Future Thinking. Interview with Tobias Revell

In the first Z33 Debate, ‘Future Thinking,’ Jan Boelen and Tobias Revell explore a series of questions related to design and future thinking. Whereas all designers design for the future, some do it more intentionally than others; for some, proposing or facilitating alternative future visions is the core of their work.

Futurists, future planners, consultants and strategists are (re?)discovering the value of design for future thinking. Inherent overlaps between the practice of design and the practice of future thinking are highlighted: from iterative prototyping to prospective users engagement. But how do designers perceive their relation to future thinking and the practice of foresight? Is future thinking a topic for designers today? Does design have a direct influence on our future and future thinking? Do designers have a responsibility vis-à-vis the future of our society? Does this responsibility go beyond the designed object to include its practices and methodologies?

A western vision on global futures

The fact that currently this field is dominated by mainly male western visions on global futures is more and more presented as a point of critique. Though Gulf futures and Afro futures are being developed as well, the remark is mainly correct, but as Tobias Revell notes, “it is very difficult to make a worldview from a different perspective than the one that you have or are in.” One could also wonder whether it would even be a valid attempt. As a designer, one takes responsibility for the designs one puts into the world, whether this is an object, a service, a context or a fictional scenario. The evaluation criteria obviously vary; how successful a speculative fiction is, is measured in a different way than the success of a newly designed chair.

« Speculative design is like the velvet underground »

Press coverage is mentioned as one, measuring the amount of attention a project gets, but maybe it’s also more subtle: “speculative design is like the velvet underground.” In the talk, Tobias Revell mentions that you might not see a result right away, but it might plant seeds into people’s minds. Its influence might become more tangible – in the future.

Tricking or make-belief

How explicit should one then be about fictions being fictions: is the effect bigger, more relevant or substantial when people belief the fictions to be real, or should one allow for the conscious suspension of disbelief in the audience? Do you trick people or do you aim for make-belief? Revell choses the second approach. Through a combination of aesthetics and humor he aims to facilitate future visions that are, in his case, often quite dark. Shying away from making futures, which closes down options, he wishes to facilitate the exercising of people imaginations for alternative futures. When democratized design tools are used in that way, it’s a plus. When they’re used as another way of predicting the future, singular, it become just another tool to combat uncertainty, which is a loss.

Great reflections and questions came from the audience. They brought us further into a discussion of the dominance of the technology driven future visions, the relation between future visions and critique of the now, and the dynamics between the intentions for the design and the audience readings. Thank you Istanbul Design Biennial team and the Product Design representation of artEZ college in Arnhem for your critical input.

Z33 Debates is a series of in-depth interviews, which take place at Atelier Clerici during the Milan Design Week 2014. With the interviews, Z33 rethinks what design can mean in and for the future. What can design mean for future thinking? What is the value of design exhibitions and biennials? Is there room for a European Design Parliament – a Manifesta for design? What is the role of mentorship and collaboration in design? And, finally, what can Milan Design Week Milan mean for the development of design discourse and critique?



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Tobias Revell is a UK-based designer and practicing artist. His work looks at the crossover points of technology, economics and politics and how these intersections might manifest themselves, for better or worse. By drawing an audience into alternative worlds he hopes to inspire thought and debate about the unpublicized externalities and extremes of progress as well as seeking a new way to talk about our human systems. His previous work has looked at applied libertarianism, synthetic biology out of context and chronographies of power.