Saturday, 1 September 2012

Post-design scenarios

In 2008 I wrote four scenario vignettes based on a few interviews with designers and an analysis of consumption and behaviour patterns then called Pro-Am (Leadbeater & Miller 2004). 

My objective was to imagine future design jobs and future worlds in a post-industrial, post-materialist setting where today's issues related to consumption, the environment and natural resources, commodification of pleasure and well-being, political agency, work and employment play out to very different directions.  

I was inspired in part by a 2003 study carried out by Toni Ahlqvist for the Finnish Ministry of Education on technology and future employment that proposed new occupations we may see in the future, such as designers of body organs. The study was also described in a feature article in the Helsingin Sanomat, Finland's largest daily. (Ahlqvist 2003, as described in Ängeslevä 2003)

I had also just read The Long Emergency, which made me realize that collapse is indeed possible and we would be naïve to rule it out as if we were invulnerable for some reason. And I wanted to play with fiction and the power of storytelling.  

One of my interviewees, Australian designer Damien Melotte, supplied the term Growsumer to apply to people who "will 'Grow' their own products/systems/services from a[n] interactive and adaptable wave of intelligent components." 

I found this term immediately compelling and am using it still today - surprisingly it hasn't been coined by anyone else nor spread, to my knowledge. I say surprisingly because it seems increasingly apt: in this age of 'Collaborative Consumption' and 'We-Think' and 'Wikinomics' and the Maker Movement... I think people are ready for these intelligent components, but producers still seem to think we need everything wrapped up in a tidy, closed package. Or the profit and steady revenue attached to planned obsolescence is still too attractive to abandon for the unknown waters of modular, adaptable components. 

I personally need to work up the skills to be able to take advantage of what Arduino and Raspberry Pi could allow me to do - but every day there are more and more literate and competent people who want to do things not offered on 'the market'.     

Co-configuration, here we come. 

The first scenario is called The Vessel. 

Paol slowly pulled his consciousness out of meditation, and took a long, luxurious stretch. It was time to start his day.

Like almost everyone he knew, he worked for the government. His department was small – the local Department of Mental Welfare – and he worked mainly with service touchpoints to make them more efficient, satisfactory, and enjoyable for the citizens who use them. Much of his work revolved around generational differences: i.e. age-based cultural and physiological differences that could act as an obstacle to or opportunity for better communication and service provision. He often acted as a liaison between the Client Service officers, the focus group clients, and the implementers, and therefore was in somewhat a position of power in terms of suggesting new service offerings or axing obsolete ones. His findings were then incorporated into the region-wide persona system for the benefit of his counterparts in other districts. The personas were useful, as in general people differed very little from district to district, and had little to say themselves about what kinds of services and solutions they wanted. Paol had to be a bit of a detective in both observing and interviewing clients, in order to be able to intuit what would make a better and more pleasant service system.   

There was not much room for promotion in his small office, but finding a better job would likely involve moving, as there were limits to how far one could live from one’s job. He had also spent time considering the aesthetics and comfort of his flat; it was calm and restful, and near the mountain parks where he often went hiking. No – he’d stick with this job a while longer.

Besides, last time he’d been hiking he’d met someone interesting…. She was doing scouting work for her next Restorative Design project – a rather large and multidisciplinary Regenerative Earthwork initiative in the village on the mountainside. Erosion was the most obvious problem, but there were some complex ecosystem issues that needed to be simulated before any decisions could be made.

With that in mind, Paol jumped on his bicycle and cycled to his workplace. There would be a lot to do today with the health care provision system being reorganized….

Scenario 2: The Tapestry 

Ellen awoke just before her alarm went off. Good – that noise was so irritating. She gave the alarm clock a quick wind-up before heading to the kitchen to make espresso. A piece of fruit, some yogurt, and she was off. Her street was already abuzz – the greengrocers rolling out their awnings, the appliance repairmen and the furniture restorers gossiping on the corner, the cafés setting out their chairs on the pavement. She was already looking forward to lunch.

Her client this month was a Third Sector operator, as usual – her brief was to work with the lifecycle metrics of a communal laundry system for the Frant district. In fact, she was the only DD expert on this project – Design Durability – which meant that she also had to work with all those fiddly emotional, commitment issues alongside the normal LCA work. How do you encourage passionate lifetime commitment to a laundry system? It meant face-time with the end-users, that’s for sure. And there was that great Longevity project done at the university last year – she would have to read through those results and see what was applicable. Oh – not to mention incorporating the working elements of the old system! Hmm, maybe she wouldn’t be able to have a leisurely lunch after all. 

She sent a quick message to her friend who was working at the university, asking him to send her a copy of the Longevity report. It got her thinking about the Frant residents, who were affectionately nicknamed the Growsumer Collective. While the nickname referred to the residents’ vast knowledge of functional plants and ancient agronomy techniques, Growsumers as a social trend seemed to be growing. These were the people who were able to stitch together, to ‘grow’, their own products and services. More and more players were picking up on this trend and were supplying smart components or adaptive platforms to facilitate this problem-solving and need-addressing buzz. At first activities revolved around entertainment and leisure solutions, but lately projects had been dealing with the basic needs of food, health, clothing and shelter, often in conjunction with the public sector. It was certainly a development to monitor.     

Her brisk twenty-minute walk meanwhile had led her straight to the Frant neighbourhood, and she was welcomed straightaway by one of the residents with a steaming cup of hot chicory….

Ängeslevä, P. (2003). “Uljaat uudet ammatit” (“Brave New Professions”), Helsingin Sanomat daily newspaper, Sunday 12 October 2003. 
Leadbeater, C., & Miller, P. (2004). The Pro-Am Revolution: How Enthusiasts are Changing our Society and Economy. London: Demos.

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