What If...

Introduction to What If...

For a while now, we’ve both been very interested in the space between reality and the impossible, a space of dreams, hopes, and fears. Usually this space is occupied by future forecasts (commercial world), design scenarios (corporate world) and utopias and dystopias (literary and cinematic worlds).

It’s an important space, a place where the future can be debated and discussed before it happens, so that, at least in theory, the most desirable futures can be aimed for and the least desirable avoided.

Usually when we discuss big issues we do so as citizens, yet it is as consumers that we help reality take shape. It is only when products are bought that they enter everyday life and have an effect. The act of buying determines the future. By presenting people with hypothetical products, services and systems from alternative futures people engage with them as citizen/consumers. As well as trying to reason and use our intellects we are seduced by desire and the irrational. This complex mix of contradictory emotions and responses is what it is all about.

There are no solutions here, or even answers, just lots of questions, thoughts, ideas and possibilities, all expressed through the language of design. They probe our beliefs and values, challenge our assumptions and encourage us to imagine how what we call ‘reality’ could be different. They help us see that the way things are now is just one possibility, and not necessarily the best one.

As the dreams that fed the 20th century imagination begin to fade, we need to learn how to dream new dreams.

Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby, curators, WHAT IF…

Q&A between Michael John Gorman MJG and Anthony Dunne AD + Fiona Raby FR

MJG: Why design things for a society that doesn’t exist yet?

AD/FR: Clearly, the world is not in a good shape and there is plenty of scope for making things better, but using design to solve problems is not always possible, especially when we are facing such an extreme and complex situation. Another approach is to try and change human behaviour to fit the limitations of the planet rather than modifying the environment to suit our unlimited material needs and desires. To do this you need to stimulate the imagination as well as engage the intellect. The design proposals in What If… probe our beliefs and values, challenge our assumptions, and encourage us to imagine how things could be different — that how things are, is only one possibility, and probably not the best one.

MJG: Why are designers getting so interested in science?

AD/FR: At a bioart event a few years ago, we came across an exhibit by Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr showing a piece of ‘victimless meat’ or ‘disembodied cuisine’ as it’s also known, a 3 cm disc of meat grown in a laboratory from cells removed from a living animal.The animal wasn’t harmed producing this piece of meat.It was a classic fusion of science and art—strange and thought provoking but disconnected from everyday life. We wondered how designers might deal with this subject. They might ask, what if this meat was available in a restaurant? Could you eat yourself, a lover, or someone famous? The type of debate generated by this shift from the abstract world of labs and galleries into an imaginary commercial context engages people’s imaginations in very different ways from art and science. Designers would naturally explore economics, materiality, ethics, aesthetics, and technology to ensure their story was plausible, but in doing so, they would also focus the debate on a very different set of issues.

For us, this is one of the strengths of design, it can pull new technological and scientific developments into imaginary but believable everyday situations so that we can debate the social, cultural and even ethical consequences of new technologies before they happen, and try to ensure that the most desirable futures are realised. And, it can do this with intelligence, wit and insight.

Although in many cases we can’t design actual bio- or nanoproducts yet, we shouldn’t let that stop us from getting involved. We can use design to inspire, raise awareness, stimulate discussion, and provoke debate, all of which can help achieve technological futures that reflect the complex, troubled people we are, rather than the easily satisfied consumers and users we are supposed to be.

MJG: How does your work and the work of the designers included in WHAT IF… relate to science fiction? Are these just thought experiments?

AD/FR: There are many connections with science fiction but probably more with the softer more socially oriented science fiction of writers like JG Ballard, and others such as Margaret Atwood and Michel Houellebecq who would not regard themselves as science fiction authors, but frame some of their stories within the larger social and political consequences of scientific research unleashed on society through the market place.

Like Sci Fi, many of these projects extrapolate tendencies present but not yet visible in today’s society, and of course they are amplified for dramatic effect.

This approach has also been described as producing props for non existent films as they invite you to assemble a film in your head, your own film, whether it is utopian or dystopian is up to you.

The design ethos underlying many of the projects in What If... connects with the tradition of visionary architecture going back hundreds of years and radical design thinking from the 60s and 70s which was abandoned in the 80s when design became an almost purely commercial tool disconnected from any broader social context than the market place.

MJG: What are some of the broader implications of the individual pieces of work on show in WHAT IF…

AD/FR: All the designers in this show are united by a desire to go beyond what ‘is’ and explore what ‘could be’ but it’s interesting that none of them present what ‘should be’. Rather than pushing their own moral convictions on to the viewer, or trying to persuade us to adopt their vision, their ideas are presented in ways that allow us to draw our own conclusions.

There are many ways of asking ‘What if…’ : Sascha Pohflepp for example, uses a counterfactual approach for his Golden Institute for Energy, where he sets up a scenario based on what might have happened if Jimmy Carter won a second term and radical green policies had been encouraged instead of investment in the Star Wars programme. For his BuyProduct project, Dot Samsen applies a Reductio ad Absurdum approach where, by following the carbon credit idea through to its logical conclusion, he exposes its absurdity and impossibility. Michael Burton presents a cautionary tale in his Future Farm, which, probably more than any others in the show, is clearly a future very few of us would wish for; and, rather than presenting a specific vision, Cat Kramer and Zoe Papadopoulou have designed a platform where visitors are drawn into a live discussion with experts and activists about the pros and cons of nanotechnology while enjoying different forms of technologically enhanced ice cream.

MJG: What are your own future scenarios? Where does the design on show in Science Gallery belong?

AD/FR: Imagine a world where design like this was commonplace, expected, even demanded, by an informed and intellectually engaged citizenship. A world where new roles, contexts and methods for design were celebrated.

Where each profession had sectors dedicated to speculation: speculative ethics, speculative economics, speculative medicine, speculative law, speculative social and political sciences, each tracing trajectories through possible realities, creating surprising interactions, highlighting where it is we should be going rather than stumbling around, searching for quick fixes to the far from perfect system we exist within now.

Where there was a government department for future speculation, a ministry of public debate, university degrees in catalytic design, and secondary school classes in critical thinking.

Where design was a medium to help us think, imagine and speculate about how the world could be. This is where the design in What If... belongs.

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