Fabbing the Future: First Edition

Last week was a sort of vacation for me, a few days to do what I enjoy most: listening, discussing, making, playing, thinking. The occasion was a trifecta of related events—an invitation from Toronto’s Torch Innovation and Ontario College of Art and Design’s sLab to deliver the latest in the distinguished Unfinished Business Lecture series, helping run a workshop the next day put on by Torch and Normative Design, hosted at sLab, and finally sitting in on a crit for OCAD’s second-year MDes in Strategic Foresight program. 

The lecture topic, Design Fiction, was a bit challenging, not only because its a potentially sprawling concept with connections to facets of art, design, literature, film, innovation, foresight, strategy, and more, but because, like the title of the series, it represents seriously unfinished business. My approach to the task was to describe Design Fiction as a hidden driver of my own trajectory into the role(s) I play today as a foresighter, strategist and occasional design researcher, show where Design Fiction is emerging today, and talk about its potential as a tool to extend, accelerate and potentially democratize current foresight and design tools and practices—where we’ve come from, where it is and where we might take it. It is important to note, too, that in this whole conversation I am approaching from point of view of a foresighter first, not a designer, so I realize that some vocabulary and other wheels may be getting slightly reinvented here, but all in the service of coming to some new realizations.

The slides from this iteration of the presentation are seen here—and I stress it’s only one iteration as the topic evolves in the creative hands, notebooks and lab benches of those who’ve done the most to define it. If you know me, you know I don’t talk from notes, and it’s most fun when the topics are batted around in first-hand discussion, which a good number of the folks I met or saw again in Toronto obliged me with. My goal through the three days of events last week was to socialize the bits of Design Fiction as they have been laid out by the major participants in the broader DF discussion, put them in motion in tandem with some other processes (marrying lightweight foresight tools with basic design and fabrication pieces we did in the workshop), and see what we can learn about using Design Fiction’s dynamics as a problem-solving tool. In short, more exploration than exposition.

Design Fiction cards developed by Changeist and Normative Design.

The workshop at sLab showed the power of how some lightweight tools assembled to help form future narratives can come together with some fun materials (who said the future doesn’t need sugru?), creative skills and collaboration to not only write future stories but bring them to life, even if only as a shadowbox of an artifact. Using a process we apply frequently, we worked with a set of cards specially designed for the workshop which contained both hypothetical social, technological, economic, environmental and political “conditions” for a fictional developed world city set in 2017. From them, our teams first assembled a working future world narrative, and then grappled with how it interacted with the their own internal contexts dealt to them—including an organizational identity, driving mission, and end user. Oh, and for fun we put in added obstacles to work around.

The outputs, assembled in a short time, brought to life rich stories the teams recounted to us, including:

  • Green Horizons—An environment where unstable financial markets and a growing elderly population opened up opportunities to invest retirees’ time and money into sustainability initiatives such as green retrofits of existing buildings. This plan to enable the aging to invest their savings and efforts into community renewal looked like a new community-based financial services model of the near future.
  • Memory School—One team introduced “cultural sustainability through technology” for a place where traditional culture is fading, older citizens lack many ways to contribute, and children need reconnecting with society. Through the development of holographic “courses,” the old could take all of the time needed to download their knowledge, retrain the young in fading cultural practices, and make generational connections.
  • Ching—One team lightened the mood with a concept, and physical demonstration, of what could best be called a meta-currency, which provided secure, unloggable completion of transactions across a now-fragmented world of highly localized payment systems. 

In each case, the teams, which were assembled from a mixture of disciplines and members who mostly hadn’t met before the session, quickly oriented themselves to their fictional future, iterated ideas and quickly and smoothly produced their narratives and physical artifacts to support them. And we had a lot of fun in the process, which is an important element.

While there are some deeper considerations to be dealt with in a separate post, a few takeaways from the three days are as follows:

  • Interest in Design Fiction as an accessible, inclusive framework is high among my sample group of future-minded designers and other creatives as it provides a familiar sandbox in which to operate—fictional situations with new experiences. As a multi-faceted, multidisciplinary area, it has the potential to open many access points for new participants in the design-foresight overlap.
  • Lightweight versions of it—what I’m calling future-fabbing here—have potential to open up important conversations about what’s possible in alternative futures, and how inputs and insights when reorganized in different ways, impact outcomes. Having the social objects of the artifacts allows a lot of people to put their hands on the issues, so to speak.
  • Given more time for more reflection and iteration, this approach could allow for some deep insights and pathways to emerge. Putting strategists and designers together in a compact space with a future-defined task for a couple of days can yield some powerful outcomes if the process is programmed well at the front end.

Hopefully this is part one of many similar exercises to come. Many in the lecture and workshop had additional views they added to the picture, or applications they saw that we didn’t, and I’m grateful for their participation. Most of all, I’m grateful for the opportunity to develop the talk, and for the invitation from Matthew Milan and Lindsay Ellerbe at Normative Design and Anna Milan at Torch for the chance to set up the playground for a few hours, as well as for producing the excellent materials you see here. If you are interested in hosting a similar workshop and discussion, please get in touch.

On to the next iteration.