualizing. Overall one can argue that how we’ve thought about the future has evolved from a faith-relation (the future is out of (y)our hands, it is what happens to you) to a reason-based relation (The future is in (y)our hands, it is make-able and controllable. It’s a matter of mapping, controlling and creating), to one which is founded in fiction (the future is an imaginative practice of story creation), and in fact, in fact/fiction (in this future story creation practice, the relation between fact and fiction is a mutually influential one (not one-directional).

This fact/fiction thinking about the future can be conveyed in a myriad of ways, some ways being more attuned to the practice of artists, others more related to how designers and architects work, and yet others being the primary tools for activists. Zooming in on the tools used by artists, designers and architects[1], one can point towards diagrams, data visualizations, graphs, drawings, objects, scenarios and film, experiences, prototypes and processes, representations, installations, documentations, interventions, and many more.

Using different tools and methods, different future visions/fictions are being proposed. Central is the question of value: what are the underlying values guiding these visions? Three of the more prevalent narratives one can distinguish today, and which will be resonating for a good couple of decades into the future, are the ones where time, money and power are at the core of the argument. They translate into narratives which one could summarize as either the Sustainment-narrative; visions that are primarily concerned with buying time for us on the planet (In the larger reference framework one will find visions/fictions around the green revolution, blue revolution, the sustainability discourse, the discourse around sixth mass extinction, deep green resistance activism, etc.), the Business-as-usual-narrative; visions that generally propose incremental progress translated into new marketable products and services which will improve our lives (The most common reference framework for this is the one of the Sentient City, largely shaped, structured and designed around ubiquitous information, communication and interaction technologies. It’s also in this context, one might find the ‘thin’ future visions of smooth perfect worlds with happy, perfect people surrounded by a lot of touch screen glass surfaces) and the narrative structured around the Redistribution of Power via anything from open-source information to 3D printing, home factory of objects to full blown buildings and cities. (The reference framework for these narratives will include open knowledge, open soft- and hardware, self-initiated architecture, DIY or community led action, and will – more than the others – ask who is making the future and where the future is being made.) Equally important is the question of what the core values will be that will dominate the discourse in 50 years from now? What will the deep future narratives be that they form and shape?

Essential in valuing these narratives is the level of complexity that they allow: do they present a simple vision of the future (thin futures) or do they allow for diversity in wants and needs, in opinions and form, can they handle inherent critique (thick futures)?

Finally, there is the question of effect, which is intimately tied up with the question of responsibility. What is the effect of future visions/fictions proposed?

When it comes to the these future visions/fictions that are geared towards discussion rather than meant to provide blueprints, one could critique that they are avoiding the problems of today which require solutions in the near future. However, one could also argue that they are playing their role on a different level: asking whether we are still asking the right questions, or preparing for a mental benchmark shift. The fact that increasingly policy is getting interested in these narratives[2], either as participants or acting as commissioners, indicates that there is an effect, be it one that differs from the blueprint from which one can reverse engineer the next steps to take. Which contemporary visions of the future potentially hold this promise of effect in them? From the past we learn that oftentimes, it is the images that look completely out of place, that are outrageously audacious or absurd. They generate a mental reboot. They bend perception into a direction, not completely reaching the too-bold image, but making thinking in its direction, though in a more modest way, plausible. They create a new mental benchmark. Or they encourage the complete opposite, pushing existing thoughts beyond their current state, but in the opposite direction. Either way, they have impact; they are a catalyst for change.

And this begs the question: what role does a future thinker play? And what is or should be its relation to policy making? Or to put it differently, what is then the responsibility of the designer, artist, architect, or trend forecaster, futurist, scientist, risk assessor who authored the future visions/fictions? It is clear that already within the limits of the art and design world, opinions differ greatly in this respect.

The five questions don’t point towards mutually exclusive topics. On the contrary, answers interrelate and often lead to the more interesting questions that can be explored further in research and/or through projects presented in the exhibition. For example, understanding who is behind a future vision and what they are proposing points towards an envisioned effect, and thus a responsibility involved. How does one compare the trend reports from trend forecasters to the critical future scenarios of speculative design or architecture? What is the reach of their visions/fictions? If design fiction and speculative architecture’s goal is to create debate about preferable futures, then how successful are they at it? What is the effect of trend forecasters trend reports on the actual vision of the future and the shaping of it? One can guess that the second group has much greater influence and power. Yet, are they best positioned to think about this or not? Where do their responsibilities reside?

The interrelation between who is thinking, and what are the effects, points towards responsibility, but also to a deeper understanding of the scenarios being represented by these players and the tools used to represent them.


1 The toolsets used by other people invested in contemporary future thinking and imaging are being looked at in the Who section, and from a contextual backdrop against which one can read the toolsets used by artists, designers and architects.

2 Alongside the longer existing interest in social and service design of course

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