Co-founder of Plurality University Network
Daniel Kaplan is a futurist and entrepreneur, with one leg in innovation, and another in fiction. He currently leads the Plurality University Network project, which networks those who mobilize the resources of the imaginary to broaden the scope of thinkable futures: artists, utopians, designers... Before that, in 1986, he created one of the world's first digital agencies. In the 1990’s, he contributed to the Internet’s development. In 2000, he created the Next-Generation Internet Foundation (Fing) Think-&-Do-Tank. Daniel has been at the source of game-changing concepts such as “Self Data”, that inspired Europe’s data portability right, and “Factor-4 innovation”, a method for projects aiming to produce radical environmental impacts.
I’ve been asked to write about “the role of design and designers in desirable imaginary visions”, and, to do this, we shall have to discuss the highly problematic relationship between design and desirability, which, incidentally, does not mean “desire”, something we’ll come back to later.
Exhibit 1: Futurama, the attraction from the General Motors pavilion at the New York World’s Fair in 1939. The dioramas created by designer Norman Bel Geddes played a powerful role in making the nascent automotive nation taking shape in the United States desirable, a civilization that would expand to the entire globe after the war, and which now symbolizes what we can no longer afford to desire.
Exhibit 2: Minority Report (2002), the Steven Spielberg film inspired by a short story from Philip K. Dick, a depressing description of a world where three “precogs” kept in a state of half-life see crimes before they happen and inform the Precrime unit, in charge of apprehending their future perpetrators. From this film, the world would particularly remember the description of new tactile interfaces that were so alluring that they directly inspired the design of future smartphones. And whose dystopian mood did not stop at least two companies from naming themselves “Precog”, one of which worked precisely in the domain of predictive security.
These two exhibits illustrate the capacity of (good) design to foster or channel collective desire, in the first case, toward highly problematic ends, and in the second, toward a commercial adoption that could care less about the outcome.
Let us start, then, by recognizing that, if today we have such a great need for desirable visions to change the course of History, designers have some responsibility in this. Like marketing, and at nearly the same time, design emerged from within the industrial system at a time when the latter could no longer satisfy certain needs; it had to generate needs or, even better, create a world that would need its products. As in marketing, design managed to capture, or even manipulate desire to mold it to the expectations of those who paid designers’ salaries. That this fostered the creation of true marvels does not change the essential truth: design, along with the entire industrial system, shares the responsibility of having created the “capitalocene” crisis, and separating itself from it will be no easy task.
Still, some people are trying to accomplish this. For now, their limited success can help us identify a few paths that design could take to play a role in the emergence and practical implementation of desirable visions, whose mission is not to re-boot the monetizable needs system, nor to divert real anger toward pacifying fictions.
What is, in fact, a “desirable imaginary vision”? In anthropology, an imaginary vision is the filter through which our perceptions and experiences take on meaning; it is the domain of “representations”. A collective vision is made up of symbols, myths, and tales in which a human group sees itself as such and acts as a unit. And, “desirable”? Without getting bogged down in the details, let’s just say that what makes an imaginary vision desirable, a shared vision, in any case, has nothing to do with what makes an object desirable behind a shop window. The “desirable” we are talking about here is not the sum of desires, but something else altogether: a projection into the future (even the near future), with a collective and systemic aspect, a consideration, a construction of something…
Having thus understood that design has, at least for now, contributed to the creation of a highly undesirable future “by default”, what can it do to change this? “The role of design is to build the future”, if only by transforming possibilities into concrete achievements, but how do we ensure that this future will be desirable? And what role will imagination play in this?
We may, in fact, want to do away with imaginary visions altogether; the world’s problems are a known factor, and they have even been categorized and turned into 17 “Sustainable Development Goals” (SDG). We could simply get to work on each of these. The SDGs are a dream for the engineers, designers, and companies that use them; previously, we produced GMOs, ensuring that farmers would become dependent on our seeds, but now, we nourish the planet (SDG #2). Converted to the systemic approach and a “solution”-oriented discourse, designers assist companies, foundations, and (sometimes) governments to “save the world” (or just “change” it). Except that greenhouse-gas emissions keep growing, species disappear, inequalities are expanding, and…surprise! The world’s problems are inseparable, because a solution in one place can create problems somewhere else (in ecology, we call this the “rebound effect”) and, for over a century now, the market system has shown its stunning capacity to reclaim everything for its benefit, including good intentions and criticisms.
There is therefore no solution without questioning outcomes. And these inevitably proceed by means of imagination, “the ultimate source of any meaning” (Cornelius Castoriadis). It is intuition that underpinned the emergence of “critical design”, which then became “design fiction”, at the risk, yet again, of a commercial takeover that disconnects practices from outcomes.
The pioneers of “critical design”, Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby (or their predecessors, who didn’t use the same terminology, such as the Italian “radical designers” of the 1960s) used design methods to produce objects and situations whose goal was not to be used (much less sold), but rather to provoke thought, to question the order of things. There was one problem: their creations seemed destined to reign over museum halls, as pure objects that could, certainly, like any work of art, make us think, but also not do so. It’s as though design cut off the parts that made it powerful and challenging, in other words, its relationship to production and use, and contented itself with adding its voice to the production of critical narratives without a concrete future, which incidentally, included a marketplace for these very items, as Hollywood has noticed (and, dystopian or not, which could very well inspire entrepreneurs, as we saw with Minority Report).
At the confluence of critical design and “solutionism”, two major figures in 20th-century design, Richard Buckminster Fuller and Victor Joseph Papanek, who seemed different in every way, embarked together, in the 1960s, on a triumphant tour of European design schools, apparently financed by pioneering American soft-power diplomacy. Together, they offered students a way to consider themselves agents of systemic transformation. “Design students form the avant-garde of the student revolution”, wrote Papanek in 1970. With one notable result, undoubtedly the one that financiers had hoped for: rather than making revolution, students made design. Both the criticism and the outcomes quickly disappeared in favor of the (exciting) everyday realities of the profession.
If it really wants to deconstruct the obvious, highlight choices and power plays that underpin our reality, and, especially, allow for the subsequent emergence of alternatives, “critical design” cannot be satisfied with simply placing an object somewhere. It must, as suggested by Max Mollon, “(1)prioritize the public as stand-alone users of [critical design], and thus more seriously consider design’s experience with project feedback; and (2) use disagreement as a trigger for collective debate.” In other words, work on the ground level, with an engaged public, and protocols for discussion. This is to be designed as well, but in a different way, and not in such a spectacular fashion.
Anthropology, philosophy, and, more recently, neuroscience, have all said it: we imagine (consciously or unconsciously) before we act. Cornelius Castoriadis says: “Mankind only manages to resolve real-world problems because it is able to imagine”, but “these real problems…are notlike theproblems that this or that era or society seeks to solve, following a core vision of that time or of the society being considered”. Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg, a pioneer in biodesign fiction, has stated that: “We must reimagine the world in order to rebuild it”.
But we’ve seen it: without the “makers’” discipline of design, its contribution can be limited to imaginings, and these can easily be diverted from their original meaning. When Syrian artist Yara Said created the flag of the “Refugee Nation”, in an orange fabric that reminds us of life vests, her action only became significant as part of this “nation’s” desire for recognition (it would be the third most populous country in the world) and as part of real events, such as its (unofficial) use during the 2016 Olympic Games.
When, under the leadership of Aarathi Krishnan, the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent organized a major exhibition of “design fiction” prototypes, this was part of a process that included around a hundred future-focused workshops throughout the world and concentrated on a concrete objective, which was later achieved: feeding the strategic thinking of this century-old institution, to make it more useful in the times to come.
Design which has thus become speculative does in fact have the power to bring to life and make perceptible desirable visions and futures. But it is only design if it goes as far as thinking about the conditions for their concrete realization, and it is only critical and speculative if it manages to extract itself from the industrial system it emerged from, which is clearly a problem on the financing side. It’s a matter of taking the fruitful skills of design into other spaces, into the interface between context, needs, technology, manufacturers’ rationales, and environmental constraints, the link between imaginings, objects, and uses, into reproducibility, and more…
This thought process has, for example, led a few critical and speculative design pioneers, worried about the adverse effects of their creative output, to publish, in 2017, a “Manifesto for Reconstrained Design”, in which it’s a question of end purpose (from the very inception), capabilities (taking back control of means, facilitating action and not empathy), responsibility…and of “abandoning salon criticism by seizing upon the most difficult task, that of offering viable alternatives”. Here, it is also a matter of “interruption”, which (using other language) is one of the central subjects in the “ecological redirection” proposed by the team at Origens Medialab, who originated a “Strategy and Design for the Anthropocene” Master’s program at the École supérieure de commerce de Clermont and Strate Design: “Well beyond the design of a new product, new service, or new business model, design today should deal with matters of strategic foresight, which will have an impact on all kinds of socio-economic activities”. Ecological redirection happens through the deliberate and difficult work of “disinvestment, dis-innovation, dis-incubation”, a whole agenda that designers should be playing a key role in.
Design can easily produce desirable imaginary visions that concretely engender nothing desirable. To go beyond this, it needs a new philosophy, which itself would be part of a political vision. It’s about awakening to the responsibilities that accompany the power of this practice, but not simply this, because everyone these days says that they are responsible. It’s more about questioning the outcomes and co-producing other outcomes (in a real situation, with the stakeholders involved), while mastering the path forward, to avoid the eternal commercial take-over, and leaving the field open to appropriations and re-uses. It’s about liberating the field from its sponsors, without working far beyond its purview.
And so, we have many contradictions to resolve. But otherwise, we might as well design our own coffins. And the timing couldn’t be better: there’s a design-fiction object for that.