Designing Visions of the Future

The future – indeed, temporality – has only entered substantially into design discourses and practices relatively recently. Design, and other disciplines such as architecture, geography and geology, have long been materially and spatially preoccupied. Today, however, ideas about the future – or, in philosopher Elizabeth Grosz’ terms, futurity – is stake in many design arguments and practices.
Assumptions about the direction of time, progression and progress seem to underlie popular design rhetorics concerning ‘the new’, ‘progress’, ‘transformation’ and ‘transition’, for example. Design, as well as science, is affected by the increasing hegemony of values such as ‘newness’ and ‘innovation’, in which design rhetorics and practices concerning futurity have rapidly expanded. 
 
Beyond popular rhetoric, some argue that the future is itself a design problem. Some classic conceptions of design are premised upon directed action toward preferred futures – for example in the formulation by Herbert Simon from 1996: “Everyone designs who devises courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones”, thereby “addressing differences between the desired and the present”. Possible, probable and preferred futures are explicitly addressed in ‘concept’, ‘critical’ and ‘persuasive’ design practices discussed further below. Particular ideas or ideals of the future are mobilized by socially- and politically-engaged designers, by critical, conceptual or persuasive designers, and by ‘redirective designers’ addressing ‘defuturing’ phenomena such as climate change. Genres of ‘design futures’ are amassing an increasing number of examples, theoretical depth, and public exposure.
 
As concern for temporality and futurity has expanded, design and futures studies approaches are increasingly allied. In Europe, futures studies grew strongly with a public awareness of issues such as climate change (for example, energy featured strongly in the development of the field in Sweden) and public demand for understanding and participating in long-term national policies. With the rise of more accessible, participatory, and ‘grounded’ forms of governance, social and spatial planning, design has become a powerful discipline charged with visualizing such futures in accessible, popular and persuasive forms. Design visioning and prototyping of futures has been crucial for rendering previously textual analyses (such as policy scenarios) and abstract concepts (such as “sustainability”) in forms available for empirical (i.e. bodily) experience.
 
As such future visions, along with their norms and priorities, shape policy planning, market economies and cultural imaginaries, there is much at stake in the expanding intersection between the disciplines of futures studies and design visioning. 
 
An enduring example of the power of design envisioning ideas of time, memory and the future is acceptera, the first manifesto of Swedish Modern design. Acceptera evoked, in text, image and proposed designs, a modern, or future, ‘A-Europe’, ‘The society we are building for’ and ‘B-Europe’, or ‘Sweden-then’, fragmented spatially, temporally and socially. Some values, customs, peoples and cultures were portrayed as regressive and stuck across past centuries. A-Europe is premised on a standardized society, allowing for industrialization at all levels, from that of large-scale communications networks to the micro and minor practices of local farming, leisure activities and domestic work. Acceptera is a manifesto for development in a predetermined direction, created on the basis of a modern understanding of time, progress and linear causality, a specific arrow of time premised on industrial technologies and industrial design, leading to a particular, and singular, societal future. 
 
The politics of the future envisioned in acceptera were explicit – acceptera was published by the Social Democratic political party, and it has had profound and lasting effects on the ideological and socio-material construction of the Swedish welfare state. 
 
However, the politics of many designed visions of the future are not explicit and, perhaps, not reflected upon. While temporal rhetorics of ‘the new’ pervade design, other temporal phenomena such as ‘chance’, ‘indeterminacy’ and the ‘untimely’ seem less welcome. This implies certain assumptions, ideals, priorities – and political dimensions – in making a difference between what is real, now and what is, or is not, desirable or negotiable for the future. Indeed, the ‘arrow of time’ in acceptera was directed not to any possible future but to a specific and preferred future reality with explicit political intent. In this article, I argue that we need to make explicit and reflect upon the assumptions, norms and ideals underlying our designed visions of the future. This is particularly urgent given the expansion of design visions into the public sphere, with tangible consequences on the understandings, aspirations and behaviors of public society. A critical contemporary issue for design is to better understand the political dimensions of designed visions of the future, including the role that it may have in (re)producing or countering social norms, practices and structures.
 
Short text based on 2 articles:
 
Mazé, R. (forthcoming 2017) Design and politics (of sustainability), Futures.
 
Mazé, R. (2016) ‘Design and the Future: Temporal politics of ‘making a difference’ in R.C. Smith and T. Otto (eds), Design Anthropological Futures. London: Bloomsbury.
 
Text: Ramia Mazé
 
 

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