Starting a Discursive Design Project Amidst Anthropocene and Pandemic

This is the first article of a series following the Balcony project, a discursive design initiative conducted in collaboration between Takram and Hitachi Design – London. Articles will be shared as the project progresses—an effort to make speculative design projects less detached and more engaged in dialogue with the community. We welcome your thoughts and opinions.

Design during a time of blurred lines

The rising awareness of the climate crisis in addition to the arrival of the pandemic has powerfully altered our ways of seeing and understanding the ways we interact with each other and our environments. It is a time of blurred lines—between work and leisure, urban and rural, global and local. These trends are nothing new. The crises has, if anything, accelerated developments that have been ongoing for some time.

The blurring or melting together of things once seen as separate is the overarching topic for a futures project Takram is currently conducting with Hitachi Design team in London. In the coming months, we will be sharing our process as we try to create tangible illustrations exploring transitions inspired by the melting together of dualities.

A question surfacing for many during this time is, “How does one make space to think about the future during a time such as ours?” For designers, perhaps because worldbuilding is so core to our work, this question takes on a somewhat more existential tone. What worlds are we creating with our designs? For where? For whom? It was a shared concern for these questions that brought Takram and the Hitachi Design – London teams together to consider how speculative design can be the starting point for thinking about the post-COVID anthropocene.

The design team is responsible for thinking through the long-term directions and implications of infrastructure for society and initiating collaborations with other business departments to implement these visions in reality. This project will, therefore, be looking at the blurring of lines in relationship to fundamental infrastructures such as energy and mobility. Infrastructure, being so foundational to all of our lives can be hard to inspect and understand as a whole. In that regard it is like a hyper-object. And like other hyper-objects, phenomena such as COVID19 and global warming that are powerfully shaping our experiences at the moment, it is essential that we become better at noticing it and grasping the implications of its presence.

In many ways, that is what this project is about—grasping, through the making of tangible objects, the presence of hyper-objects in a landscape full of blurred lines.

“This framework is about acknowledging how at any given point there are many worlds in co-existence, each with their own set of histories as well as preferable futures…When considering the future, history and context matters.”

Being sensitive to the existence of multiplicities

To try and work with the future during this time, we have been trying to create and collect frameworks that capture the shift in sensibilities we feel are needed. One such framework, the “Many-world World” illustrated by Michelle Westerlaken, illustrates how several worlds exists alongside or in entanglement with each other at any given moment in time. The framework, building on concepts from John Law and Donna Haraway, nurtures “a shift from a modernist ‘universal’ knowing towards an idea of multiplicities”. To us, this framework is about acknowledging how at any given point there are many worlds in co-existence, each with their own set of histories as well as preferable futures.

from p. 106 of Westerlaken, M. 2020 Imagining Multispecies Worlds PhD dissertation). Malmo¨ universitet, Malmo¨. http://mau.diva-portal.org/smash/record.jsf? pid=diva2%3A1435111&dswid=-8328. Used with permission from author

The Many-world World framework has made us care more about the places we work with and has nurtured a strong conviction that when considering the future, history and context matters. It has made us question other frameworks widely employed within design such as the Future Cone. When shown next to the Many-world World, The Future Cone featuring one origin point, one space of preferable futures, and no representation of the past, seems colonizing and hopelessly anthropocentric.

Using this framework has made us reflect on what worlds our futuring resides in and the limits of constructing a one-size-fits-all vision. It is making us think long and hard about the sites we want to work with in our current project. We know we want to work in locales which, in their history and current existence, vividly embody the blurring of lines.

Our locales

We imagine three locales that typify distinct characteristics in European cities. The first locale is the suburban new town that embodies modern city dreams of both the past and present such as Peterborough and Milton Keynes in the UK. This locale, with a built environment meant to separate tasks geographically, elucidates frictions arising from the blurring of work and leisure. The second site is a nature-rich resort with high seasonal variation such as Innsbruck in Austria or Tampere in Finland. This locale is set on an important transportation corridor and experiencing seasonal variations in the intensity of use of infrastructure, which allows exploration of mobility at different scales. Lastly, we will engage with an energy city thoroughly embedded in the global energy system such as West Midlands in the UK or Stavanger in Norway. This locale provides ripe ground for interrogating frictions between the local and the global by considering how local sustainability exists along with intimate relationships with the global carbon economy.

What we are planning

In the coming weeks we will develop a deeper understanding of the three locales by doing interviews on- and off-site while building foundational knowledge through desk research. Alongside these sense-making activities, we will be conducting several ideation sessions to synthesize what we are learning and verify the weak signals we are picking up.

Once we have built a foundation of research and resources, we will start visualizing a future scenario for each of the locales. We will share these visualizations with you. Then, when the visualizations are made we will use them as the foundation upon which to design objects embodying the transition experienced in each of the locales.

What do you think?

Our aim is to openly share more of our project process—we do this in hopes to provide an accessible learning resource for designers, but also as a way to hold ourselves accountable. We value hearing your opinions.

Questions for the Core77 audience:

1. Which lines are blurred for you?
2. How might you use the Many-world World framework?
3. The Many-world World is in some way a reaction to the limitations of the Futures Cone – Do you feel like the Many-world World addresses the flaws you see in the Future Cone?