Critical design and the critical social sciences: or why we need to engage multiple, speculative critical design futures in a post-political and post-utopian era

We, anxious citizens of the affluent global North have some rather conflicted attitudes to futuring. In the broad realm of culture, “futures” have never been more popular. In the realm of politics, it is widely believed that those who engage in utopian speculations, are “out to lunch or out to kill[1].”

Joseph Gandy Architectural Visions of Early Fancy, in the Gay Morning of Youth, and Dreams in the Evening of Life Sir John Soane’s Museum

If you look at the highest grossing movies of the last decade – Avatar, The Hunger Games, the endless Marvel Comics spins offs, science fiction dominates the box office. The most bone-headed Hollywood movie can conjure up CGI visuals and glimpses of future civilizations unthinkable a generation ago. The visual skills of mainstream cinema may have reached new heights, as the narrative quality has never been lower.

Naboo: Star Wars: Episode I The Phantom Menace Lucasfilm 1999

But, if you can work your way through the paper-thin-multi-market-tested-lowest-common-denominator quality of so much popular sci-fi, and tread carefully around the latest zombie/vampire dystopia, you still find creative works that pose sociological and philosophical questions of real substance.

Ronald.D.Moore Battlestar Galatica 2003-2009.

Thoughtful reflections on widening inequality, class struggle, climate crisis, human-animal-machine relations, trans-humanism, the future of sexuality, surveillance and militarism can all be found in all manner of places. Consider Ronald Moore’s Battlestar Galactica, the sci-fi novels of Ursula LeGuin, the Mars trilogy of Kim Stanley Robinson, films such as District 9, Gattica, Elysium or Snowpiercer, the graphic novels of Alan Moore or Hayao Miyazaki’s stunning retro-futurist animations. All these currents – and many others – have used futures as a narrative backdrop to open up debate about worlds we might wish to inhabit or avoid.

Ron Herron, Archigram (1964).

In the “real world” of contemporary politics, no such breadth of discussion can be tolerated.

“Futures” once played a very significant role in Western political discourse. Western political theory: from Plato onwards can reasonably be read as an argument about optimal forms of institutional configuring.

The island of Utopia in Thomas More, Liellus vere aureaus nec minus salutaris quam festivus de optimo reipubicae statu, deque nova insula Utopia, Louvain 1516. Wormsley Library, Oxford.

For much of the twentieth century, different capitalisms confronted different vision of communism, socialism, anarchism, feminism, black liberation, fascism. Rich discussions equally took place as to the possible merits of blended systems: from the mixed economy and the welfare state to “market socialism”, mutualism to populism, associationalism to corporatism. Since the end of the Cold War, it would be hardly controversial to observe that the range of debate about political futures that can occur in liberal democracies has dramatically narrowed.

Science Digest Feb, 1958.

Of course, it would be quite wrong to believe that utopianism has gone away in the contemporary United States. Pax Americana, The Rapture, or a vision of the good life spent pursuing private utopias centered around the consumption-travel-hedonism nexus celebrated by “reality TV” is all alive and well.

All manner of further media tell us social problems can be dealt with on an individual basis. It is seen as the hallmark of intelligence to embrace Wired Magazine digi-topian tech-fix thinking. Do we really need to solve poverty when we could simply program our google glasses so that we just stop seeing those grubby moochers!

But the idea that there are social, technological, ecological or political issues that might require collective solutions, new forms of institutional innovation, democratic experimentalism or perhaps transformations of our social relations is often met with complete incomprehension by the smart people. That there are pressing public issues that might require public debate about public futures or that political debate might draw its vitality from clashing visions of different futures has faded fast in our post-political and perhaps even post-democratic era.

Social Futuring

If a serious discussion of material political futures has been largely foreclosed in the world of politics, it is interesting how talk about futures and even utopias is stirring in some radical parts of design and in some emerging quarters of critical theory, critical sociology and the critical social sciences. Let’s take one snatch of this conversation – my home discipline of social theory and sociology.

It was a figure no less than H.G. Wells (novelist, futurist and serious contender for the first chair in Sociology at the London School of Economics), who argued in 1906 that “the creation of Utopias – and their exhaustive criticism – is the proper and distinctive method of sociology.[2]” Now, even if it has to be acknowledged that mainstream sociology has never been particularly comfortable with fulfilling this charge, the “return of the repressed” has occurred time and again in sociology and social theory.

H.G.Wells 1866-1946

Futurist speculation runs through the writings of all the founding fathers of sociology. Marx’s vision of an egalitarian future that would be governed by the maxim “from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs” needs little introduction. No less compelling though is Max Weber’s icy dystopian fear, that an increasing bureaucratic modernity could give rise to an “iron cage of rationality.” For Weber, there was every likelihood that we could end up with a technocratic future governed by “specialists without spirit; sensualists without heart.”

Less well known is Emile Durkheim hope, that the dislocations of “industrial societies” might be somehow stitched back together through some kind of associational corporatism. Durkheim hoped that isolated individuals might be brought back into social life through engagement with civic institutions, professional groups, trade unions and the like. He further suggested that if these forms of sectional representation were given formal standing, in a reconfigured polity, we could envisage a new kind of associational democracy that represented individuals and groups.

The writing of Patrick Geddes anticipates the substantive concerns of much last twentieth century green politics. In Cities in Evolution (1915) Geddes advocated an ecologically and socially sensitive form of civic planning that could give rise to a new vision of urban democracy situated in a critical regionalism. These future discussions may well have been disregarded in mid-20th century sociology but they were never fully blocked. They leaked out in all manner of ways: from conventional discussions of scenario planning and systems thinking (that draws so much from organizational sociology) to the outright utopian longings of critical theory.

Moreover, it is striking how leading contemporary figures in the critical social sciences: from Erik Olin Wright to David Harvey, Roberto Unger to Ruth Levitas, have insisted we must place not just futures, but serious concrete material proposals for reconfiguring our social and political relations back on the agenda[3].

If the question of utopia for sociologists has often been treated like everyone’s favorite, drunk Uncle at Christmas …..not to be engaged with too much but Christmas wouldn’t be the same without him…..the world of design has frequently embraced the drunk uncle or found itself to be the drunk uncle!  

Design Futuring

Tony Garnier Cite Industrielle 1905/1918.

Design is important for thinking about futures simply because it is one of the few remaining spaces in the academy that is completely untroubled by its devotion to futures. Prototyping, prefiguring, speculative thinking, doing things differently, failing… and then starting all over again are all core component of design education. This is perhaps why Jan Michl observed that a kind of dream of functional perfectionism[4] has haunted all matter of design practice and design manifestos in the twentieth century. 19450_1356490353550_536260_n-1

Now, of course, futurism and design have come together with very mixed results in the Twentieth Century. Early modernist architecture, industrial design and utopianism were almost indivisible. From Russian and Italian Futurism to Le Corbusier and the Bauhaus, utopian idealism ruled. Design utopias have acted as powerful historical forces, sometimes to stimulate change and sometimes to recoil from it.

Het Schip by Michel de Klerk Amsterdam 1920. A housing co-operative commissioned by the socialist group Eigen Haard by Janericloebe

.[5] The easy link that was once made between utopia, design and “emancipation” was decisively challenged by the Holocaust and the subsequent disasters of authoritarian modernism – from Robert Moses to Pruitt-Igoe.

Pruitt-Igoe (Architect: Minoru Yamasaki). First occupied 1954. Demolished March 16, 1972.

There are certain forms of authoritarian design utopian thinking about the future that are dead and need to stay dead. However, the matter does not end there. There are design utopias and there are design utopias. And as a growing body of radical designers and architects have suggested, design utopianism by bayonets and bulldozer is not the same as embarking on modes of design futurism as a materialized invitation to political debate.

Evoking the possible virtues of design futurism will, of course, immediately generate alarm bells for all good humanists trained with their critical superpower to root out and instantly squash modes of technological determinism and instrumental rationality with the force of a revolutionary key stroke. It will send shivers down the spine of that army of grad school radicals who learned in Post Structuralism 101, that to be radical is to resist “cookbooks for the future” and “blueprints”; keep everything open; propose nothing and critique everything. Such suspicions are not to be disregarded. Alan Lie was not entirely off base when he declared, “design is how we can be dominated by instrumental rationality, and love it, too”[6].

However, perhaps it needs to be recognized that the last twenty years of keeping everything open, proclaiming for radical democracy! Cosmopolitics! “The Event” hasn’t exactly worked out so well either. Perhaps “thinking politically” does require thinking about futures and thinking seriously about transformations of social relations and material relations.

Perhaps we were wrong to think that politics is foreclosed by making material propositions. Perhaps the reverse is true: material propositions provide the basis for doing politics. For without concrete material propositions for doing things differently, do we really have anything much to debate in the radical democracy?

Perhaps doing “good futuring” requires engagement with design because social relations are not sui generis, as Durkheim was wont to claim, or primarily textual as Derrida occasionally asserted. If Haraway and Latour are correct, that we live in entangled social, material, hybrid worlds[7]; if we are beset by a whole series of socio-ecological and socio-technological problems, perhaps we need to think about forms of politics that propose socio-ecological and socio-technological solutions? Design utopianism is not a replacement for social critique, but design could potentially add much needed material content to social critique.

But how should we future?

Critical Design, Speculative Design, Architectural Utopianism, Re-directive Practices….

 There are presently very different ideas circulating through radical design. The radical Architect Michael Sorkin has demanded a return to design utopianism pure and simple. The condition of utopia, Sorkin suggests, is important because “it proposes its own realization, a deliberation with an outcome.” Sorkin argues that design utopianism is potentially of central importance for reviving a radical material politics with real material content because:

“Utopian thought is the only way of speculating concretely about a projective connection between architecture and politics. To design utopias is to enter the laboratory of politics and space, to conduct experiments in their reciprocity. This laboratory – unlike the city itself – is a place in which variables can be selectively and freely controlled. At the point of application of the concrete, utopia ceases to exist”.[8]

Moreover, if we think of the utopian imaginary as disposition, as opposed to the blueprint, we might well get a little further in our speculations. Sorkin makes a plausible case for the centrality of a utopian, ecological and political architecture of the future as a kind of materialized political ecology. His intervention can also remind us that hostility to design utopianism or any discussion of embarking on “big moves” in urban planning, public housing, alternative energy provision and the like, can itself function as a kind of “anti-politics”. It can merely re-enforce the status quo, ensuring that nothing of substance is ever discussed in the political arena.

A very different view of design futuring can be found in the writings and work of Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby. For Dunne and Raby critical or speculative design should hover somewhere between conceptual art and agit prop, using design to “pose questions” to a critical public[9].

Tony Fry makes some rather different arguments for why design has to be central to any serious future politics. Fry has observed that our contemporary hybrid worlds are thoroughly designed socio-ecological worlds. And these designed worlds are full of social relations, institutional forms, political economies, infrastructures, and designed items that are literally de-futuring the planet through their reckless social and ecological impacts. In no uncertain terms Fry argues conventional design has been central to the current defuturing project. Designers have failed to fully understand the disaster of a hyper-consumer economy. There is a failure in design education to recognize that design objects take on a life of their own. As Fry notes

“designed things go on designing (be they designed to do so or not)”.[10] An inability to think structurally also ensures that design is mostly unable to see that unsustainability or defuturing is ontologically structured into the very ‘habitus’ we occupy. Fry argues, then, that we need to embrace a form of social design futuring which is interactive and on-going. Fry argues that a critical design futurism has to involve the continued, relentless search for re-directive practices at multiple spatial scales. This will involve systematically retrofitting and redirecting our personal habitus, our homes, our cities and our broader socio-ecological systems to reclaim the future. This will involve a search for ‘the quality economy’ and new modes of service design. But it will also ensure that in the future design needs to involve not just making, but unmaking. We will need eliminative design.

From a very different angle, Erik Olin Wright and his colleagues have, for nearly two decades now, argued that the critical social sciences should take the exploration and empirical examination of real world utopias seriously. Wright, here, is not talking about setting up Fourier’s phalanstère, but “empirically examining cases of institutional innovations” that exist in the here and now, and that potentially “embody in one way or another emancipatory alternatives to the dominant forms of social organization.[11]” Wright advocates a form of critical sociology that has little to do with the ungrounded speculative metaphysics that defines so much contemporary critical theory. Rather, he suggests revolutionary work involves deploying a kind of critical, but practical and pre-figurative analysis of “hard-nosed proposals for pragmatically improving our lives.” We need to honestly appraise the strengths and weaknesses of concrete proposals that exist now: from unconditional basic income, to appraisals of the Mondragon Co-operative movement, participatory city budgeting to different kinds of associational governance. Whilst Wright never actually uses the word design to describe what he is up to in his writings, his demand for concrete programmatic thinking resonates with John Dryzek’s call for a critical political science concerned with producing and evaluating discursive institutional designs.

Quinta Monroy in Iquique, Chile, designed by Alejandro Aravena. Photograph: Takuto Sando/Elemental

Further points of convergence between design and the critical social sciences open up when we recognize that design is not reducible to the activities of professional designers. As thinkers from Herbert Simon, to Colin Ward have argued, if we see design as a much more generalizable human capacity to act in the world, prefigure and then materialize, the reach and potential of future orientated forms of social design for material politics can be read in much more interesting and expansive ways.

The writings of Colin Ward and Delores Hayden can be fruitfully engaged with here for the manner in which both of these critical figures have drawn productive links between design histories of vernacular architectures and the social histories of self built housing, infrastructure and leisure facilities. Both demonstrate that there is nothing particularly new about the current interest in making, hacking or sharing. There are many “hidden histories” of working men and women embarking on forms of self-management, building co-operative enterprises and networks of mutual aid. In doing so they have turned themselves into designers of their own workplaces, communities and lives[12]. Such experiments in what we might call “worker centred design” continue to resonate. Attempts by trade unionists to define new modes of ownership with socially useful production (as represented by the Lucas plan), and the recent spate of factory takeovers in Argentina, all indicate that workers can be designers[13].

Illustrations by Clifford Harper for ‘Radical Technology’ 1976.

All manner of interesting potential convergences between critical design, futurism and social critique can additionally be found in the many experimental forms that contemporary urban-ecological activism has given rise to. Consider experiments in urban food growing, forms of tactical or pop-up urbanism, guerrilla gardening and open streets, attempts to experiment in solidarity economies, experiments with urban retrofitting or distributed energy systems or experiments with part finished public housing (that can be customized by their residents). All these currents have the potential to draw design activism and design-oriented social movements into direct engagement with critical theory, political economy and the critical social sciences.

Illustrations by Clifford Harper for ‘Radical Technology’ 1976

Utopia is Dead: Long Live Critical Futurism!

Let us conclude then, that perhaps we do live in worlds where utopias have had their day. If we understand utopias to be static, a-historical projections of “the good society” that have already been grounded, prefigured and preordained in “Nature”, “History,” “science”, then we are probably done with that discourse. If we value democracy, if we want to live in a world marked by a vibrant public sphere that can generate the possibilities of hope and human betterment, then we need futures. Without futures, and without serious propositional clashes between different materialized futures, we have no politics, and we have no democracy. We merely have millimetric policy disputes that end up as the technocratic attending to marginally different versions of the status quo. We can sense these dangers at the moment when we look at the state of our increasingly illiberal democracies. The problems mount: from climate change to spiraling inequality; from crumbling infrastructure to a surveillance state that has no bounds. Yet, our political culture is fixed and frozen. As such, we find ourselves in a culture that can happily spend $250 million dollars per Hollywood movie to create the next sci-fi fantasy but finds it is beyond its imaginative capacities to design superb, sustainable, public housing. We can build fabulously elaborate multiplayer online fantasy games, where gamer avatars can have sex with their elf girlfriends, but providing web platforms that give working people more democratic control over their workplace is a fantasy too far. The potential of self-driving cars or the rise of Artificial Intelligence can be endlessly debated. But the idea that we might be able to regulate our financial institutions is presented as a process as mysterious, dangerous and futile as the attempt to locate Lord Voldermort’s horcruxes.

Yes, there are future visions still engaged with in mainstream political debate. But what are they: The endless continuation of the neo-liberal present; apocalyptic modes of environmentalism; dystopian fears of the return of the caliphate. We can do much better than that. Can’t we?

I have tentatively tried to suggest in this post that one productive route towards generating multiple visions of futures could be cultivated through an alliance between critical forms of design, critical theory and the critical social sciences. To develop this discussion will not be easy. Through engagement both may have to become something quite different. We need the capacity, which critical forms of design have, for flights of fantasy, for saying the unsayable, for proposing absurdities. Yet we also need critical social sciences that can engage seriously with design as an equal partner. Design is integral for thinking about futures because design has to propose, prefigure, speculate, protype, anticipate, fail, revise, fail and sometimes succeed. But design can’t do it alone. Broader forms of reconstructive political economy, reconstructive institutional analysis, reconstructive anthropology, geography, philosophy, psychology, history, aesthetics and cultural interventions alongside design will all be required to move us forward. This alliance will be difficult to broker at an institutional level but it will also be difficult to broker at the level of the imagination, For it can only emerge if we find ways of being alert to the reconstructive possibilities and potentialities that may exist in the present. As Hannu Rajaniemi has observed: “Things will appear the same – unless you know how to look”[14].

[1] As Russell Jacoby memorably observed in The End of Utopia: Politics and Culture in an Age of Apathy Basic Books, 1999.

[2] Cited in Ruth Levitas, Utopia as Method: The Imaginary Institution of Society Palgrave, 2013,p.xi.

[3] See variously E. O. Wright, (2010) Envisioning Real Utopias, London: Verso, 2010; Levitas (Op Cit); David Harvey, (2000) Spaces of Hope University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh; Roberto Mangabeira Unger What Should the Left Propose? (Verso, 2005).

[4] Jan Michl “On the Rumor
of Functional Perfection” Pro Forma 2, 1990-1991 (Oslo, Norway), pp. 67-81.

[5] See Owen Hatherley “Imagining the Socialist City” Jacobin 15-16, 2014.

[6] Alan Liu The Laws of Cool: Knowledge, Work and the Culture of Information 2004 p. 236.

[7] See Damian White and Chris Wilbert (eds) (2009) Technonatures: Environments, Technologies, Spaces, and Places in the Twenty- first Century. Wilfred Laurier Press, Waterloo for an elaboration of this argument.

[8] Michael Sorkin: Harvard Design Magazine “Eutopia” Issue 31 Fall/Spring 2007 p.7.

[9] Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby Speculative Everything MIT Press, 2014.

[10] Fry, Tony (2009) Design Futuring: Sustainability, Ethics and New Practice London, Bloomsbury. p.30.

[11] E. O. Wright, (2010) Envisioning Real Utopias, London: Verso, 2010 p. 1.

[12] See Chris Wilbert and Damian White (eds) (2010) Autonomy, Solidarity, Possibility. The Colin Ward Reader. AK Press, San Francisco. Dolores Hayden, (1980) What Would a Non-Sexist City Be Like? Speculations on Housing, Urban Design, and Human Work Signs Vol. 5, No. 3, Supplement. Women and the American City Spring, pp. S170-S187.

[13] Marina Sitrin et al Horizontalism; Nora Räthzel, David Uzzell and Dave Elliott “Can trade unions become environmental innovators? Learning from the Lucas Aerospace workers”.

[14] Cited in Honor Harger, (2013) “Things will appear the same – unless you know how to look”


12 thoughts on “Critical design and the critical social sciences: or why we need to engage multiple, speculative critical design futures in a post-political and post-utopian era

  1. Speaking of Utopias, has anyone heard of Celebration located in Florida? It’s a real “utopian town” created by Disney. Here is a link if anyone wants to check it out.

    Also, I found some views that either embrace the past or cut it off in order to move towards the future. And while they are slightly off tangent, I thought they were interesting points to think about.

    John Berger speaks of how a person or a class that is cut off from his or her own past is far less free to choose and to act as a person or a class versus one that has been able to situate his or herself in history. And that History is a clump of conclusions from which we draw in order to act for the future.

    But architect Rem Koolhaas brings up a point that: “New construction obliterates what exists; it is a loss of memory.” Architecture would consist of a prospective archaeology, constantly projecting new layers of “civilizations” on old systems, Parallel to the ever-changing attitude towards architecture indicating the changing value in society.

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    • Great observations. Celebration Florida of course was a possible point of inspiration for the Truman Show (Jim Carey Movie – check it out if you don’t know it). So, it brings up this interesting question of whether one persons utopia is another person’s distopia. Great quote from John Berger. I am wondering whether the tension here between Berger and Koolhaus has some quite interesting social and political consequences for design. I want to read more of Koolhaus’ books but a lot of his work seems so enamored with flux and flow that I’m not sure there is any room for justice in his vision….more to think about here…..


  2. It is interesting how obsessed we are with defining the definition of design and design’s new “genres.” Design is a consumer based activity- if it is practical and useful to the society to which it is applied, it succeeds. If it isn’t serving the population, it fails. I don’t think society in 2015 is ready for a utopian vision, which is why a lot of these new communities such as Celebration and Mueller either have failed or will soon fail. There are too many underlying issues outside of these utopian communities such as complex global inequality, unsustainable consumption, racism, and differentiating political belielfs (to name a few) that inhibit utopian design. Ignoring these dilemnas by jumping to a supposed “perfect community” does not solve the problem.


  3. I think that it’s useful to think about utopias or futures, in the sense that in order to do that, you have to think about the future you would like to see and the steps you have to take in order to achieve that. It is definitely useful in design – an area that exists to meet some perceived need – to think of possible futures that you will work towards in your own work in order to provide society with a better product that may enable them to live better. It allows you to be critical towards your design and to think more about its impact in the wider world. Bringing in the social sciences into the mix will definitely open up design to questions that need to be answered, problems that need to be solved, and, most importantly, practical solutions for all of those.

    However, I think that sometimes there might be a time when this may be counterproductive. Conflict of beliefs and interests are always going to come up when designing for the future, especially when those designs cross borders and cultures. This exists in design as well as the critical social sciences – people in academia often disagree with each other, beliefs about what the future should be often contradict, and everyone believes that they are working towards a better future. In the context of design, when it often used in physical context within a community, contradictions and disagreements about the utopias that are being put forward in different designs may harm the communities more than it helps them. Designs based off of different ideas about what the future should be may influence perception of other designs to the point where neither design is serving its purpose.

    As well as that, ideas in the social sciences are often very strongly based on very Western ideals (or at least many of the ideas that currently get exported into projects all around the world) and it raises the question of how ethical it is to tie those ideas very closely with futuristic design – something that can impact people who do not come from that context. It was stated that there are areas that the social sciences can help when mixed with design:

    “reconstructive political economy, reconstructive institutional analysis, reconstructive anthropology, geography, philosophy, psychology, history, aesthetics and cultural interventions”

    The answers to those things have been widely debated in academia for centuries and quite a lot of focus has been on Western ideals and on people from the Western world coming into communities that they may not understand. Coming from a background that is not based in any one culture, I have struggled with the idea of how I want to exist within any culture I encounter because it is impossible for you to not bring your own biases and your own culture into your analysis of what you experience. Your baseline is your culture and the only way to express differences in culture is to analyze it with respect to that baseline. Especially now, with various world politics and the higher ability for those who are more well off to come into poorer communities than vice versa, marrying critical design with critical social sciences may push these ideals onto communities who may not agree with those beliefs.


  4. A point that resonated with me was that the media perpetuates the notion that “social problems are dealt with on an individual basis.” It made me think back to our first section when we learned, through the a showing of hands, that a lot of the class saw the future as bleak. I couldn’t quite articulate why at the time but I think for me it has to do with this thought that “one” can make a difference.

    The sentiment is widespread and I can’t pull specific examples, but I’m sure I’ve heard it in numerous TED talks, in plenty of mail-a-nickel donation campaigns. It stirred up a feeling of helplessness. Why this dependence on the “one” when sometimes even huge groups can’t seem to make a difference? Is this the seeking of a savior? All these movements we read about this week had followers that believed in the same concepts but generated materials that expressed their own individualism. Events, good or bad, seem to happen with groups.

    And on the topic movements perpetuated by groups, I remembered a comment about these “contemporary urban-ecological” experiments in activism. On the popular, often ridiculous but informative, social media site tumblr, there’s a sometimes circulating quotation in response to an article about the why the green movement is perhaps racially-biased. Here’s the article:
    And the comment summarized recounts that environmental movements such as “bike to work” are only a movement if done by the “privileged.” Class, and as an extension race, and the ability to make choices, separate “activists” and those who have no other option.

    Unrelated but since we looked at many examples of fantasy architecture and ideas not getting fulfilled this week, here are 2 architectural designs that did get built.
    Nakagin Capsule Tower – Expo ’70
    Habitat 67 – Expo ’67


  5. “‘Rethink everything!’ ought to be the central mantra of our time. Nothing less will suffice.”

    This quote by Michael Ben Eli fits pretty well to what Damian was talking about and how he suggested that maybe the idea of utopia is outdated and that we need to rethink ‘futures’ and what that means. Ben Eli goes on to state that “existing tools, concepts, institutions, frameworks and mechanisms” are not able to handle the problems we are facing today and in order to deal with them radical change must take place.

    Although it may seem obvious that there needs to be changes in aspects such as politics, design, humanitarian efforts and so on, the phrase “rethink everything” has much more weight than “things need to change”. It will require a world wide effort, with everyone participating towards one goal.

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  6. It seems there is a hiatus between ‘real world’ political material propositions and artistic (including films, books etc) interpretations of the same. Its as though humanity is banished into artistic rebellion, our collective dream-world imagineer, citing lack of discussion in political hemispheres. I concur that design, critical theory and social science must re-ignite ideas of multi-future structures in the western debate, as futures thinking is possibly more stagnant here. Post-colonial “baby” economies (30-100 years old) as well as developing nations on the other hand are radically transforming their political futures. Take the Aam Aadmi Party of New Delhi, for instance. Their overwhelming win brings a difference in degree in politics that is a difference in kind. Accountability, anti-corruption and grassroots politics are the hallmarks of this political paradigm shift. Other examples include Bhutan’s ‘Gross National Happiness’ index that measures well-being, Seed Banks (see, and Micro-finance (search ‘Grahmin Bank’) as well as age-old Gandhian non-violence.
    The idea of ‘utopia’, a fixed perfect society one strives towards, is a flawed concept rooted in deterministic thought. The idea goes hand-in-hand with Greek atomic theory, of divisible units, furthered by Newton. Darwin’s evolution theory and 20th century realisations that sub-atomic potentialities leave an uncertain future redirects our thinking to design and social futuring instead, as everything changes.
    Perhaps the overarching phenomenon humanity will have to deal with in the coming centuries is that of rising complexity. In the Agrarian revolution (world population : 10 million) society soon transformed into kingdoms and anarchy…which are individualistic solutions. In the Industrial revolution (world population : 954 million) society transformed into democracies and capitalism…where power and decision making resided in the hands of the privileged few. And now that we approach the Digital revolution (world population : 7 billion) we require collective solutions to our social, technological, ecological and political issues.

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  7. @audhlee, maybe we should re-frame Berger’s question to “What can we learn from our collective history?”, as the patterns in our relationships and in societal constructs factor more in futuring.

    @abannar2014, your “Re-think Everything” slogan resonates with me. If ideas take on a life and meaning of their own, and we have outdated, out-of-context laws and ideals, then humanity’s functioning becomes warped. The ‘new’ must replace the ‘old’.

    When delving into humanity’s first steps in future thinking, the shift from hunter-gatherers to agriculturalists comes to mind. This inflection allowed our population to explode from the nomadic 6-8 million (the tipping point of unsustainable foraging on the planet) to the settled (and still unsustainable) 7.3 billion. The change from adapting to the environment to adapting the environment to human needs may be the first time we “designed” our future? The birth of agrarian economies gave way to the birth of states, and the omnipotent phenomenon of collective learning. Fewer people on the fields allowed for new professions and division of labour, thereby establishing hierarchies and the dualities of high:low, man:man and man:woman. All organically and socially designed by us.

    The age-old debate of Thomas Hobbes and Jean-Jaques Rousseau helps indicate where on the spectrum one lies, vis-a-vis one’s own morality, ethics and visions for the future. Humanity without state control was nasty, brutish and short according to Hobbes, but was largely egalitarian before claims to land, wealth and property corrupted them, says Rousseau. Societies ante-ceding the vocalisation of this debate have, in a way, answered this dilemma for themselves as each of us will individually do through the duration of our lives. Native Americans, Aborigines and other indigenous peoples designed ecologically sensitive and sustainable futures, surviving thousands of years of validation. Whereas Europeans (much later) acted in accordance with Hobbes, proclaiming the ‘white-man’s burden’ of civilising and slavery. What is your perception of the future?


  8. A unique aspect of the human race, and something we touched on in class last week, is the ability to conceive of our own identities outside of the ‘now’ and begin to look critically at our own history as well as speculate about our own futures. This has been happening for thousands of years, and the utopias have been a tool for humans to critique problems within our own societies. I would argue that a ‘utopia’ isn’t necessarily a fixed point in our future but something we constantly aspire to. This future is constantly evolving as our present situation, focuses, and needs change with the development of society. Humans aren’t perfect, and therefore we will always aspire to that ever-distant idealized utopian future.

    In response to Damien’s point about why multimillion dollar blockbuster films are produced but no one can seem to find a meaningful way to provide sustainable housing: Our society has been built up on the idea that we must preserve our own sense of self. This ‘survival of the fittest’ attitude is present in everything from our economics to our entertainment. We produce things that satisfy our personal interests and needs without truly taking the greater society into account. Even though we constantly feed off of the development of the larger group, we work to satisfy our own selfish needs. That two hours of entertainment in the movie theatre might be better spent, but doing so wouldn’t provide the same level of satisfaction to the individual. This could be taken as a very pessimistic view, but I see it more as an opportunity to change the way we approach contemporary issues to help people understand the long term repercussions of their actions.

    I definitely agree that through a combination of critical design, theory, and social sciences, we might be able to reframe this problem in a way that might help people find ways to make improvements on our present. I think the problem comes in when we start to think about this change ‘coming in the future’ as opposed to beginning in the moment now. Unless we can shift the responsibility onto ourselves now, nothing will happen. A method that this might be able to happen is through our own educational system. The way we learn and are brought up now does not allow for this complex critical thought to take place on a widespread level throughout our society. We are drilled from young ages to make sure that we know this list of historic dates, can spell this list of words, and can complete these math problems in a certain amount of time. We are given grades that imposes a competitive atmosphere in our learning environments. Changing how the larger society can learn and process information, and beginning to distribute critical thought to the masses instead of keeping it locked inside the towers of the privileged in higher education would help tremendously. There are many movements that make these proposals. Ken Robinson, Sugata Mitra, and Edith Ackerman are only three people working within the realm of education to rethink the way that we learn. Through self-discovery, creativity, and the use of play we may be able to shift the societal point of view to one that will help to “broker at the level of imagination” as Damien suggested in his post.

    Here’s a few links to some TED Talks from the individuals I mentioned above”

    Sir Ken Robinson:
    Sugata Mitra:
    Edith Ackermann:


  9. Very interesting post Damian. I really like how you distinguish between a future and a Utopia. In this way, it seems that contemporary society perceives Utopias as tangential to society while futures lay ahead in time within the channel of our contemporary society. Maybe our language is a fault, as Utopia then implies place while the introduction of the temporal term future displaces Utopias’ placement in the future. Are Utopias and futures still conceptually linked, or have enough people attempted to create concrete visions of Utopias that the term has become outdated?

    I wonder about the feasibility of futures with real substance having a substantial influence over current day affairs. Society has changed so drastically in just a short amount of time, with the world become even more complex with a new underlying layer of invisible internet that now connects us all so closely. The visualization of a utopia has usually been a hermetically sealed community physically realized by circular, inwards-facing urban planning. Such arrangement is simply not possible today. Therefore, visualized futures with substance required much more complex workings, maybe leading to the reason contemporary utopian speculators are criticized as “out to lunch.” There requires such a deep level of systems reworking that by the time they are fully comprehended, society will have outpaced the utopia or gone so far to shit that the visualized future becomes laughable in terms of feasibility.

    @eriklack, your remarks on education and future thinking are confusing. I don’t think you’re making a compelling argument in your reasoning between our system of education and the expansion of future thinking. Do you mean to say that current education, in which high grades and rote memorization are awarded, promotes a reactionary mindset rather than encouraging a proactive mindset that is essential for future thinking? I think you’re getting sidetracked by the actual content of education rather than the importance in the larger system of becoming educated. I agree that the education system is outdated, but that plays into what I mention above as society’s quickly shifting paradigm. I believe education is just a facet of that discussion, not an intrinsic core. Nevertheless, feel free to prove me wrong. Maybe your manifesto at the end of the semester incorporates a new system of education that is the basis for your utopian future.


  10. When you make the statement “The visual skills of mainstream cinema may have reached new heights, as the narrative quality has never been lower.”, how do you define good science fiction narrative? Is it the complexity of ideas that are within the narrative with themes like widening inequality, class struggle, climate crisis, human-animal-machine relations, trans-humanism, the future of sexuality, surveillance and militarism? I would try to revisit that metric of success because Hearney made the same claim in her article. Works that can only be appreciated by so few can also be regarded as unsuccessful when seen from its impact socially.

    I really enjoyed your transition from mass culture to a very specific culture such as politics. It is true that views of the future have dramatically narrowed and I would support that from my own point of view growing up in the Philippines. I have not heard of an individual who has created their own version of utopia. People are also becoming more and more skeptical about possible futures and thus chooses not to discuss it.

    I agree that public debate and conversations have faded within social design discussions. However, I am seeing a slow change trying to go back to a more democratic design philosophy. For my architecture studio, we just held a charrette with stakeholders of different backgrounds with the aim of figuring out what the community really needs for a design intervention. I believe the fade has roots with globalization and specialization. When designers began designing for problems outside of their realm and spreading copy and paste solutions.

    Your connections between design and future thinking is very well thought out. I would add that design is inherently linked to the future because it involves artifacts that do not currently exist. It has to be thought and made in the future.

    I really enjoyed your ability to place complex thoughts in current context by using mass media like Lord Voledermort’s horcruxes.

    Do you think that one of the reasons that Utopia have had it’s day is because those of the same class who used to dream of utopias, now live comfortably enough to think this is utopia and this is as good as it gets? Or have they lost hope that major changes are impossible with the current environment that we are in?

    I completely agree with your productive routes towards generating multiple visions of futures. We cannot be afraid to fail due to current conceptions of what we deem is possible. The ability to create possible futures is tied to our ability to see the present and the past. We need to be open to ideas that have failed and understand why they have failed.

    Liked by 1 person

    • All great observations Nicolai. You make a really good point about film and globalization. I need to think about this a little further. I’ve always seen the general drift to globalized film products as generally seeing an increase in visual complexity but a decrease in narrative complexity simply because studios will not go for complex narratives that audiences situated in multiple regions of the world will not understand. So, that drives a kind of lowest common denominator pressure. But it’s really interesting to think about there are exceptions to the rule. Both the X-Men Franchise and the Harry Potter Franchise were both fairly sophicated in their narratives and they managed to be successful in multiple regions. Also it would be interesting to hear about whether people in different regions get different things from different movies. How people in the Philippines interprete these products might be multiple and various. …we should discuss this further….I love this observation “design is inherently linked to the future because it involves artifacts that do not currently exist”


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