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A year later, I’m back in Utrecht to speak at the Transforming Cities debate series, this time about AI as imagination infrastructure. From the event’s description:

Faced with climate change and other interconnected existential crises in the twenty-first century, it is quickly becoming a cliché to say that there is a strong need to “imagine better futures.” But such a statement hides many questions and challenges. Who gets to imagine these futures? Who feels safe and supported enough, economically, politically and socially, to be involved? Who gets excluded from imaginative processes? How do or will they impact daily life, policies, and action in the present? What about the futures of non-human species? For those not part of small privileged groups, possibilities for participating in truly powerful and impactful imagination seem so limited. As a result, feelings of powerlessness in the face of global catastrophe are common.

My participation is part of an ongoing engagement with imagination infrastructures in collaboration with Joost Vervoort, but also an opportunity to reflect on the Dream Sequencer – an interactive installation produced as part of last year’s Dutch Design Week.

The Dream Sequencer was a playful attempt to evoke reflection on past and future aspirations and how they may, or may have not become reality. The idea was to use generative AI to make abstract ideas concrete, and by doing so to create connections between (and pluralize) pasts, presents and futures. The installation was designed for the futures theme in the 4TU’s ‘transitions’ program for Dutch Design Week, and was later picked up and exhibited in the Highlight Delft festival. The idea was developed in collaboration with Dan Lockton, Julieta Matos-Castaño, Ioana Mereuta, and Jamila Blockzjil, and the design of the installation was done by Yeun Kim.

In the aftermath of the installation I have been thinking about whether the installation was merely a form of ‘futuretainment’, and whether the significant investment in energy (generative AI’s footprint is considerable) was worth it. I’ll be sharing some terse conclusions in the event in Utrecht, and in a co-authored paper (with Julieta Matos-Castaño) in a forthcoming special issue of the Journal of Futures Studies dedicated to AI and the future of futures.


(Photo by Barbara Zandoval)

I was recently invited to participate in a debate titled Beyond Techtopia, organized by Transforming Cities Utrecht. I couldn’t be there physically because I tested positive to covid, but I did prepare and record a ‘provocation’: a starting position for engaging with the other participants, Katrin Merfeld (UU), Tessa de Geus (DRIFT), and Ekaterina Petrova (TU/e). This is the text:


I want to address the question that motivates this afternoon’s debate, the relation between cities and technology, by asking who is the city for? The question appears quite simple, I mean, isn’t it clear that cities are for people? But I think there’s more to it than that.

Let me explain.

Those following the discourse of smart cities could not but notice that there is a particular logic that drives the design and application of urban sensors, databases, algorithms, and now urban digital twins. This logic holds that transitioning to more sustainable, resilient cities requires foremost that cities become more efficient, and that technology is the means to get there. In other words, for every complex or “wicked” problem there is a technological fix, and it doesn’t really matter whether the issue is social or environmental; technology will save us.

This position is often described as “solutionism”, and it is embedded in our social institutions, is promoted by the media, and of course, it informs municipal bureaucrats. It also shapes how we train the next generation of engineers.

Now, this way of seeing the city is very powerful and quite convincing, but it reflects what I think is an unsubstantiated faith in the power of technology and technologists to make the world better, thus ignoring all the ways in which technological solutions often yield new, and sometimes even greater problems. (This is called the Jevons paradox or the rebound effect).

Importantly, when this way of seeing the world is applied to urban design it yields cities that cater for technology.

Cars are the obvious example here. Wherever cities were designed for cars in mind, and Rotterdam is the classic example in the Dutch context, multilane highways took the place of social housing, the air became more polluted, the streets more congested, public space less inviting, and the overall quality of urban life declined. So what first seemed like a great way to increase the efficiency of movement, became a nightmare for residents – something many cities are still struggling to correct.

What I’m worried about, then, is that our future cities will be designed not for cars but for algorithmic decision-making instead of for the humans, plants and animals that make cities liveable. The way to address it, however, first requires that we understand that how we use technology is inherently tied to how we imagine it. What I mean by this is that we cannot separate the materiality and effects of technology from how we think and relate to it. Experience and the imagination are inseparable. This is often captured in the notion of social or sociotechnical imaginaries.

And so what I want to argue today, is that a real urban transition requires that we first nurture an alternative imaginary – one that replaces the drive for efficiency with something else, more humane, more transparent, and more equitable. How we do this is ultimately a matter for the public to decide, but I have a few propositions that I hope may help us shape alternative imaginaries for the future city.

The first proposition is that everyone has a right to the city. This is a point made long ago by Henri Lefebvre and again, more recently, by the geographer David Harvey, who emphasized “The freedom to make and remake our cities and ourselves”. I think Harvey’s formulation can be extended from the shaping of urban spaces to that of the technologies that mediate urban life.

In other words, when we design urban technologies we should think very carefully about whose interests are served, and whose interests are not, which communities are seen and which are invisible to our new digital eyes.

Take for example the data that is fed into municipal simulations and decision making algorithms (or “digital twins”). What kind of means does the public have to shape the way they are measured, quantified and represented in these complex technologies? What happens to those marginalized communities that are either hard to digitize or that reject digitization outright? (and I’m thinking here about undocumented migrants or those nonhumans that share our cities).

The design and deployment of urban technologies should therefore take social justice, equitable representation and fair access as core, non-negotiable principles.

The second proposition holds that public participation is not just a ‘nice to have’ but a core requirement. If the right to the city is to be more than a declaration or abstraction, the public must be consulted before deploying new technologies with disruptive potentials – not only afterwards, or as a form of tokenism. Municipalities and technologists should really listen to the public and seek to share power, invite oversight, provide recourse against questionable decisions, and encourage debate and critique.

This is especially important when dealing with complex technologies and automated decision-making processes, because these technologies often operate in opaque ways that are hard to understand and evaluate not only by the general public but also by those who build them.

When cities implement technologies they should make sure that these are transparent and contestable, that there are easy and accessible ways for the public to be aware of what the technology does, and be able to challenge the policies made based on it.

The complexity of technology, in other words, should not be an excuse for keeping the public out of design, but an added reason to include them in substantial ways.

The next proposition asks us to consider urban technologies as tools for conviviality. When municipalities make decisions about urban technologies they would do well to regard them as what the philosopher (and priest!), Ivan Illich called convivial tools. What he meant is that the design and use of technology should be first and foremost a means for self-actualization – a way for the users of technology to live more fulfilling lives, to become more active and capable, and to be able to make those technologies their own.

When it comes to new digital technology, this means that we should reject universal, one-size-fits-all solutions, and work to enable the public to customize and appropriate technologies as they see fit. The role of experts in such processes is important, but they cannot be the exclusive arbitrators of the public good.

In a project that I‘ve been involved in over the last few years, we tried to do this by designing speculative dashboards with residents of neighbourhoods in Rotterdam and Amsterdam Noord. Our point of departure was not the availability and capability of technology but those things that members of the community found important in their neighbourhood.

If such a way to design technology would catch on, the data that flows upward to decision makers would represent the neighbourhood as it wants to be seen, and not just a cluster of anonymous data points.

My last proposition asks us to think more critically about the notion of scale. Much of the drive for efficiency relies on the ability to scale up whatever technology is designed. This is very much according to the logic of industrial production were make more artefacts means that the cost of each artefact is lower.

The risk in seeking to scale up every urban technology is that the crucial differences between local sites and practices is effaced. Instead of a beautiful and healthy diversity we may end up with homogeneity and blandness. So while some forms of scaling up make sense, I suggest that other forms of scaling may offer similar advantages but with more sensitivity to differences.

We can get a sense of what this can look like from a recent editorial about citizen participation in urban development by Diana Mitlin. In the article she describes ‘scaling within’ from one household to another in the same neighbourhood; ‘scaling out’ from one neighbourhood to another; ‘scaling across’ from one service to another in the same neighbourhood; and ‘scaling through’, using capabilities and ambitions learned through one activity to take on new activities and projects. These alternative forms of scaling offer a provocative way to benefit from sharing experiences while maintaining the specificity of individual urban locales.

To briefly conclude, if we are to promote an urban transition that is fair, just and equitable, we need to inform the design of new urban technologies with new ways to imagine the city. This way, I hope, our future cities will not be designed for technology but for those who inhabit them.

 


(illustration by Bas Köhler)

From the crisis of imagination to more-than-human imaginaries | Roy Bendor

This is a non-referenced version of a keynote presentation at the 4th ESP Europe Conference, Heraklion, Greece, October 13 2022


A crisis of imagination

As you are all very well aware, I’m sure, we are facing an existential crisis, one that is shared by all of the Earth’s inhabitants, even if it is the result of the activities of only one species. This crisis has many faces – from climate to biodiversity, economy to governance, values to worldviews – but in my talk today I want to focus on what I think is the underlying condition that fundamentally erects barriers to meaningful action on the climate crisis. I will do so by weaving together theory and practice, mostly from the field of design. While I am not a designer by trade or training, I have studied design and played with it for more than a decade, almost enough to say a few non-trivial things about it. I hope you will find these words interesting, challenging, or at least not boring.

the Anthropocene presents a challenge not only to the arts and humanities, but also to our common sense understandings … the climate crisis is also a crisis of culture, and thus of the imagination.

– Amitav Ghosh

Lamenting a few years ago about the lack of literature engaged with climate change, the Indian author Amitav Ghosh pointed out that “the climate crisis is also a crisis of culture, and thus of the imagination”. Generalizing Ghosh’s critique beyond the literary world, it appears he has a point. With very few exceptions, if the climate crisis is addressed at all in popular culture it is usually presented as an apocalyptic spectacle, with little room to reflect on its deeper causes and consequences.

Ghosh’s criticism is made even more salient if we consider Ernst Bloch’s famous statement that “The most tragic form of loss isn’t the loss of security; it’s the loss of the capacity to imagine that things could be different.” It’s not that we don’t recognize the severity and urgency of the climate crisis – well, at least most of us – or that we haven’t done anything to address it, but that we seem to do so in rather predictable, sometime retrograde, and certainly suboptimized ways.

So here we are, contending with the realization that pain and suffering are certain to be visited on a massive scale, arguing about whether we only have 20, 50 or 100 years before the Earth becomes uninhabitable, without being able to harness our imagination to offer inspiring yet realistic ways out of this mess.

‘But wait’, I can almost hear you saying, ‘isn’t there plenty of imagination in the innovation sector? What about emerging technologies such as electric vehicles, fusion reactors or carbon capture devices?’ Well, it’s certainly true that human creativity remains a viable force, at least until our AI overlords will surpass us there too, but this kind of creativity mostly remains committed to maintaining the existing state of affairs. Electric vehicles will not change the way we understand mobility, fusion reactors will not change the way we consume, and carbon capture technologies will not change the way we treat our environment. If anything, each one of these pathbreaking technologies will surely succumb to logic of Jevons’ Paradox, at best maintaining business as usual; at worst, inundating us with more and more rebound effects.

What we need, then, and quite desperately so, is to evoke, extend and exercise the ‘radical imagination’ – a kind of imagination that is not content with “tinkering around the edges of the problem”, as Bill McKibben famously remarked, but that goes to the bottom of things, to the very root causes of the multiple crises that threaten the planet’s future. As the title of my talk already hints, I think this has to do with how we imagine, and consequently relate to others. But before I get there, the question remains, how can we unleash the radical imagination?

My imagination makes me human and makes me a fool; it gives me all the world, and exiles me from it.

– Ursula K. Le Guin

Traditionally we relied on art and literature to show us the way by giving us words, images, sensations and textures by which we can evaluate our living conditions and, perhaps, be motivated to change them. Science fiction – especially the more socially engaged type as represented in the works of Ursula Le Guin, Stanislaw Lem, Octavia Butler, and more recently Kim Stanley Robinson – has made it its mission to question the current reality by suggesting alternative ones. It is this contrast – between what we have and what we could have – that is the ground zero of the radical imagination. And when it is guided towards thinking about inequality, ecology, democracy, and so forth, radical change may follow.

In recent years many in the field of design have joined the quest for radical transformation. But to be fair, some designers have been at it much earlier.

The American polymath Buckminster Fuller suggested nearly a century ago that designer follow the principles and dynamics of nature. While other designers were perfecting the methods and aesthetics of what will soon after be called ‘industrial design’, Fuller was busy creating geodesic domes, dymaxion houses and cars, and a world game that beats SimCity in both its scope and its sensitivity to issues of geopolitical power.

Most memorably, at least for me, Fuller argued for the imaginative, persuasive power of utopian alternatives, even if he didn’t use those exact terms. In his words: “you never change things by fighting reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete”. And he sure did, even if he was mostly misunderstood or mocked.

Years later, the designers that were part of what is often called Radical Italian Design were inspired by the events of the late 1960s and sought to challenge the norms, materials, methods and goals of mainstream product design. The furniture they created, as you can see here, foregrounded flexibility (the couch), played with forms that crossed the boundaries between the natural and the artificial, and experimented with new, cheaper and thus more accessible materials such polyurethane.

In many ways radical Italian design foreshadowed the ways in which current politically engaged design see its role as a kind of material intervention in social relations. But from the vantage point of the present, the social critique of the Italians seems a bit outmoded, or more accurately, seems a tad underwhelming and a bit naïve, mostly because of the kind of forms and aesthetics they mobilized. The artefacts the Italians created were so beautiful that they could stand on their own and be severed from any kind of contextual critique. They have since become valuable commodities owned and cherished by private collectors around the world, and in this sense defeat their very purpose; instead of subverting the relations between form, material and labour under late capitalism they appears to have been  subsumed by them.

Nonetheless, that radical spirit has carried through into contemporary design practices, and especially the kind of design that I am interested in: speculative design.

Speculative design

In essence, all design is about the future: not only in the abstract sense that designers create the material infrastructure of tomorrow, but in the very practical sense that every design process is oriented toward a future user using a future artefact in a future context. We may say that design continuously churns the ‘what is’ into ‘what if’, and vice versa.

Yet, paradoxically, design also participates in what Mark Fisher called the “cancellation of the future” or what the design theorist Tony Fry terms “defuturing”. In a nutshell, the collective outcomes and consequences of design, as practiced within modern industrial society and as wedded to capitalist incentives, take away future possibilities. We are literally designing our way out of existence. Speculative design takes issue with this death spiral.

Design speculations can act as a catalyst for collectively redefining our relationship to reality.

– Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby

As characterized by Anthony Dunne & Fiona Raby, speculative design does not try “to predict the future” but uses “design to open up all sort of possibilities that can be discussed, debated, and used to collectively define a preferable future for a given group of people: from companies, to cities, to societies”. What it is about, then, is generating “a multitude of worldviews, ideologies, and possibilities”.

Whereas mainstream design seeks to innovate within the market – producing new products, services or environments – speculative design seeks to problematize the relations between design and society. It is critical not only of how commercial design is practiced but also about society in general. Its appeal to, or use of, the future, therefore, is acutely different: while commercial design approaches the future as a container for innovation, speculative design uses it as a canvas for the social critique of the here and now.

This critique often takes shape as a form of inquiry, and this is another way that speculative design differs from mainstream design. While most design seeks to solve social, cultural, economic or environmental problems by proposing material solutions, speculative design proceeds in the opposite direction: it challenges the kind of solutions government and industry provide and asks instead, what if we proceeded in different directions? In this mode, design’s capacity to make matters tangible and embed them in the everyday, serves not to solve existing problems but to search for future problems. Design, as Betti Marenko points out, becomes a form of wayfinding.

The aesthetics of speculative design gives this search a provocative twist. Because speculative designs often use ambiguity, humour or irony, some of the examples I will discuss today appear artistic in nature, while others appear more like ‘real’ technical artefacts. This is largely a matter of choice by designers, and has to do with the rhetorical framing they wish to deploy. Nonetheless, all speculative designs aim to generate critical reflection and debate on the most acute challenges of our time. One of these is the enduring legacy of anthropocentrism and, more broadly, the possibility of imagining and acting on more-than-human worlds.

The choice of terminology here is not coincidental. Referring to humans and nonhumans as such maintains an ontological distinction that I wish to undermine. All entities – organic and inorganic beings, biological species and machinic assemblages, humans, trees, viruses, tables, microprocessors, mycelia, and delivery robots, on this planet and beyond, act on each other in sometimes obvious, sometimes hidden, and sometimes outright mysterious ways. Making sense of their entangled, mutual becoming is precisely the kind of topic that merits the attention of the radical imagination.

Speculative design strategies to engage with more-than-human worlds

When considering more-than-human worlds, questions of ontology (who or what we are), are inherently related to questions of ethics (how do we relate to, and act on, each other). Accordingly, I would like to enter this complex terrain first from the question of being, and then from the question of relating. Keep in mind, though, that the two issues – being and relating – are inherently inextricable and so separating them in this way is more of a communicative than substantive choice.

From exceptionalism to entanglement

As I’m sure many of you already recognize, the walls that kept the notion of humans as an exceptional species have significantly cracked over the last few years. It appears that we are less ‘the crown of creation’ and more a group of selfish, shortsighted, homicidal animals – still dominant but only one of, sadly, a shrinking list of entangled beings.

This devaluation and ultimately undermining of a sense of human exceptionalism has benefited from several important philosophical insights and scientific findings:

We know, for instance, that humans aren’t the only makers and users of tools.

We also know that some fungi are capable of communicating, although the degree to which this may constitute a language is still debated.

We have also discovered forms of collaboration and cooperation among nonhumans that are outright inspiring. In some tree types, before a tree dies it release whatever nutrients it still has into the soil for the other members of the grove to inherit. Contrast that to the way some humans hoard unimaginable wealth until they die, and with the way copyright laws are structured, sometimes even long after they are gone.

We also better understand just how entangled we are with other nonhumans. Viruses are inscribed into our DNA, as does the food we eat. Furthermore, traumatic events experienced several generations in the past can make their way into our DNA and effect the way we are today.

The cumulative effect of all of this is that we can no longer pretend that we can somehow insulate ourselves from the material world that surrounds us – even if we manage to build a fancy bunker somewhere in the mountains of New Zealand. As microplastics are found in the farthest reaches of Antarctica and in the breastmilk of mothers, our planetary reach has come home to haunt us. We are everywhere. We are the world. And the world is us.

Life is constructed and reconstructed from the links that are constantly established between all the figures of being.

– Achille Mbembe

This observation also extends to our relations with technology. As Achille Mbembe notes, as we invest ourselves into our technologies we also endow them with humanity, and in this sense, all technology is android. This also works in the opposite direction: as we embed sensors, nanobots and artificial intelligent agents into all aspects of our lives we become machinic as well, or as Donna Haraway famously argued, we become cyborgs.

Recent discussions on what constitutes sentience and consciousness, triggered by the strong conviction of an engineer at Google that the AI he was training has indeed become a person, testifies not only to the blurring boundaries between humans and machinic nonhumans, but also exhibits the kind of existential fear we have about the increasing difficulty to evaluate with certainty which part of our humanity is machinic and which parts of the machine are human.

What we can call here “The Great Entanglement”, then, is expressed as the blurring boundaries between nature and culture, humans and technology.

We can get a taste of this in Tamiko Thiel’s augmented reality installation, Unexpected Growth. The installation adds a hidden layer to what otherwise appears as everyday urban landscape and on this layer we can see a lively coral reef growing in front of our eyes, branching out according to Lindenmayer system principles. But much to our surprise, the reef is actually made of plastic: spoons, forks, straws, sandals, and rubber duckies. And the more we look at the reef the more it bleaches, as if responding magically to the cumulative effects of electromagnetic exposure.

Thiel’s installation gives dynamic visual representation to one of the most disturbing ways in which nature and culture have become entangled. As human material culture spills over into the natural environment, neither side remains unchanged. The natural environment become artifice, while human junk becomes lively and vibrant – as if carried by its own elan vital.

The process of mutual transformation, however, is uneven. This is the message of Peter Kalkman’s masters graduation project, Pigeon Predictions, which I had the pleasure to guide.

Kalkman’s design responds to the smart city’s drive to quantify everything by speculating about integrating pigeons into urban information systems. In his proposal, pigeons will be equipped with little RF transmitters, and so their behavior patterns can become input for algorithmic decision making: certain congregation and movement patterns indicate that a garbage bin has overflown, while others indicate illegal feeding – usually by people near benches, lakes or canals. At nighttime, pigeon congregations may indicate vacant houses or other abandoned spaces – all useful information for a municipality.

In fact, so useful that some at the City of Rotterdam were interested in exploring its application. While this may testify to the risks of deploying absurdity as a design aesthetic, you know, some get it and others may not, it also indicates the degree to which many still approach ‘the great entanglement’ from the lingering perspective of anthropocentrism. So sure, we may be entangled but that only means that we can see new forms of utility in other species, thus maintaining our position on top of the pyramid. I mean, what do the pigeons get out of it?

We get a different perspective in Superflux’s installation, Refuge for Resurgence. This is how the creators, Anab Jain and Jon Ardern describe the installation:

Having survived Earth’s abrupt shift to an era of precarious climate, a multispecies community gather in the blasted ruins of modernity to find new ways of living together. Working together to carve out a new world from the smouldering remains of the old. Working together to forge enduring forms of sharing and survival. Working together to revive this land, this land, once a place of order and control. Humans, animals, birds, plants, moss, and fungi gathering around a shared hope for our more than human future. A hope in the life that remains. A hope in the resurgence of life stretched thin around this rock, painting its surface blue and green as it spins wildly in the vast blackness. Refuge for Resurgence is a multi-species banquet with a fox, rat, wasp, pigeon, cow, human adults and child, wild boar, snake, beaver, wolf, raven and mushroom. The scene lays bare a conversation between the paralysis of fear and the audacity of hope.

This is perhaps where thinking through entanglements stops being a source of existential fear of losing our status as top-beings and becomes a source of optimism. In her book, Meeting the Universe Halfway, the physicist Karen Barad argues that, and these are her words: “To be entangled is not simply to be intertwined with another, as in the joining of separate entities, but to lack an independent, self-contained existence. Existence is not an individual affair. Individuals do not preexist their interactions; rather, individuals emerge through and as part of their entangled intra-relating”.

Thus articulated, ontological dependency can be seen as a direct threat to the liberal, sovereign and autonomous subjectivity that dominates modernity, but it also offers solace. Whether we perceive ourselves as part of Gaia, or members of what Mbembe call the “in-common”, we are never alone. And this is both a scientific fact and a rallying cry to engage in planetary activism. When we act to protect others we are essentially protecting ourselves.

The question remains, how do we make such insights durable? How do we embed them in our sociotechnical infrastructures? To some extent, Ecuador and New Zealand have shown us a path by granting legal rights to organic nonhumans, while Japan has done something similar with robots. In a project that I am involved in we took a different path.

Sensing in the Wild Lab is a speculative experiment in designing a decentralized urban sensing system. It is part of a larger project called DCODE, which is interested in the future of designing with AI. What makes Sensing in the Wild Lab relevant for our discussion today is the way it integrates nonhumans, both organic and machinic, into the sensing apparatus.

During the Lab, participants are asked to feed into the system data that reflects their particular perspectives and interests. The twist is that they have to do it while taking on different identities (which you can see here in these playing cards), roleplaying as children but also as moss, as municipal authorities but also as CCTV cameras, as pigeons but also as illegal immigrants trying to evade the authorities.

The data that participants shared, in the form of an image and text uploaded to a dedicated Telegram channel, helped reveal both frictions and alignments among actors. Looking at those images and texts it became clear how the same data could be interpreted differently by different actors, and how some data could be useful for more than one type of actor, and sometimes for conflicting reasons.

And so, for instance, the same trees that birds identified as desirable playgrounds were tagged as obstructions by the CCTV camera, and the location of an abandoned pair of bicycles was helpful for both children looking for a joyride and municipal garbage collectors. The presence of moss helped city cleaners be more effective, but it also disclosed the perfect shady spot for a tired pigeon on a hot summer’s day.

While the lab is still an ongoing experiment, the interim results help us shift our thinking about the future smart city from a “system of systems” that is optimized for a few city dwellers to a much more distributed, inclusive meshwork in which data can is contributed, circulated and negotiated by everyone – humans and nonhumans alike. As Arturo Escobar might say, the city reveals itself to be pluriversal.

From empathy to care

Moving from the question of being to that of relating, one of the characteristics of “living in capitalism”, as Ursula Le Guin put it, is that many of our relations to others are transactional. I suspect some of that is even captured in the title of this conference: thinking about the world through the notion of “services” immediately conjures an image of quid pro quo, doing something but only if we get something in return. Relationality, in this mode, is anchored less in moral obligations and more in rules and norms.

One of the ways designers attempt to “soften” the edges of this dynamic is by introducing empathy as a core designerly skill. In what is known as human-centred design, the capacity to empathize with users is understood as key to creating products, services or environments that matter to people – to make transactions more personal, relevant and meaningful. Peter-Jan Stappers, my colleague at Delft and a leading proponent of user-centered design, describes this kind of skill as the ability to understand “another person’s situation, experience, or perspective, as if it were one’s own”. But what if that other person is a nonhuman?

We can get a glimpse of that in the virtual reality experience Tree, in which the creators, Milica Zec and Winslow Porter, used a sophisticated set of technologies to craft an immersive, embodied experience. Let’s take a look at the first minute or so.

The experience begins with the participant planting of a real kapok seed in a nearby pot. The smell of soil will linger in their nostrils as the images you see here fill their field of view of their VR goggles. Participants then embody the tree’s journey from sapling to mature tree – a journey made even more immersive by the vibration packs that are activated as chirping birds come to rest on the tree’s branches (the participants’ hands).

After experiencing the growth and daily life of the tree, the experience comes to its devastating conclusion when a wildfire consumes the forest. As the flames come closer participants feel the heat, and as the tree falls to its death the ground rumbles. Much like the tree itself, there’s nothing the participant can do. Reportedly, participants came out of the experience visibly shaken. This is quite understandable, I mean, the ability to feel like a tree – even if only for a bit, and even if only by the mediating powers of cutting edge technologies – is a powerful mechanism for generating empathy, amplified by the inability to act when danger arrises.

But do we still feel this kind of empathy when we look at Patricia Piccinini’s speculative image, The Young Family? Can we empathize with these bizarre creatures – a result of future genetic experimentation and mutation? What are these beings anyway? They are clearly nonhuman, but also very familiar. Why is it that they both attract and repulse us?

This is perhaps where the limits of empathy as a mode of relating become apparent. Our capacity to empathize relies on our ability to imagine that we could be the other, and sometimes that simply doesn’t work. We need a different way to understand relationality – we need to look for mutuality instead of identification. A good place to begin is what Robin Wall Kimmerer calls “berry teachings”.

Generosity is simultaneously a moral and a material imperative… the well-being of one is linked to the well-being of all.

 – Robin Wall Kimmerer

What Kimmerer means, and here she draws on indigenous ways of knowing, is that berries offer nourishment to other beings while relying on others to spread their seeds. As such, berries stand as a model for human and nonhumans reciprocity. In Kimmerer’s words: “The berries trust that we will uphold our end of the bargain and disperse their seeds to new places to grow”, and so “they remind us that all flourishing is mutual”.

In her community this insight was performed in ceremonies in which a bowl of berries would be passed around for everyone to share, giving a tangible form to the unmistakable conclusion that “the generosity of the land comes to us as one bowl, one spoon”, but also that “The gifts of the earth are to be shared, but gifts are not limitless”. Kimmerer continues: “We are all bound by a covenant of reciprocity: plant breath for animal breath, winter and summer, predator and prey, grass and fire, night and day, living and dying. Water knows this, clouds know this. Soil and rocks know they are dancing in a continuous giveaway of making, unmaking, and making again the earth”.

I hope you will agree that these words ring true, however, they are incredibly hard to internalize. Here, too, our moral imagination has been corrupted by the transactional logic of market capitalism, according to which giving something without the guarantee of receiving something in return makes one a sucker. Speculative designers are not immune.

A few years ago a class of masters students in our program created a speculative design that responded to the scenario, what if all bees go extinct? Humans, in this scenario, assume the bees’ responsibility and pollinate flowers using this make belief state-of-the-art glove that first detects whether a flower is in need of pollination, and if so, reveals a sticky surface at the tip of the finger that enables the encounter between pollen and plant. Sounds great, right? But the scenario didn’t stop there: upon pollinating flowers users stood to gain ‘citizen points’ that lead to higher status. So on the one hand, the design offers a new meaning to eco-citizenship, but on the other hand, it falls right back onto the transactional logic of market relations.

Would it have mattered if instead of the bees going extinct and the humans taking their place as pollinators, the roles were reversed? We get a glimpse of this kind of dynamic in Pinar Yoldas’s An Ecosystem of Excess.

The installation illustrates how evolution may take its next big step from the remnants of human civilization. Following the extinction of humans, new, complex organisms emerge from the “plastic soup” that now stands in place of our oceans. You can see some of these electronically infused creatures in the large vats in the picture.

In this speculative (I hope…) future, reciprocity becomes hauntological: much like in Alan Weismans’ book The World Without Us, it is only in their ruins that humans can finally reciprocate with nonhumans and allow them to flourish. And this may lead us to wonder whether perhaps the most generous form of mutuality we can offer nonhumans would be to simply disappear and leave them alone.

Perhaps there’s a middle ground… What if considered care as the dispositional counterpart of the kind of ontological reality I described earlier? And I don’t mean care as the act of paying emotional attention to others, but more in line with how philosopher Maria Puig de la Bellacasa suggests care as “a force distributed across a multiplicity of agencies and materials” and that “supports our worlds as a thick mesh of relational obligations”. Such obligations, de la Bellacasa argues, can be speculatively extended to nonhumans and thus exhibit the disruptive power of care not as a moral obligation but as an ontological, ethical and political force. Care, in this sense, suggests new kinds of relations that trouble existing hierarchies between humans and nonhumans.

Although what this means isn’t always clear, we may be able to get a hint of it in Martin Avila’s work Doomestics, part of a larger project called Symbiotic Tactics.

In a series of design experiments, Avila examines ways for humans to cohabit with those nonhumans we ordinarily consider either dangerous or repulsive, in this case scorpions. Co-habitation, in this manner, is neither done in the expectation of services rendered by the nonhumans, nor an example of reciprocal exchanges. What the scorpions have to give, I’m not sure we want to accept… Instead, Avila attempt to imagine co-habitation in ways that do not solve the tensions between species but “stay with the trouble”, as Donna Haraway famously writes.

The project is situated in Cordoba, Argentina, when scorpions have become a serious issue. The combination of old sewage infrastructure and increasing waste flows has created a very enabling environment for scorpions, resulting in high number of incidents – 38 cases in one day in November 2012. As you would expect, people responded to this threat by pouring toxic chemicals down drains and toilets and thus killing scorpions and damaging their habitat. Trying to provide an alternative, Avila designed an alternative shower grate which you can see in these images, includes three functions: it helps to capture scorpions that may come up through the drain; it prevents human activities that may destroy “underworld habitats”; and it helps to biodegrade human and other waste so it can actually feed those critters that live in the sewers.

This is how the device works: the grate is covered with organic material that attracts cockroaches. Once they enter the grate they get stuck to an adhesive, and the vibrations they make attract nearby scorpions. A scorpion that enters the grate become stuck too, thus protecting showering humans from its venomous bite.

But what makes this grate even more interesting are two of its features: first, over time the grate attracts other small insects and arthropods and they, along with the decomposing cockroach and scorpion, pour down the drain and become nutrients for the ecosystem below. Second, the covering material slowly disintegrates, thus calling the attention of bathers. Instead of ignoring what happens under their feet, lulled by the perceived safety afforded by the new grate, human inhabitants continue to fear the consequences of a fully degraded grate. This way they develop a connection with the sewer and become invested in its condition, and once it is replaced they can throw the used one into the garbage, recycling or compost bin, knowing that they contributed to another metabolic cycle.

Either way, Avila’s speculative device helps us to imagine “urban ecologies yet to come”, as he puts it, characterized by relations of maintenance and care.

Conclusion: Design as Worldmaking

To briefly conclude, from the perspective that opens up from considering more-than-human worlds, life appears as a web of vibrant actors, organic and machinic beings, small, large and planetary in scale, all entangled in multiple relations. No single being is worth more nor less than others because the very condition of possibility for all of us to survive and even thrive in the future is to find ways to co-habit peacefully. We may have difficulties imagining a world characterized by such ontological parity, where entities are bonded by care-full relations. It certainly doesn’t help that our popular culture, images, and language continuously tell us that we are unique, that we deserve more, and that we are the only thing that matters. But doesn’t a world in which transactionality is replaced by care, autonomy is substituted with dependency, and individuality appears but an illusion – doesn’t such a more-than-human world sound appealing?

Well, the good news is that as difficult as they may be to imagine, more-than-human worlds are already here, it’s just that they’re not evenly distributed, as William Gibson’s famously quipped. Design, as I suggest today, can help disclose and distribute these world by creating the infrastructure for entities to engage each other on equal terms and become more than they are on their own. It is in this sense that I argue that design is worldmaking.

Naturally, this observation comes with an ethical commitment: instead of helping to populate the planet with more of the same, designers need to help these latent but powerful worlds become visible, experiential, lived. Designers should act as midwives of a better world. What an image?… Today I urge you all to think of yourselves as designers – as active, intentional makers of alternative realities that, if we try hard, may take root and transform our world to the better.

Thank you.


Photo by Lex te Loo.

I had the pleasure of participating as a panelist in two BK Talks: a series of talks organized by TU Delft’s Faculty of Architecture.

The first session was titled ‘Apocalypse: An agenda for a World in Crisis‘, and can be viewed here. Other participants included Stavros Kousoulas, Felix Madrazo, Pinar Sefkatli, and Naomi Stead, and it was moderated by Lisa Doeland.

The secular use of the metaphor of ‘Apocalypse’ refers to the total destruction and end of the World, and originates from the last biblical book, ‘The Book of Revelation’. Whether or not the end of the World is coming is difficult to predict. However, when we read the newspapers or watch the news, the term ‘Apocalypse’ helps to describe the situation in which our Planet is at the beginning of the Anthropocene: climate breakdown, biodiversity loss, societal inequity, political unrest – to name just a few of the urgencies – can make us feel the fear of impending doom.

Nonetheless, this BK Talks is an invitation to address these urgencies with the belief that humankind will prevail. Moderated by Lisa Doeland, philospher and professor at Radboud University, Nijmegen and the University of Amsterdam, a panel of experts from different disciplines will discuss emergencies and agendas to tackle climate, justice or biodiversity emergency.

Can we speed up official agendas? Can we as citizens do more, faster? How can we reach true social and ecological justice? How can we address rampant urbanisation, overpopulation, migrations, aggressive misogyny, imperialism, white supremacy, capitalist exploitation of the Earth or an artificial intelligence takeover?

Can we refer to the actual meaning of ‘Apocalypse’ (from the Greek apokálupsis: “uncover, disclose, reveal”) and elaborate on the guidelines of actions to follow?

We need to do so. We are running out of time.



Photo by Lex te Loo.

The second session was titled, ‘Probable, Plausible, Preferable, Possible: Imagine the future before it is too late‘, and can be viewed here. Other participants included Jesse Hoffman, Félix Madrazo, Angeliki Sioli, and Heidi Sohn, and it was moderated by Chris Marcinkoski.

Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby’s Speculative Everything characterized speculative design as a form of creative practice concerned with elaborating design projects that imagine possible futures not as a form of prognostication, but as a means of identifying and reflecting upon crucial issues facing contemporary culture and society—whether we recognize them or not.

In this edition of BK Talks—moderated by Prof. Christopher Marcinkoski of the University of Pennsylvania—we will consider the utility of speculation as a tool of critical practice; the use of systemic methodologies as a means to think about the future; and the elaboration of scenarios in order to gain insight into actions we might take in the present. We will contemplate work that departs from both large-scale systemic drivers of change and weak signals emerging at the margins.

What forces affect the future? Is there even such a thing as the future, or are there only futures—in multiple? Can we truly prepare for imminent realities and anticipate impending needs? Are designers of the built environment stunted in their capacity for imagining and elaborating worlds other than what we know today? What might be considered legitimate methods of futuring? Is it possible to know and anticipate probable, plausible, possible, or preferable futures in view of the myriad planetary crisis of the 21st century?

We certainly cannot know what the future will bring. But we can no doubt imagine what it might.

I’m delighted to moderate a special session during the upcoming AMS conference Re-Inventing the City.

The session (Thursday, Feb.17 at 15:00, online) will bring together artists, designers and researchers to consider how the public can be meaningfully brought into urban transition initiatives. The point of departure for the session is that efforts to transform urban systems often neglect to include the public, resulting in urban futures (and technologies) that are envisioned and created in a top-down matter by industry and government.

The conference’s call for papers (especially the theme “co-designing the system”) is evidence of this, mentioning “Science, industry partners and policymakers” but not the public (neither as organizations, nor as communities or individuals). The session will gather multiple perspectives on the roles the public can and should play in envisioning and promoting urban futures, with an emphasis on creative, imaginative or speculative approaches for urban co-creation. Such approaches serve to promote equitable public inclusion in urban development processes, while aiming to “stretch” the public’s imagination of how the city may take shape in the future.

I’ll be joined by Kars Alfrink, designer and PhD candidate at TU Delft, Cristina Ampatzidou, researcher at RMIT Europe and CreaTures project, Michiel de Lange, Assistant Professor, Culture and Media Studies at Utrecht University, and Julien Thomas, interdisciplinary artist and social designer.