‘Start with Dystopia’ is an article and lecture that futurist keynote speaker Nikolas Badminton produced for the Future Explorers 2019 conference held in Singapore 25th to 27th July, 2019. If you want to skip to watch the video of the lecture then scroll to the end of this article and enjoy the video. Please share with your colleague and friends.
There’s an old saying I like to refer to…
You don’t know heaven until you’ve been through hell.
I just wish that wasn’t the case, but maybe there’s something interesting in there?
I’m an optimist. I want positive futures. That’s what my research and work as a futurist is all about.
I also produce an evening of speakers called DARK FUTURES. Dystopian ideas and creating amazing futures have an important symbiotic relationship. My great friend Jordan Eshpeter spoke about ‘DARK ENDS’ and Eschatology a couple of years back and that really got me thinking about how to start with dystopia.
Eshpeter talks about how Eschatology is the part of theology concerned with death, judgment, and the final destiny of the soul and of humankind. It’s been a powerful as a tool for thinking of dystopias and comes from story telling – horror stories, camp fires, science-fiction, absolute fact and The Bible.
Its application started as a control mechanism but today we have science fiction is rooted in that.
These powerful, terrifying and entertaining stories that have seeped into popular culture and are now – mostly – being propagated through mainstream media, blogs, podcasts and social media as being the forewarning of modern society out of control. That’s why I think it can be useful to start with dystopia.
Start with dystopia
Let’s look at what the definition of DYSTOPIA is, ‘an imagined state or society in which there is great suffering or injustice, typically one that is totalitarian or post-apocalyptic.’
Imagined, or not, dystopia is emerging as a reality in our modern world in three different ways:
Real dystopia – Kakistocracies, inequalities, climate crises, mass migration, human suffering and pain.
Academic dystopia – VUCA (Volatility + Uncertainty + Complexity + Ambiguity).
Weird dystopia – conspiracy theories, cults, and the transforming threat of information warfare and social media (good and bad actors).
The intersection of where these three meet is where our work as futurists must focus.
Thinking about all of this, I propose that we have the opportunity to think of dystopia in a completely new way. If we can imagine a world that’s terrible then we are incentivized to leap into action to avoid the consequences.
Dystopia and Foresight Planning
Dystopia creates human agency, encourages thinking about causes and solutions, creates connections between like-minded thinkers, encourages hope, and (if considered carefully and with purpose) creates inclusivity and diversity.
Think about us all taking Climate crisis seriously, discussing biases and ethical boundaries with machine learning and the systems we push into the world, and knowing that big technology companies (and ultimately governments) should not wholly control our worlds.
There are four main tools that I consider applying when talking about futures planning with my clients:
Signals of Change
Art, performance & science fiction
Hope and optimism
‘Signals of Change’ are those trends that we see in the world that have the potential to disrupt the current way we live and work e.g. renewable energy, machine learning, blockchain, nanotechnology and quantum computing. They are also phenomena we see that alters, augments and destroys our culture. I deliver these through keynotes and guest lectures (like this one). It’s important to get a wide understanding in your organization on these to ensure that the impact and considerations are understood.
There are three tools within ‘Foresight Planning’ that I find to be useful. The first is the Futures Cone, also called the ‘Cone of Possibilities’ that helps think about and communicate that there are many future possibilities. This is an easy way of visualizing how we can examine many different futures to understand how to make better decisions in the present.Thinking of the possible, plausible, probably, preferable and the ‘projected’ future seems a little too easy for most circumstances. For me, thinking about dystopia really helps us plumb the depths of the PREPOSTEROUS. In the modern age of disruption we cannot say that something is “impossible!” or “won’t ever happen”. Horses will never be replaced by cars. We will never fly. We will never land on the Moon. We will never clone humans. We will never time travel. We will never teleport. OK, the last too seem preposterous but world in quantum physics has started to open those possibilities up to us (read this on time travel and this on teleportation).
You can read this and this to get a deeper perspective on the futures cone. I feel it has some useful application as a backroom tool for futurists but would bamboozle executive management in organizations. Think about how to explain all of this to someone without a deeply philosophical and creative mind.
The second tool I talk about was developed by my friend and colleague Leah Zaidi and is called ‘world-building’.
“Worldbuilding is the process of constructing an imaginary world. It is not an individual story or the elements of a story; it is a broader context against which many stories can be set. Worldbuilding is a vast 3D landscape, and a story is a sliver of that landscape. For example, in Star Wars, the Empire, the Jedi, and lightsabers are all part of the world. In that world, we can many tell many stories, such as what happened to Luke Skywalker, a day in the life of a stormtrooper, or the story of an ordinary family living under imperial rule. Every work of fiction requires some worldbuilding. Worldbuilding is more than a literary exercise; it is a mechanism for designing the real-world. Much of strategic foresight work — including creating scenarios, experiential futures, and science fiction prototyping — are forms of worldbuilding and storytelling.” Zaidi says.
This foresight model, called the ‘Seven Foundations Model’ allows for coherent world-building using the superstructure of culture (the fundamental parts that make a complex structure). Each foundation is broken down to its most fundamental essence, so the model captures the first principles of culture:
Political: Creation, maintenance, and governance of entities and society
Economic: Management of wealth and resources
Philosophical: Epistemology (theory of knowledge), metaphysics (nature of reality), value theory (ethics and morality), logic and reason, and human nature
Environmental: Ecological systems, including physical and relational space
Scientific and Technological: Observation of, and/or experiment with the natural and physical world
Artistic: Representation, expression, and form
Social: Human organization, relational dynamics of our world and systems
The model allows for us to consider timeframes and situations and is incredibly powerful with clients of all disciplines and sizes. Download the complete research paper on Zaidi’s Seven Foundations model.
One of the most enjoyable parts of futurism for me is the consideration of art, performance & science fiction in storytelling.
The third is less of a tool and more of an approach I have developed over years of strategic consultancy and is called ‘Foresight as Business Strategy’ to consider technological solutions in the future world. I really need to come up with a better name for it to be honest, but it does the job for now to persuade strategists and executives to take foresight more seriously than folly.
We start with 3 entities – Client, Solution Provider and Citizen (customer, or whatever). We can then consider the partnerships, strategic advice, and speculative usage of technological solutions through a number of design-thinking led exercises and workshops. From there we can start to outline 5, 10, and 20 year hypotheses linked to strategies and roadmaps.
This final tool discussed here blends practical strategic planning with foresight to allow organizations to really understand a new reality. Of course, there are many other tools out there that can be used – starburst roadmapping, Futures Capability Maturity (FCM) modelling, conceptual architecture design, and thought ignition exercises however these are the three I turn to more often than not in my work.
Next is the use of ‘art, performance & science fiction’. These three, when executed with intent and integrity, create an emotional and visceral visual and auditory stimuli to create a possible view of the future.
At PRIMER19, held in NYC in June 2019, I got to meet some amazing people that use art in speculative futures storytelling as an affront and amplifier to dystopian futures we see. There were two keynote talks that resonated with me.
The first was from Ayodamola “Ayo” Tanimowo Okunseinde – who has taught at New York University, Bennington College, Hostos CUNY and 92Y. He holds an MFA in Design and Technology from Parsons School of Design in New York where he serves as Assistant Professor of Interaction and Media Design.
Okunseinde’s work asks us, via a technological lens, to reimagine notions of race, identity, politics, and culture as we travel through time and space. He also speaks about objects that live between magic and technology alongside reclamation (rather than discussing afrofuturism purely).
The project, ‘THE RIFT: An Afronaut’s Journey’, was a performance and narrative Okunseinde created in 2015 called The Rift Okunseinde plays Dr. Tanimowo, an afronaut from the future who travels back in time to try and understand the collapse of his culture.
The Afronaut constructs his suit of african patterned fabric and other materials available to him in his current time-space. And, without it he cannot survive. A fascinating discourse.
Here we see him discuss his work at PRIMER19.
More of Okunseinde’s work can be seen on his website.
Another great presentation of work was from the design duo Parsons & Charlesworth. Founded by designers Tim Parsons and Jessica Charlesworth as a formal art and design studio in 2014 after years of informal collaboration, Parsons & Charlesworth became the grounding place to explore how object design can play a greater cultural role in the exploration of subjects such as climate change, personal survival and happiness.
Working across a variety of media they create objects, exhibits, texts and images that encourage reflection upon the current and future state of our designed culture. Considering objects as agents of change, the studio explores new typologies and prototypes alternate ways of living, often using narrative and speculation to propose scenarios that comment on contemporary issues.
Here we see them discuss their work at PRIMER19.
One particularly engaging piece was the Catalog for the Post-Human which is a discursive tool to raise awareness, among labor advocates, of the issues under-represented workers could face in a future where workers may be expected to augment themselves in order to stay competitive.
Beyond art we have the powerful storytelling of science fiction and it’s useful as a reference point on speculative futures. As futurists we can use this to prepare us for conversations and projects to map out the futures ahead of us.
Phillip K. Dick’s ‘Minority Report’ that talks on predictive policing from, Gattaca written and directed by Andrew Niccol that explores a future with genetic eugenics, and Warren Ellis’s hugely visceral ‘Transmetropolitan’ that sees a dark future of journalism, political corruption and ‘the new scum’ of citizens emerging as a powerful force. These stories entertain and ultimately inspire us.
In a recent WIRED article, “CAN SCI-FI WRITERS PREPARE US FOR AN UNCERTAIN FUTURE?”, Rose Eveleth wrote:
If we think that science fiction really is a reliable tool for inferring what might come tomorrow, then it has a natural place in future planning. But if it is not, then it runs the risk of convincing us that certain futures are inevitable. Can sci-fi writers be trusted to frolic through boardrooms, forecasting the future without supervision?
This assumes that the authors engaged for this work have no restraint and misses the mark a little. However, it is a word of warning to heed. Many companies have already stepped into this way of thinking. Magic Leap hired Neal Stephenson, author of many works including ‘Snow Crash, and I was hired by YVR Airport to provide science fiction based in 2037 to help with public engagement. You can see my stories here, and here is the video we produced to help people think towards the future.
Last week a story emerged on the BBC website about how the French army is to create a “red team” of sci-fi writers to imagine possible future threats. A new report by the Defence Innovation Agency (DIA) in France said the visionaries will “propose scenarios of disruption” that military strategists may not think of. The team’s highly confidential work will be important in the fight against “malicious elements”. It also attracted a huge amount of attention at the Bastille Day parade with soldiers flying around on jet boards and with speculative drone guns.
We often find ourselves pontificating on what utopia (perfect / a future that cannot exist), protopia (a positive future achieved with progress year-by-year), and polytopia (the idea of multiple futures) might mean. But, what is inevitable is that time is marching on and we need to sow the seed and water ideas and our imagination today.
There are five practical rules of engagement and how to get executives to take it seriously:
- Practice optimism – This is the only moral choice in our crazy world and thinking of dystopias can grow that within our practices;
- Apply hard data (from multiple sources) amplify irrefutable truths – the work we do has to be based in reality. Data, insights from cross-correlation and the application of our joint wisdom is key to that.
- Use Storytelling – it is still the most powerful way to engage everyone. People always remember the heroes, the struggles they face, and their eventual ascension into a new state, or world.
- Incubate open minds, imagination, and futures for everyone – we have to work hard to consider all aspects and propagate open futures (plural) for all.
- Embed foresight as a culture – like innovation, foresight planning is more powerful when everyone understands the process and how to apply it to their work. It will take time, practice and training to achieve this. Over time the application of foresight thinking to strategic planning will become second nature.
Final thoughts – Hope Engineering, and Colonization
It’s been found that hope and optimism keeps our minds at ease, lowers stress and improves physical health. It’s a powerful tool for us to use in all circumstances.
Unbridled hope and optimism allows us to consider the capacity for change, the complexity that makes it hard, and the agency we need to create momentum. We, as futurists, are ‘Hope Engineers’ and we should imbue the work we do with that intent and passion. From there it will become infectious and seep into all parts of the organization.
IT IS OUR RESPONSIBILITY TO NOT COLONIZE THE FUTURE
What does that mean? Well, we have gone through history finding solutions and applied them by ensuring as many people as possible adhere to a narrow way of working. That is colonization of culture, society and people’s minds. It’s resulted in increased sexism, racism, classism, and bias of all sorts.
Colonization ultimately reinforces bias, destroys diversity, cultural wealth, freedom of speech and expression. Today we must to foreclose the old world and avoid colonizing our future (singular).
If colonization happens (on purpose, or by accident) then the dystopias we have chosen to use as reference points become reality.
If we are on a path to create open-minded, positive, and multiple futures then we continue to do our jobs well as futurists. When we start with dystopia – a world that we want to avoid at all costs – we can create an amazing an abundant future.
You can see Nikolas’ Future Explorers 2019 keynote here in full:
Nikolas Badminton is the CEO of EXPONENTIAL MINDS and an award-winning Futurist Keynote Speaker, researcher and author. His expertise and thought leadership will guide you from complacency to thinking exponentially, planning for longevity, and encouraging a culture of innovation. You will then establish resiliency and abundance in your organization. Please reach out to discuss how he can help you, and read on to see what is happening in the world this week.