We’re calling from bxl, to talk to you about the futures-related work at FoAM. For those of you unfamiliar with our work, FoAM is a network of laboratories for speculative culture, with studios currently in Brussels, Amsterdam, Stockholm and Falmouth in the UK (with an occasional temporary studio a bit closer to you - in Glenelg). Nik and I are FoAM’s co-founders and have been working at FoAM for nearly 15 years.
Our presentation will focus on our activities related to the Future Fabulators project, that Sarah’s residency is a part of. The project looks at making the future a part of life in the present. It’s about making the future ordinary and everyday, accessible to all of us. We’re exploring different experiential futures and transmedia storytelling techniques to make 'the future' less abstract and more tangible. These techniques go beyond the traditional foresight and forecasting methods such as scenario building or horizon scanning, to include experience design, physical narratives, alternate reality games and future pre-enactments. We’re about halfway through the project, so a lot of what we’ll talk about is still in progress and we’d be keen to incorporate any feedback you might have.
FoAM's path towards futures has been quite convoluted.
To help make sense of what we’re currently doing, we’ll spend a bit of time talking about our history first. We founded FoAM in 2000 as a lab for art, science and technology. What we do is best reflected in our motto GYOW. We work with things that grow and evolve, we’re interested in creating worlds rather than single products/artworks and we come from a tradition of bottom-up maker cultures, of DIY, DIT & grow your own' approaches.
Our longest running initiative, groWorld embodies our motto most clearly. The project started as a response to patenting living organisms and other forms of instrumentalisation of the non-human. groWorld emerged from our interest about the entanglement between culture, technology and the plant world and focuses on different human-plant interactions in their many guises - from cooking, and gardening, to plant games and augmented ecology. We are interested in expanding the range of interactions between plants and humans beyond food, fabrics and fuel, as there is much we can learn from plants about how to deal with environmental changes. We were interested in slowing our pace to understand the slow, persistent time of a lifeform that can't run away from its environment.
Recently as part of the groWorld initiative, we designed Borrowed Scenery, a story about an alternate reality where plants are central aspects of human society. Its backstory was a speculative scenario of a future in which we at FoAM would like to live. We involved our audiences as protagonists in the story - through workshops, walks, inventing plant-inspired markets & holidays, listening to mushrooms signalling and even connecting our brains to ferns. Even though Borrowed Scenery was a story, we hoped that some aspects of the story would leak into reality more permanently. In an elaborate programme of activities, we encouraged our visitors to incorporate human-plant interactions as parts of daily life. Glad to report that some of it still lingers in the town of Ghent in Belgium.
While Borrowed Scenery dealt with a preferred future, we were aware of the importance working on a RANGE of possible futures. We began thinking about how to prototype “what if” questions as immersive experiences. We were primarily motivated to make the urgency of dealing with environmental and social changes more tangible and discussable.
It is crucial in FoAM’s futures experiments to be able to visualise these possible futures. What we like to do in our scenario workshops is to find a single image for a scenario, then gradually associate it with other images and words. We create images to bring futures into focus, making things visible, apparent and obvious. For example, the obvious method when looking at the future of food is how to proceed from a recipe to fully prepared meal.
Recently we designed a tasting dinner during the Edinburgh Science Festival. We first worked out four extreme futures scenarios using different foresight techniques, then translated the scenarios into a range of dishes in a six course menu.
For example, a potato-skin, mushroom dust and seaweed dish came from a future of collapsed food-systems and consensual cannibalism. Wild garlic soup and vegetarian shepherds’ pie came from a future in which discipline and tradition help us live within planetary limits. Intensely flavoured beetroot and blue-cheese tart was sent from a future in which the hyper-capitalist eco-efficiency machine prevails. And finally a wormwood truffle arrived from a transformed future society, where we live in vast city-sized food forests, and where freeganism goes hand in hand with drone-delivered lab-grown GM yoghurt.
During the dinner, we introduced each course with a toast, presented from the different futures. We asked the guests scenario-specific questions, that they discussed while eating each course. At the end of the meal we collected the discussions from table cloths and napkins and used their input to further flesh out the scenarios.
We began explicitly working with foresight during the “Resilients” project. In this project we investigated what aspects of contemporary culture are resilient enough to survive and even thrive through current and emerging turbulences. We proposed that the arts could be a test-bed to try out what different futures might be like, before they actually occur. Most of our partners decided to prototype a specific aspect of a possible future - travelling using boats made from reused materials, creating edible solar cells, or re-invigorating venerative practices.
At FoAM we looked for ways to prepare for ANY possible future. In our Future Preparedness case study we wanted to discover how we could adapt to whatever the future throws at us. And that brings us to the present: Future Fabulators and FoAM’s involvement in it.
Our primary focus in Ffab is to move from stories about the future, to experiencing what possible futures might be like, in the present - not in movies or artefacts, but full blown situations. We invite the visitors to imagine what would it be like to be themselves in a range of possible futures.
We begin with creating scenarios. Next we translate stories into embodied experiences we call prehearsals or future pre-enactments. We won’t go into the details about how we do this - some of the methods are documented on the future fabulators wiki that Sarah can give you a link to. What is important to underline is that we include the participants in the whole process. There are no stories pre-made by 'foresight experts' or designers, but they are created during the exercises by 'experts of everyday life' - the people whose futures we’re exploring.
We ask the participants to imagine themselves in the scenarios, and to think about what could have happened from now until then, in order to find themselves in that situation. We ask them to imagine what they might be doing, what they might eat and wear, how they might feel and what they might need to survive. It isn’t an easy exercise. To begin with many people want to turn themselves into superheroes or play a role of a character. But participants who get the most out of the experience are the ones who stay close to themselves. Instead of trying out different roles, they try out different attitudes and activities. Perhaps something similar to what Sarah, Matt and the girls are doing during their residency at Vitalstatistix.
What embodied improvisation like a prehearsal allows is to is take people beyond the comfort zone of words and projections and into the uncertain realm of practicing what you preach - and then seeing how others react to it and how you react to them. Stories that are too idealistic or otherwise unrealistic tend to crumble when faced with reality of having to enact them. Even though people might think they agree on a future vision when presented as words and images, when they try them out in a prototype experience, the contradictions and misunderstandings become apparent.
For us, the most rewarding moment of a futures workshop is when participants begin to recognise different scenarios as caricatures of their present. It is as if they acquire a search-light they can use to illuminate different parts of a complex situation. We believe that these moments of clarity can spark a more pro-active engagement with our lives today. The participants often feel empowered, as if they have seen the present from a higher vantage point of the future.
These moments of clarity come to different people through different means. Each of us learns differently. Some learn through words, others prefer images, others again learn by doing.
Most academic and corporate futurists tend to focus on data collection and analysis to forecast probable, possible and preferred futures. Luckily, there is an emerging trend on the edge between foresight and design that stresses the importance of visualising and experiencing images of the future. They call their experiments experiential futures, design fiction, speculative design and many other names.
FoAM’s work is perhaps most aligned with 'experiential futures’. We are interested in bringing together intellectual, creative, conversational, somatic and interpersonal qualities in our work with futures.
We can begin with the data and information, but we see this as raw material. To work with this material we require the creative skills that we glean from arts and design. These skills allow us to imagine how things could be otherwise. Alongside encouraging people to be creative individuals, conversational skills are important when co-creating things with others. A skilled futures facilitator can guide the participants to move beyond complaining about how bad things are and whose fault it might be, to creating alternatives, together. Next is an aspect that is way too under-utilised in the foresight practice: the somatic or physical learning, which performers and other movement practitioners are very aware of.
Finally when we talk about the 'interpersonal' qualities needed for futures work, we talk about something that’s difficult to put your finger on… In the foresight field this is covered in what is known as integral futures. Integral futures talk about the place of the facilitator and the participants in a foresight exercise. How much do our own histories and personalities influence what futures we might envision? This is of course still an open question, but it is an important one to keep in mind.
So from the integral futures perspective whoever is involved in forecasting will necessarily influence the future. For example, as FoAM approaches foresight from an artistic and cultural perspective, our take on the field is probably quite unorthodox, when compared with the usual academic research, or business, military and policy consulting.
If you’re interested in an insiders’ perspective on forecasting, you probably won’t get it from us. We rarely use the term forecasting ourselves, as it can mislead people into thinking that we’re about 'predicting the future', when in fact we’re curious about how we can extend the present to include 'the long view' of both past and future. We want to find ways that can help us – as individuals and as a species – to act more responsibly, not just towards each other today, but also towards our ancestors and future generations. In other words, we’re interested in understanding the future as a commons – to find ways to make us all capable of critically engaging with futures in our daily life.
So what do we do you might ask. One of the things is that we study formal foresight methods and make them lighter so they could be applied by anyone. We’re in the middle of designing a book called The Futurist’s Fieldguide, where we bring a range of futures techniques, as step-by-step recipes in plain language. We make the process of all our futures experiments available online. We want others to use and improve them, give us feedback, add their own… We want to see the process of exploring, creating and understanding futures democratised. We recently began offering a 'personal scenarios’ service, to help individuals and families come to terms with where their lives might take them. At the moment we’re in the middle of this process with a biotechnologist who is searching for a more ethically and environmentally sustainable lifestyle.
Finally, what we find most important in our futures experiments, such as the pre-enactments – we are there to provide a framework, but the image of the future is created by the participants themselves. In that way, the insights gained during their time with us will resonate in their own lives, transforming - consciously or unconsciously - long after our workshops are finished.
Our hope is to free foresight from the bounds of the utilitarian, functional, goal oriented futures, to take it in more speculative or even whimsical directions - to the point of allowing not just all humans to speak, but also other entities with whom we share the futures of the planet.
To illustrate this point I end with a quote from Italo Calvino… For FoAM, working with futures is “a work that would let us escape the limited perspective of the individual ego, not only to enter into selves like our own but to give speech to that which has no language, to the bird perching on the edge of the gutter, to the tree in spring and the tree in fall, to stone, to cement, to plastic…”
(based on a longer talk at Data Ecologies 2014