Dreaming Forward (talk at Utrecht Winter School on Earth System Governance)

I’m delighted to take part in the Utrecht Winter School on Earth System Governance next week.

The 2018 Utrecht Winter School on Earth System Governance is designed to function as an incubator for early career researchers working with the new earth system governance research agenda. The aim is to critically reflect on the new research agenda and start taking it forward by facilitating early career researchers’ work connected to this agenda.

I’ll be speaking on a very exciting panel titled Anticipation and Imagination alongside Joost Vervoort (who’s also one of the Winter School’s academic directors), Maarten Hajer, and Aarti Gupta.

My talk is a first attempt to articulate what I find to be an important challenge for critical designers: making connections between the imagination as a faculty of the individual, and the more collective, social imaginaries. Here’s the abstract:

Dreaming forward: from the designerly imagination to social and political imaginaries.
Design is synonymous with the imagination. Designers imagine new products, new services, and new environments, how these could be used and by whom, and how they may lead to new, lucrative markets. Design is also quintessentially future-oriented. Designers appeal to the future as a means by which to concretize and test their ideas, effectively approaching the future as a container for innovation. But what happens when the designerly imagination takes social issues as its object? How are designers implicated in future-making or worldmaking, and how may the designerly imagination influence the more collective, social imaginaries? The talk charts initial answers to these questions by surveying the intersection of design, futures, and the imagination.

(Gustave Courbet, Paysage de Mer, 1869)

New book out!

My first book, Interactive Media for Sustainability, is now officially out and can be purchased on the Palgrave/Macmillan website. It is part of the Palgrave Studies in Media and Environmental Communication series.

From the publisher’s webpage:

Interactive Media for Sustainability presents a conceptually rich, critical account of the design and use of interactive technologies to engage the public with sustainability. Treating interactive technologies as forms of mediation, the book argues that these technologies advance multiple understandings of sustainability. At stake are the ways sustainability encodes the complexity of interrelated social and natural systems, and how it conveys the malleability of the future. The book’s argument is anchored in a diverse set of theoretical resources that include contemporary work in human-computer interaction (HCI), social theory, media studies, and the philosophy of technology, and is animated by a variety of examples, including interactive simulations, persuasive apps, digital games, art installations, and decision-support tools.


Design in the Age of Artificial Intelligence

The Faculty of Industrial Design Engineering is holding a symposium, Design in the Age of Artificial Intelligence, on March 12, 2018. The preamble:

The rapid rise of Artificial Intelligence (AI) poses fundamental challenges for the creative industry. Although AI technologies are being adopted at an ever faster pace, Design as an academic discipline has so far failed to provide a convincing answer to the opportunities and challenges of AI.

This one-day symposium brings together design researchers and educators from the TU Delft Faculty of Industrial Design Engineering with the aim of sharing experiences and shaping future activities at the intersection of Design and AI.

IBM worked with Rio to design a command center that integrates over 30 city departments to improve emergency response management and collaboration across the city. Weather forecasting and predictive analytics capabilities use information to decide how to best react to current events and how to best plan for what is likely to happen in the future in order to minimize impact on citizens.

My own contribution focuses on the social consequences of AI in the context of smart city design. Here’s the abstract:

From opacity to legibility: AI in the smart city

In this short talk I discuss design responses to the potential implications of AI – an integral element of the smart city suite of technologies – for public involvement in urban design. My concern, as implied in the title, is that AI constitutes a ‘black box’ whose opacity may prevent the public from taking a more informed and active role in city-making.

I will first situate AI in relation to two important orientations, directions or ‘pulls’ in smart city design: the first is the imperative to design flexible, multi-stakeholder, open-ended platforms (“infrastructuring” in Ezio Manzini’s terms), and the second is the growing shift in ownership of urban infrastructure from public to private actors (what Keller Easterling calls “extrastatecraft”). I will suggest that it is becoming difficult for the public to identify the presence of AI and intervene in its development given the way much of the former takes place ‘under the hood’, so to speak, and much of the latter takes place in exclusive commercial settings. I will then illustrate two design responses to these developments. The first, Smart City Panorama by Studio Richard Vijgen, is an art-design installation that was part of the Data Embassy exhibition during Dutch Design Week, 2017. The second is the AI Mayor, a speculative design created by students during last year’s edition of the DfI masters class, Interactive Technology Design (ITD).


Speculative Design for students

Interactive Technology Design (ITD) is a masters-level course that is offered as part of the DfI (design for interactions) MSc program at Delft University of Technology‘s Department of Industrial Design. The course introduces students to explorative prototyping as a “make first” approach to design, promoting the use of prototyping not just as a way to evaluate final concepts but as a way to come up with and flesh out those concepts.

In 2017 the course was dedicated to critical, speculative futures. Students were assigned one of seven themes (each conveying a societal issue with important future consequences), and were asked to design an interactive experience that communicates critically a possible future based on those themes. Instead of solving a problem, students were asked to communicate the problem. In the course syllabus we write:

Good prototypes will both be recognizable as belonging to these speculative worlds, and be capable of communicating elements of that world in a critical manner – using future developments as a way to problematize the present.

Themes included extended lifespan, immigration and refugees, urban development, hackable emotions, data and surveillance, labour, and information overload. The course’s coaching team was made of Aadjan van der Helm, Tomasz Jaskiewicz, Wouter van der Hoog, and me.

The design process combined futuring techniques with rapid prototyping, providing students with a playful, experimental environment in which they could be both creative and critical. In each class day (~9 hrs) student groups were asked to complete a full prototyping cycle: develop a future scenario, design and materialize an interactive prototype that communicates the scenario, and test the prototype with ‘real’ users.

The overall process included several steps:

  1. Developing familiarity with the theme/brief, including desk research and guest lectures from within and outside the department.
  2. Creating a two-driver scenario (resulting in a 2×2 scenario space) that takes place in the near(ish) future (20-30 years ahead).
  3. Developing a narrative that conveys one of the four scenario possibilities as an everyday situation, and identifying an interactive object within that story.
  4. Designing, building, and testing the interactive object.
  5. Reflecting on the day’s process in a short report.

The courses’s final exhibition featured 20 group projects. Each group was given a dedicated space, where students and visitors role-played the future situation using costumes, props, and additional media such as videos and music. Vice’s Motherboard reported on the exhibition here (in Dutch).

The top-five projects were invited to present demos in DeSForM 2017.

The AI Mayor
What if decisions about urban development were made by Artificial Intelligence?
The interactive experience played out as a faux public consultation: participant were asked to help the ‘mayor’ make a decision, only to find that the ‘mayor’ went ahead and made whatever decision he desired. The “blackbox” of urban design was seen for all of its opacity.

Photo by Guus Schoonewille

Group members included Tomo Kihara, Zoe Vos, Martijn Weber, Ziyi Zhang.

Lonely Astronaut Training
What if astronauts going on long solo missions had to receive special training for the loneliness such missions imply?
The experience included proximity detractors, sound and vibration messaging that went off whenever the astronaut/participant came into close contact with others. Loneliness became a teachable emotion.

Photo by Guus Schoonewille

Group members included Mina Boogaard, Claudia De León Castro, Tanja van der Heide, Anna Koolen, Michael Speek, Freek Trimbach.

The Datactor
What if it became practically impossible to assert the authenticity of consumer products?
Participants wore special gloves that upon contact with a product showed some relevant information about it. When several participants look at the same product the glove shows different, contrasting information. ‘Fake’ product information became a reality.

Photo by Guus Schoonewille

Group members included Renan Jordano de Barros, Irene van Houten, Jen Liu, Tamara Monster, Celeste Volpi.

The Republic of Tirania
What if refugees seeking asylum had to undergo genetic modification as a condition for being granted entrance?
Participants underwent scanning and simulated genetic modification in a small booth, after which they were given a fake passport in which white skin was turned dark and vice versa.

Photo by Guus Schoonewille

Group members included Wikke Alphenaar, Wies van Lieshout, Gijs Louwers, Guillermo Meza Perez, Yong Park.

Data Afterlife
What if our data became a living epitaph after our death?
By using a special device, participants could listen to the data traces of the dead. The device triggered voice playback once it came into proximity with a burial wall. Participants were also asked whether they would be willing to leave, posthumously, their data memories behind.

Photo by Guus Schoonewille

Group members included Thomas van Arkel, Mengyin Dai, Min Huang, Marije Schokkin, Elise Wabeke.

Next year’s iteration will be dedicated to speculative urban futures.