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Weekend Gems 006

June 7, 2020

Mapping access and meta-trends, Star Trek and the apolitical side of strategic foresight. Also, a call to Adam Rogers: please write a piece about The Doctrine of Original Capsaicin.‍

The Meta Trending Trends: 2020

Even if you are not a person who finds joy in reading trend reports from companies such as Deloitte and Mindshare, you will find Matt Klein’s lists of Meta-Trends quite entertaining. Matt goes through all major reports and identifies their common grounds, distills the overlapping information and compares statements to last year’s reports. He also wraps up each section with a small personal deduction which is usually the most straight forward statement of the entire meta-analysis. What one can also take away from Matt’s piece is that the titles of Trend Watching are preparing you less for a trend report with data graphs and more for a straight-to-VHS B-Movie with the likes of ’Playsumers: Give me Live’, ’Joyning: Civil Media’, ’Youniverse: Metamorphic Design’, ‘Ungendered X’ and ‘Unconsumed’.

Regardless, the most interesting part of Matt’s piece by far is his high-level observations. Going through them almost feels like sudden moments of profound clarity and harsh honesty, operating as a meta-critique for the current state of strategic foresight. For example:

“Many of the +500 reported trends each year feel synthetic. In other words, nearly all “trends” feel propped up and perpetuated by business. Stop trying to make AR-shopping happen — it’s not going to happen. Cultural movements only flourish when there’s innate energy, I.e. organic behavior. There remains no need nor want behind AR-shopping, therefore it doesn’t thrive… this is despite +20 reports promising it will each year.”

The third high-level observation is where the juicy part really is. “These reports illustrate where the puck is, not where it’s going next.” Matt says. “It’s valuable to analyze the former, but invaluable to do the latter if we’re to strategize”. That’s an easy one, right? That’s where foresight comes in—to take these reports, extract information, and set desirable outcomes and lay out potential steps to get there (backcasting) or put all the current events and trends in an equation and produce a series of possible futures (forecasting).

Well, Matt continues

“Two catalytic events will transpire over the next year, which will re-model culture as we know it, however, not one report acknowledged them: The 2020 Presidential Outcome and The U.S.’ Next Recession.”

And that’s when it hit me: for the past year I have been religiously following several foresight practitioners, devoured their reports and attended their talks. Especially during the pandemic, the space of foresight acted like it was on crack: there were essays upon essays on the future of work or even the future of dating, all offering extremely interesting and provoking tools for thinking about and crafting a somewhat uncertain future.But I could not help but notice that the majority of this work has been consistently apolitical. We can all tell that there is something wrong with a studio proposing the creation of full body plexiglass suits with not a glimpse of irony.

But for everyone to not include the Next Recession in their work on the future of work?

There is a good 2-word* argument for that: self-fulfilling prophecies. It could be argued that when 100 highly influential foresight practitioners publicly acknowledge the Next Recession as part of a future, they also summon it. Think of the banks (or Mr.Banks in the original Mary Poppins): telling a bunch of people that the banks are failing on a fine day will probably create an atmosphere of distrust, leading people to withdraw their money from their bank accounts, drying the bank empty and finally causing the financial havoc that five steps ago used to be just a rumor.

Chaos at the Fidelity Fiduciary Bank—Screenshot from the film Mary Poppins (1964)

So yes, I do understand the sensitivity behind publicly speaking about a presidential election’s outcome or a financial crash as a foresight practitioner (even though Peter Schwartz’s ‘Smith and Hawken’ story says otherwise). What has also come to my attention is that, especially during the past week, most of the foresight practitioners have been awfully quiet about another issue: racial injustice and, god forbid, the policing system, media biases, colonialism and class struggle.

Again, pretty controversial issues right? ‘Ioanna, not everything falls under a foresight practitioner’s scope’. First of all, that is completely wrong and borderline dangerous;

excluding specific chunks of our everyday life and social history when projecting into the future propels biases and reinforces disparities that you are doomed to carry with you into your tomorrows, whatever these may be.

Think of it through the lenses of the Machine Learning ethics and how ‘using specific models to make future decisions reinforces whatever patterns are already in place’.

Secondly, even if that statement was right, being selective over one’s own references is equally suspicious and pretty common in the field. I have found myself in a number of presentations where words such as ‘justice’, ‘equality’ and ‘democracy’ are displayed proudly in bold on the screen. Yet only but a few out there are eager to dive deeper into the messy side of these fundamental concepts, passing them on as nothing more than buzzwords. As time goes by I realize that there is a significantly large space in the field of strategic foresight that operates a lot like Star Trek; no, not the one in Gene Roddenberry’s visions but the one J.J.Abrams created instead: somewhat devoid of a centralized argument and relatively oblivious to the fact that the whole Enterprise used to be a way of negotiating the most human way to move through a combustible galaxy.

As Joseph Bien-Kahn writes, early in the first film, Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979), Captain Kirk orders the Enterprise into a mysterious and destructive alien cloud headed toward Earth. Decker, from whom Kirk has taken command of the ship, warns,“Going into that cloud is an unwarranted gamble.” Kirk quickly responds: “How do you define unwarranted?”: for the Enterprise's captain, inaction against evil is unconscionable.

*or 3?Disclaimer:Maybe I am following just a tiny fraction of the field (the field is vast and I am glad to see it growing bigger everyday), in which case, by all means, please send names my way because it is always thrilling to discover new foresight practitioners and their work. In any case, I have also seen practitioners publicly participating in politically charged discussions so I am assuming we will be seeing more politically-aware foresight work in the next few weeks!

Mapping Access

My attention to the Critical Design Lab was brought this past week through their latest post on Mapping Access titled ‘Anti-Racist Critical Design’which I highly recommend to all of my friends interested in how their cities and spaces are designed. In the piece, the members of the Critical Design lab offer eight different commitments toward an anti-racist critical design praxis, calling for the abolishment of desing practices that sustain ableism, racism and colonialism.

The Critical Design Lab’s work is, simply put, a wake up call: after going through some of their essays like Narrative and Design: Remembrance as Memory Fades and A Smart City is an Accessible City, I looked back to my university years, only to realize that I have been guilty of a very important thing: I was always designing as a priviledged person.

Before you continue reading, please know that I am not suddenly ‘woke’. It is just that I now realize what a major asshole I have been in the past for unknowingly in the beginning and then purposefully ignoring them because they did not fit my ‘design agenda’. These are very real, heavy issues that we must demistify and incorporate in our public architectural discourse asap.

I was an architect-in-the-making who could have access to almost everything she was designing. During design reviews, when a professor of mine would point out that I had forgotten to apply the ‘Accessibility Code’ to my designs, I would eye roll so hard I could see the rest of the students at the back of the room, frantically checking if their bathrooms had the appropriate clearances (most of the times they did not). For most of us, adding an additional stall in the restrooms of a public building that would accommodate a person on a wheelchair was a pain in the ass. The small stall was the rule, the large stall was the exception, and of course we were ready to overlook the exception at any given time in order to give our already massive main lobby an extra 6 sq meters.

This changed with my Thesis which, to this day, is my most personal and dear project. The reasons behind this are long and I am not going to bore you with this. Instead, I am just going to say that when your design process is driven by the value of accessibility, magical things happen. It is truly restrictive to design with only one particular subject in mind and, by voluntarily restricting my designs in such a way, I was missing on extremely innovative techniques and approaches in my design.

So naturally, I wondered why; why was it that I was so myopically treating the ‘accessibility code’ as a chore this whole time?Well, maybe because it was a code.

My idea of ‘accessibility’ always brought images like this in mind: design guides that looked more like a manual to assembly your new BILLY rather than guides to design beautiful spaces for humans. As the Director of the Critical Design Lab, Aimi Hamraie, wrote in 2018 in ‘Protocols for Unfinished Technoscience’:

Critical access theorists often point to the messiness and gestural qualities of access-making: that we ought not follow standardized formulae, but rather reach for creative access solutions, recognizing access as an open-ended and unfolding process.”

And this phenomenon is rooted in the ways we perceive and understand the body in space; as Elizabeth Diller has said in the past, “at the end of the nineteenth century, the body began to be understood as a mechanical component of industrial productivity, an extension of the factory apparatus.” Indeed, architecture is driven by protocols which are super-charged with biases, carrying their own political agendas, as protocols do. Leopold Lambert has also written about the issue in his essay ‘Architecture and the Norm: the Violence of Continuous Reciprocity’ (p.10).

Same applies to creating designs that are anti-racist: if we look closely, we can see racism delicately waived in all the codes that enable us to design what we design today. We can all start by opposing designs on indigenous land, propose changes in local building codes that blatantly disrespect the native population, educate ourselves on how the real estate market works and oppose gentrification-driven-by-design. Finally, for the love of god—and I cannot stress this enough—

let’s all think twice before designing a skyscraper on a shoreline.

In short, we should treat our paper project as if it were to be built tomorrow and we were to spend the rest of our lives not inside it but right across it, carrying on our shoulders the burden of the people who do not have access to it and who the design has unashamedly wronged.

Bonus Round

Why protocols and words matter: