World Expo 2025 is to be hosted by Osaka again. A good news? Well, rather amazing to see how the government and industry is plainly dreaming to resurrect the industrial age dinosaur for the 21th Century. It’s true that this old modern idea was warmly welcomed by the Japanese society in 1970, when Osaka hosted the world exhibition for the first time. A young, interdisciplinary futurologist group designed the basic concept of Expo ’70 and even organized the 2nd World Futures Conference in Kyoto during the exhibition. That was the heyday of futures studies in Japan. The subsequent environmental pollutions and oil shocks deprived people of good time to speculate desirable futures and instead pressured them to maximize economic efficiency. Then they lost their own visionary future, being stigmatized as ‘economic animals’ for the next couple of decades. A late lesson for the workaholic people was already evident in the 1st World Futures Conference in Oslo (1967) that focused on human development. An important collaborator of the conference was the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO) founded by Johan Galtung, who later became the president of the World Futures Studies Federation (WFSF). At that time, other influential ecologists were also based in Oslo, such as Jørgen Randers (the co-author of The Limits of Growth), Arne Næss (the founder of Deep Ecology), Gro Harlem Brundland (the Chair of the World Commission on Environment and Development) (see Anker 2007).
Concurrently with this humanistic eco-philosophy, a more radical and futuristic idea was also emerged in 1960s Oslo. Even before Skynet sends a Terminator back to the present from the future, now machines already dominate the modern world behind us humans. In the IoT age, terminators, sensors, repeaters and satellites are increasingly connecting and interacting each other without our awareness. Not only encapsulated gadgets like smart phones and IC cards but also exposed super-human intelligence signs like AI avatars and QR codes are deeply embedded in our daily life. A philosophical turn from human-centric to object-oriented to deal with such socio-material assemblies was inspired by and related to object-oriented programming, in which objects are supposed to be modeled after real-life objects with the aim to provide a sufficiently precise representation of the reality to be simulated (Yoran 2018). Together with Ole-Johan Dahl, Kristen Nygaard developed SIMULA I (1961-65) and SIMULA-67 as the first object-oriented programming languages. It is no coincidence that Nygaard was also a key actor in the early making of participatory design in Scandinavia. His focus was not just on software architecture but rather on strategies for making the socio-material assemblies public (Ehn 2008). Working with trade unions and political parties, he explored how information technologies are useful to empower the workers by improving the workplace and their own working conditions (Berntsen et al. 2010).
In making things public, Jenkins et al. (2016) introduce two projects that utilize the capacity of what they call ‘object-oriented publics’. Cycle Atlanta is a smartphone app for recording our bike rides, uploading route data, ride purpose, and rider demographic data. These data are then served as empirical evidence for urban transportation policy and planning. More than a public participation tool for the policymaking, however, the app and the data both also participate as members of a cycling public. The way data are stored, operated on, and analyzed is changing the kinds of questions the human actors ask and the kinds of answers they receive. Another case is issue-oriented hackathons. Unlike other technically-oriented hackathons, these have aspirations of addressing social issues (e.g. sustainability, ecological change, civic responsibility, or international relations) through technical means. The Food Data Hack, for instance, focused on the local food system of Atlanta. The one-day event invited a wide range of stakeholders, who used smartphones, web server and publicly accessible databases as a means to express the underlying concerns and dilemmas of land use and food access. This also reminded the human participants that these computational things are not just served as a means to address social issues, but they themselves are essential participants to articulate both existing and new social arrangements.
Yet such attempts are fairly limited by the current commercial interests and constraints. Reaching beyond identifying needs and solving problems, new design methodologies such as speculative design and design fictions move towards a more generative, speculative and future-oriented space of alternative possibilities. Whereas speculative designers create grounds for discussion and others can share the vision of their future through experiencing the designs, design fictions further create fictional worlds that a series of speculative artifacts inhabit (Coulton & Lindley 2017). As their work often sits just in the museum exhibit, these have been criticized for their elitism (Forlano & Mathew 2014). Of course it is always tricky to open up the long-term futures with more diverse actors and make the short-term future more plausible and feasible with responsible stakeholders. As a more future- and everyday life- oriented design approach, experiential futures does not only include conventional design outputs, but installation, mail art, advertisements, immersive theatre, guerrilla intervention, digital simulation and games are all in scope. The People Who Vanished (2012) was an experiential scenario created through a series of co-creative and participatory workshops, reflecting a possible future for the Phoenix area and integrating a novel technique (the creation of an archaeological moment) with an issue of local concern (a desert community living at the edge of sustainability) (Candy & Dunagan 2017). Experiential futures is, as it were, a world-building and living exercise.
In comparison with this kind of participatory design, which is characterized as an approach to involve users in the design during a project, meta-design opens up for use as design, design at use time. It empowers all stakeholders including end users to be actively engaged in the continuous development of personally meaningful socio-technical systems (Fischer & Herrmann 2011). So the continuous and active engagement is key, not just for my project, but also to improve the public understanding (and appreciation) of science more broadly and reach a different audience who might not “dare” to enter scientific venues (cf. Bultitude & Sardo 2012). Drawing lessons from the above cases, more object-oriented design at use time could come up with the ‘95% solution’ (Falk & Dierking 2010) to public engagement in science outside formal learning environments. Yes, this is a great challenge to the conventional understanding of both ‘public’ and ‘engagement’, but our futures are there.
- Anker, P. (2007) Science as a vacation: a history of ecology in Norway. History of Science 45(4): 455-479.
- Berntsen, D., Elgsaas, K. & Hegna, H. (2010) The many dimensions of Kristen Nygaard, creator of object-oriented programming and the Scandinavian School of System Development. Pp. 38-49 in Tatnall, A. (eds.) History of Computing: Learning from the Past. IFIP Advances in Information and Communication Technology, vol 325. Springer, Berlin, Heidelberg.
- Bultitude, K. & Sardo, A.M. (2012) Leisure and pleasure: science events in unusual locations. International Journal of Science Education 34(18): 2775-2795.
- Candy, S. & Dunagan, J. (2017) Designing an experiential scenario: The People Who Vanished. Futures 86: 136-153.
- Coulton, P. & Lindley, J. (2017) Design fiction: anticipating adoption. IEEE Pervasive Computing 16(1): 43-47.
- Ehn, P. (2008) Participation in design things. Proceedings of the Tenth Anniversary Conference of Participatory Design 2008, 92-101.
- Falk, J.H. & Dierking, L.D. (2010) The 95 percent solution. American Scientist 98(6): 486-493.