Hello world! Design Futurescaping

Design Futurescaping is an article by Anab Jain, Jon Ardern, and Justin Pickard. It is part of the Blowup Reader The Era of Objects.

For an illustrated version, please download the complete PDF of the Era of Objects Reader.

Design Futurescaping? In 2009, Bruce Sterling hailed the arrival of ‘a networked, interactive, increasingly speculative futurity’ (Sterling, 2009: 28). In this, a world where ‘the imagination has become an organized field of social practices’ (Appadurai, 1990) – that which Sterling dubs ‘speculative culture’ – design futurescaping emerges a hybrid practice, unfolding at the intersection of foresight and critical design. First presented as a phrase at Lift 09 by Anab Jain, the ‘futurescape’ is cast as an analogue for the physical landscape; a heterogeneous topography of unevenly-distributed futurity; infinitely extendible; punctuated with features and landmarks.

Drawing extensively on science fiction’s tactics for cognitive estrangement, design futurescaping borrows wholesale the notion of the ‘novum’; ‘the central imaginary novelty in an sf text, the source of the most important distinctions between the world of the tale and the world of the reader.’ (Csicsery-Ronay, Jr., 2008: 47) As a combination of multiple socio-technological novums, layered in space, Sterling describes the futurescape as having ‘user-centric Google maps rather than officially certified paper road maps (...) not some Marxist road to utopia, [but] a navigable global sprawl.’ (Sterling, 2009: 28) In this, he gestures at some of the collaborative, networked character of design futurescaping. Informed by the ‘pop-up’ infrastructures and anti-heroic, futurefacing rhetoric of twentieth-century designers such as Superstudio, Archigram and Ant Farm, design futurescaping channels multiple voices to create hybrid, humane alternatives to the deterministic, ‘business-as-usual’ consensus future.

Design futurescaping also has something of an activist bent. Sharing a filial similarity with the notion of ‘urban acupuncture’, which has been described by architect John Southern as ‘a surgical and selective intervention into the urban environment’ (Kaye, 2011), design futurescaping seeks to make similar, small-scale interventions in the technological imaginary. As ‘a form of negotiation between sites of agency (individuals) and globally defined fields of possibility’ (Appadurai, 1990), we can use ‘micro-targeting, low-cost, democratic, and empowering tactics’ (Kaye, 2011) to actualise details from the scenarios, catalyse shifts in public discourse, and – ultimately – effect lasting behavioural change.


‘Thick’ Futurescapes

The persuasive power of a futurescape depends, to a great deal, on its nuance and specificity. Creating plausible images of a complex and heterogeneous future necessarily entails a greater level of detailing than the brief, textual vignettes of conventional scenarios work. In this, design futurescaping has borrowed extensively from Clifford Geertz’s notion of ethnography as a form of ‘thick description’ (Geertz, 1973: 10). For Geertz, grasping the full meaning of actions, objects and practices requires a ‘thick’ semiotic analysis, appraising each as a form of cultural communication, viewed as if by an insider, and located in the widest possible context. In this, we can begin to detail a ‘slice’ through future society – the product of multiple trends, actors, agents, technologies, and ‘thick’ meanings.

Consider the futurescape of the film Blade Runner (1982), brainchild of visual futurist Syd Mead; ‘a seemingly densely real creation which grafted futuristic imagery over the base of grittily textured leftovers from today’s [Los Angeles] ... a glittering neon world of advertising and enticing images perched high on skyscrapers hunched over the tackily ethnic crowds bustling past street-level shops, stores, and vendors.’ (Carper, 1991: 186) By successfully engineering an abundance of detail, Mead and Scott successfully immersed audiences in the film’s future setting. In our project, ‘Power of 8’, the futurescape of ‘Acres Green’ stood as a cypher for Brentford, a suburb of London. Futurescaping the cyborg ecosystem of a relatively bounded and autonomous local unit, it became possible to ‘map out, without insuperable methodological difficulties, which actors [found] themselves in which relationships to which other actors, ... developing a comprehensive picture of the patterns of interaction that make up the local community.’ (Erikson, 2001: 58) In the research stage of this particular project, one of our participants described the dynamics of mapping and montage as ‘a kind of post-psychogeography where the dérive is reverse-engineered. Instead of drifting aimlessly through unknown cityscapes, we have plotted a route through a psychogeographic territory of our own making ... with yet unexpected consequences.

Fig. 1: Illustrations by participants narrating stories of their ‘future neighbourhoods’ using post-psychogeography. Fig. 2: An overview of the journeys that all participants took in this ‘future neighbourhood’.


Networked Futurescapes

An emphasis on ‘thick’ detailing and holistic systems lends credence to our visions of the future, aiding in the description of a world that is no longer ‘an archipelago of isolated cultures, but an unbounded system of multiple interrelationships.’ (Erikson, 2001: 305) As globalisation weakens borders and boundaries, opening the floodgates to ‘an intensified flow of people, commodities, ideas, and images on a global scale’ (Erikson, 2001: 297), it becomes more important than ever to familiarise ourselves with a world where nation and neighbourhood are merely ‘node[s] of a complex transnational construction of imaginary landscapes’ (Appadurai, 1990); a future evermore deeply entangled in inter- and intra-dependent networks of people, artefacts, systems, and services.

Writing in the early 1990s, sociologist Bruno Latour grasped the emerging logic of this world sooner than most. Using the newspaper as fodder for his exploration of an inchoate ‘actor-network theory’, he traced some of these complex networks through the news stories of the day:

‘On page eight, there is a story about computers and chips controlled by the Japanese; on page nine, about the right to keep frozen embryos; on page ten, about a forest burning, its columns of smoke carrying off rare species that some naturalists would like to protect; on page eleven, there are whales wearing collars fitted with radio tracking devices; also on page eleven, there is a slag heap in northern France, a symbol of the exploitation of workers, that has just been classified as an ecological preserve because of the rare flora it has been fostering! On page twelve, the Pope, French bishops, Monsanto, the Fallopian tubes, and Texas fundamentalists gather in a strange cohort around a single contraceptive.’ (Latour, 1993: 2)

As with Syd Mead’s designs for Blade Runner’s future L.A., Latour relies on a layering of relational details to approach the challenge of representing an infinitely extendible, heterogeneous totality – much too large to be represented through traditional means. In a literary context, James Bridle answers this challenge of representation with the term ‘network realism’; writing ‘that is of and about the network ... posit[ing] an increasingly 1:1 relationship between Fiction and the World.’ (Bridle, 2010) Similarly, design futurescaping is a form of network realism ‘because of the way that it talks about the world, and the way its knowledge of the world is gathered and disseminated.’ (ibid.) Acres Green and Little Brinkland exist on a timeline, but, as Bridle points out, ‘it’s not a simple line back-to-the-past and forward-to-the-future ... [but] a gathering-together of many currently possible worldlines, seen from the nearomniscient superposition of the network.’ (ibid.) Positing an unevenly-distributed futurity, many of the components of our speculations as design futurescapers are already out there, in the wild. We visualise images of genetically-engineered bees, artificial clouds, and network cold-zones, and, as science-fictional novums, they seem plausible because so much of their technological and social underpinnings already exist, in however nascent a form. For this, futurist Jamais Cascio uses the phrase ‘plausibly surreal’, while Steven Johnson talks of the ‘adjacent possible’: a phrase which ‘captures both the limits and the creative potential of change and innovation.’ (Johnson, 2010: 31) Regardless of the terminology, design futurescaping is a practice that has been enabled by the increasing visibility of these weak signals and early warnings in an information-drenched network culture.

Fig. 3: The visualisation of ‘Acres Green’, a sustainable augmented ecosystem.

Fig. 4: Synthetic Bees recreated through rapid prototyping techniques, as ‘objects’ within networked futurescapes.

Fig. 5: ‘Fake Mountains’ created using CNC machines, again used as ‘objects’ within networked futurescapes.

Fig. 6: Billboards generated to create ‘evidences’ of a potential future, also considered as an ‘object’ within networked futurescapes, project ‘Little Brinkland’.


Futurescaping as Montage

In its portrayals of the future, science fiction literature – and film – has fallen too easily into the safe tropes of utopia and dystopia, while our lived experience tends towards the ambiguous and the mundane. Design futurescaping faces the unique challenge of reconciling the need to reflect the mundane with the possibilities and potentialities of the coming decades. In both aesthetics and methodology, then, we have embraced montage, combining multiple viewpoints, media, and modes of presentation in its quest to bridge what Jameson describes as ‘the incommensurability between an individual witness ... and the collective’, with an incomplete expression of ‘the absent, unrepresentable totality’ (Jameson, 1992: 10). As Lebbeus Woods comments, montage is a rarely-used weapon in the armoury of twenty-first century design, noting, in particular, that:

‘we have not seen much use of photomontage as a design tool since the work of the Russian Constructivists, the Bauhaus and, somewhat more recently, Archigram. It has the immediate advantage of employing the familiar and, by selection and rearrangement, transforming it into the new. At the very least, this enables us to see new potential in the existing and obviates the need to begin – in the usual utopian sense – from scratch.’ (Woods, 2010)

If, as Stross comments, ‘[t]he outward shape of the future contains the present and the past, embedded within it like flies in amber’ (Stross, 2011), Woods is right: there should be no need to start from scratch. In fact, design futurescaping should resist the call of the ‘clean break’, recognising the value of history, context, and the specificity of the local. By combining fragments of past, present, and future, we arrive at a world-image that stands, broadly contiguous, with our current time.

Figs. 7, 8: ‘Cold Zones’ in the project Little Brinkland were created using different montage techniques.

Again, in more activist terms, the techniques of montage are cheap, quick and accessible, allowing participants from the grassroots to easily engineer what Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein described as a ‘break in the perception of something outside the logic of the ordinary [through which] a restructuring of ordinary perception takes place’ (Eisenstein, 1976). In our design futurescaping projects, we have made extensive use of such techniques, combining video sketches, graphic mock-ups, physical artefacts and design fictions to hint at a greater totality, engendering the cognitive estrangement that allows participants and publics to encounter their world anew.

 Fig. 9: Similarly montage techniques were created collaboratively by participants for the project ‘Power of 8’


Futurescaping for Public Engagement

Finally, we must discuss the role of design futurescaping as a form of public engagement. In our futurescaping projects at Superflux, we have strived to engage diverse stakeholders, embedding consultations and co-creation directly into the structure of our design process. Some examples of the design methodologies we have used to foster public engagement include the collaborative annotation of poster templates, physical prototyping in Lego and fibreboard, and the solicitation of comments, suggestions and responses through social media. In this way, design futurescaping relies on a willingness to work, to some extent, in the public eye. As Sloan comments, ‘[w]orking in public ... can be a lot of fun, ... but more than that: it can be a powerful public good.’ (Sloan, 2011) In addition to the engagement tactics embedded in our process, we also try to lever the outputs of design futurescaping for public discourse and education. Individual artefacts and design fictions provide anchors for the futurescape; catalysts for public discourse and debate. Necessarily speculative, at a semiotic level, they operate through connotation, mobilising a web of links, topics, and associations. In this way, they act, first, at the level of the tangible, showcased in exhibitions and events, later experiencing a mediated afterlife in digital archives, websites, and social media.

Commenting on recent shifts in discourses around the public understanding of  science, Gregory and Miller are quick to note that, for much of the twentieth-century, the general public had: ‘had to marvel at such wonders of science as they were allowed to behold, to be grateful for the benefits scientific advances brought to society, and to be just a little frightened of scientific knowledge – at least frightened enough not to meddle or to voice their uninformed opinions on scientific matters. From time to time, to make sure things did not get out of hand, the fears of the public would be assuaged by the reassuring figure of the expert, who did know enough to probe the innermost secrets of animate and inanimate nature.’ (Gregory and Miller, 2000: 1) Our design futurescaping projects at Superflux can be broadly located within the cultural shift away from this top-down model of authoritative knowledge and technoscientific expertise. Placing a strong emphasis on the power and emancipatory politics of DIY futures, open toolkits, collaborative methods, and ‘maker culture’, we try to project forward from extant trends, technologies and processes, devising believable prototypes, images and media to engage the public in a direct and stimulating way.

Fig. 10, 11, 12: Public engagement also involved collaborative making and building, project ‘Power of 8’.


Appadurai, A., 1990. ‘Disjuncture and Difference in the Global Cultural Economy’, Public Culture, Vol. 2 (2), pp. 1-24. Bridle, J., 2010. ‘Network Realism: William Gibson and new forms of Fiction’, 25/10/2010, booktwo.org, <http://booktwo.org/notebook/network-realism/> (accessed 01/09/2011) Carper, S., 1991. ‘Subverting the Disaffected City: Cityscape in Blade Runner’, in J. Kerman (ed.), Retrofitting Blade Runner (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press), pp. 185-195. Csicsery-Ronay, Jr., I., 2008. The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press) Eisenstein, S., 1976. ‘Notes for a Film of Capital,’ trans. Sliwowski, Maciej, Jay Leyda and Annette Michelson, October, Vol. 2 Eriksen, T. H., 2001. Small Places, Large Issues: An Introduction to Social and Cultural Anthropology, Second Edition (Sterling, VA: Pluto Press) Geertz, C., 1973. The Interpretation of Cultures (New York, NY: Basic Books) Gregory, J. and S. Miller, 2000. Science in Public: Communication, Culture and Credibility (Cambridge, MA: Perseus Publishing) Jameson, F., 1992. The Geopolitical Aesthetic: Cinema and Space in the World System (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University press) Johnson, S., 2010. Where Good Ideas Come From (New York, NY: Penguin Books) Kaye, L., 2011. ‘Could cities’ problems be solved by urban acupuncture?’, 21/07/2011, Guardian Professional Network, <http://www.guardian.co.uk/sustainable-business/urban-acupuncture-community-localised-renewal-projects> (accessed 01/09/2011) Latour, B., 1993. We Have Never Been Modern, trans. Catherine Porter (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press) Sloan, R., 2011. ‘The Art of Working in Public’, 20/07/2011, Snarkmarket, <http://snarkmarket. com/2011/7189> (accessed 01/09/2011) Sterling, B., 2009. ‘Designer Futurescape’, in Make Magazine, Vol. 18., pp. 28-29. Stross, C., 2011. ‘USENIX 2011 Keynote: Network Security in the Medium Term, 2061-2561 A.D.’, 16/08/2011,  <http://www.antipope.org/charlie/blog-static/2011/08/usenix-2011-keynote-network-se.html> (accessed 01/09/2011) Woods, L., 2010. ‘UTOPIA REDUX’, 09/01/2010, Lebbeus Woods, <http://lebbeuswoods.wordpress. com/2010/01/09/utopia-redux/> (accessed 01/09/2011)

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