Design for Emergent Futures and Distributed Learning
The spaces in which design is learned in practice and theory need to be in close alignment with the social and ecological challenges of our time, and to relate to a new paradigm of global production such as the one proposed by Fab City, as one example of many like Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics, or P2P Lab’s Cosmo localism. Under this global infrastructure for digital fabrication represented by Fab Labs and Makerspaces, contextualized and connected learning becomes a key instrument to expand the potential that these situated spaces have, and offers a platform for the development of new skills and capabilities to respond to a constant changing reality, incorporating new tools and technologies in the design and innovation practice, and connecting with real world problems. The current global pandemic has accelerated the transition to remote learning, by turning domestic spaces into classrooms, which can lead to isolation and the trauma of just being in front of a computer screen, and not considering the practical and experience power of learning. What we have been building since 2009 in the Fab Academy is distributed learning, which involves learning in front of the screen from tutors and peers around the world, but with hands-on learning experience in Fab Labs, where practical knowledge is incorporated through embodiment. We understand that it is important to add to the technical knowledge an expanded learning experience with purpose, which involves the context in which students operate, where they are agents of transformation, and experimentation with technology and communities. This contextualization is given already by Fab Labs, Makerspaces and innovation hubs, as spaces for learning acting like expansion of the classroom to a laboratory for acquiring new skills and prototyping, but also need incorporating the streets, communities, natural systems, and other elements of the real world as part of an that same classroom for impact creation in the real world, and the impulse of a new production paradigm based on regenerative principles, nurturing resilience, and supporting the development of an economy and society of care.
Under a new global production paradigm based on the distributive principles of the digital age, design is required to adopt a new role in a planetary constellation of crisis caused by the same productive model that took design to be a respected and admired discipline, especially during the last century. We need to reframe the design education that is based on colonial foundations and shift to how we learn to/from/with design, and imagine new processes, methodologies, and approaches to learn and understand how to design (Fry 2019). We have experimented with such novel approaches to design both in London and in Barcelona before. In Barcelona, we have been developing a program that is rooted in the principles of distributed design and manufacturing, open design, and critical and speculative design. At the Royal College of Arts and Society, James Tooze and I created and run the Exploring Emergent Futures (EEF) platform inside the Design Products MA program in London. For multiple reasons, EEF stopped being part of the new strategy in the DP program at RCA, and it evolved to become the master’s in design for Emergent Futures in Barcelona, organized by Fab Lab Barcelona (IAAC) and Elisava School of Design and Engineering, led by myself and Oscar Tomico.
By Designing for Emergent Futures, we propose an approach to design that embraces radical experimentation through the combination of a series of methodologies and tools that support the development of skills such as the capacity to navigate uncertainty, incorporate complex technologies into design interventions, experiment and test in the real world, and the creation of narratives about possible futures which the student wants to engage with, and will dedicate time and effort to make happen. The emergent futures approach aims to evolve the role of speculative design as a practice to expand narratives about possible futures and inspire or becoming a tarot to anticipate what is about to come (Tonkinwise 2014). Instead, Design for Emergent Futures engages the designer in a process in which one needs to understand an ever changing and complex context and position its practice in alignment with the global challenges of our time and its personal purpose. While doing this, the designer that aims to discover emergent futures, is also the creator of them, which puts it in the position of becoming part of the system that enables the futures that it is committed to make happen in the short, mid, and long term.
In order to learn how to Design for Emergent Futures, we have created a learning space for faculty and students in the form of a master’s program, the Master in Design for Emergent Futures (MDEF). MDEF is a theoretical and practical program that evolves the practice of design beyond objects, aesthetics, form-finding and pure speculation through a unique hands-on learning approach. Our method uses design processes to investigate complex systemic problems and proposes design interventions at the small scale, to approach planetary challenges through the reconfiguration of relationships in our built world (Tonkinwise 2013). The program is organized in thematic tracks, as well as a temporary framework for delivering a project in the form of intervention in three terms. The students become part of an experimental program that starts to redefine what it means to operate in uncertain times as designers, incorporate new skills and disruptive technologies in the designer’s practice, and understand the networked complexity of relations in the form of collaboration and interdependence.
The four thematic tracks of the program are: Exploration, Instrumentation, Reflection and Application.
Exploration: We expose the students to a set of technologies that have the capacity to disrupt our present understanding of society, industry, and the economy.
Reflection: We will support the students to develop their identity and a set of skills, knowledge, and attitude as designers of possible futures.
Instrumentation: We will provide a set of skills and tools that will help to translate ideas into prototypes, and prototypes into products that are part of interventions, which can be tested and iterated throughout the design process.
Application: We will encourage students to create a culture of making where prototyping acts as a generator of knowledge, and interventions become message carriers of the futures that they are willing to make happen.
The program organizes these different tracks during three terms, which have complementary objectives related to our approach to design for emergent futures.
Understanding and contextualizing interventions in times of uncertainty. One of the key elements of our program is for students to define and refine their purpose through amplifying the context in which they operate as designers. The systemic crisis, and the excessive amount of information around them have the potential to disenfranchise designers to act as change makers. Through the Atlas of the Weak Signals and a packed term with explorations in technologies, and alternative design approaches by exploring hybrid profiles of current practitioners, or learn how to design from first, second and third person perspectives (Tomico, Winthagen, and van Heist 2012), we aim for our students to first amplify and then refine their knowledge in the role of technology, design, and philosophy to dissolve the wicked problems of our time, and not solve them at once.
Designing interventions in the real world through iterative processes. Once students configure their design space with the combination of different crises, and by incorporating new skills and perspectives to design, they are encouraged to reach out to other communities of practice that operate in the real world. In this way, the design studio is not only limited to the “classroom” or “the lab”, but expands to their homes and domestic spaces, as well as the streets, communities, companies, and organizations working in the fields in which they are interested to intervene. This process serves as an opportunity to find interventions in the real world and develops a way to learn how to design for emergent futures, while directly impacting current practices that are taking place. With this approach, we aim for interventions to become learning spaces for students to experiment with a new role as designers, becoming articulators of actors, technologies, methods, media, or skill sets, in a constant and iterative process to make sense of what is happening in the present, and how it can trigger emergent futures to dissolve wicked problems identified as weak signals.
Speculating, and enabling possible futures to be committed with. Such speculations are not related to provocative or inspiring artifacts brought to the present from the future (Raby and Dunne 2013), instead, we aim to work with narratives that incorporate diverse futures beyond objects and signify a commitment between the designer and the process of making those specific futures happen or provoke them. Speculative narratives in this case are not made by students for an audience, but for themselves as triggers to intervene in the present, in order to enable the possible futures they are committed to.