Making a New Design Fiction

I had a great opportunity to kick off Lift@home Toronto a few weeks ago (thanks to a generous invite and lodgings from the excellent Tom Purves and Michele Perras), which for the occasion merged with DemoCamp and challenged all comers to demo a concept for 2019. Many of my favorite Torontonians were in attendance, and the evening's proceedings were set in the suitably retro Canadian Corps hall—something akin to a US Elk's Lodge hall, complete with bowling trophies and cheap beer.

My task was to set the mood, so I decided to go a little deep and psychological. Inspired by recent work by past Lift speakers like Bruce Sterling, Julian Bleecker, Nicolas Nova and Genevieve Bell, as well as Matt Jones and the folks at BERG, I built my talk around the journey from those influences that shape our worldviews about the future to the processes by which we extract and project those views through design fiction. After all, creating demos of products or services for 2019 requires a good deal of design fiction, whether we know it or not. We are taking what we believe, fear, hope for and expect about the future—our own biases, mental dots and loops—and putting them in physical form as we create scenarios, narratives, artifacts and experiences that communicate this future view to others. It's hard to be neutral when we talk about the future. We ultimately end up trying to persuade others to believe in our own internal stories.

Thinking about this process within myself, I realized some time ago that part of what drives me to do what I do is the experience as a child of living on the edge of the future as a citizen, beneficiary and occasional victim of the amazing new economy sprawl that was Atlanta in the 1960s—1980s. Since my childhood, the city has undergone more than a trebling of its population—from about 1.5 million to over 5 million. With that it expanded out into new suburbs, up in the the form of multiple cores of skyscrapers and highrises, and down in the shape of modern mass transit. It also grew inward, becoming one of the first reasonably integrated cities, mixing not only black and white, straight and gay, but fed by an increasingly international population of immigrants, businesspeople and money. All in all, it was what might be described as a post-modern American, and even world, city. Fittingly it ended the 1990s as an Olympic city, a few years after I left.

This experience of rapidly exploding growth, technology, social convergence, media (my hometown was after all the birthplace of CNN), politics, not to mention heat, humidity and distinctive red mud all shaped my path as an observer, interpreter, analyst and forecaster, in much the same way growing up in a post-90s Moscow or 2000s Lagos might. It colors the design fiction in my own mind. It makes me aware of the downsides of "progress" but it also makes me optimistic about what's possible.

I closed by asking the group what our future design fiction will be. What are the prototypes, situations and images we want to explore? Thirty years ago it was Omega Man and Soylent Green with their disease and decay. Twenty years ago it swung the other way to Blade Runner, an uncontrollable but undeniably sexy future. Lately it's been 28 Days Later and District 9, full of "The Other", internment camps and infection (again). What do we want it to be next? Time to make it happen.