This is the final article of a three-part series following the Balcony project, a discursive design initiative conducted in collaboration between Takram and Hitachi Design - London. Articles were shared as the project progressed in an effort to make speculative design projects less detached and more engaged in dialogue with the community. We welcome your thoughts and opinions.
In part one of this three-part series we discussed some of the blurring lines currently emerging within many societies. In part two, we explored how to avoid a few of the pitfalls relating to futuring. In this final part, we take a look at a couple of scenes depicting possible desirable futures and discuss how each of these directly respond to the locales where we conducted our research.
In our collaborative, discursive design project with Hitachi, we decided to work within three distinct locales in acknowledgement of the importance of place and locality in design work. Within all works of design lie references to the places, communities, and values where people live, giving shape to dynamic parts of the work. At times the history of the materials, values, and practices that form a part of design work are rendered clearly, and other times, not. In part two of this series, we engaged with three different locales while bearing in mind the distinct aim of not seeking to propose utopian visions as solutions in response to our research. We wanted to work with the future in ways which escape the aggrandizing of particular technologies or structures of power so often seen in projections of the future. Instead, we wanted to make tangible the social and cultural questions pertaining to the future manifested in each location.
Working within 3 diverse locales for the project was a highly humbling experience. Engaging with each place required both effort and sensitivity toward how worlds unfold differently in different places— not being able to go visit in person in light of the ongoing global pandemic did make this aspect more challenging, forcing us to change the way we do sense-making work.
In this article, we want to dive into the scenes we made to capture preferable futures in the investigated locations. In presenting one pair of future projections from each location, we hope to illustrate the value of acknowledging the differences among the sites and how contrasting them with one another can create further room for discussion of preferable futures.
Locale One: Feeling pushed out by corporate and public infrastructures
One of the locales we worked with is a suburban new town in the periphery of a European metropolis that embodies modern, urban dreams of both the past and present. With the greater influence that big businesses have around the world today, people living in this locale felt that there were few opportunities for them to shape their local environment. We found that especially in areas with only a short history for community culture to thrive on, people fear that public systems will leave community needs behind in a quest to attract big businesses.
One image which came to mind for many we spoke with was a feeling of communal precarity and a decrease in convivial spaces, coinciding with thriving corporate and public partnerships manifesting as offices and malls in city centres. Below, a person grieves over the emergence of vacant spaces in the foreground while large construction cranes in the background allude to simultaneous large-scale development.
1. Residents lose touchpoints to the local community and local businesses 2. Residents are left out from the city's development vision 3. Big corporate developments are not culturally integrated well with residents 4. The coexistence of expansion and grief
Along with this projection representing particular anxieties expressed within our first locality, we also created an optimistic, albeit not utopian, response to the anxieties experienced by people living in our first locality. The scenes below seek to make visible the value of focussing on creating pathways and spaces for communities to engage. The right side of the scene shows a box accepting proposals for what to use the vacant space for next, while the left side shows one, formerly vacant, space now in active use by the community. In this projection, rather than idealizing the role of new technology as the answer, we hope to bring focus to just how communities should be engaged with developing their local areas.
1. Residents actively participate in the city's future development projects 2. Local businesses are nurtured using small-scale opportunities 3. The process of learning from other development projects is made smoother by the public presentation of data surrounding citizen's engagement
Locale two: Feeling stuck in the established energy world
In another locale situated in Northern Europe, we worked with a city which is thoroughly embedded in the global fossil fuels energy system.
Engaging with this locality through research and interviews made it clear that the experience of Covid-19 in the region had revealed the boundaries of established, fossil-fuel reliant infrastructure. Some community members in this city expressed anxiety about the city's seeming inability to look beyond the boundaries of the energy world which it currently inhabits. They expressed feeling that smart-city visions have also been unsuccessful at offering tangible pathways forward.
An anxiety projection which comes to some people's minds in this location is one of gradual isolation — enforced by culture, the built environment and the ongoing experience of the Covid-19 pandemic. Whereas people living here would like to try and address the issues pertaining to legacy energy infrastructure, the very structure of established energy systems being that of individual households paying for themselves makes it a difficult issue to engage with.
Our main concern when attempting to respond to this expressed anxiety was to show that a more communally-driven energy culture is possible. This led to the creation of a visualization where two families interact by sharing electricity from a single car. Whereas the electric car as a technology is a key component of this scene, enabling a different social and cultural approach to energy is the primary focus.
1. A visible distance between the two houses emphasise a feeling of isolation 2. The feeling of isolation creates a sense of paralysis when it comes to dealing with issues, from larger problems with the nation's economy, to smaller personal problems in everyday life 3. The person is visibly uncomfortable even though they are at home, illustrating the discomfort of being stuck within the bubble of the home
Locale three: Heightened tension between locals and visitors
Lastly, we worked with a central European, nature-rich city with high seasonal variation in weather and in the flow of people to and from the city. Here, the pandemic is changing how people view the act of traveling, but also the feelings locals have towards people who visit their area. Some locals have been enjoying the shift in mobility patterns brought by the pandemic, but share anxieties around not being able to have the same access to the city as before when things return to normal. The visualization accompanying this expressed anxiety is one of locals and visitors alike not being able to meaningfully coexist.
1. Lowered amount of friction associated with sharing energy infrastructure allows people to escape the bubble paradigm more easily. 2. Platforms enabling transactions of energy between individuals in ways which are safe and fair to all parties involved in transactions.
As the behaviors of locals and visitors alike change, a space also emerges for creating positive shared experiences between them. Pathways are created for visitors to nurture deeper engagement with a place by, for example, giving them partial access to services available to residents.
1. There is little opportunity for residents and tourists to have meaningful interactions 2. Residents resultantly harbour growing frustration with tourists as their leisure spaces become more crowded 3. Travellers seeking an alternative form of tourism are unsatisfied with their trip, leaving with a negative impression of the city
1. Space is created for local residents to have quality interactions with tourists, nurturing relationships based on an exchange of trust and service 2. Residents are able to readjust their understanding of what a tourist can be, to an image of one who is more integrated with citizens 3. Tourists are able to enjoy a new way of experiencing a city by gaining access to facilities and areas that were previously closed off
Takeaways: Discursive design as grounded in locales
Working with explicit locales in this project exemplified to us the real dangers posed by not having a clear consideration of local context when carrying out projects. When a site or locality is not first defined in design projects, oftentimes implicit, or assumed, local identities are introduced as a result. Too many foresight or discursive design projects inadvertently assume a locale, producing skewed, single-world representations of the future which are less complex and less rewarding than the realities they are thought to represent. It is important, then, to recognize that even without running a full-fledged field study or designing something specifically for one locality, the process of design always engages local communities and benefits from involving their knowledge and lived experience. This realization should shape the ways we conduct discursive design work — for us, this is a continuous process wherein we continue to strive in working with conscious attention to context.
Keeping trends, utopianizing, and futuring a local invites shallow engagement. Our finding was that a lot of previously unraised concerns were revealed the moment we began to consider how a certain trend might be engaged with by communities, such as Central European blue-collar suburban communities with electrification, and societal life in particular places. Being able to understand and accurately portray both the anxieties and desirable futures of stakeholders in the locus' of design creates space for nurturing dialogue. Presenting pre-baked visions versus initiating dialogue based on community-input marks the difference between empowerment and imposition.
Onwards: Online and offline
This project has convinced us of the stakes involved in any futuring activity. No futuring is neutral, and any work conducted toward the shaping or crafting of visions inevitably begins to act on what is currently happening — strengthening the potential of some future pathways while subduing others.
To build on the findings of this project and to create space to continue to try and understand how the pandemic is shaping preferable futures in different localities around the globe, our collaborators at Hitachi Design London will continue the project, diving further into the insights shared in this parts-series. We will continue to explore and share future visions of different places and sectors in a new online publication, Blurred Lines.
Jonathan is a design researcher and programmer with a background in computer science and historiography who works to draw historical context and locality into design practice. At night, he has fun weaving paper hearts aided by computational media.