'A slap in the face' by Laura Clèries, Head of Elisava Research


As educator at a design and engineering university and leading an emerging design research department, my role is to teach and transfer knowledge on futures research methodologies, focusing on innovation and disruptive solutions – i.e. to deliver design-led strategic foresight. One of the quotes in the field of futures is 'The future is already here, it is just not evenly distributed' (William Gibson, 2010), meaning that the 'new ways of doing' are always there, led by a small bunch of innovators. These 'new ways of doing' that impact on a long-time span and technically known as megatrends, consist on emerging signals - weak heartbeats of what later it is to be spread across the whole society and shake the system.

But, guess what? The future is here, now. Suddenly and dramatically all amongst us. The 'Future' has slapped us in our faces. It hurts, but it wakes us up. A mortal virus has had the role to speed up the process for change and shake our society. And rapidly indeed.

As a humble contribution to provide a roadmap for reflection towards more 'positive futures' in the aftermath of this crises, here is a sneak preview of our research, those 'new ways of doing' that are no longer emergent. 

Ephemeral towards Resilient. In her book 'Inspired by scarcity', designer Hanae Shimizu analyzed a series of actions that were undertaken by society in face of the material shortage of World War I and II. A period of scare resources that forced imagination and creativity. The result of this analysis: 7 different categories according to method that could be extrapolated to different contexts: extend, divide, multiuse, cut down, substitute, imitate, and protect. Surely, we are in a time of scarcity after a period of obscene abundance and a new mindset, away from the 'take-and-dispose' one, needs to be adopted. Upgraded from the concept of 'sustainability', the new concept is 'resilience'. Individual or collective resilience (understood as the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness) is deployed as a response to the primitive sense of survival and conservation.

Individual towards Collective. Most people need a place and a group where they belong, which in turn greatly influence our view of group ethics and morals. In times of health crisis, data ownership menaces, or individual isolation, collective views reinforce the need for sharing services, collective data privacy management, conviviality and solidarity. Collaborative gestures and a social approach add an ethical and 'kindness' dimension to our actions. The community lure is the next collective narrative in which 'togetherness' and 'for the greater good' are the languages.

Machine towards Human. In the exhibition 'PostHuman- when technology embeds society', already in 2017, visitors were invited to reflect and share on questions such as What are some things you feel you do better than a machine?, How will I know I’m talking to a human and not just another machine?, What roles can’t be automated?, 'Cars drive themselves, robots deliver pizza, humans…'. An analysis of the responses to this 'questions for humans' exercise delivered an interesting collection of keywords that point out to a humanistic perspective: heart, empathy, instinct, dancing, sex, being a mum, humanity, perception, alive, feelings, emotions… In face of a technological takeover, humans strive to make a statement of our intrinsic, differentiating and valuable emotional nature. Mental health and emotional unbalances are unveiled and embraced as part of our existence, recognized and un-tabooed by celebrities. With the rise of the 'mindfulness' movement, we demonstrate our inner power to achieve a somehow consciousness of our being in this world.

Certainty towards Probability. Either/Or towards Both/And. Philosophies that permeate our way of thinking: we have been long thinking in terms of either/or when it comes to society, but both/and philosophies gain ground. As a consequence, deterministic positions will no longer be the preferred situations – the paradigm shift holds no manual for the 'future'. The Lotto Society (Lottosamfundet) concept refers to an economic order marked but much less predictability, and a value-creation much more characterized by chance, serendipity, imperfection and diversity. With Quantum physics installing itself as the 'new' scientific paradigm, probability and possibility become the new mindsets.

Hard towards Soft. A wave of technological development is being achieved through machines and hardware, a technical 'hard' perspective on innovation which not always can provide meaningful solutions. In the book 'Fashioning Apollo' shows a clear historical example of the failure of 'hard' technology: from an engineered spacesuit, uncomfortable to wear, towards the flexible spacesuit, a 21-layer textile layers' spacesuit carefully sawn by the seamstresses at Playtex. As The New Yorker review stated: 'It offers a wonderful David & Goliath story about the triumph of Oldenburg-like soft objects over phallic, rigid ones, and of hard-working seamstresses over hard-nosed engineers'. We are currently witnessing a more 'soft-innovation' path in which 3D printers are taken over by biological processes that are able to surprisingly grow objects and pieces of clothing. The innovators have coined the term 'biofabrication'. Softness refers also to the embracing of more natural rhythms, the quiet intelligence and smartness that nature holds.

Physical towards Phygital. The T-jacket project is a hug vest that simulates the feeling of a hug when triggered by a message from a digital app. Launched some years ago, it represented the blending of physical effects of a digitally managed information. We are in a phygital built environment whose development is still in its infancy. The world has become one economy, one society with two worlds: the physical and the virtual. Advances in virtual technologies open the window to multiple identities, realities and experiences. To name a few, politics, retail, health, work, education and social behaviors are bound to be transformed towards a blended and meaningful use of these technologies.

Wise towards Critical. The consequences of a loss of faith in the political and public system, has opened an opportunity gap for other 'heroes' (organizations or individuals) to build faith and loyalty. As an example, the Branded cities report, explores the role of brands into city-making. Civic brands can become the ones generating intellectual narratives that create hope and meaning, some sort of lifestyle coaches. Brands uptake ethical and social approaches and their responsibility towards society, generating a dialogue with consumers by going away from storytelling towards storyproving. Additionally, in an information society, critical thinking and creative skills will be relevant to discern and generate a personal cultural path. The concept Cultural Intelligence gains force as it pitches into ambiguous nuances that Artificial Intelligence cannot grasp.

Heavy towards Lightness. Idiomatic expressions such as 'I feel like plastic' or 'Inorganic kingdoms' – referred to skyscraper cities – are being incorporated into series scripts. At the time where we have entered the Anthropocene era, mankind is more aware of our ecological footprint and of the social burden of materials. There is a need to lighten the burden imposed onto the planet. John Thackara's book, 'In the bubble: designing for a complex world', addresses a world based less on stuff and more on people, where the design focus is on services, not things. Nomadic, mobile attitudes reinforce the need to travel 'light'. Globalization makes five extra things mobile: money, information, workplaces, people and products.

Centralized towards Distributed. Werkplaats Centraal, by Jurgen Bey (Studio Makkink & Bey) and Dirk Osinga is a design research project on the future of the workplace in light of new visions of professional education, technological developments and the creative industry. Three out of the seven speculative models that they generated (transport terminal, digital workshop, mobile workshop), indicate a shift from a centralized structure into a mobile, distributed one. This is just an example that highlights how fabrication or intelligence are going towards distributed models. Large factories become obsolete thanks to the raise of digital manufacturing, and the city, with projects such as Unto this last, becomes the productive hotspot. In distributed systems, not only new professions can emerge, but also new economies can be developed. Business strategies such as 'The long tail' point towards realizing profits by selling low volumes of hard-to-find items to many customers, instead of the traditional business mindset of selling large volumes of a reduced number of popular items. Distributed data also allows for a non-monopolized ownership of citizen’s data.

Surely, we will be deeply hurt from this slap in the face. The sore feeling will last for some period. The aftermath of this crises is going to have profound political, economic and social implications. But we need to wake up and take this as an opportunity to creatively move away from traditional methods and mindsets to shake the system. More than ever, it is our collective responsibility to follow the roadmap that leads to positive change. 'Positive' futures (in plural, as many different as opportunities are) just mean our today. The future is just an attitude, not a time frame. And, at a glance, our today is emotional, social and cultural.

'Change. Now or never.
What's that about?
Well, it's about how the world's really messed up, you know?
We can't just sit back. We have to become conscious now...
In our personal lives, just be present and loving...
'Cause life goes really fast, you know?'

Enlightened. Series. HBO.

Laura Clèries, Head of Elisava Research

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