Exploring Everyday Futures

On July 14 and 15 2016, the Institute for Social Futures at Lancaster University (Lancaster, United Kingdom) organized a workshop entitled Everyday Futures. The objective of the workshop was to analyze how future everyday life is imagined, what factors shape the imagining of future everyday life, what interventions in this process of imagining could be desirable and why, and what data and methods could help to bring about such interventions. This highly interactive workshop was impeccably organized by Dr. Nicola Spurling (Lancaster University) and Dr. Lenneke Kuijer (Technical University Eindhoven), and was attended by an interdisciplinary group of people that included historians, sociologists, designers, philosophers, biologists, and geographers. This was my second visited to wonderful Lancaster after last year’s extremely inspiring summer school, which I wrote about here.

Questions concerning everyday futures are worthwhile since work on the future of, for example, the home, cities, energy, and mobility make implicit assumptions about the everyday. Although such assumptions may have far-reaching implications, they are not often addressed. Challenging the assumptions underlying visions of the future from a wide range of disciplines can help to articulate the various values, interests, and materiality’s that inform the ways in which ‘futures’ are constructed. A focus on the everyday allows a perspective on the various ways in which constructed futures are intertwined with societies, and how the latter are shaped accordingly. Thus, questions concerning the impact of future visions, such as exclusion, reproduction of vested interests, and inequalities, can be addressed.

Over the course of two days, the participants of the workshop were invited to present their work and collaborate in an attempt to articulate a research agenda that deals with social futures. It is impossible to provide an all-encompassing representation of the entirety of this bazaar of intellectual exchange, and I cannot hope to do justice to the wealth of ideas presented. Instead, I can only attempt to articulate my own particular take on futures and my trajectory through the enticing landscape afforded by the workshop.

Past and present encounters with futures

In preparation to the workshop I pondered the various ways in which my own work can be aligned with the idea of ‘social futures’. My dissertation dealt with the potential dangers of simulation practice, which can be understood as an attempt to come to terms with possible future states of affairs. Simulations are instrumental in articulating and understanding risks, and may end up having disadvantageous effects due to the assumptions, uncertainties, and blind spots that accompany them. The increasing opacity of model code, a mono-disciplinary understanding of uncertainty, and the exclusion that accompanies collaborative modeling can put societies that rely on simulations at risk. In my view, the instrumental importance of simulations indicates the need for an elaborate study of their use and impact, preferably on the basis of a constructivist framework that addresses the materiality of simulation practice, the organization of science-policy interfaces in which simulations play a role of utmost importance, and the extent to which participation is inclusive. As instruments that articulate futures, simulations are deeply entrenched in the ways in which societies relate to complex issues, such as climate change.

More recently, my work on ‘smart’ innovations has rendered pluralism explicit as an issue of importance. A closer look at the notion of ‘smart’ reveals that this adjective can point to a variety of scenarios. For example, smart farming could establish a more animal-friendly and sustainable form of agriculture. However, smart farming may also end up being used to enhance productivity, and may not necessarily address the deeper structural problems that lead to less-sustainable forms of agriculture. Although it cannot be reduced to a single position, ‘smart’ involves the more and more pervasive use of information and communication technologies that capture processes deemed of importance in data. As a result of this process of ‘datafication’, power balances between social groups may shift and familiar models may become obsolete. For example, the growing importance of data has inspired Benjamin Bratton to create the model of ‘the stack’ (see below) in an attempt to come to terms with the growing ubiquity of data-related practices and their effects, which do not bode well for an understanding of the world that relies exclusively on the model of the nation state. Instead, Bratton proposes a worldview on the basis of the various layers of our present-day virtual-material predicament.

Benjamin Bratton's model of 'The Stack'

Imaginaries of smart cities and smart farming provide alluring images of futures that promise profound improvements, usually involving more sustainable, innovative, and generally prosperous forms of existence. As such, ‘smart’ is a powerful container concept that circulates in meme-like fashion through discussions on innovations that supposedly prepare our increasingly vulnerable societies for the future. The introduction of alternative imaginaries could help to sketch an alternative for hegemonic views of the future. For this reason, I have always found the Lovecraftian idea of human civilization as “a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity” (from H.P. Lovecraft’s The Call of Cthulhu) bizarrely liberating. This is not so much due to its grim character, but rather due to its celebration of a non-anthropocentric perspective, that is, the attempt to think about our world ‘strangely’. Anyway, I digress.

Future-making in the making

A focus on the everyday and the actions of social groups can help to render explicit the various values and perspectives pertaining to the future that inform such actions, as many of the contributions of the workshop’s participants showed. At the beginning of the workshop, participants presented their work in 5-minute talks that featured empirical examples that included sustainable eco housing, fashion design, future homes, power blackouts, and smart farming (by yours truly). Many of the presentations addressed questions related to sustainability, and focused on change and dynamics in an attempt to bring things forward in the face of future challenges. During these presentations, the audience was asked to write postcards that expressed inspiration and explored possibilities for collaborative work. The entire first day of the workshop was devoted to this process of getting to know each other. The harvest of this extremely fruitful first day was an overview of the general trends that studies of social futures need to address: the reproduction of routines, imaginaries and scenario planning, the interests and ambitions of social groups, and technological innovations related to digital augmentation and data.

On the second day, four sheets were laid out on tables and participants were asked to explore the following topics.

  • Research questions: which questions are you looking at? Which questions would you like to look at? Which aspect of everyday futures would you like to study?
  • Methods: what methods can help to bring the everyday into future-focused methods, and bring the future into studies of the everyday?
  • Theories and concepts: which concepts do you / would you use and why? How do these theories and concepts help to think about the everyday future?
  • Relevance: which audiences can relate to the issues and problems you would like to study?

Subsequently, participants were asked to write their name on three post-it notes and stick them onto the sheets collaboratively produced in the area of those sheets that most appealed to them (see below). This matched people in a form of ‘academic speed dating’ that led to teams of authors that presented their ideas for collaborative writing.

Theories and concepts sheet

Multi-futurism

I teamed up with Maureen Meadows of Coventry University since we are both interested in studying the extent to which futures can be imagined in an inclusive manner. My reservations about imaginaries are not so much due to the concept itself, which I think is potentially quite powerful (as indicated above), but with the question who is actually doing the imagining. Understood along these lines, imaginaries will not always be empowering and they cannot be taken at face value because they can be aimed at the reproduction of problematic values in a mesmerizing manner, which makes use of appealing imagery. In other words, I would argue imaginaries need to entail an inclusive process of collective imagining that is based on the active involvement of a large variety of social groups, e.g. stakeholders, experts, policymakers, representatives of concerned citizens, etc.

Maureen and myself aligned this idea of collective imagining with Latourian politics, which can be seen as the “progressive composition of the common world” (Latour 2002, 7), which aims to accommodate a plurality of values that are only partially compatible. This involves a circle-like movement of divergence to do justice to a plurality values, and the subsequent convergence of these values in an attempt to achieve political representation. The latter can be to the chagrin of those involved, who may want to reinvoke the aforementioned cycle of divergence and convergence.

In our collaboration, Maureen and I would like to explore the foregoing ideas on politics as a starting point for the development of a method called ‘visioneering’, which involves the incorporation of visions of the future into policymaking and decision making. Visioneering is of tantamount importance due to the techno-optimism that often accompanies data-driven innovations, including (but not limited to) smart farming and smart cities. As a result, values and perspectives that cannot be aligned with techno-optimism may end up being ignored, limiting the innovative and inclusive potential of the aforementioned technological innovations. Visioneering can function as a pragmatic-methodological perspective to evaluate the inclusivity of forms of future-making. Based on our analyses of future-making in the Netherlands and the UK, we aim to develop visioneering as a best practice that enables inclusive forms of future-making, thereby achieving ‘multi-futurism’.

As said, I cannot do justice to the richness of the Everyday Futures workshop. The day after, I still find myself pondering some of the ideas shared, elements of which will hopefully continue to break off inside me and inspire me.

References

Latour, Bruno. 2002. War of the Worlds: What about Peace? Translated by Charlotte Bigg. Chicago, IL: Prickly Paradigm Press.

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